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The Captain Ahabs of the Washington Post

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Oct 25, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 06
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The Captain Ahabs of the Washington Post

Dick Cheney, last week in California


One of the stranger stories of recent times is the accidental shooting, on a hunting expedition in 2006, of Texas lawyer Harry Whittington by Vice President Dick Cheney. As everyone must know, Cheney aimed and fired his shotgun at quail on the wing and stray buckshot sprayed Whittington, who was standing nearby, in his face and chest. His injuries were serious, but not life-threatening, and Whittington recovered. 

By all accounts, this was a tragic accident with a happy ending. Whittington, who is 82 years old and still carries some shot fragments in his body, seems to have made a full recovery. There is no evidence that alcohol was involved, or that either Whittington or Cheney was negligent or in violation of hunt protocol—although then-White House press secretary Scott McClellan did mistakenly suggest that Whittington might have been at fault for not announcing his proximity to Cheney. In any event, Whittington’s behavior has never suggested anything remotely approaching a grievance against the man who (accidentally) wounded him. Indeed, on his release from the hospital at the time, he told reporters that “my family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this week.”

Which speaks to the strangeness of the story: While it was plainly evident that the shooting of Whittington was not deliberate, and involved neither malice nor malfeasance nor incompetence, the 2006 White House press corps couldn’t let go of it. Were Cheney and Whittington old hunting companions, or casual political acquaintances? What had Cheney ingested on that day, and when did he ingest it? Why was there an hours-long delay between the incident and any announcement to the media? Was there a second gunman on the grassy knoll adjacent to the motorcade?

The White House released all available information, and Cheney himself was interviewed on Fox News to explain the sequence of events and take responsibility (“I am the guy who pulled the trigger”) but that wasn’t enough: The press, as often happens, was convinced that scandal existed where it clearly did not, and that something—anything—would turn up to throw Dick Cheney in the worst possible light. That can only explain the recent decision of the Washington Post to dispatch a reporter named Paul Farhi to Austin to interview Harry Whittington and write a “Style” front-page story that consumed one-and-a-half pages of newsprint in the paper’s October 14 edition.

Farhi made two discoveries: that Whittington’s wounds may have been more serious than reported at the time, and that a lead pellet which pierced his larynx has, for medical reasons, never been removed. Other-wise, readers learned nothing new whatsoever​—including the fact that Whittington remains reluctant to discuss the episode and its aftermath, bears no evident ill will against Cheney (with whom he remains in contact), and that he may well have been more traumatized by the hysterical press coverage than the injury. 

So devoid of substance is the story that Farhi is obliged to introduce an element of meaningless suspense: Did Cheney ever apologize in private to Whittington for the accident? Cheney, of course, won’t say—and neither will Whittington. From which the Post can only conclude that .  .  . what? 

The Scrapbook doesn’t know—and, in truth, cannot imagine what the Post was thinking, apart from resurrecting a nonstory from the Bush administration when inquiring minds might be wondering why it isn’t concentrating its energies—and conferring a page-and-a-half of ever-diminishing news space—on, say, the present administration.

The Scrapbook does know, however, that accidents happen, and tragedies don’t always have political ramifications. Everyone is aware that Laura Bush drove through an intersection, at age 17 in 1963, and hit another car, killing a high school friend. Is there any particular reason to obsess on what was clearly a painful incident in Mrs. Bush’s admirable life? When Adlai Stevenson was running for president in 1952 it was revealed that, as a boy, he had accidentally shot and killed a 16-year-old girl while demonstrating the manual of arms with a loaded rifle. He did not know that the rifle was loaded, he was 12 years old, and the episode, which haunted Stevenson the rest of his life, was not a subject on which his opponent Dwight D. Eisenhower or the 1952 press corps chose to dwell in public.

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