AUSTIN, Texas — 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.
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 Vice President Dick Cheney.
Eyewitnesses, including Cheney, said the shooting was accidental. Whittington doesn't dispute that, but his memory of the event is limited. "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, Texas. Doctors deemed his injuries serious enough to transfer him via helicopter to a larger hospital in Corpus Christi.
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 staff member 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 Austin, Whittington was besieged by reporters for weeks. They called, hovered around his office and banged on his door. 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.
'Every day is a gift'
The shotgun sprayed upward of 200 birdshot pellets at Whittington, causing scores of wounds. His facial lacerations were the most dramatically bloody, but the injuries to his neck and chest were the most serious. Four days after he was hit, the birdshot near his heart prompted it to beat erratically, forcing him back into ICU. Doctors said Whittington had a mild heart attack; he thinks it was something less, a heart "event."
Still, the injuries were more dire than previously disclosed. Whittington's lung collapsed. He underwent exploratory surgery, as doctors probed for signs of damage. The load from Cheney's gun came close to, but didn't damage, his carotid artery. A rupture could have been fatal.
"I was lucky," he says today, sitting in his law office in downtown Austin, the same one he has worked in since 1965. "I just feel like every day is a gift. Sometimes I wonder why I got these extra years."
Long a multimillionaire, Whittington still comes to work five days a week. After law school at the University of Texas, he built a thriving practice. He took an interest in politics, too. Along with his college sweetheart, Mercedes, now his wife of 60 years, he threw himself behind moderate Republican candidates. He became "social friends" with a transplanted Texan named George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, eventually working on Bush's failed campaign for the Senate in 1964.
"Let me show you something," Harry Whittington says.
He disappears into a back room of his home and returns to the kitchen with a curious set of garments on a hanger.
"Take a look," he urges, holding out a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of a hunting resort, and a hunting vest, both in safety orange. The vest's surface is splattered with brownish, irregularly shaped bloodstains.
Mercedes Whittington almost blanches when she sees the vest. "It was just awful," she says, as her husband offers a closer look.
Harry Whittington saved the vest not just as a souvenir but as a warning. He shows it to friends, and to the children of friends, to illustrate the dangers of firearms. "It's an education for them," he says.
The spattered vest makes Whittington reflective. In nearly 60 years of quail hunting, he had never had a mishap.
Whittington credits his survival to two factors. One was the care he received at the hospital in Corpus Christi, Christus Spohn Memorial. Cheney's personal medical staff also monitored Whittington's recovery and offered advice to his primary caretakers during his week in intensive care.
The other was his physical conditioning. For years, Whittington has followed the same routine. Seven days a week, he works out at the Tarry House, a country club the Whittingtons co-founded in the 1960s.
Cheney wasn't 'buddy'
News accounts routinely described Whittington as Cheney's "old friend" and "hunting buddy." In fact, the two men barely knew each other. Before the shooting, they had met briefly only three times since the mid 1970s and had never gone hunting together before. "The most you could say is that he was an acquaintance," Whittington says.
The circumstances of the accident also suggest the hunting party may have pushed the limits of safety. According to eyewitnesses quoted in a brief police investigation of the incident, the accident took place around 5:30 p.m. — essentially dusk in southern Texas in February. Visibility was fading. Whittington says the sun had already retreated below the horizon but that there was a "limited" amount of daylight. Further, Cheney was wearing safety glasses, but it's unclear from the investigation if he was also wearing his eyeglasses. (Cheney's spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Whittington recalls that he was standing off to Cheney's right, looking for a downed bird. He doesn't remember exactly how far away he was when Cheney, tracking a bird, twisted quickly in his direction and fired.
This violates two basic rules of hunting safety, says Ralph Stuart, the editor of Shooting Sportsman, a hunting magazine. The first is the shooter's obligation to ensure that he has a clear line of fire before pulling the trigger. The second is the "blue-sky rule," meaning that a hunter shouldn't fire until he can see blue sky beneath a bird, thus greatly reducing the chances of hitting another hunter or dog. "Quail often fly low and demand lower shots," Stuart points out, but that makes it "doubly important" that the shooter is aware of what's between him and the bird and just beyond.
Whittington says he wasn't aware that the White House initially blamed him for the accident (McClellan told reporters that Whittington failed to follow hunting "protocol" and announce his presence to Cheney). But he's not bothered to hear of it now. "Naturally, people want to make it appear that it's someone's fault," he shrugs. "Plain and simple, it was an accident. It could happen to anyone."
He acknowledged that his "apology" statement upon his release from the hospital could have confused the issue by suggesting he was admitting fault. "It really wasn't that," he says. "I didn't intend it that way. It was more of a sense of disappointment that it happened at all. I'm sure it must have been difficult for Mr. Cheney and his family. I still feel the same way."
In the years since, Whittington has gone hunting only a few more times. But it's not the same as it was, he says. He's not gun-shy. It's just … different now: "Some of my enthusiasm is gone," he says.
The shooting didn't bring Cheney and Whittington any closer. Although Whittington says they've exchanged birthday greetings, they haven't seen each other for two years. The last time they met was when they attended the funeral of Anne Armstrong, the ranch owner whose invitation drew the two men together.
Despite his scars, Whittington bears no ill will toward Cheney. He calls him "a very capable and honorable man" and adds, "He's said some very kind things to me."
But did Cheney ever say in private what he didn't say in public? Did he ever apologize?
Whittington, who has been talking about his life and career for hours, suddenly draws silent.
"I'm not going to go into that," he says sharply after a short pause.
Harry Whittington is too gracious to say it out loud, but he doesn't dispute the notion, either.
Nearly five years on, he's still waiting for Dick Cheney to say he's sorry.