Whittington’s reluctance to talk about his one moment of planetary fame was a mark of graciousness and gentlemanly propriety. Whittington, who died Saturday at 95, never blamed Cheney for nearly killing him, nor the White House for distorting the events of that late afternoon in 2006. After emerging from a Texas hospital, Whittington even seemed to blame himself.
“My family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this past week,” he said.
That comment contributed to the distortions surrounding the shooting, which occurred during a brief quail-hunting trip on a ranch in South Texas. It suggested that Whittington, not Cheney, was at fault for the accidental shooting — an impression the White House was all too happy to nudge along and Whittington merely shrugged about later. As George W. Bush’s press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters at the time, “Protocol was not followed by Mr. Whittington when it came to notifying others that he was there.”
Not so. But Whittington, a prominent and prosperous lawyer in Austin, kept his own counsel. It was nearly five years after the fact that he opened up about what happened that day.
He didn’t assign blame but he did sketch out circumstances that clearly suggested Cheney had been careless, at best. His account suggested that much of what had been reported — and much of what the White House wanted reported — was wrong, or at least shaded in terms favorable to the vice president.
Whittington as usual was reluctant to talk when I phoned him in 2010 seeking an interview. Rebuffed once, I called him back and proposed coming to Austin. We could meet, with no obligation. He agreed, warily.
We met at his office at 7 a.m., which was when Whittington, then 82, routinely started his work day. We talked, mainly about his life — his Depression childhood in East Texas; his college hustle as a concert promoter who’d once brought Nat King Cole’s trio to segregated Austin; his long legal career; his involvement in Republican politics and years of service on state commissions.
I wanted to know about Cheney but was careful not to press too hard. He wasn’t ready.
After a couple hours, he said, “Want some lunch?” We drove over to the country club he’d co-founded many years earlier.
I could feel a change. He started introducing me to his friends and showing me around. Afterward, he invited me to meet his wife, Mercedes, at their magnificent home overlooking Lake Travis. He pointed out his neighbors’ homes (“That’s where Andy Roddick lives, and Lance Armstrong lives over there.…”). Then he abruptly left the room.
I still hadn’t asked him a single question about the shooting.
When he returned, Whittington was holding an odd object on a hanger. It was an orange safety vest, slit down the side as if someone was in a hurry to remove it. There were brownish splotches of dried blood on it.
For the next few hours, he told me what happened that day — at least what he could remember of it before he’d passed out from his wounds.
Whittington barely knew Cheney; they weren’t “friends” or “hunting buddies,” as news accounts described them. They’d met only a few times before, and had been invited to the ranch by its owner, a mutual friend.
It was late, around 5:30 p.m., and the February light was fading when Cheney fired his errant shot. Whittington said he had been standing slightly downhill and off to Cheney’s right, his body angled in Cheney’s direction.
Though Whittington wouldn’t say so explicitly, his description suggested that Cheney had violated two fundamental safety protocols. First, in wheeling on a bird winging from the scrub, Cheney had fired without checking if his line of fire was clear. Second, he’d aimed downward, ignoring a rule obliging bird hunters to observe “blue sky” before firing.
The aftermath of the shooting was calamitous. The ambulance that carried the unconscious Whittington from the massive ranch to a hospital blew a tire. The trip took close to an hour.
The injuries he’d suffered were far worse than initially reported. The blast hit Whittington with more than 200 pieces of lead birdshot, causing scores of wounds across his eye socket, hairline, neck and torso. One piece lodged near his heart and caused a mild heart attack a few days later. One of his lungs collapsed. Another piece narrowly missed his carotid artery. He nearly bled out.
Whittington recounted these details without anger or sadness. It was an accident, he insisted, and Dick Cheney was a good man.
After talking for nearly 10 hours, I had one last question. Had Cheney ever apologized?
Whittington leveled his gaze at me.
“I’m not going to get into that,” he said after a short pause.
His face was set. I could sense his discomfort.
Harry Whittington wouldn’t lie. He was too gracious for that.