AUSTIN — Nearly five years on, Harry Whittington still speaks with a slight flutter in his voice — a “warble,” he calls it, inadvertently choosing a bird metaphor. His easy East Texas drawl changed forever one day in February 2006 when a tiny lead pellet pierced his larynx. It’s still there.
Whittington sweeps a hand up to his dusky face and points near his right eye, then to the right side of his forehead. The eye socket, hairline and hand have birdshot pellets lodged in them, too. If you look closely — and strangers occasionally sidle up to him to do just that — the accident’s remnants are evident; there’s a tiny bump in each spot.
Every so often, for months afterward, some of the lead in Whittington’s body worked its way to the surface. But many pieces remain too deeply embedded to remove, including one near his heart. At 82, Whittington knows he will live the rest of his days with about 30 pieces of shot inside him. Somehow, he jokes, he can get through a metal detector without causing a commotion.
Four years ago, Whittington was on a quail hunt, walking in the tall grass of a South Texas ranch, when a fellow hunter wheeled on a winging bird and fired. The shot peppered Whittington in the face, neck and torso. The shooter was Dick Cheney, the vice president of the United States.
Eyewitnesses, including Cheney, said the shooting was accidental. Whittington doesn’t dispute that, but his memory of the event is limited only to his most immediate sensations. “All I remember was the smell of burning powder,” he says. “And then I passed out.”
Paramedics rushed the bleeding and unconscious Whittington to a hospital in tiny Kingsville, Tex. Doctors deemed his injuries serious enough to transfer him via helicopter to larger hospital in Corpus Christi, about 40 miles away.
No one in the vice president’s entourage said a word about it publicly until the next morning, when Katharine Armstrong, the daughter of the ranch’s owner, spoke with a reporter from a local newspaper. Armstrong blamed Whittington for blundering into Cheney’s line of fire, a comment that White House spokesman Scott McClellan repeated later that day. Investigators didn’t speak to Cheney until the next morning, and Cheney didn’t address the issue in public until four days later. In a TV interview on Fox News back in Washington, he took responsibility for the shooting (“Ultimately, I am the guy who pulled the trigger . . . “) but offered no apologies.
For Whittington, the accident was not just physically traumatic but introduced chaos into his orderly life. Reporters camped outside the hospital, where he spent a week in intensive care. Someone posed as a member of the hospital’s staff and tried to sneak into his room to take a photo, necessitating a security detail at his door. When he was released a week later, a battered and exhausted Whittington did the apologizing: “My family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this past week.”
Convalescing at his home in west Austin, Whittington was besieged by reporters for weeks. They called, hovered around his office and banged on his front door, some bearing flowers and fruit baskets as gifts. TV networks wanted to fly him to New York for interviews. “That was the last thing I wanted to do,” he says.
All the while, he said nothing, even as late-night comics and Cheney himself used the incident as a punch line.
And then, to Harry Whittington’s relief, he was forgotten.
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