WASHINGTON – The White House has decided that the best way to deal with Vice President Dick Cheney's shooting accident is to joke about it.
President Bush's spokesman quipped Tuesday that the burnt orange school colors of the University of Texas championship football team that was visiting the White House shouldn't be confused for hunter's safety wear.
"The orange that they're wearing is not because they're concerned that the vice president may be there," joked White House press secretary Scott McClellan, following the lead of late-night television comedians. "That's why I'm wearing it."
The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, took a similar jab after slapping an orange sticker on his chest from the Florida Farm Bureau that read, "No Farmers, No Food."
"I'm a little concerned that Dick Cheney is going to walk in," the governor cracked during an appearance in Tampa Monday.
Cheney, an experienced hunter, has not been joking or saying anything publicly at all about the accident Saturday, when he accidentally sprayed a hunting partner with shotgun pellets when aiming for a quail.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department issued a report Monday that found the main factor contributing to the accident was a "hunter's judgment factor." No other secondary factors were found to have played a role.
The department gave Cheney and the victim, prominent Republican attorney Harry Whittington, warning citations for breaking Texas hunting law by failing to buy a $7 stamp allowing them to shoot upland game birds. A department spokesman said warnings are being issued in most cases because the stamp requirement only went into effect five months ago and many hunters weren't aware of it.
Cheney's office said Monday night in a statement that Cheney had a $125 nonresident hunting license and has sent a $7 check to cover the cost of the stamp. "The staff asked for all permits needed, but was not informed of the $7 upland game bird stamp requirement," the statement said.
The state's report said Whittington was retrieving a downed bird and stepped out of the hunting line he was sharing with Cheney. "Another covey was flushed and Cheney swung on a bird and fired, striking Whittington in the face, neck and chest at approximately 30 yards," the report said.
Whittington remained in stable condition Tuesday at Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial. He was moved from intensive care to a "step-down unit" Monday after doctors decided to leave several birdshot pellets lodged in his skin rather than try to remove them. The hospital planned a news conference for 1 p.m. EST Tuesday.
Katharine Armstrong, owner of the ranch where the shooting occurred, said it happened toward the end of the hunt, when it was still sunny but as darkness was encroaching and they were preparing to go inside. She said Whittington made a mistake by not announcing that he had walked up to rejoin the hunting line, and Cheney didn't see him as he tried to down a bird.
Armstrong said she saw Cheney's security detail running toward the scene. "The first thing that crossed my mind was he had a heart problem," she told The Associated Press.
She said Cheney stayed "close but cool" while the agents and medical personnel treated Whittington, then took him by ambulance to the hospital. Later, the hunting group sat down for dinner while Whittington was being treated, receiving updates from a family member at the hospital. Armstrong described Cheney's demeanor during dinner as "very worried" about Whittington.
Pamela Willeford, the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, another member of the hunting party, told The Dallas Morning News for a story in Tuesday's editions that she and Cheney didn't realize Whittington had picked up a bird and caught up with them.
Willeford said she has hunted with Cheney before and would again.
"He's a great shot. He's very safety conscious. This is something that unfortunately was a bad accident and when you're with a group like that, he's safe or safer than all the rest of us," she said.
But the accident raised questions about Cheney's adherence to hunting safety practices and the White House's failure to disclose the accident in a timely way.
Several hunting safety experts interviewed agreed it would have been a good idea for Whittington to announce himself. But every expert stressed that the shooter is responsible for avoiding other people.
Bush was told about Cheney's involvement in the accident shortly before 8 p.m. Saturday — about an hour after it occurred — but the White House did not disclose the accident until Sunday afternoon, and then only in response to press questions.
Facing a press corps upset that news had been withheld, press secretary Scott McClellan said, "I think you can always look back at these issues and look at how to do a better job."