Mary Matalin's adventures in shooting spin

Cheney's voice says she didn't get the full account of the shooting until the V.P. spoke, and even now she's in alcohol-denial mode.

Published February 21, 2006 2:20PM (EST)

We won't spend another week obsessing over Dick Cheney's shooting of Harry Whittington. But before we let go completely, Mary Matalin's adventures in shooting spin deserve just a little bit of our attention.

Matalin, the Republican strategist who served as Cheney's voice on the shooting until the vice president finally spoke out himself last week, tells Time magazine that she didn't get a full account of the shooting from Cheney until he sat down for an interview with Fox News' Brit Hume. Maybe that explains why Matalin's spin has diverged so far from Cheney's story -- or maybe not.

Matalin tells Time that a Cheney aide called her at about 8 a.m. on the Sunday after the shooting and read to her a statement that Cheney had considered putting out. It was a little light on the details; among other things, Matalin says, it didn't mention the fact that Cheney was the shooter.

Once more: It didn't mention the fact that Cheney was the shooter.

Time says that Matalin spoke with a second Cheney aide and members of Cheney's family and got conflicting versions of the shooting story. At that point, she advised Cheney that he should get a fuller accounting out, and they agreed that hunt hostess Katharine Armstrong should call the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

The next day's newspapers included Armstrong's account and Matalin's spin: Armstrong said the incident was Whittington's fault, and Matalin seemed to back that view by insisting that the vice president "didn't do anything he wasn't supposed to do."

That's not the way Cheney would tell the story in his interview with Hume. Cheney said that, whatever the other conditions might have been, he bore the ultimate responsibility for shooting Whittington because he was the one who pulled the trigger. Was Cheney aware of the "blame-Harry spin" that Armstrong and Matalin and Cheney's other surrogates had spread? Tim Russert put that question to Matalin over the weekend, and she said no: "When I spoke to the vice president Sunday morning, he made it more than clear that it was his fault -- no matter what the conditions, no matter how much the shared risk. That this should not be blamed on Harry."

So why did Matalin and Armstrong and Scott McClellan and Alan Simpson all push the "blame Harry" spin? Matalin says that they didn't; that the national press, which doesn't understand hunting, read Armstrong's comments as assigning blame when she didn't do any such thing. Among Armstrong's comments: Cheney is "one of the safest hunters I know," and Whittington had failed to announce himself when he came up behind Cheney despite the fact that "you're always supposed to let other hunters know where you are."

OK, so maybe Matalin couldn't keep track of everything that Armstrong said about Harry Whittington. But surely she'd have a handle on the shooting-related question that has dogged Cheney most, right?

You'd think so, but you'd be wrong.

Cheney has admitted to having "a beer" hours before he shot Whittington, and Armstrong has said that she watched him pour himself a cocktail afterward. But when Russert asked Matalin Sunday whether the American people could really believe that "a beer" means -- honest, officer! -- "a beer," Matalin tried to suggest that Cheney doesn't drink at all. "It is true that the vice president had a beer at lunch, and let me ask anybody sitting at this table who knows the vice president, has known him for many years, has seen him in social situations, hes known not to be a drinker," she said.

Matalin said that "all these adversarial question-and-answer periods" start with the presumption that Cheney was drunk rather than "presuming what we all know," which is that the vice president "doesn't drink" and "wouldn't hunt and drink."

Except that he does and, to one degree or another, did.

By Tim Grieve

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

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