Oval: Secrecy on Cheney Shooting Backfires

For two days, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan has offered up a wink-and-nod defense over the handling of Dick Cheney’s shooting accident. McClellan has never criticized the vice president or his staff directly. But he has also never missed an opportunity to remind reporters that he would have handled dissemination of the news far differently.

According to McClellan, once he learned of Cheney’s involvement in the shooting of lawyer and fellow hunter Harry M. Whittington, he urged the vice president’s office to get the information out as soon as possible.  “[It’s] the way we have typically approached things,” McClellan told reporters on Monday. “[The way] I typically approach things.”

The only problem for the White House:  McClellan’s statement doesn’t exactly ring true.  Administration officials long ago cemented a reputation for withholding information until even news that wouldn’t necessarily be damaging to the White House turns into a bombshell. Its penchant for secrecy has proven time and again to be an Achilles' heel for an administration admired even by political opponents for its unfailing ability to stay on message. Yet the secrecy strategy has increasingly become a subject of ridicule, even from close GOP allies of the White House.

One example often cited by GOP supporters: the administration’s refusal to reveal details of Jack Abramoff’s contacts with the White House. McClellan and other administration officials have long contended there is no substantial relationship between the embattled lobbyist and Bush. “He doesn’t know him,” McClellan said last month. When word leaked out of photos showing Bush and lobbyist, the president himself defended their existence, telling reporters at a press conference, “I’ve had my picture taken with a lot of people. Having my picture taken with someone doesn’t mean that I’m a friend with him or know him very well.”

A reporter asked McClellan last month if the White House “has nothing to hide” why the administration wouldn’t simply release the information on Abramoff. “We’re not going to get into a fishing expedition that has nothing to do with the investigation,” McClellan said, adding that Democrats were trying to engage in “partisan attacks.”

Last weekend’s publication of a photo showing Abramoff and Bush at an Oval Office meeting in May 2001 was damaging—in part because a White House spokeswoman had repeatedly said the administration had no record of Abramoff being present at the meeting. Yet the photo was regarded as somewhat laughable by some Republican allies of the White House. “That’s it?” one congressional Republican told NEWSWEEK in a somewhat incredulous tone. “That’s what they couldn’t release?”

Republicans on Capitol Hill have been increasingly critical over the White House’s tendency to guard information. Last week, Bush traveled to the House GOP’s annual retreat in Maryland where he attempted to shore up support among congressional Republicans for the controversial wiretapping program. The remarks came on the heels of Rep. Heather Wilson’s decision to go public with her concerns about the program. Privately, House Republicans have been more critical of the White House’s handling of the program than the surveillance itself. It’s a gripe that has been echoed about the handling of Cheney’s hunting accident.

“If they wouldn’t have been so secretive, giving people the idea that there is something to hide, they wouldn’t be in this situation,” one House Republican told NEWSWEEK. “But they have a pattern of withholding information until the very last minute, until the volume is at full tilt and incredibly damaging, even if the information they are trying to hide isn’t so bad. Five years in office, and they still haven’t learned.”

Cheney’s relationship with congressional Republicans isn’t some kind of sideshow. It’s one of his primary responsibilities. He has been a central player in congressional strategy, legislative battles and electioneering for the last five years. Now, in an already difficult election year, his own role is in jeopardy both inside Congress and on the election trail. His handling of his own troubles raises doubts about his political competence in dealing with difficult personal issues—a key challenge for a party struggling with personal scandals that center on cozy friendships with lobbyists like shooting-victim Whittington.

What’s worse, Cheney’s image as the dark, brooding protector in chief has been punctured forever. When he next appears in front of the troops, will his TV audience be thinking of his experience with a shotgun? The jokes may be merciless and repetitive. But there’s no effective response to becoming the butt of late-night punch lines. Cheney can’t get self-righteous about the subject. He can’t even suggest this is a partisan attack. (He may try to do both, but even Trent Lott was poking fun at Cheney on Tuesday.) As Al Gore can testify, there’s no return from the twilight zone of political ridicule.

Pets and the Peace Process

The White House briefing room may be tempestuous but elsewhere in the Executive Mansion, a certain kind of peace reigns.

When former New York mayor Ed Koch received last year’s White House Christmas card, he was, like many other Bush supporters, a little confused about the image on the front of the card. The painting showed the two presidential pups—Barney and Miss Beazley—playing in the snow on the White House’s South Lawn alongside a slinky black cat.  Koch, who, like many, was unaware of the Bush cat, shot the president a note, according to the New York Post. “I am familiar with the names of the two dogs, but not so with the cat,” the former mayor wrote. “May I know his or her name?”

According to the newspaper, Bush replied to Koch in a “nearly illegible” handwritten note last month. “The cat’s name is India, but she is called Willie,” the president wrote, according to a photo of the letter published in the paper. “Don’t ask me why.” As president, Bush has never been shy about his stated goal of spreading democracy throughout the world. According to his note to Koch, the quest apparently began at home. “There is a peace between the cat and the dogs,” Bush told Koch. “It has taken several years to achieve this peace. It will happen in other places.”

Maybe they could start peace talks in the briefing room sometime soon.