From the NY Times:
February 15, 2006
Handling of Accident Creates Tension Between White House Staffs
By DAVID E. SANGER
WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 — When the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, came to the press room just before 10 a.m. Tuesday and suggested he was wearing an orange tie to avoid a stray shot from Vice President Dick Cheney, it seemed to signal an effort to defuse the accidental-shooting story with a laugh.
But by midday, it was clear that the staffs of the president and the vice president had failed to communicate. Just after arriving at work around 7:45 a.m., Mr. Cheney learned that the man he had shot, Harry M. Whittington, was about to undergo a medical procedure on his heart because his injuries were more serious than earlier believed, Mr. Cheney's spokeswoman said.
No one in Mr. Cheney's office passed the word to Mr. McClellan, senior officials at the White House said, adding that the press secretary would never have joked about the shooting accident if he had known about the turn of events involving Mr. Whittington.
It was the latest example of the degree to which Mr. Cheney's habit of living in his own world in the Bush White House — surrounded by his own staff, relying on his own instincts, saying as little as possible — had backfired since the accident in Texas on Saturday. Mr. Cheney's staff members have kept their comments to chronological details and to repeating the vice president's written statements.
The tension between President Bush's staff and Mr. Cheney's has been palpable, with White House officials whispering to reporters about how they tried to handle the news of the shooting differently. Mr. McClellan, while being careful not to cross Mr. Cheney or his aides directly, has made a point of reminding reporters of how he dealt with Mr. Bush's bicycle accident last summer, when the president collided with a Scottish policeman at the G-8 summit.
"I immediately briefed the press on how the accident had happened, and the condition of the police officer," who was taken to the hospital with minor injuries, Mr. McClellan said.
His message was clear: There was a procedure for conveying this kind of news, and it was not followed in this case.
The past three days have underscored, in public, what has always been clear in the Bush White House: Mr. Cheney plays by rules of his own making. It is the freedom that only a political figure who knows he is in his last job — he often says he will never run again — can get away with.
"What he did was not an irrational thing," said Mary Matalin, Mr. Cheney's former communications adviser, who spoke to him Sunday morning. "This was a very close friend this happened to. Everyone was shaken up about it. When I spoke to him, it was all about Harry, worrying about him," not whether he should get a statement out, or let his South Texas host tell a local newspaper.
To others, though, it is a telling example of the cocoon Mr. Cheney has created within the White House.
Even at the most secure meetings in the White House situation room, Mr. Cheney tends to ask questions but leave the participants guessing about his own views — largely, his colleagues say they suspect, for fear of leaks. His movements, once hidden for security reasons, are now often cloaked out of habit. Several senior members of the administration said they were not told of the shooting accident until late Sunday.
Several White House officials said no one among the White House staff, including the chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., felt empowered to dictate how news of the accident would be handled.
Presumably Mr. Bush could have declared how the news would be disseminated, something he does often on policy matters. Until this week, the periodic disconnect between Mr. Cheney's office and the rest of the White House has been the source of grumbling, but rarely open tension. The most notable exception came in August 2002, when Mr. Cheney, delivering a speech about Iraq, spoke so disparagingly about the utility of past United Nations weapons inspections that he left the impression that the administration would never again use inspections in an effort to assess the threat of Saddam Hussein.
In fact, Mr. Bush had decided to try to send inspectors back in, at least for a while, and it was left to Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, to call Mr. Cheney and get him to strike that wording from a speech he was giving a few days later.
In the past five years, Mr. Cheney has grown accustomed to having a power center of his own, with his own miniature version of a national security council staff. It conducts policy debates that often happen parallel those among Mr. Bush's staff.
But the team Mr. Cheney relies on has changed in recent months. The departure of I. Lewis Libby Jr., who was indicted late last year on charges stemming from the investigation into the leak of a C.I.A. officer's name, left Mr. Cheney without one of his chief confidantes. His most recent communications chief, Steve Schmidt, also departed, to run the re-election campaign of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California.
It was unclear if their presence would have made a difference last weekend, when the accident was not disclosed publicly for more than 18 hours. Some former White House officials put the blame for that squarely on Mr. Cheney.
Marlin Fitzwater, who was press secretary to the first President Bush (when Mr. Cheney served as defense secretary), said he was "appalled" at how the vice president handled the news of a serious accident.
"The responsibility for handling this, of course, was Cheney's," Mr. Fitzwater was quoted as saying in the online edition of Editor and Publisher. "What he should have done was call his press secretary and tell her what happened, and she then would have gotten a hold of the doctor and asked him what happened."
A full account could have been put out "in about two hours on Saturday," he said.
Ari Fleischer, Mr. McClellan's predecessor, said Tuesday that he suspected the reason Mr. Cheney failed to say anything publicly was because he viewed the hunting trip and the accident as part of his private life, not his public one.
"If this had been a question of fundamental policy," Mr. Fleischer said, "the president's staff and the veep's staff would have gotten together."