"I thought the vice president handled the issue just fine." - George W. Bush, Feb. 16, 2006
"Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." - George W. Bush, Sept. 2, 2005
Some of us have always thought of Dick Cheney, vice president of the United States, former secretary of defense, industrial magnate and general mover-and-shaker, as The Brains of the Outfit.
We still do, but intelligence isn't everything in a leader. Or even the most important thing - like judgment or honesty or prudence or modesty or, well, name your own favorite character trait. Lest we forget, the smartest people can do the stupidest things. Cf. The Hon. William Jefferson Clinton.)
It's become almost a Washington mantra since Watergate: What really gets a politician into trouble isn't the mistake, even a serious mistake, but how it's addressed afterward - promptly or tardily, candidly or evasively, well or badly enough to amount to a far more serious mistake, as in cover-up.
Dick Cheney now has stepped forward (finally) and taken responsibility, full responsibility, for firing first and looking afterward on that quail hunt, or maybe looking simultaneously, which can be just as dangerous. That's good.
But he's still sticking with his story about its being perfectly proper to wait till the next morning to let the country know that a vice president of the United States has shot a friend in a hunting accident. Even though presidential counselor Dan Bartlett and the president's press secretary, Scott McClellan, both advised him to get the story out - widely - as soon as he could. But the best advice is of no use if one doesn't take it, and the vice president didn't.
Instead, he left it to his hostess, Katharine Armstrong of the Armstrong Ranch in South Texas, to tell the local Corpus Christi Caller-Times about a story of far more than local interest. As if this were an item for its Society Notes.
The vice president, brainy man that he is, still claims that was the right call - since the news would then have come from his hostess, who was there, and, besides, if the story had gone out Saturday night instead of the next day, it might have been incomplete. As if this story is going to be complete any time soon. Far from it. It's certainly going to be with Dick Cheney for as long as he lives. And longer for those who'll be reading his biography someday. And the most troubling part may be the delay in getting the story out.
This is what comes of leaving such matters to amateurs like vice presidents of the United States instead of somebody who knows something about the newspaper business. Dick Cheney would look a lot better by now, or at least like a guy who had nothing to hide, if he'd just gone ahead and told everybody what had happened as soon as he'd attended to his friend. Instead, he left it to his hostess, who may know a lot more about hunting than about getting the news out.
For example, when Ms. Armstrong was asked if there had been any drinking involved, her answer was more than unequivocal; it was: "No, zero, zippo, and I don't drink at all." Which may have been completely true as far as it went, but it doesn't seem to have gone as far back as the barbecue lunch a few hours before the quail hunt. Because when the vice president was asked the same question, he was honest enough to note that he'd had a beer with his lunch. A troubling little detail. No big deal, but big enough to raise an eyebrow here and there.
Any discrepancy between these accounts wouldn't matter so much if the Veep had been answering questions all along - in the faith that people would understand, sooner or later. But he doesn't seem to have had that kind of faith in We the People, or just in the truth. That's another quality important in a leader, or just in anyone: faith. Faith in other people's fairness. Faith that telling the truth as best one can all along, rather than trying to manage the news, is the best policy.
Leaders who are trusted tend to be those who trust the rest of us to be fair. Which is why the best way to manage the news may be not to try so hard to manage it - just tell it the way it happened. And don't wait till you've got all your quail in a row for Fox News.
Candor can be a virtue in a politician. In a society in which trust has eroded, it can be an especially valuable character trait. There was a time, circa the 2000 presidential election, when character was regularly mentioned as an important element of leadership, at least by the Republican candidates. That time seems to have passed, which is another troubling little detail.