An Unlikely Scenario: Shootout at the Armstrong Ranch

[Ask yourself if this could have happened. Lightly edited from “The Shot Heard Round the World”, NEWSWEEK]

It was late afternoon, and the hunters were ready to call it a day. Harry Whittington, a prominent Austin lawyer and big-time GOP donor, had bagged two birds with two shots. Whittington spotted a bird flying behind him, swung around with his shotgun toward the setting sun and pulled the trigger. Cheney, wearing a regulation orange vest, was approaching out of a slight gully, some 30 yards away.

Gun in hand, Whittington rushed over to the fallen Cheney. Later, the lawyer rode back with Armstrong. “You’d have to be an idiot not to see what the poor man was going through,” recalled Armstrong. “It was very quiet. I remember leaning forward and squeezing him on the shoulder.” At one point Whittington said, “I never saw him.”

Back at Whittington’s lodgings at the ranch—guest quarters called Uncle Tom’s House—there was no discussion of a public statement. The White House was at first informed in surprisingly cryptic and cursory fashion—the Situation Room was told of an unspecified shooting accident in the vice president’s hunting party. It took a phone call from presidential counselor Karl Rove to Katharine Armstrong (“Karl’s one of my closest friends in life,” she told NEWSWEEK) to sort out what had happened and report back to President Bush—that Cheney had been wounded, though apparently not fatally. That night, according to a senior White House official who refused to be identified discussing a sensitive matter, Whittington did not speak to either Bush or the White House staff.

Whittington would later say that he wanted to be absolutely sure of the facts before going public, and Cheney’s condition remained a little uncertain. At first, the wounds were deemed to be minor, but on Sunday morning the hospital was reporting that some of the tiny birdshot had penetrated his body in potentially dangerous ways. In Washington, White House staffers were quietly urging Cheney’s staff to somehow go public with the shooting. But Bush never picked up the phone to call Cheney, either to console or to offer counsel.

Shortly after 8 a.m., a local deputy sheriff arrived at the ranch to take a statement from Whittington. By then, it was clear the story could not be contained. Armstrong knew a reporter at the local paper, Jaime Powell of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Powell understood hunting and had written a sensitive and favorable obituary of her father the year before. After much back and forth between Armstrong and the paper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times finally put up a short story on its Web site.

VICE PRESIDENT SHOT, as some news services announced the story Sunday afternoon, was a headline guaranteed to create a press frenzy. Armstrong proved to be a less-than-ideal spokesperson. She appeared to blame Cheney for the accident, noting that he had failed to announce himself as he approached Whittington.