After 48 hours of nationwide hilarity, discussion of Dick Cheney’s hunting accident turned suddenly somber on Tuesday afternoon. That’s when America learned that the man Cheney shot, Texas attorney Harry Whittington, had suffered a heart attack. A pellet from the vice president’s shotgun had lodged in the lawyer’s heart. At that moment, Americans were forced to consider the possibility that when the vice president of the United States shoots a man in the face, the event could have a serious aspect.
That thought bears repeating: When the vice president of the United States shoots a man in the face, the event could have a serious aspect.
In a way, it’s not hard to understand why it took us so long to sober up. When the shooting first occurred, the vice president’s entourage didn’t even think it merited public notice. Once the news was finally reported by Cheney’s host, Republican lobbyist Katharine Armstrong, it was presented as a minor boo-boo. During a quail hunt, she said, Whittington showed up unexpectedly in Cheney’s line of fire and “got pretty well peppered.”
Now we have a new fault line in America’s culture wars. In the red states, “peppering” is a hunting hazard. In the blue states, it’s a culinary option. It was comic Jon Stewart who first captured blue-state America’s bewilderment at the dismissive tone: “Peppered. There you have it. Harry Whittington, seasoned to within an inch of his life.”
Red-state America responded with its own bewilderment. “You all can spend your time on it,” presidential spokesman Scott McClellan testily told reporters. “We’re going to keep focusing on the pressing priorities of the American people.”
But for most of us, our leaders’ behavior is a priority. The last time a vice president shot a citizen was in 1804, when former Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton got “pretty well peppered” by Aaron Burr. Hamilton died the next day. We’ve been talking about that ever since.
Not too long ago, Republicans brought Washington to a standstill over a president’s sexual trysts. That president ended up facing impeachment because he waffled to a grand jury, suggesting that what he did depended on “what your definition of ‘is’ is.”
So, what’s your definition of “shot a man in the face”?