"We can't get Bin Laden, but we nailed a 78-year-old attorney," was how David Letterman put it on his CBS Late Night Show. Last night, the joke suddenly became a good deal less funny when Harry Whittington suffered a minor heart attack after being peppered with gunshot by Vice-President Dick Cheney on a quail hunt in Texas.
Doctors said a birdshot pellet had moved and lodged in a part of his heart, causing an atrial fibrillation (a disorder in the heart's rhythm). Though Mr Whittington was apparently fully alert and in good spirits, he was moved back into intensive care where he will be monitored for seven days.
Mr Whittington apparently did not experience the symptoms of a heart attack, and the pellet - for now at least - will be left in place. "He can live a healthy life with it there, he's not had a had a heart attack in the traditional sense," said David Blanchard, chief of emergency care at the Corpus Christi hospital. But Mr Whittington's age is a complicating factor.
Even before the latest developments, the Vice-President's unloading of a cartridge of 28-bore pellets into the face and torso of his friend, was the continuing talk of Washington. The White House press corps has been up in arms, comedians have material to keep them going for months, and Mr Cheney has unwittingly cemented his reputation as the ultimate hard man of the Bush administration.
The shooting, it is clear, was an accident. Hunting experts mostly agree that the fault belonged to Mr Whittington for not telling his fellow hunters exactly where he was. The Texas authorities issued a report blaming the incident on "a hunter's judgement factor".
Thus far, Mr Cheney's only offence (apart from failing to promptly inform the White House press of what had happened) has been the non-payment of a $7 (£3.50) hunting licence supplement required for upland game birds. "A cheque is on its way," a spokesman now says.
Whatever the outcome, the affair will claim its niche in history. For one thing, it is apparently the first time a sitting Vice-President has shot a person since 11 July, 1804, when Aaron Burr fatally shot the statesman Alexander Hamilton in a duel at Weehawken, New Jersey.
On Monday, moreover, it produced one of the more surreal press briefings in White House annals. For 40 minutes, Scott McClellan, Mr Bush's spokesman, came under a verbal shotgun barrage that even quails do not have to cope with. In the "questions you never-thought you'd hear" department, few rank higher than "When did the President learn the Vice-President had shot someone?"
The answer, it appears, was just before 8pm on Saturday evening - two and a half hours after Mr Whittington was wounded - when Karl Rove (who else?) called George Bush to inform him of what had happened.
What the hapless Mr McClellan could not explain was why neither the White House nor Mr Cheney's office had seen fit to make the announcement that evening, leaving it to the owner of the ranch to leak the news the following day. Even before yesterday's alarming turn in Mr Whittington's health, Mr Cheney had been cast as a man who believes executive branch powers trump any tiresome obligation to inform anyone - whether Congress or the press - of what he is up to. True to form, the one person who has not uttered a word on the affair is the Vice-President himself.
Almost everyone else was speaking out. On NBC's Tonight Show, Jay Leno declared that "Cheney is starting to lose it. After he shot the guy, he screamed, 'Anyone else want to call domestic wiretapping illegal?'"
The Comedy Central comedian Rob Corddry said: "The Vice-President is standing by his decision to shoot Harry Whittington. Now, according to the best intelligence available, there were quail hidden in the brush. Everyone believed at the time there were quail in the brush. And while the quail turned out to be a 78-year-old man, even knowing that today, Mr Cheney insists he still would have shot Mr Whittington in the face."Reuse content