Of all the destruction waged by Dick Cheney during his eight-year run of terror in the White House, one incident stands out as the oddest: On February 11, 2006, Cheney shot a hunting partner in the face, nearly killing him. The incident is as fondly remembered as anything could be with Cheney, perhaps because it’s the only one of his un-prosecuted crimes that qualifies as slapstick. But there were several misconceptions about the man on the other side of Cheney’s shotgun, including that he was friends with the vice president, that he only suffered superficial wounds, and that it was merely an unavoidable accent.
When Harry M. Whittington, a prominent attorney in Austin, arrived at Armstrong Ranch in the very southeastern tip of Texas, he had a deep connection not to Cheney, but instead to a few other notorious Republicans of the George W. Bush era. One was Bush himself, who knew Whittington from their days as good ol’ boys—when Bush was still governor in 1999, he picked Whittington to temporarily run the Texas Funeral Service Commission. The other was Karl Rove, who Mike Allen, writing for Time, described as “a longtime friend” of Whittington’s.
News accounts routinely described Whittington as Cheney’s “old friend” and “hunting buddy.” In fact, the two men barely knew each other. Before the shooting, they had met briefly only three times since the mid-1970s and had never gone hunting together before. “The most you could say is that he was an acquaintance,” Whittington says.
Cheney, ever the humanitarian, didn’t bother to get any closer to Whittington after he sprayed birdshot into the man’s face, neck and torso:
The shooting didn’t bring Cheney and Whittington any closer. Although Whittington says they’ve exchanged birthday greetings, they haven’t seen each other for two years. The last time they met was when they attended the funeral of Anne Armstrong, the ranch owner whose invitation drew the two men together.
Despite his scars, Whittington bears no ill will toward Cheney. He calls him “a very capable and honorable man” and adds, “He’s said some very kind things to me.”
But did Cheney ever say in private what he didn’t say in public? Did he ever apologize?
Whittington, who has been talking about his life and career for hours, suddenly draws silent.
I’m not going to go into that,” he says sharply after a short pause.
Harry Whittington is too gracious to say it out loud, but he doesn’t dispute the notion, either.
Nearly five years on, he’s still waiting for Dick Cheney to say he’s sorry.
“He never did need to apologize. It was an accident,” he told the Daily News. “He expressed his concern about me publicly, but he never had reason to apologize because we knew how seriously he was affected by it.”
My family and I are deeply sorry for all Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this week. We send our love and respect to them as they deal with situations that are much more serious than we’ve had this week.
So how did Whittington end up getting blasted by Cheney? Well, the blame shifts depending on who you ask. In a New York Times story from four days after the shooting, Katharine Armstrong, whose family owns the ranch where it took place, pinned it on Whittington:
According to Katharine Armstrong, the daughter of Anne Armstrong, Mr. Whittington broke away from a line of three hunters, including Mr. Cheney, and failed to announce that he was returning to the group. When he approached, Mr. Cheney had already begun to shoot into a covey of quail that was taking off from the ground.
“This all happened pretty quickly,” Ms. Armstrong said in a telephone interview from her ranch. Mr. Whittington, she said, “did not announce — which would be protocol — ‘Hey, it’s me, I’m coming up,’ “ she said.
“He didn’t do what he was supposed to do,” she added, referring to Mr. Whittington. “So when a bird flushed and the vice president swung in to shoot it, Harry was where the bird was.”
But the Armstrong family might have been apt to downplay Cheney’s responsibility considering their history with him:
Anne Armstrong, the matriarch of the family that owns the ranch, is a Republican Party stalwart who served in the Nixon and Ford administrations and also as ambassador to Great Britain. When her husband, Tobin Armstrong, died in October, Mr. Cheney and James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state, spoke at the funeral.
The Washington Post profile of Whittington tells a differing account which, if you can believe it, paints Dick Cheney as someone who might act recklessly when in control of weaponry:
Whittington recalls that he was standing off to Cheney’s right, looking for a downed bird. He doesn’t remember exactly how far away he was when Cheney, tracking a bird, twisted quickly in his direction and fired. Whittington was angled toward Cheney at the time; hence, the wounds on his right side. Cheney later told a police investigator that he was standing in a slightly elevated position relative to Whittington, meaning he was aiming downward. The police report notes that Whittington would have been wounded on the lower half of his body if he and Cheney had been on same level.
This violates two basic rules of hunting safety, says Ralph Stuart, the editor of Shooting Sportsman, a hunting magazine. The first is the shooter’s obligation to ensure that he has a clear line of fire before pulling the trigger. The second is the “blue-sky rule,” meaning that a hunter shouldn’t fire until he can see blue sky beneath a bird, thus greatly reducing the chances of hitting another hunter or dog. “Quail often fly low and demand lower shots,” Stuart points out, but that makes it “doubly important” that the shooter is aware of what’s between him and the bird and just beyond.
Whittington, as the Washington Post story makes clear, was not about to hang Cheney out to dry, and anyway the group was hunting under less than ideal conditions, including low light and probably some drink. Via the Post:
Whether alcohol played any role in the shooting has long been a point of speculation. Eyewitnesses, including ranch owner Anne Armstrong and her daughter Katharine, strongly denied it. Cheney did, too, although he later told Fox News that he had had “one beer” during a picnic lunch some five hours earlier. Whittington says alcohol “was available” at the picnic, but he didn’t notice if anyone was drinking at lunch or afterward when the hunting party took a midafternoon break. The police investigation was useless on this point; even if Cheney had been given a Breathalyzer test, the result would have been meaningless since authorities didn’t speak to Cheney until the next morning.
Either way, Whittington got severely fucked up by Cheney. He may or may not have had a mild heart attack caused by an irregular heartbeat triggered by buckshot in his chest (Whittington called it a heart “event.”) Via the Post:
Still, the injuries were more dire than previously disclosed. Whittington suffered a collapsed lung. He underwent invasive exploratory surgery, as doctors probed his vital organs for signs of damage. The load from Cheney’s gun came close to, but didn’t damage, the carotid artery in his neck. A rupture could have been fatal, particularly since it took the better part of an hour to transport him from the vast Armstrong ranch to the Kingsville hospital.
When the Post’s Paul Farhi interviewed Whittington for the story, he still had visible wounds from Cheney’s gun:
Whittington sweeps a hand up to his dusky face and points near his right eye, then to the right side of his forehead. The eye socket, hairline and hand have birdshot pellets lodged in them, too. If you look closely — and strangers occasionally sidle up to him to do just that — the accident’s remnants are evident; there’s a tiny bump in each spot.
Every so often, for months afterward, some of the lead in Whittington’s body worked its way to the surface. But many pieces remain too deeply embedded to remove, including one near his heart. At 82, Whittington knows he will live the rest of his days with about 30 pieces of shot inside him. Somehow, he jokes, he can get through a metal detector without causing a commotion
During the course of his interview with Farhi, Whittington shows the writer the vest he was wearing the day he was shot, which Farhi says is “splattered with brownish, irregularly shaped bloodstains.” Whittington kept it, Farhi explains, to teach people about the “dangers of firearms.”
Harry Whittington saved the vest not just as a souvenir but as a warning. He shows it to friends, and to the children of friends, to illustrate the dangers of firearms. “It’s an education for them,” he says.
Indeed, in much the same way, Dick Cheney’s vice presidency was an education for the world.