I've spent my entire life in the Northwest among hunting people. Most of my male relatives hunted and many of my friends do. Though I don't hunt myself, I did learn safe gun handling at a very early age. My father was a cowboy and was very serious about such things. Every so often one of my friends takes me out target shooting, just to make sure I remember which end of the gun to point away from myself (despite their best efforts, I remain a terrible shot. I blame my vision; they blame my attention span). Consequently, I'm not especially impressed with the tales of Cheney's "hunting trips."
Every hunter I know hunts for food or as an excuse to spend a day in the woods. A large percentage of the meat I ate growing up was game: deer, elk, moose, caribou, and, once, bear. With that background, I find trophy hunting a little creepy, and what Cheney does, not hunting at all. As the Humane Society noted after a 2003 "hunting" trip of Cheney's:
Monday's hunting trip to Pennsylvania by Vice President Dick Cheney in which he reportedly shot more than 70 stocked pheasants and an unknown number of mallard ducks at an exclusive private club places a spotlight on an increasingly popular and deplorable form of hunting, in which birds are pen-reared and released to be shot in large numbers by patrons. The ethics of these hunts are called into question by rank-and-file sportsmen, who hunt animals in their native habitat and do not shoot confined or pen-raised animals that cannot escape.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported today that 500 farm-raised pheasants were released yesterday morning at the Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier Township for the benefit of Cheney's 10-person hunting party. The group killed at least 417 of the birds, illustrating the unsporting nature of canned hunts. The party also shot an unknown number of captive mallards in the afternoon.
"This wasn't a hunting ground. It was an open-air abattoir, and the vice president should be ashamed to have patronized this operation and then slaughtered so many animals," states Wayne Pacelle, a senior vice president of The Humane Society of the United States.
This is not hunting. It's not really sport unless you call it something like "organic skeet shooting." It's blood sport. Cheney killed "70 stocked pheasants and an unknown number of mallard ducks" in one afternoon. There's no way he was planning to eat all of those birds. The object is simply to rack up an impressive kill score. Real hunting involves--well--hunting for things, actually walking around and looking for game, not loitering around the buffet, making small talk, and waiting for the help to hold something in front of your gun so you can shoot it.
This kind of mass game killing was popular among Europe's royals before the First World War. It forms a fairly convincing data point for any argument comparing the current United States to a decadent imperial power. The Bushes are our Habsburgs and the Cheneys are our Bathorys.
Once we're done making jokes about the VP shooting a major donor to his party (and there are enough potential jokes that everyone gets a--um--shot at Cheney), it's worth taking a moment to look at the actual event and how it's being handled. Why did eighteen hours pass before the press found out and why was there no official statement until after it had appeared in the news? What are the Texas laws regarding accidental shootings? Did Cheney get any sort of special treatment from the local police (I'm not suggesting that he did; we haven't heard one way or the other yet)?
The statement by the shooting party's hostess is rather curious.
According to Katharine Armstrong, the daughter of Anne Armstrong, Mr. Whittington broke away from a line of three hunters, including Mr. Cheney, and failed to announce that he was returning to the group. When he approached, Mr. Cheney had already begun to shoot into a covey of quail that was taking off from the ground.
"This all happened pretty quickly," Ms. Armstrong said in a telephone interview from her ranch. Mr. Whittington, she said, "did not announce — which would be protocol — 'Hey, it's me, I'm coming up,' " she said.
"He didn't do what he was supposed to do," she added, referring to Mr. Whittington. "So when a bird flushed and the vice president swung in to shoot it, Harry was where the bird was."
Mr. Whittington was "sprayed — peppered, is what we call it — on his right side, on part of his face, neck, shoulder and rib cage," she said, noting that she, too, had been sprayed on her leg in a hunting accident.
"Mr. Whittington is fine," Ms. Armstrong said. "He's sitting up in bed, yakking and cracking jokes."
Cheney swung around, tracking the quail, and the Quail flew behind Whittington just as Cheney pulled the trigger. It has the light and humorous sound of a Bugs and Daffy moment or maybe the Three Stooges. Notice the use of euphemism and carefully selected details to minimize the reality of someone being shot: he was just "peppered," it happens all the time, he's up and joking. Also notice that she paints this unimportant thing which happened as not the Vice President's fault: Whittington "didn't do what he was supposed to do." When the White House did get around to commenting on the shooting, Mary Matalin put the expected spin on the matter:
He felt badly, obviously. On the other hand, he was not careless or incautious or violate any of the [rules]. He didn't do anything he wasn't supposed to do.
Nothin' to look at here, folks. Keep moving.
I don't know where Ms. Armstrong learned her hunting rules. In my part of the country, it is the hunter's responsibility to know what he's shooting at and to keep track of his companions. Real hunting involves a certain amount of stealth and quiet. Walking up and shouting "hey everybody, I'm back" is more likely to make people want to shoot you than to keep them from shooting you. Accidents still happen and people get shot, but these are usually the result of inexperience, thick brush, and/or alcohol.
Another member of the shooting party suggested that Cheney might have been blinded when he shot.
[Ambassador Pamela] Willeford added that the sun was behind Whittington, possibly making him difficult to see.
Blasting away at something you can't see, that sounds responsible.
Finally, Armstrong's story has a tribute to the Vice President's capability as a hunter.
Cheney has come down to her ranch to hunt quail once a year for at least 15 years, and she called him "a very conscientious hunter." "I would shoot with Dick Cheney everywhere, anywhere, and not think twice about it."
This has echoes of the reports of Bush's frequent bicycle accidents, which always include a description of what an aggressive and manly bicyclist he is.
This is all very interesting to people like me who are interested in the construction of news and propaganda and the psychology of leadership, but will this have any real-world consequences. Maybe. Jane Hamsher is hearing rumors that Cheney's enemies in the Republican Party are looking at the possibility of using this as an excuse to get rid of Cheney. Enough people in this administration are looking at criminal charges that they might want to put a Gerald Ford figure in place to provide them with pardons down the road. In addition, a lot of people in the party would be comforted to have an heir in place long before 2008.
Of more immediate import is the eighteen hour delay in mentioning the event to the public, and then only issuing a statement because it had already appeared on the television news. If they had not been pushed, would they have mentioned it at all. I don't think a sitting Vice President has shot anyone since Aaron Burr blew away Alexander Hamilton. This should be news. Just because it was an accident doesn't make it less newsworthy. It's certainly more newsworthy than the state of Jessica and Nick's marriage.
It's yet another example of this administration's fetish with secrecy and yet another data point of our transformation into a fin de siècle empire. It reminds me of all the conspiracy theories about Jack the Ripper being a member of the British royal family. Suppose Cheney had killed Whittington, would they have thought we had a right to know about that or would they have hushed it up? Which is more important, the man who is next in line for the presidency shooting people or Michelle Kwan's groin muscle?