The politics of kneecapping failed utterly last week, when partisans tried to make hay of Vice President Dick Cheney's having shot hunting partner Harry Whittington.
The Washington press corps gloated over the circumstance, but raged because the vice president hadn't thought to contact them immediately. Broadcasters and scribes pelted White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan with complaints about process and demands for trivia: Why did Cheney wait nearly 18 hours before contacting a newspaper? Did White House aides urge him to go public earlier? Did the president order him to speak out? Why didn't he hold a press conference? Did he grant an interview with Brit Hume of Fox News because he feared the likes of Chris Matthews or Wolf Blitzer? Was he drunk? Would he resign?
Democratic congressional leaders Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi detected in the vice president's behavior evidence of a larger "culture of secrecy." (This, from a senator who reasonably waited 30 hours before telling the press about a transient ischemic attack, also known as a mini-stroke, and a House leader who sensibly wants the press to butt out of her husband's business career.)
Hank Scheinkopf, a past and future campaign consultant to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, actually linked the shooting, Hurricane Katrina and the Abu Ghraib scandal, saying the troika proved the Bush administration was "out of control."
Republicans also freaked out. For one of the few times in the history of the Bush administration, White House aides leaked. They expressed their displeasure about the vice president's reluctance to get ahead of the story. Peggy Noonan even advocated a discreet, mob-style political hit — the furtive ouster of the vice president, in favor of someone younger, more popular and less controversial. (Condoleezza Rice, anybody?)
Such hysterics quickly bored the public — and Cheney cauterized the political wounds by granting an interview to Brit Hume, my colleague at Fox News.
Most of us have tasted the milk of human kindness, and thus incline to support victims of unforeseen hardships or tragedies, and Dick Cheney clearly fell into that category. He was a man in distress.
He spoke more quietly than usual, and with unusual emotion. "I am the guy who pulled the trigger, that fired the round that hit Harry," he said. "It's not Harry's fault. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend."
The details spilled out in remembered order: the trigger, the shot, the hit. There was an almost cinematic quality to the recollection:
"He was dressed in orange. He was dressed properly. ... All I could see was the upper part of his body — but I didn't see it at the time I shot, until after I fired. And the sun was directly behind him there, affected the vision, too, I'm sure.
"But the image of him falling is something that I'll never be able to get out of my mind. I fired, and there's Harry falling, and it was, I'd have to say, one of the worst days of my life, at that moment."
Mary Matalin says nobody in the vice president's entourage rehearsed the interview in advance — no "murder boards." She heard things in the Hume interview she hadn't heard before. "I was crying in there when he was talking about his friend Harry going down." She saw something she had never seen before: Dick Cheney struggling to maintain control.
Cheney's anguish — impossible for a guy like him to feign — extinguished what little controversy had existed. It made some of us feel almost guilty, as if exposed to an unbearably personal matter they had no need or right to observe.
The moment also made it obvious that political classes are slow to learn. The vice president and his inner circle relearned the old lesson that one shouldn't sit on bad news — it seldom improves with age — and that some real, honest emotion seldom hurt a politician. It is news when a vice president shoots somebody, and a public official of that stature has a duty to come clean.
Meanwhile, political hacks and members of the press forgot the importance of behaving like human beings, rather than velociraptors. When people leap to exploit misery, they create sympathy for the miserable. Meanwhile, the news media must be careful not to become the Noise Media.
In this case, some reporters, openly gleeful about Dick Cheney's predicament, became unwittingly Shakespearean — fools telling tales, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.