This whole Cheney shooting incident should have been a one-day story. Once it happened, it should have been reported to the press as soon as the facts were known and Mr. Whittington had been taken to the hospital Saturday night. It would have gotten mentioned on the Sunday morning talk shows, it would have caused a flurry of activity in the blogosphere, and it would have gotten a passing mention in the late-night monologues, and that would have been it. Game over, next story.
But instead, it has blown up into a full-tilt three-day news cycle epic — I’m surprised CNN hasn’t come up with special music for the intro to the segment — and the White House has gone into full defense mode, doing everything it can to make it go away and in the process make it worse. The excerpts from yesterday’s news briefings with reporters shouting questions, Scott McClellan deferring questions to the Vice President’s office, hinting that the blame for the accident lies with Mr. Whittington, and saying that the White House Press Office cedes its authority to a private citizen because, in his weird logic, if Mrs. Armstrong, the owner of the property where the accident occurred, passed it off as a society page entry to the Corpus Christi paper it wouldn’t get noticed are straight out of a Daily Show sketch — which it promptly became last night.
In effect this story is a microcosm of how the Bush administration handles a crisis. Keep the press at bay, fudge the facts, blame the victim, get defensive when confronted with reasonable questions, call the media “irresponsible” for going on the air with speculation and rumor, then later issue “clarifications” that basically confirm the speculation and rumor. Instead of getting the story behind them, the story becomes the story itself. It fits into the pattern of how they have dealt with much larger and more consequential events than a hunting accident. It’s the same process we’ve seen in how they handled the CIA leak story, the war in Iraq, the response to Hurricane Katrina, the NSA wiretapping, and anything else that shows the president or his people to be human and therefore capable of making a mistake and having to own up to it. It contributes to the well-earned reputation the Bush administration has for secrecy and obfuscation, all in pursuit of the illusion that it really does have its shit together. In doing so, it proves exactly the opposite; as the New York Times notes, “the White House, in trying to cover up the cover-up, has once again demonstrated that it would rather look inept than open.” Well, if that’s their goal, so far they’ve got nothing to worry about.