Cheney's wayward aim: A guide to Quailgate

When the Vice-President of America shot a hunting companion in the face and chest, it was at first just seen as an unfortunate accident. However, because of poor news management and some questionable recounting of events, the story has become a political scandal, a chance to bash the Republicans, and a wealthy source of humour for many comedians. Here's why...
Click to follow
The Independent US

Hunting, for Dick Cheney, is more than an idle pastime. It's usually a chance to get together with high-level friends and fundraisers and do so on exclusive private estates where there is no danger of contact with the great unwashed public.

Unfortunately for him, it's also rapidly turning into a political liability - and not just because he was unable to shoot straight last weekend.

In December 2003, animal rights activists and conventional hunters were incensed when he participated in a kill of pen-raised pheasants at the Rolling Rock Club in Pennsylvania. Up to 500 birds were released directly in front of the Vice-President and his 10-strong party. Together, they shot 417 of them in minutes - including 70 reportedly shot by Mr Cheney.

Then, while the hunters moved on to duck and other fowl, underlings plucked and vacuum-packed the pheasant for Mr Cheney to take them back on his flight to Washington. "We're appalled so many animals were killed - for target practice essentially," the Humane Society said. The following month, Mr Cheney was in trouble again - for taking Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on a waterfowl-hunting expedition to Louisiana at a time when the Supreme Court was ruling on whether Mr Cheney could keep secret the names of the energy lobbyists who visited him while he was drawing up a major new energy policy initiative. Both men denied any impropriety but the episode did no good to either of their reputations.

The whole style of hunting favoured by the Vice-President has been ridiculed as a rich man's parody of what hunting is supposed to be. Granted, Mr Cheney has to travel with a security detail and a large staff of medical personnel watching for signs of recurring cardiac trouble. That makes it hard for him to brave the great outdoors, even if he wanted to.

But the notion of driving around a private estate in four-wheel-drive cars and emerging periodically to fire off a round or two of shotgun pellets has opened Mr Cheney to widespread ridicule.

Andrew Gumbel

THE VICTIM

Harry Whittington is, pardon the expression, a rare bird: a liberal Texas Republican. He is not a religious fanatic, nor is he a "string-'em-up" law and order man. On the contrary, he's been campaigning for years to clean up the Texas prison system and prevent the execution of the mentally disabled. He's a reformer all round - an old-fashioned social activist whose distaste for government corruption crosses the usual party lines.

From his law office on the top floor of an office building next to the state capitol in Austin, he has been dispensing advice and serving on state boards for decades. He was a Republican already at the tail end of the racial segregation period when Texas was a de facto one-party state run by the Democrats. His politics were defined, in fact, by his visceral mistrust of the Democratic establishment. And he has remained a Republican even as the state party has been taken over by the Christian right.

So what was he doing out shooting with Dick Cheney, an altogether harder brand of ideologue? Mr Whittington's links to the Bush administration go back to 1999, when George Bush was governor of Texas and Mr Whittington was appointed to service on the state Funeral Services Commission - another opportunity to sniff out official corruption. He then became a fundraiser in Bush's two presidential election campaigns.

The extent of his friendship with Cheney is hard to assess - especially now - but the two have moved in very similar elite circles in Texas for several years. By all accounts, Mr Whittington, 78, was in good shape, keeping trim, eating plates of vegetables for lunch every day, and sticking to his old-fashioned habits. Not only does his office not run on computers but he still hasn't got used to the idea of lawyers billing their clients by the hour.

It is not known what he has said to Cheney or how he feels about the incident. Katharine Armstrong, the owner of the ranch where the shooting occurred, assured the local paper a lawsuit was out of the question. "I bet this would deepen their friendship," she gushed.

Andrew Gumbel

THE RANCH

The Armstrong Ranch, a 50,000-acre spread in a remote part of the Rio Grande River Valley, was founded in the 1880s by John Armstrong III, a lawman most famous for bagging the outlaw John Wesley Hardin. Since then, the Armstrong family has mingled the rough ways of Texas ranch life with elite university educations, high-flying corporate careers and high-level Republican Party politics.

Tobin Armstrong, who died last year, was one of the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign's top fundraisers in 2004. (Dick Cheney delivered the eulogy at his funeral.) His widow, Anne Armstrong, served as Ambassador to the Court of St James under President Ford - making friends with Prince Charles, who has played polo at the ranch. Their daughter Katharine, who first broke the news of the shooting, is a lobbyist who has quickly climbed the ladder of her chosen profession thanks to her impeccable high-level contacts in Washington.

She has slept at the White House and was at President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, last summer while Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, and her anti-war protester friends were camped outside.

Hunting is a big ritual at the Armstrong Ranch, one of a number of exclusive private properties where hunting for birds and game has increasingly become restricted in recent years. We don't know exactly how the ranch operates, but birds are typically raised in pens and then released for special occasions - such as last weekend - so visiting luminaries can descend from their four-wheel-drives and start shooting pretty much immediately.

For quail hunting, Katharine Armstrong explained that the protocol is for hunters to move in groups of three, keeping track of each other at all times. Harry Whittington appears to have fallen behind at one stage to bag a bird he had shot. But hunting rules also make it clear - as Vice-President Cheney himself has acknowledged - that the shooter needs to know what he is aiming at all times.

Ironically, the hunting party could hardly have found itself in a spot with fewer people around. Kennedy County is larger than the state of Rhode Island but has a population of barely more than 400 - an average of 0.3 people per square mile. It is, in fact, one of the 10 most sparsely populated counties in the whole of the United States.

Andrew Gumbel

THE COVER-UP

When Dick Cheney repaired to Republican-friendly Fox News to publicly take responsibility for the shooting slip-up, he said he was sorry, defended the delays in informing the press of the shooting and said no one had been drinking. Then he let slip one small detail: he had consumed "a beer at lunch".

The beer revelation doesn't mean Cheney was inebriated. (Though we don't know whether mixing beer with all the medicines he takes is a good idea.) But, yet again, the impression was left that, aside from Mr Whittington, the other victims of this have been candour and truth.

First there was the 20-hour gap between the time of the shooting and the news reaching the American public.The White House was told the same night but said nothing the next morning. Cheney had agreed to allow his host, Katharine Armstrong, to disseminate the news. She called her local paper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. It put the news on its website only on Sunday afternoon. On Monday, there was uproar in the White House press corps. Nobody could accuse Cheney of a cover-up exactly but there was outrage that mainstream news organisations had not learned of the accident immediately. The conclusion many reached was that Cheney was, at best, hoping to downplay the accident.

Two more things came to light on Monday, which kept this story alive for the best part of a week. Cheney's office revealed the Vice-President had not paid for a $7 "upland bird" stamp required. And asked in an interview if alcohol had been served, Ms Armstrong said flatly, "No, zero, zippo." Really? And then, at about 9.30am on Tuesday news arrived at the White House that Whittington had suffered a minor heart attack. Again it was hours before the rest of America knew. Scott McClellan, above, was informed before his noon briefing to White House reporters. Did he tell them of it? Somehow, he omitted to.

David Usborne

THE PREY

In his novel, 'A Man in Full', Tom Wolfe describes quail as "the aristocrat of American wild game ... what the grouse and the pheasant were in England and Scotland and Europe only better." His protagonist, wealthy Atlanta businessman Charlie Croker, goes on: "With the grouse and the pheasant you had your help literally beating the bushes and driving the birds toward you. With the quail, you had to stay on the move. You had to have great dogs, great horses, and great shooters. Quail was king. Only the quail exploded upward into the sky and made your heart bang away so madly in your rib cage."

That may not be an entirely accurate description of what Dick Cheney and friends were experiencing last weekend - it appears they were driven to areas where the quail were pleasantly thick on the ground - but that pulsing sensation of seeing them spread out in the air for a few crucial seconds certainly squares with descriptions of the ill-fated hunting party. The impulse to fire impulsively in all directions is a big part of the reason why quail hunters usually wear bright orange jackets to identify themselves. Accidents are now relatively rare, thanks to toughened hunter training rules in Texas but the risk is still ever-present.

It used to be that quail were relatively abundant in Texas, and across much of the American South. Over-hunting has cut those numbers drastically. The Texas Parks and Wildlife department's forecast puts the average number of bobwhite quail in the region around the Armstrong ranch at 4 per route - the number a hunting party is likely to see in a day - down from 19.5 in the 1980s. The numbers for scaled quail, which appears to be what Cheney was hunting, are even lower - no more than 1.55 birds per route.

The sport is almost entirely restricted to private ranches that can raise birds and hold special weekends. At 50,000 acres, the Armstrong Ranch is therefore one of the few locations in the US fit to serve a Vice-President and his friends pretty much any time they want.

Andrew Gumbel

THE JOKES

For the Vice-President, it was "one of the worst moments of my life."uBut for comedians, Democrats and legions of Cheney-haters, the "shot heard around the world" made it one of the best in a long while. Of late, there hasn't been much to laugh about in Washington but the winging of the unfortunate lawyer changed that. "Good news, ladies and gentlemen," said David Letterman, right, on CBS: "We have finally located weapons of mass destruction: It's Dick Cheney." The bad news though for Whittington: "Donald Rumsfeld didn't issue him with body armour."

On the late night shows, the blogs, on Capitol Hill and around the legendary office water-cooler, it was open season on "Deadeye Dick." Hunting small wild animals, noted one Washington Post blogger "is what passes for military service in the top echelons of the Bush administration".

"You know who's doing a 'there but for the grace of God go I'? Scalia," the comedian Al Franken wrote on his website, referring to Cheney's duck-hunting pal, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

There were jokes against Mr Whittington too (at least until it was disclosed on he suffered a minor heart attack). "Dick Cheney accidentally shot a fellow hunter, a 78-year-old lawyer," said Jay Leno, host of The Tonight Show. "In fact, when people found out he shot a lawyer, his popularity is now at 92 per cent." The next day, even the White House tried to get into the act. For safety reasons, hunters normally wear bright orange jackets. That morning, the University of Texas football champions were invited to drop in by the president, wearing their orange colours. "But that's not because they fear Dick Cheney is in the audience," quipped Mr Bush's spokesman Scott McClellan. Republicans have sought partisan advantage in the affair. T-shirts are available bearing the logo "I'd rather go hunting with Dick Cheney than driving with Ted Kennedy."

Rupert Cornwell

Comments