Page last updated at 04:27 GMT, Thursday, 16 February 2006

Cheney's reputation taking flak

By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

A shaken-looking Dick Cheney has broken his silence about his accidental shooting of a hunting companion, in a bid to draw a line under what has become a damaging affair for the US vice president.

Vice President Dick Cheney hunting quail in Gettysburg in 2002
Mr Cheney broke his silence amid mounting pressure

His comments about the wounding of 78-year-old lawyer Harry Whittington - which he said was "one of the worst days of my life" - came after three days of feverish coverage of the shooting.

During that time, an incident that began as fodder for the US's late-night comedians has been transformed into a damaging political metaphor - not least by the vice president's slow and unapologetic public response.

Opposition Democrats described the 18-hour delay in announcing news of the accident and Mr Cheney's failure to address the issue as typifying the secretive nature of the Bush administration.

More worryingly for the vice president, some prominent Republicans also hit out at the handling of the affair as they watched a mishap turning into a political liability for the White House.

The fallout has led to questions over the extent of the damage to Mr Cheney's reputation - and over the complicated relationship between Mr Bush and his deputy.

Political embarrassment

As one of the most powerful vice-presidents in history, Mr Cheney has played a big role in shaping US policy, yet has sought to maintain a low public profile.

Sat 11 Feb 1830*: incident takes place
1930: President Bush informed
2000: Bush told Cheney pulled trigger
2115: Whittington is flown to hospital and put into intensive care
Sun 12 Feb 1400: Cheney's office confirms incident to Corpus Christi Caller-Times
1448: Caller-Times runs Katherine Armstrong's account
Early Sun eve: Cheney visits Whittington in hospital
Mon 13 Feb 1500: Whittington moved from intensive care
Tue 14 Feb 0730: Whittington suffers minor heart attack and moved back into intensive care
1330: Cheney calls Whittington to wish him well
Wed 15 Feb: Cheney takes full blame in first TV interview
*All times EST (GMT-5)

This famously private man has been no stranger to political embarrassments.

As a leading proponent of war on Iraq, he famously declared in August 2002 that there was "no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction".

And as former chief executive of Halliburton he faced awkward questions after the firm won big contracts to help supply the US military in Iraq in 2003.

More recently, his former chief of staff Lewis Libby learnt he faces trial next January on charges relating to the leaking of a CIA agent's identity to the press.

But even the battle-hardened Mr Cheney may have been surprised at the extent of the furore that has sprung up over the shooting incident.

Marlin Fitzwater, former press secretary to President Ronald Reagan and President George Bush senior, said he was appalled by the handling of the incident by the Bush-Cheney team.

Vin Weber, a former Republican Congressman still close to the White House, said Mr Cheney would regret making "the incident a much bigger issue than it needed to be".

Storm in a tea cup

Meanwhile commentators have been speculating about whether this latest political headache makes Mr Cheney simply more trouble than he is worth to the administration.

In a political culture where image is all important, public signs of fallibility are not easily forgotten

The Washington Post newspaper described the episode as a "defining moment" for a vice president who had hitherto operated with "enormous clout to shape White House policy while avoiding public scrutiny".

The New York Times suggested the handling of the incident had created tension between the White House staffs of Mr Bush and Mr Cheney.

Mr Cheney's "habit of living in his own world in the Bush White House - surrounded by his own staff, relying on his own instincts, saying as little as possible" had backfired again, the paper added.

To those who see this episode as little more than a storm in a teacup, such pronouncements will be an over-reaction.

While acknowledging the seriousness of the injuries to Mr Whittington, Mr Cheney's supporters say this is an incident with no wider significance.

Doctors say Mr Whittington has described it as "much ado about nothing" and the Bush administration will certainly hope that the tempest will soon fade from public view.

But there is no doubt that the image of an orange-vested Mr Cheney mistakenly blasting away at the wrong target will be deeply embedded in the public consciousness.

In a political culture where image is all important, public signs of fallibility are not easily forgotten, especially when they appear to confirm what we already know - or think we know about the people concerned.

Man Cheney shot has heart attack
14 Feb 06 |  Americas
Bush bruised in bicycle crash
06 Jul 05 |  Americas
Bush makes light of pretzel scare
14 Jan 02 |  Americas

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