San Diego Union Tribune

February 16, 2006

Cheney's damage control late, lame

By George E. Condon Jr.

WASHINGTON – Vice President Dick Cheney's explanation yesterday of how he came to accidentally shoot a friend undoubtedly will help douse the Washington firestorm ignited by his office's initial handling of the incident.

But waiting to give an interview to Fox News until fully four days after the shooting won't undo the political damage that leaves Cheney less able to help push the administration agenda and help struggling Republican candidates.

“Pretty much everything was done the wrong way,” said pollster John Zogby, looking back at the decision-making by Cheney and his aides since the incident Saturday on a ranch in Texas.

“This could and should have been a 24-hour story – an unfortunate accident,” Zogby said. “But now I'm not sure that the vice president's appearance (on Fox) on Wednesday, four days after this has fermented, is going to make this go away.”

Perhaps the greatest benefit to Cheney is that he – wisely, in the view of all analysts – dropped the line being peddled by his supporters that somehow the victim was to blame because he didn't announce his presence when approaching the shotgun-toting Cheney.

Former Cheney aide Mary Matalin was the first to test that strategy Sunday when she told reporters that the vice president “didn't do anything he wasn't supposed to do.”

Other than shoot his friend, of course.

Interviewer Brit Hume gave Cheney an opening to parrot that line. But the vice president was ready to take responsibility, telling Hume: “You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend.”

He also is likely to benefit by letting viewers glimpse a more human side of a usually stolid, unemotional man. Viewers saw a vice president shaken by the incident on what he called “one of the worst days of my life.”

Incredibly, this was the first time since the shooting that there had been any hint Cheney was upset over what happened to his friend, Texas lawyer Harry Whittington.

“This has been a one-man counteroffensive against the 'Oprah-ization' of American politics,” said California Republican Dan Schnur, a former top aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson. “Politicians have been conditioned in recent years to bare their souls, to open themselves up emotionally in order to defuse a crisis. Cheney's response was very much a throwback to an earlier era.”

Schnur added that most politicians “would be photographed beside the hospital bed and would be anguishing about how they had done it. But this was the opposite tack.”

While the gruff exterior is part of Cheney's public persona, it didn't serve him well in this instance. By staying out of public view and not releasing a statement expressing regret, Cheney was left looking uncaring.

“He looked totally callous,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and an expert on how politicians handle this type of media “feeding frenzy.”

“It was callous trying to shift the blame to the victim,” Sabato said. “His entire PR staff should be fired just for that.”

Sabato also was critical of the amateurish way the information was released. In that criticism he was joined by such Republican heavyweights as Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush; Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to the current President Bush; and Torie Clarke, former Pentagon spokeswoman for the current administration.

“They violated every rule in the book,” Sabato said. “I've studied feeding frenzies. This is a classic feeding frenzy, and it was created in part by their inability to get the news out. You have to tell the truth, and you need to get the facts out completely as soon as possible. This was a public-relations disaster because they didn't do that.”

Cheney supporters dismiss the criticism as unimportant. “The average American out there doesn't give a damn whether they called the press Saturday night or Sunday morning, and they don't care whether they called the Corpus Christi paper as opposed to the White House pool,” said veteran Republican strategist Charlie Black.

Black predicted no lasting political damage to Cheney, saying, “Life goes on and you move on.”

But others fear that Cheney has become more of a liability to Republicans running in close congressional races this year. Even before the shooting incident, Cheney's approval numbers had cratered. Six national polls conducted in December and January showed his job-approval ranging from 32 percent to 38 percent – lower than Bush's numbers. He did show some improvement in the CNN/USA Today poll, going from 36 percent in November to 41 percent in January.

“I'll make a prediction: Cheney is not going to any swing districts this fall,” Schnur said.

Black didn't disagree, but said: “If you want somebody to help you raise money and rally your base, you'd want Cheney almost anywhere in the country. If you're down to the last two weeks of the race and it's a swing district and you're trying to sway moderate voters, you probably won't invite Dick Cheney in there.”

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