"Ultimately I'm the guy who pulled the trigger that fired the round that hit Harry," Cheney said in his first interview since the incident. "I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend, and that's something I'll never forget."
Cheney's first public response following the shooting comes more than 72 hours after the accident. His silence has been met with bewilderment and anger by some in Washington, D.C. But on Wednesday, the vice president seemed to express deep remorse.
"The image of him falling is something I will never be able to get out my mind," Cheney said, somberly. "It was one of the worst days of my life."
Cheney said that he, Whittington and one other person separated from the 10-person hunting party to pursue a covey of quail. All three fired their shotguns, but Whittington could not immediately find his bird. He walked away from Cheney and the other hunter to look for it.
Cheney then heard quail moving to his right.
"I turned and shot at the bird, and at that second, saw Harry standing there. Didn't know he was there," Cheney said. "I saw him fall, basically. It had happened so fast."
The vice president added that Whittington was standing in a gully so only his upper body was visible, and that the sun was facing Cheney, which "affected the vision, too, I'm sure."
Whittington, whom Cheney described as an acquaintance he's known for more than 30 years, was hit with more than 200 birdshot pellets from an estimated 30 yards away.
Upon realizing he had shot his hunting companion, Cheney rushed over to find a bleeding and dazed Whittington lying on his back with only one eye open.
"I said, 'Harry, I had no idea you were there,'" Cheney recounted. "He didn't respond. He was — he was breathing, conscious at that point, but he didn't — he was, I'm sure, stunned, obviously, still trying to figure out what had happened to him."
The accident took place at Armstrong Ranch, a 50,000-acre property in south Texas that is known as one of the best quail-hunting sites in the country.
A physician's assistant traveling with Cheney rushed to Whittington's aid, and accompanied the injured man to the hospital. Cheney said he did not go himself because the ambulance was too crowded.
Cheney said he had one beer at lunch, but that no alcohol was consumed during the late afternoon outing.
Earlier this week, the White House and Katharine Armstrong, the owner of the ranch and an eyewitness to the accident, implied that Whittington did not follow hunting protocol because he didn't announce to Cheney and the other hunter that he had returned from retrieving his kill. On Wednesday, the vice president made clear that Whittington wasn't responsible for being hit.
"It was not Harry's fault," Cheney said. "You cannot blame anybody else."
One thing for which Cheney was not apologetic was the way the news of the shooting was delivered to the media. Armstrong, a private citizen, went to a local newspaper about the incident on Sunday. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times published the story near 3 p.m. EST Sunday. The scoop upset many in the White House press corps, who were not with Cheney on the private retreat.
Before Wednesday's interview, the vice president's office issued two brief written statements acknowledging the shooting on Monday and Tuesday. Cheney said he and Armstrong agreed to let her take the lead.
"I thought that made good sense because you can get as accurate a story as possible from somebody who knows and understands hunting," Cheney said. "Then it would immediately go up to the wires and be posted on the Web site, which is the way it went out. I thought that was the right call. I still do."
Cheney also clarified what had been a murky timeline of events. He first spoke to a White House official — chief of staff Andy Card — on Sunday morning, and discussed the shooting with President Bush for the first time Monday.
He also said he never personally spoke with Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, but that Rove and Armstrong, who are also longtime friends, discussed the incident.
Whittington suffered a minor heart attack Tuesday morning due to a birdshot pellet that had migrated to his heart. He was in stable condition on Wednesday, hospital officials said. But the 78-year-old was moved back into the intensive care unit because of concerns for his privacy.
"He's doing extremely well," said Peter Banko, administrator of Christus Spohn Hospital Memorial in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Speaking to reporters alongside Dr. David Blanchard, director of emergency services, Banko said that Whittington was tired but able to sit up and eat food. Banko would not comment on how many BBs remained in Whittington's body, but said of the ammunition lodged in Whittington's heart, "We're 100 percent satisfied that where the BB is it will remain."
Blanchard said Whittington was recovering well from the heart attack but would be closely monitored over the next six days and possibly longer. Whittington is "hemodynamically stable," meaning his blood circulation is normal, which is "the best situation you could possibly have."
When asked if their patient would be tuning in to the vice president's first on-air interview about the shooting, Banko said, "There is no television in his room at this point in time."
Cheney, Media Agree: Not Funny
While the story has launched innumerable jokes from editorial cartoonists and late-night comedy shows, the narrative took on a decidedly more somber tone Tuesday when Whittington's condition turned for the worse.
The timing demonstrated another instance of disconnect between the White House press office and the news of the day. McClellan was not notified about Whittington's heart attack until long after the fact, too late for him to withhold a joke he made during the morning press report about a "hunter's" orange tie he was wearing in anticipation of the University of Texas football team's visit with President Bush.
Despite McClellan's apparent ignorance of Whittington's condition, he should have refrained from laughing about the situation at all, said Jerry Swerling, a public relations expert and director of the USC-Annenberg Strategic Public Relations Center in Los Angeles.
"To be making light of an incident in which somebody's life could have been at stake is an error for a variety of reasons," Swerling said of the light-hearted statements coming from the White House.
Journalists who were flabbergasted at the way Cheney's office handled the incident will probably not be satisfied by his explanation.
"Katharine suggested, and I agreed, that she would go make the announcement. ... First of all, she was an eyewitness, she'd seen the whole thing. Secondly, she'd grown up on the ranch, she'd hunted there all of her life. Third, she was the immediate past head of the [Texas Parks and Wildlife Department], the game control commission in the state of Texas," Cheney said.
Later, Cheney said of Armstrong, "I don't know who you could get better as the basic source for the story than the witness who saw the whole thing."
A better source, said media critic Eric Burns, would have been Cheney himself. Cheney has been a hunter for 12-15 years and is a longtime frequenter of the Armstrong Ranch, Burns pointed out.
"There isn't one thing, actually, that he said that made sense to me," said Burns, host of "FOX News Watch."
Cheney's decision to go public came one day after Whittington had the heart attack and the chorus began to grow that he should speak publicly about the incident. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Cheney was still ducking the topic by granting an exclusive interview rather than holding a press conference.
"The vice president hasn't had a press conference in three and a half years and he ought to have one to clear the air not only on this issue, but more importantly on the many other issues that have been shrouded by a veil of secrecy," Schumer said in a statement.
Former Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clark agreed Cheney should have more gone to the national media sooner.
"It pains me to say this because I am such a big fan of his, but when you're vice president of the United States and something like this happens it is big news, and I think he had a responsibility to try to get the information out as quickly as possible and as fully as possible," Clark said, adding, "Just having [Armstrong] talk to the local newspaper in Texas doesn't cut it."
Cheney hinted that such criticisms were elitist, and that big-media reporters outside of Texas would not have been able to competently report on the story.
"It was also important, I thought, to get the story out as accurately as possible, and this is a complicated story that, frankly, most reporters would never have dealt with before," Cheney said.
He later added: "I had a bit of the feeling that the press corps was upset because, to some extent, it was about them — they didn't like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of The New York Times."
Defending the vice president, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said he's been hunting several times with Cheney and knows him to be conscientious about safety. He added that Cheney had more respect for Whittington than to go immediately to the press.
"Mr. Whittington and the vice president have been friends for many years and I know Mr. Whittington’s personal privacy is a great concern to the vice president. The vice president knows the more he talks, the less privacy Mr. Whittington and his family will enjoy," Graham said.
"The constant second-guessing of what the vice president should have said and when he should have said it is an unnecessary diversion from the many issues facing our nation," Graham added.
But Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, accused Cheney of a "cover-up."
"This is the vice president of the United States of America who shot someone in the face," McAuliffe said. "This is about personal responsibility. He hid. He didn't get the facts out."
Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute said Cheney still hadn't adequately explained why it took so long for news of the shooting to reach the public.
"The fact that he didn't have press people traveling with him is a pretty lame excuse," McBride said. As for Cheney's explanation that he was more immediately concerned with Whittington's well being and notifying his family: "Dick Cheney wasn't tending to him personally. He wasn't down there tending to this guy, dressing his wounds."
In many ways, the shelf life of the story was much dependent on Whittington's recovery, McBride said.
"They're trying to put a very optimistic spin on his outlook, but he's 78 years old and he's got a BB in his heart."
In any event, it is difficult to see how Cheney's relationship with the press — or the public — will recover.
"He's a leader who doesn't like reporters," Burns said, adding, "I don't know that there's anything about this that reflects badly on his leadership abilities, but I think there's something about this that reflects badly on decision-making, and decision-making is part of leadership."
McBride said while the tense relationship between the White House and the press is all but built in, the shooting story is likely to increase hostilities.
"To not find out [about the shooting] for 24 hours gives reporters little faith that the administration is really looking out for the public's interest in revealing information," she said. "It also makes individual reporters feel they need to be more vigilant and that they can't trust the people who are supposed to release information."
In only its second public acknowledgment of the incident, the vice president's office issued a statement on Tuesday saying Cheney had called Whittington around 1:30 p.m. EST to check on him and wish him well.
The vice president's only other statement since Saturday concerned his lack of a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department stamp for hunting game birds, which was publicized following the shooting. The statement said Cheney had mailed a $7 check to the department for a stamp, but did not mention Whittington or the shooting.
Carlos Valdez, district attorney of the county in which the shooting occurred, told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times on Wednesday that he did not foresee a criminal investigation. An incident report from the Kenedy County Sheriff's Office is pending.
FOX News' Sharon Kehnemui Liss contributed to this report.