Yesterday we were forced to ponder that age-old philosophical question: If the vice president shoots his hunting buddy in the forest and only a Republican supporter and lobbyist is there to see it, did it actually happen?
As the news of Cheney’s Texas mishap began slowly trickling in on Sunday night, one thing became clear: there was a single eyewitness to the event who was talking, the owner of the ranch where the incident took place, Katherine Armstrong. And given that the White House did not deem it necessary to actually announce to the press what had happened but instead deferred to Armstrong — who tipped off her local paper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times — she became the voice of authority and the de facto spokesperson in every story.
And it’s a pretty folksy voice she’s got, saying things like, “by god, Harry was in the line of fire and got peppered pretty good.” The picture she painted of what happened played down the severity of the shooting (“This is something that happens from time to time. You know, I’ve been peppered pretty well myself”) and cast Cheney as blame-free (Harry Whittington, the 78-year-old lawyer who got shot, “came up from behind the vice president and the other hunter and didn’t signal them or indicate to them or announce himself”).
Setting aside the fact that the White House left it up to a private citizen to announce the news of the shooting — an issue that had the press corps jumping down Scott McClellan’s throat yesterday — what responsibility did journalists have to tell us exactly who was giving us information on the incident and how reliable a witness might she be?
Because, to no one’s great surprise, Katherine Armstrong ain’t just your average ranch hand who just happened to mosey by as the hunting party went awry. She was the hostess of the hunting party, opening her ranch to its members. She and her family are long-time financial backers of George W. Bush — in the parlance of Bush fundraising, both she and her father, before he died recently, were Pioneers, a title reserved for those who raised $100,000. And according to Texans for Public Justice, a Web site that monitors political fundraising, “President Bush invited Katherine Armstrong and her parents to a White House sleepover.” Also, while he was governor, Bush appointed her to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, which regulates hunting, among other duties.
Which is enough to make us stop and wonder if someone like Armstrong is the most reliable source of independent information and whether her version of what happened should have been accepted as the authoritative one. Until this morning, the only thing we were told about Armstrong was that she was the daughter of “a politically connected rancher.” This doesn’t seem full enough of a disclosure to tell the whole story. And no one has questioned the veracity of her account.
Her independence is even more in question when the New York Times reported this morning that Karl Rove was on the phone with Armstrong even before the president was fully informed of what happened. We can only guess what was being discussed. Was Rove being debriefed by her, or was he telling Armstrong the best way to spin the story? Or both?
For one thing it’s certainly clear that she downplayed her initial assessment of the extent of Whittington’s injuries. Armstrong said: “It knocked him silly. But he was fine. He was talking. His eyes were open. It didn’t get in his eyes or anything like that.” But the Houston Chronicle today defers to Dr. David Blanchard, director of emergency services, who says that “Whittington had more than 10 shotgun pellets embedded in his face, neck and torso as a result of Saturday’s accidental shooting. He said the pellets would not be removed, but added it is normal to closely observe a patient with multiple gunshot wounds.”
Now, we’ve never been “peppered,” but this doesn’t sound like our idea of being “fine.”