Hunting story out of control

Posted: Feb 17, 2006 12:05 AM

WASHINGTON -- I'm just glad he didn't shoot Scalia.

Well, everyone's entitled to one Quailgate joke, so that's mine. Although the best one, occurring at the Monday White House news briefing, was only inadvertently funny: Reporter's question to Scott McClellan, "Would this be much more serious if the man had died?''

This news briefing got famously out of control (as a psychiatrist, the groups I ran for inpatient schizophrenics were far more civilized) over the new great issue of our time: Why was there a 14-hour delay in calling the press?

Let's pose a hypothetical. You're at a gathering at a friend's house in the country. You're all playing touch football and, as you lunge to tag someone, you stumble and accidentally barrel into a would-be receiver running a crossing pattern and you knock him down, breaking a few of his ribs, maybe puncturing a lung and who knows what else.

What do you do? You get him immediate help. Then you notify and tend to his family. Then you try to calm the host and the guests and try to mitigate the damage you've caused.

Now change the hypothetical in just two ways. It's not touch football but a birdshot accident, which makes it a bit more romantic and more comical. But that changes nothing about the correct reaction.

Then it turns out you're not just anybody, but the vice president of the United States. What do you do?

If the victim is Alexander Hamilton -- or Antonin Scalia -- this is an event with deep implications for the country and the country needs to know about it immediately.

But the man is neither. He is a private citizen. Had he been shot by Joe Blow it would merit perhaps a three-line item in the local newspaper and be entirely forgotten to history.

So the story is you, the vice president. You shot him. But it was an accident, and the event has no effect on national policy, national security, national anything. Something happened involving the vice president that was interesting and unusual, but of no great significance beyond that.

Do you notify the national press right away? In his interview Wednesday with Brit Hume of Fox News, Cheney gave two explanations for the 14-hour delay. First, to give time to notify the family. This is perfectly legitimate. You have done enough damage. You don't want to compound it by having the man's children find out on television that their father was shot.

But they were notified within a few hours on Saturday night. Why the overnight delay? Accuracy, Cheney told Hume. Reports about Mr. Whittington's condition Saturday night were preliminary and uncertain. Cheney wanted to wait until he knew something definitive.

This is understandable, but not really justifiable. If the public had the right to know eventually -- something even Cheney does not question -- that right is not dependent on the firmness of the information.

Cheney understandably wanted to control the situation, to know what he was dealing with, before having to confront the world about the accident. Perhaps he also wanted to give the victim, the victim's family, his host and the other guests an overnight respite before the inevitable media circus arrived at their door.

If there was a sin against the public interest, it was in the desire to retain control over what was a still-chaotic situation. But it is a minor sin. There was no cover-up, nothing to cover up. There was no scandal. It hardly merited the quite overwrought charges of excessive secrecy, imperial arrogance, abuse of power and other choice selections from the lexicon of Nixoniana.

Secrecy? This was hardly an affair of state. And it was hardly going to be kept secret. Arrogance? The media laying these charges are the same media that just last week unilaterally decided that the public's right to know did not extend to seeing cartoons that had aroused half the world, burned a small part of it and deeply affected the American national interest. Having arrogated to themselves the judgment of what a free people should be allowed to see regarding an issue that is literally burning, they then go ballistic over a few hours' delay in revealing an accident with only the most trivial connection to the nation's interest or purpose.

Cheney got a judgment call wrong, for reasons that are entirely comprehensible. The disproportionate, at times hysterical, response to that error is far less comprehensible.