Vice President Dick Cheney, who was forced to leave Yale University because his penchant for late-night beer drinking exceeded his devotion to his studies, and who is one of the small number of Americans who can count two drunk driving busts on his record, was doing more than hunting quail on the day that he shot a Texas lawyer in the face.
The vice president has admitted that he was drinking on the afternoon of the incident. He claims it was only a beer, according to the transcript of an interview with Fox New Wednesday. But the whole discussion about how much drinking took place on the day of the fateful hunt has been evolving rapidly since Katherine Armstrong, the wealthy Republican lobbyist who is a member of the politically connected family that owns the ranch where Cheney blasted his hunting partner, initially claimed that no one was imbibing before the incident.
Armstrong later acknowledged to a reporter from the NBC investigative unit that alcohol may have been served at a picnic Saturday afternoon on the dude ranch where Cheney shot Harry Whittington.
According to the report, which appeared briefly Tuesday on MSNBC, Armstrong peddled the line that she did not believe that alcohol played a part in the shooting accident. But, she admitted, "There may be a beer or two in there, but remember not everyone in the party was shooting."
The MSNBC story, which appeared only briefly before the website was scrubbed for reasons not yet explained, has been kept alive by the able web investigators at TheRawStory and other progressive blogs. And so it should be, as the prospect that alcohol may have been a factor in the shooting incident takes the story in a whole new direction.
Cheney's admission that he was drinking, along with Armstrong's clumsy attempts to downplay the alcohil issue raises more questions than it answers about an incident involving a Vice President who, like George W. Bush, was a heavy drinker in his youth, but who, unlike Bush, never swore off the bottle.
As with her over-the-top efforts to blame Whittington, the victim, for getting in the way of Cheney's birdshot blast, Armstrong's line on liquor smells a little more like an attempt to cover for the Vice President than full disclosure.
This is where the hunting accident "incident" becomes a serious matter. The role played by the Secret Service in preventing questioning of Cheney on the evening of the shooting takes on new significance when drinking is at issue. If Cheney was in any way impaired at the time of the shooting, it was certainly to the Vice President's advantage to put off the official investigation until the next morning.
Cheney claims that he downed beer hours before he shot Whittington. But he now has a lot more explaining to do than what was seen during the "softball" interview on Fox News, the Administration's house network, which the White House crisis management team arranged for him to do Wednesday.
When legitimate questions arise regarding the role that the Secret Service might have played in undermining the investigation of a shooting in order to protect the vice president from embarrassment, and possible legal charges, those issues have to be addressed fully and completely. And they must be addressed in a setting where reporters are able to press the notoriously cagey Cheney to actually answer all of the questions that are asked.
Up to now, the whole "hunting-accident" controversy has been little more than a diversion from more serious matters involving Cheney--not least among these, the investigation into whether the Vice President authorized the release of classified information as part of a scheme to discredit critics of the Administration's rush to war. But if Cheney used his Secret Service unit to prevent a necessary and proper official inquiry at a time when it might have uncovered relevant information regarding his condition when he shot a man, then the Vice President has abused his office in a most serious manner.
The prospect that such an abuse occurred requires Cheney and any White House aides who were involved in "managing" the story--put Karl Rove at the top of this list--to stop stonewalling and provide a detailed explanation of their actions in the hours that followed the shooting incident. This is certainly not the only issue on which the Vice President needs to come clean, but it is no longer a joking matter--or, more precisely, it is no longer merely a joking matter.
John Nichols's book The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."