Thursday, February 16, 2006

Misfortune and Opportunism

The segment Jon Stewart ran on Monday night about the Cheney hunting accident drew stronger laughs from me than anything I've seen since ultimateshowdown.org. As of then, Mr. Whittington's injuries did not appear to be serious. No harm, no foul - the idea of a Vice President (especially one as cryptic, stodgy, and occasionally ill-tempered as Cheney) shooting someone is simply funny. Stewart and his crew played brilliantly on the idea of Cheney's error (somewhat misrepresented, as I explain below) as a metaphor for the mistake about WMD's in Iraq and some of the absurd responses the administration has come up with. All in very good humor.

Meanwhile, the story has snowballed into the stirrings of a real fake controversy in the mainstream press. It started with rancor over the how the manner and timing of the story's dissemination was handled. Next came murmors about the fact that Cheney had apparently failed to pay a $7 fee to the Texas Gaming Commission. Then on Tuesday, as some troubling developments in Mr. Whittington's condition came to light, speculation started to swirl about whether Cheney was truely blameless, or whether he might actually have some culpability. Additional "questions" were raised about the timing of the Vice President's interview with law enforcement, whether Mr. Cheney had apologized to Mr. Whittington and whether it would be appropriate for such apologies to be public. Commentaries about the secretiveness and extensive influence of the Vice President floated in the background throughout. Finally today, I'm reading stories to the effect that if Mr. Whittington (whose condition seems to have stablized and is busy doing his job from his hospital room) were to die from his injuries, the Vice President might be subject to a Grand Jury investigation and possible criminal charges for negligent or reckless homicide.

Now I am not a fan of the way Dick Cheney discharges his office, but this needs to stop. Metaphorical whimsy and humor aside, the incident has nothing whatsoever to do with Cheney's Vice Presidency, the decisions of the administration (past or present), or anything else of significance to the American polity. Every one of us knows this at heart, and anyone inclined to earnestly assert otherwise is either guilty of the worst sort of political opportunism, or needs to step back and get some perspective on why they think what they think.
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The Small Stuff

The fixation of the press on the way in which news of the accident was released is misdirected anger. I agree with the sentiment that this administration has been improperly and even ominously resistent to legitimate inquiries by the press on a wide range of issues, failing in its obligation to be forthcoming that any group of elected officials bears. It has been this way about many important matters of national security, of policy, of professional conduct. The press is right to be angry about that. But that's not what was going on here. This was, at worst, bad management of the news cycle by the White House communications office. There was no thought of a cover-up (how could there be?), nor do I think the announcement necessarily needed to come from the White House Press Secretary, though it surely would have had they known what a headache the alternative was going to cause them. The Vice President had been involved in an accident that was not part of his official duties and at the time had not been thought to have resulted in serious injury. If someone can point out the significant consequence of it having hit the wires on Sunday morning rather than Saturday night, then please do. Until then, fetishizing over the 14 hours that transpired between the initial notification of the Chief of Staff that an accident not necessarily involving the Vice President had occured and the story's ultimate release to local news in Texas is energy that could be better spent.

The delay in speaking to law enforcement is similarly being blown out of proportion. Sure, he was not treated like an ordinary citizen. He's not an ordinary citizen. The Vice President is the second-ranking executive official in the nation. He must be ready to assume command over the United States military at a moment's notice, and is under the constant and vigilant protection of the Secret Service who, by the way, were the ones who negotiated the time and setting of the interview. To expect that he would have a casual conversation with some local sheriff right after the incident is simply unrealistic. Secret Service has to vet the law enforcement officers and secure any interview location. White House Counsel has to be consulted. It takes time. These are the realities that accompany life at the top of the Executive totem pole. It would have been the same in any other administration. We're talking about hours here people, not weeks.

Finally, the business about the $7 license fee is really quite laughable. Someone on the Vice President's staff is doubtless having his/her ears boxed for that little screwup, but if you really think it bears seriously on the moral conduct of the Vice President, seek help.


The Accident

The part that bothers me the most about this is the attempt by some to go beyond the process story and assert that there was some serious element of misconduct in the incident itself. This was an accident, and we all know it. Hunting is inherently dangerous, there was a mixup, and it resulted in Cheney accidentally hitting Mr. Whittington while firing at a moving bird from a distance of 30 yards. No one has suggested the Cheney meant to shoot Whittington, because it's entirely absurd. Yet, without any concrete understanding of what actually happened, and without actually asserting it (because that would actually require having something to back it up), some commentators have suggested that Cheney might have recklessly and negligently shot his friend (and to top it off, doesn't even feel bad about it).

Granting the benefit of the doubt, I think some people may be under the impression, whether from satirical accounts or just lack of background knowledge, that Whittington was somehow actually mistaken for a bird, or that Cheney was shooting at a stationary target and was too careless to note the blaring orange in his line of sight, both of which are misunderstandings. I've never been hunting myself, but I know roughly how bird hunting works and a little bit about eyesight. Let's think this through for a moment. First, consider that when you take aim at a moving target, your vision focuses in on the object as you track it and your brain 'filters out' from your perception much of what you see in background so as to keep that focus stable while the background moves (much in the same way you isolate the voice of a particular speaker in a room with a lot of background chatter).

Now let's turn the description of what happened and try to visualize the sequence of events. Whittington had shot a bird and was looking for it in some tall grass. He came up from behind Cheney and another fellow hunter - from a direction outside their visual field and partially obscured by the surrounding grass. He was 30 yards away - 90 feet. Think for a moment how far that is, remembering that distances seem much longer in the context of intervening foliage. Meanwhile, Cheney and his companion had spotted a covey (a small flock of birds) mingling in a hiding spot on the ground (usually discovered using specially trained bird-hunting dogs). The idea is to get the covey to "flush" - to scatter and fly out in the open - whereupon the hunter tries to hit one of them.

The covey flushed, and Cheney took aim at one of the birds as it rapidly moved horizontally and close to the ground, requiring Cheney to pivot in order to follow its arc while trying to maintain his aim. Cheney fired at the moment the bird's trajectory brought it on a line between himself and Mr. Whittington, missing the bird and hitting the partially concealed Whittington with some of the pellets. Recalling what I said earlier about tracking moving targets, it is likely that Cheney never actually 'saw' Mr. Whittington (even if Mr. Whittington had, to some extent, appeared in Cheney's visual field) until after he had fired and heard Mr. Whittington's cry. If any of you have ever seen the movie Master and Commander, think of the moment when the soldier accidentally hits the doctor while trying to shoot a bird flying around the deck of the ship, and you'll have a general idea of what happened.

It's a pretty textbook example of how most hunting accidents occur. This is why hunters are careful to communicate their location to other hunters, and why they wear orange clothing that sharply contrasts with the surrounding environment. To the extent that there was confusion about Mr. Whittington's location, the group was not optimally following the safety guidelines. This applies to both Cheney and Whittington. But in the reality of the sport (like any other), compliance with safety guidelines is virtually never perfect, and that's why accidents happen.


Moving On

Dick Cheney is an elderly man with a reputation for being highly calculating and meticulous. Whatever one may think about his political decisions, the notion that he was somehow cavalierly operating far outside the norms of the sport strikes me as unlikely. Every witness at the scene including the victim agrees that it was an accident plain and simple. The almost gleeful speculation with an ever so subtle twinge of hope at how Cheney might be criminally liable if Mr. Whittington dies is morbid, perverse, and frankly immoral. It's the sort of vindictiveness that latches onto anything it can, however benign or trivial, and at its root is really the hallmark of bitter impotence.

Furthermore, it's a waste of the public forum. Debating whether the administration waited too long in releasing the story or whether Cheney is sorry (and you have to be exceptionally cynical to think he's not) consumes time during which we could be discussing the President's domestic policy proposals, learning about what's happening in Sudan or the West Bank, cheering the Olympic athletes in Torino, or just watching re-runs of Seinfeld, all of which would be superior alternatives.

You might not like hunting. You might not like the Vice President. I don't really like either. But I don't for a minute think that this is symptomatic of some broader tendency, that it's an expression of the underlying character of the administration, or that it's some kind of poetic justice. As Jon Stewart said it in the course of his hilarous shtick, "Vice President Dick Cheney shot a 78-year-old man in the face while mistaking him for a small bird." Another way to say it is that a man accidentally hurt his friend, almost killing him. Many events in our lives are both comic and tragic, and balancing the two is part of how we stay sane. But let's keep it sane. Let's have our laugh, say a prayer for the poor guy in the hospital, and move on.

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