February 17, 2006
Quell the Quailgate
WASHINGTON -- I'm
just glad he didn't shoot Scalia.
entitled to one Quailgate joke, so that's mine. Although the best
one, occurring at the Monday White House news briefing, was only
inadvertently funny: Reporter's question to Scott McClellan, ``Would
this be much more serious if the man had died?''
This news briefing
got famously out of control (as a psychiatrist, the groups I ran
for inpatient schizophrenics were far more civilized) over the
new great issue of our time: Why was there a 14-hour delay in
calling the press?
Let's pose a hypothetical.
You're at a gathering at a friend's house in the country. You're
all playing touch football and, as you lunge to tag someone, you
stumble and accidentally barrel into a would-be receiver running
a crossing pattern and you knock him down, breaking a few of his
ribs, maybe puncturing a lung and who knows what else.
What do you do? You
get him immediate help. Then you notify and tend to his family.
Then you try to calm the host and the guests and try to mitigate
the damage you've caused.
Now change the hypothetical
in just two ways. It's not touch football but a birdshot accident,
which makes it a bit more romantic and more comical. But that
changes nothing about the correct reaction.
Then it turns out
you're not just anybody, but the vice president of the United
States. What do you do?
If the victim is
Alexander Hamilton -- or Antonin Scalia -- this is an event with
deep implications for the country and the country needs to know
about it immediately.
But the man is neither.
He is a private citizen. Had he been shot by Joe Blow it would
merit perhaps a three-line item in the local newspaper and be
entirely forgotten to history.
So the story is you,
the vice president. You shot him. But it was an accident, and
the event has no effect on national policy, national security,
national anything. Something happened involving the vice president
that was interesting and unusual, but of no great significance
Do you notify the
national press right away? In his interview Wednesday with Brit
Hume of Fox News, Cheney gave two explanations for the 14-hour
delay. First, to give time to notify the family. This is perfectly
legitimate. You have done enough damage. You don't want to compound
it by having the man's children find out on television that their
father was shot.
But they were notified
within a few hours on Saturday night. Why the overnight delay?
Accuracy, Cheney told Hume. Reports about Mr. Whittington's condition
Saturday night were preliminary and uncertain. Cheney wanted to
wait until he knew something definitive.
This is understandable,
but not really justifiable. If the public had the right to know
eventually -- something even Cheney does not question -- that
right is not dependent on the firmness of the information.
wanted to control the situation, to know what he was dealing with,
before having to confront the world about the accident. Perhaps
he also wanted to give the victim, the victim's family, his host
and the other guests an overnight respite before the inevitable
media circus arrived at their door.
If there was a sin
against the public interest, it was in the desire to retain control
over what was a still-chaotic situation. But it is a minor sin.
There was no cover-up, nothing to cover up. There was no scandal.
It hardly merited the quite overwrought charges of excessive secrecy,
imperial arrogance, abuse of power and other choice selections
from the lexicon of Nixoniana.
Secrecy? This was
hardly an affair of state. And it was hardly going to be kept
secret. Arrogance? The media laying these charges are the same
media that just last week unilaterally decided that the public's
right to know did not extend to seeing cartoons that had aroused
half the world, burned a small part of it and deeply affected
the American national interest. Having arrogated to themselves
the judgment of what a free people should be allowed to see regarding
an issue that is literally burning, they then go ballistic over
a few hours' delay in revealing an accident with only the most
trivial connection to the nation's interest or purpose.
Cheney got a judgment
call wrong, for reasons that are entirely comprehensible. The
disproportionate, at times hysterical, response to that error
is far less comprehensible.
2006, Washington Post Writers Group