A private shooting

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The etiquette of shooting a companion has not been entirely worked out for the Information Age, but it's a fair bet the vice president has not contributed significantly to progress.

As a onetime hunter who recalls his partner's emphatic requests that I keep my shotgun cracked at the breech and pointed to the ground, I find it easy to empathize with Dick Cheney. The dear man swung impulsively and let loose on what he believed to be a quail, only to discover it was a real estate lawyer. They are poor eating.

Mr. Cheney's unintended quarry was Harry Whittington, a longtime power-player in Texas politics. Mr. Whittington remained hospitalized last week when one of the birdshot pellets dispatched from the second-most-powerful shotgun in the free world became lodged against his heart.

Men are constantly splattering one another with all manner of projectiles, but the rule of thumb that I recall is that, after shooting someone it is a capital idea to summon the police. It cuts down on suspicion.

The police conduct what in legal jargon is known as "an investigation," then issue something called "a report." If one is an officeholder voted on by the general electorate, it is also reasonable to issue what in government is called "a press release," preferably telling what is in high circles sometimes fancifully known as "the truth."

Here is a sample:

From the Office of the Vice President:
The vice president today inadvertently shot his hunting partner while stalking quail. The individual bagged by Mr. Cheney was rushed to a hospital. He was not in season. The Secret Service immediately notified local police because, even in Texas, you're not supposed to shoot someone.

Instead, Mr. Cheney decided the matter was a private shooting, a theory that, while not codified in law, dovetails with the administration's compulsion to keep secret everything from warrantless wiretaps to mine safety inspection reports.

On the face of it, things seem somewhat straightforward: The vice president missed a quail, hit a friend, felt lousy about it and allowed his hostess -- Katharine Armstrong -- to handle press arrangements. Ms. Armstrong left a message on the voice mail of a local reporter. Word got out a day later. She is also the former head of the Texas agency whose agents were assigned to investigate the shooting.

From an administration that would like to privatize Social Security and which contracts out the torture of suspected terrorists, the notion of a "private shooting" seems a chilling reinforcement of its image as a cabal of arrogant Beltway lifers who resent that what they do is anyone's business, least of all the business of the electorate that pays for it.

That is why Mr. Cheney had such an extraordinarily bad week. It also explains why he sought media asylum with Fox News, a network that lacks an extradition treaty with real news outlets.

In his EXCLUSIVE interview with Brit Hume, Mr. Cheney EXCLUSIVELY gave EXCLUSIVE details. They are, in sum: He swung, he shot, he noticed the mistake, he apologized, his personal medical staff attended to the man and he later agreed with Ms. Armstrong that this was a matter best handled by having her phone a reporter with whom she was friendly.

Mr. Cheney graciously exonerated Mr. Whittington, pronouncing the man he shot in the side of the head and chest, blameless.

"It was not Harry's fault," Mr. Cheney said. "You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend."

To his credit, Mr. Hume gave no quarter. He pressed the vice president mercilessly with questions such as this:

"I take it you missed the bird."

Mr. Cheney said he had no idea. But to anyone who has been following along and waiting and wondering when he might decide to use his mouth at least as much as his gun, the answer was unmistakable. Mr. Cheney had the bird all along. And he's been giving it to us.



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