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Cheney speaks about weekend hunting accident, takes full blame

Thursday, February 16, 2006

By NEDRA PICKLER and LYNN BREZOSKY

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Dick Cheney took full blame Wednesday for shooting a hunting companion, calling it "one of the worst days of my life," but he was defiantly unapologetic about not publicly disclosing the accident until the next day.

"You can't blame anybody else," Cheney told Fox News Channel in his first public comments since the accident on a private Texas ranch Saturday. "I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend."

The vice president has been under intense political pressure to speak out about the accident. Senior advisers to President Bush worried that Cheney's silence had suggested a possible cover-up, and Cheney acknowledged that he delayed an announcement over the advice of Bush's press advisers.

"We really didn't know until Sunday morning that Harry was probably going to be OK, that it looked like there hadn't been any serious damage to any vital organ," he said. "And that's when we began the process of notifying the press."

Cheney was soft-spoken and appeared shaken as he described seeing 78-year-old Harry Whittington drop to the ground after he pulled the trigger on his 28-gauge shotgun while aiming at a covey of quail.

"The image of him falling is something I'll never ever be able to get out of my mind," Cheney told Fox's Brit Hume. "I fired, and there's Harry falling. It was, I'd have to say, one of the worst days of my life at that moment."

Cheney defended his decision not to publicly disclose what happened until the next day, when he agreed to the suggestion of ranch owner Katharine Armstrong to have her announce it to a local newspaper. "I thought that was the right call. I still do," the vice president said.

Armstrong has suggested that Whittington was at fault in the shooting because, she said, he failed to announce himself as he returned to the hunting line after breaking off to retrieve a downed bird. But Cheney disagreed.

"You can talk about all of the other conditions that exist at the time, but that's the bottom line and -- it was not Harry's fault," he said.

Texas officials said the shooting was an accident, and no charges have been brought.

Cheney said the accident happened after Whittington stepped out of the hunting party to retrieve a downed bird in deep cover. Cheney said he and a third hunter walked about 100 yards away to where another covey had been spotted. He said immediately after he shot at a bird flying to his right, he saw Whittington in his line of fire.

He said Whittington was dressed properly in orange and the upper part of his body was visible, but he was standing in a gully with the sun behind him, which affected his view.

"I saw him fall, basically. It had happened so fast," Cheney said. "He was struck in the right side of his face, his neck and his upper torso on the right side of his body."

He said Whittington was conscious and breathing but stunned silent.

"I ran over to him," Cheney said. "He was laying there on his back, obviously, bleeding. You could see where the shot struck him."

Cheney said he had no idea if he hit a bird because he was focused on Whittington.

"I said, 'Harry, I had no idea you were there.' He didn't respond," Cheney said.

Whittington was in stable condition Wednesday at a Texas hospital, a day after doctors said one of the pellets traveled to his heart and he had what they called "a mild heart attack."

Cheney said he had agreed that Armstrong should be the one to make the story public because she was an eyewitness, because she grew up on the ranch and because she is "an acknowledged expert in all of this" as a past head of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He also agreed with her decision to choose the Corpus Christi Caller-Times as the way to get the news out.

"I thought that made good sense because you can get as accurate a story as possible from somebody who knew and understood hunting and then it would immediately go up to the wires and be posted on the Web site, which is the way it went out and I thought that was the right call," Cheney said.

"What do you think now?" Hume asked.

"I still do," Cheney responded. "The accuracy was enormously important. I had no press person with me."

Cheney said he was concerned that if the story broke Saturday night when information was still coming in, some reports may have been inaccurate since it was a complicated story that most journalists had never dealt with before.

"I've been in the business for a long time and never seen a situation quite like this," Cheney said. "We've had experiences where the president has been shot. We've never had a situation where the vice president shot somebody."

Cheney said he personally first told the White House about the accident Sunday morning in a phone call to Chief of Staff Andy Card. He said he didn't discuss it with Bush until Monday when he was back in Washington.

Cheney said White House press secretary Scott McClellan and communications strategist Dan Bartlett urged him to get the story out quickly, but he made the decision how to handle it.

"I had a bit of the feeling that the press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them -- they didn't like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of The New York Times," he said. "But it strikes me that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is just as valid a news outlet as The New York Times is, especially for covering a major story in south Texas."


Lynn Brezosky contributed to this report from Corpus Christi.


On the Net:

White House: http://www.whitehouse.gov

Fox News: http://www.foxnews.com


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