By Ben Goddard - 02/16/06 12:00 AM EST
Once a year the piano playing political satirist Mark Russell takes his one-man show to the town of Washington, Va. There, just two blocks from the famous Inn at Little Washington, sits an old-fashioned theater with a wooden stage and an intimate feel.
Last Saturday night, several hundred local residents and the weekenders they call “come heres” braved a snowstorm to listen to an hour plus of Russell’s snappy patter and satirical songs.
Halfway through the show, Russell offered up a one-liner about an event at the White House where President Bush sat on Vice President Cheney’s lap “for the same reason Charlie McCarthy sat on Edgar Bergen’s lap.” The joke was so obscure that Russell had to explain to everyone in the audience under 50 that Edgar Bergen was not just the father of famous actress Candice but had been a very popular ventriloquist in vaudeville, on the radio and eventually TV. Charlie McCarthy was not the infamous senator from Wisconsin but was the name of Bergen’s wooden dummy that got all the funny lines.
Within 24 hours, it started to become clear that Russell had been “kidding on the square.” If there is one clear message from the shooting accident in Texas, it is that the vice president pretty much runs the show at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. According to news reports, the president and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove were both told of the shooting on Saturday evening but deferred to Cheney on how, or perhaps even whether, to inform the press.
I cannot imagine any other administration in modern times that would have left such an announcement to the discretion of a vice president. It was not as though Cheney had to call a press conference and face a battery of reporters, although he is now being urged to do so by Republican leaders. Any number of Cheney staff members could have made a timely announcement of the accident, expressing the vice president’s concern for the victim. A Saturday-evening statement would have been old news by Monday and not still be running on the front pages of national newspapers in the middle of the following week.
The perplexing decision to let the owner of the ranch, a private citizen, make the only statement on the event to a Corpus Christi newspaper the day after the shooting is unprecedented. It is also an example of a politically tone-deaf vice president or one with absolutely no respect for the national media. Probably both. Cheney has so isolated himself in a self-absorbed cocoon of power that he has lost touch with the media and, through them, with the American people.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who didn’t learn of the shooting until at least 12 hours after it happened, was left to fend off a blistering attack from the national press corps that was clearly not happy being scooped by a local-newspaper website. Although Katherine Armstrong, host to the event, says all hunters were sober, wearing bright-orange clothing and following normal safety procedures, the delay in making even a local announcement and the even more troubling delay in speaking to local police officers is bound to make reporters curious about the time lag.
McClellan reportedly urged the White House to make information about the event available to the national press corps as quickly as possible. The fact that it didn’t happen is testimony to the clout Cheney has in the White House. Even the most senior of presidential advisers was unwilling to force a break in the cone of silence, and it appears the president himself either couldn’t or chose not to tell Cheney to step forward with the news.
This White House has allowed Cheney to become the most powerful and mysterious vice president in the history of the country. The president can take comfort from the fact that Cheney is not grandstanding and laying the groundwork for his own White House campaign, but this penchant for secrecy sends a terrible message to the American people.
If the vice president doesn’t think he needs to tell us about a simple hunting accident, what else is he involved in that no one knows about? Perception is everything in politics, and the perception created by this Texas hunting trip is that we have a vice president who doesn’t think he owes any explanation of his actions to the public and a president unwilling or unable to make him come clean.
Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.