Fourteen hours

What was the vice president doing when he wasn't telling the press that he'd shot Harry Whittington?

Published February 16, 2006 2:53PM (EST)

It may never have the cachet of the 18 1/2-minute gap in Richard Nixon's Watergate tapes or even the 16 words in George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, but the 14-hour period that passed between the time Dick Cheney shot Harry Whittington and the time Katharine Armstrong started calling the Corpus-Christi Caller-Times is quickly becoming the stuff of legend and speculation.

As Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr. tells Editor and Publisher, "There is a lot we don't know yet" about what happened at the Armstrong ranch, and "the whole chronology of the accident, what occurred," still isn't completely clear.

So what was Cheney doing during the 14 mystery hours? Was he just focusing, as Scott McClellan suggested, on getting medical care for his fallen friend? Was he working to get his spin straight? Or was he waiting to get the smell of beer off his breath and traces of alcohol out of his system?

We may never know -- as Cheney himself said Wednesday, he shot Harry Whittington during a "private weekend with friends on a private ranch" -- but everyone seems to have a guess. "Why would a media-savvy and clever man like Dick Cheney delay notifying the press and the police about an accident when a) he knew it would eventually be covered by the press and b) he knew he would be criticized for delaying release of the story?" Alan Dershowitz asks at the Huffington Post.

Dershowitz's answer is speculation like everybody else's, but he says it's speculation based on his own experience as a criminal defense lawyer: "It is fairly common for people involved in alcohol-related accidents to delay reporting them until the alcohol has left the body," he says. "There is no hard evidence that this is what happened here, but we are entitled to a better explanation. We should be told whether Vice President Cheney's victim had alcohol in his system when he was taken to the hospital. Was there any alcohol at or near the hunting area? Were any in the hunting party carrying flasks (which is apparently common among hunters)? What was Cheney doing just before he went hunting?"

Dershowitz says that the "burden of proof has now shifted to the vice president to explain why he made this stupid, or very clever, decision." That's not true in the legal sense, but it may be in the world of politics and public relations, at least if Brit Hume's post-interview spin -- no one cares about this incident except the V.P., and he feels just terrible -- isn't allowed to carry the day.

One significant hole in the "Cheney was trying to sober up" theory: After Whittington was shipped off to the hospital Saturday night, Armstrong says, the vice president "fixed himself a cocktail back at the house."

Update: As a couple of War Room readers have noted, Cheney's post-shooting cocktail isn't necessarily a hole in the theory at all: If you want to make it impossible to prove that your blood-alcohol level was elevated before shooting somebody, make sure a witness sees you pouring a stiff drink for yourself afterward.

By Tim Grieve

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

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