Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Why being part of the George Bush world means never having to say you're sorry
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The Independent Online

America is the land of the public confession, and in the end no one escapes that iron rule - not even Dick Cheney. Happily, Harry Whittington is on the way to a complete recovery from the peppering of birdshot administered by the Vice President last weekend. Oddly enough, the wounded 78-year-old lawyer also slipped briefly into confessional mode as he left hospital, actually apologising for the problems and embarrassment he had brought upon his more famous fellow quail hunter.

But Mr Whittington will soon slide back into the obscurity from which he came, his celebrity consisting merely of the odd reference in a newspaper Christmas quiz, as in "Who was the only man other than Alexander Hamilton to be shot by a sitting US Vice President?" Not so Dick Cheney. He might have found his "confession" as unwelcome and painful as having a tooth pulled without anaesthetic. But it seems to have worked. It also broke new ground.

Hitherto, celebrity confessions have come in several forms. Some go for a slot on Oprah Winfrey or Larry King, where the treatment is gentle and the worst that can happen is a rude question by a call-in viewer. Others go for a public show of repentance in a religious setting - viz, Bill Clinton admitting sin in the Monica Lewinsky affair at a White House prayer breakfast, surrounded by ministers.

Another option is the television address, the preferred tactic of Richard Nixon. It worked when he made his famous "Checkers" speech in 1952, explaining how he took campaign contributions merely to pay for political expenses - and saving his place on the Eisenhower ticket in the process.

Alas, it did not work so well during Watergate, when each Nixon address attempting to draw a line under the scandal was quickly undone by new evidence of presidential involvement. A few brave souls prefer the full-scale press conference. The danger in this case however is that an elaborately crafted opening statement will fall apart under good questioning.

Cheney basically took the Oprah/Larry route, except that he spoke not to a talk show host, but to Brit Hume, the political editor of Fox News, the cable network that is unofficial media cheerleader for the Bush administration. Hume is a fine journalist. More important though, his style veers, like that of Cheney, toward the gruff and grumpy. So the occasion had the flavour of a male bonding session, permitting the Vice President to tread the fine line between taking responsibility ("Ultimately, I'm the guy who pulled the trigger") and not admitting real error. And, Hume asked deadpan at one point, "Did you hit the quail?" The words "I'm sorry" never passed Cheney's lips. Nor did he yield an inch to those who criticised him for not coming clean sooner. But there was contrition of a sort. As The Washington Post observed, instead of his habitual bold red tie (here red, perversely, is the colour of true-blue Republicans), he wore a softer pink one. Was this, the Post wondered a message that even Dick Cheney has a kinder, gentler side? A pink twin-set, after all, was the outfit chosen by Hillary Clinton back in April 1994, when she convened reporters at the White House to explain how she had made a fast $100,000 in cattle futures trading while her husband was Governor of Arkansas. The change of colour helped transform the assertive careerist lawyer into dutiful wife, who had received no favours in her commodity dealings...

The great thing about public confessions is that they almost never do any harm. The one recent exception has been Gary Condit, a California Congressman who appeared on TV back in that distant, pre-9/11 summer of 2001 to explain his relationship with a missing intern called Chandra Levy. Ms Levy was later found dead in a Washington park (though the Congressman had nothing to do with it). The interview was a disaster. Condit came across as slippery, peevish and dissembling. Any chance he had of saving his House seat vanished with the interview.

But for most others, whether disgraced ice-skater, like Tonya Harding, or mighty politician, confessions work. "I take full responsibility," said Donald Rumsfeld after publication of the horrific Abu Ghraib prison abuse photos. But despite calls for his head, he remains at the Pentagon, no less popular now than then. These days you own up, but you never resign.

Even George Bush, whose presidency rests on a refusal to admit error, has taken responsibility (sort of) for the intelligence debacle over Iraq's WMD. Last autumn he also acknowledged that he was ultimately to blame for the federal government's botched response to Hurricane Katrina. Since then, his approval rating has if anything edged up a notch. If the pattern holds, a botched quail hunt might end up doing Dick Cheney a bit of good.