NEW YORK – An incredulous press corps on Monday peppered White House spokesman Scott McClellan with question after question about a weekend hunting incident in which Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot Austin attorney and hunting partner Harry Whittington.
Reporters did not seem to doubt that the shooting was an accident. Rather, they were bewildered by the White House's decision to wait nearly 24 hours to inform the public that the vice president had shot a man while aiming for quail.
"Why is it that it took so long for the president, for you, for anybody else to know that the vice president accidentally shot somebody?" asked a reporter.
"You know what [the vice president's] first reaction was? His first reaction was: Go to Mr. Whittington and get his team in there to provide him medical care," McClellan answered.
Whittington, 78, was hit on the right side of his face, neck and chest Saturday afternoon when he showed up on the side of the shooting party after returning to retrieve a bird he had shot. Cheney, thinking he was the last hunter on the right of the party, turned and fired at a quail. Whittington was about 30 yards away when he was hit by birdshot, which sprays pellets from the shotgun.
Cheney's medical team responded on the scene before an ambulance came to take the attorney to Christus Spohn Hospital Memorial in Corpus Christi. Spokesmen for the hospital say Whittington is in stable condition.
But back in Washington, reporters were visibly dissatisfied that they hadn't been informed by the White House about the mishap, and questioned the accuracy of McClellan's responses.
"Scott, when you consider the chronology that you've tried to go through here and all of the various wrinkles of how long it took for the primary information that the vice president was the person who shot this fellow, to get through to the president himself, is there any notion here of reviewing your own communications apparatus? I mean, this is sort of reminiscent of the levee story, frankly," said one reporter, referring to the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.
"Hold on one second. Human beings are not normally this inefficient. Was the vice president immediately clear that he had accidentally shot his friend or not? Or did that information become available later?" asked David Gregory, NBC News' White House correspondent.
McClellan laughed off suggestions that the vice president's office sought to keep the incident out of the Sunday morning newspapers and news talk shows. Rather, Cheney's staff made an agreement with the owner of the property on which the incident occurred to have her notify the local media, he said.
"This was handled by the vice president's office," McClellan explained. "The vice president felt that Mrs. Armstrong should be the first person to get that information out since she was an eyewitness."
Reporters countered that they thought it was highly bizarre to make such an arrangement with a private citizen.
Katharine Armstrong, owner of the Armstrong Ranch, spoke with the Corpus Christi Caller-Times Sunday morning, said managing editor Shane Fitzgerald. The small local paper broke the news online at 2:48 p.m. EST, and the rest of the media began picking it up a few hours later.
Asked why Cheney's office simply didn't inform any national media outlets, McClellan said: "We all know once it's made public it's going to be news."
NBC News first noted the shooting leading into its 6:30 p.m. Sunday broadcast by calling it a "bizarre" breaking story. ABC News in Washington, D.C., teased its late-night broadcast by writing on the screen: "Cheney Shoots Friend!"
While few believe the hunting incident is another scandal-in-the-making, reporters cast it in the familiar theme of: What did the White House know and when did it know it?
From the start, McClellan suggested that information was at a slow trickle. He at first said that White House Chief of Staff Andy Card talked to President Bush sometime between 7 and 8 p.m. EST on Saturday.
A few minutes later he disclosed that Bush's office was only notified about "an incident" around 7 and 8 p.m. Saturday evening. It wasn't until much later — 3 a.m. Sunday, he suggested — that Bush was informed that his No. 2 was the shooter. McClellan said he personally was not informed of the story until 6 a.m.
To the press corps' further frustration, no representative from Cheney's office attended the briefing, though McClellan repeatedly directed reporters to the vice president's office for answers to questions, including whether the vice president had a license to hunt or if he had taken any hunting safety course in Texas.
"Check with his office. I don't have those facts. I haven't checked into that," McClellan answered repeatedly in various forms.
McClellan is hardly new to the hot seat after two-and-a-half-years of intense questioning about much more complicated topics such as progress in the Iraq war, wiretapping by the National Security Agency and the possible leak of a CIA employee's name by someone in the White House.
As he frequently does, McClellan shifted his answers to accommodate the White House message rather than answer reporters' questions. For instance, he did not explain why Cheney's office did not take the lead in managing the shooting story, saying instead that "the important thing is the information was provided to the public and most importantly Mr. Whittington is being taken care of."
White House analysts were scratching their heads on Monday about the decision to let others handle the story.
"The bottom line is this was probably a dumb call. You pick up the phone, you say, 'Let's get a statement out and get this behind us.' You avoid the kind of feeding frenzy we're seeing here today. I think the press smells a little blood in the water," said Washington Times correspondent Bill Sammon.
With the story heading into a second day, it will undoubtedly become an early Valentine's Day present for late-night talk shows. "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," for instance, has a long history of mocking Cheney, coupling video of the vice president with Darth Vader's theme music from the "Star Wars" movies.
After 24 minutes of questions on Cheney in Monday's press briefing, reporters moved on to the issue of nuclear proliferation, though several times the questions returned to the vice president's weekend.