The GOP response: Cheney may be a victim, but he's making matters worse

Cheney may address the shooting in Wyoming Friday.

Published February 15, 2006 2:29PM (EST)

If Harry Whittington is to blame for getting himself shot by the vice president of the United States, then Dick Cheney must be ... the victim!

We first heard hints of that theory Tuesday afternoon, when Republican Sen. Norm Coleman told CNN that his "thoughts and prayers" were not just with Whittington but with the vice president, too. Now it seems to be in full bloom: Cheney friend and former House Minority Leader Bob Michel tells the Washington Post: "If I read Dick Cheney right, he's got to be just devastated."

Unfortunately for the vice president, the expressions of sympathy aren't accompanied by agreement with his media strategy. NBC reports that Cheney will address the shooting in some fashion when he travels to Wyoming Friday for a speech to the state Legislature. But Coleman and Michel -- like a lot of other Republicans -- are expressing bewilderment that Cheney hasn't spoken about the shooting in public already.

Michel says he wishes that Cheney would express his feelings about shooting a friend but says that his "measured" nature may prevent him from making a public display of emotion. Alan Simpson, the former Wyoming senator and not-yet-wounded hunting buddy of Cheney's, tells the Post that the vice president's silence is driven by something else: Cheney decided during the first Gulf War that reporters ask "stupid questions" and twist the answers, so there's no use in even trying to set the record straight with them.

"Whatever he does," Simpson says, "Dick will do it his own way, because whatever he does, it will be the subject of ridicule."

That's probably true, but only to a degree. If Cheney had dealt with the shooting in a forthright way from the beginning -- if he'd made a prompt report to the White House, if the White House had put out the full story Saturday night -- the vice president still would have been the butt of jokes on late-night TV Monday night. But he wouldn't be the basis for stories about the political fallout four days later.

By covering up the story initially -- by pretending not to know facts that were known -- Cheney and the White House have turned what would have been a ha-ha story about the "gang who couldn't shoot straight" into a metaphor for the secrecy and deception that have marked the last five years, with a thick layer of the "who's really in charge" theme laid right across the top.

David Sanger takes what he has been handed and runs with it in the New York Times today: The mishandling of the shooting incident reminds everyone that Cheney "plays by his own rules" and has a "habit of living in his own world in the Bush White House -- surrounded by his own staff, relying on his own instincts, saying as little as possible"; the "tension" between Cheney's staff and the president's is "palpable," with White House officials "whispering" to reporters how they would have handled things differently; and Cheney is so powerful that even White House Chief of Staff Andy Card felt powerless to dictate how the shooting story should be handled.

Tellingly, only former White House officials have the nerve to say explicitly and on the record what Scott McClellan has hinted at: Cheney has handled this thing in the worst way possible. "It could have and should have been handled differently," former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer tells Editor & Publisher. Ronald Reagan press secretary Marlin Fitzwater says he's "appalled" that Cheney has "ignored his responsibility to the American people."

Fitzwater says Cheney's ultimate victim -- aside from Whittington, of course -- may be the president he's supposed to serve. Cheney has put Bush in a "terrible spot," Fitzwater says, by exposing him to questions about what he knew, when he knew it and why his staff didn't get the straight story out right away. And the thing is, Fitzwater says, there's not much of anything Bush can do about it now. "He can't be critical of his vice president," he says, "but he doesn't have much of an option."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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