Harry Whittington, Texas lawyer shot by Dick Cheney during 2006 hunt, dies at 95

REUTERS/Todd Yates
The injuries from birdshot are visible on his face as Harry Whittington, the man accidentally shot and wounded by a shotgun blast from the gun of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney while quail hunting in Texas, speaks to the media outside of Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas February 17, 2006. Whittington is expected to be released from the hospital later in the day.

Harry Whittington, the prominent Texas lawyer and Republican operative whom Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot with a 28-gauge shotgun during a 2006 quail hunting trip, leaving over two dozen birdshot pellets lodged in his body, died Feb. 4 at his home in Austin. He was 95.

A caregiver at his home, speaking with his wife’s permission, confirmed the death but did not cite a cause.

The shooting of Mr. Whittington – and the circumstances of how the incident was disclosed – became a major scandal as well as joke material for late-night hosts early in George W. Bush’s second term as president. Historians noted that Cheney was just the second vice president to shoot someone while in office – the other being Aaron Burr, who in 1804 shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Mr. Whittington and Cheney, acquaintances who had met only a few times, were hunting that February with the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland on a 50-acre South Texas ranch owned by the Armstrongs, a wealthy family with deep ties to the Republican Party. It was dusk. Mr. Whittington was looking for a downed bird in tall grass. Cheney, about 30 yards away, spotted a bird and fired – spraying 200 birdshot pellets at Mr. Whittington, who fell to the ground with wounds to his face, neck and chest.

“All I remember was the smell of burning powder,” Mr. Whittington told The Washington Post in 2010. “And then I passed out.”

Secret Service agents and a doctor traveling with Cheney rushed to treat Mr. Whittington, who was transported to a nearby hospital, where he suffered a mild heart attack. Though Bush administration officials, including the president, were informed of the shooting shortly afterward, Cheney declined to release information until the following day, when the ranch owner – apparently at the vice president’s urging – contacted a reporter at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

Cheney was lambasted by Democrats. Reporters hammered administration officials.

“Let’s just be clear here,” NBC’s David Gregory shouted at a testy White House news briefing after the shooting. “The vice president of the United States accidentally shoots a man, and he feels that it’s appropriate for a ranch owner who witnessed this to tell the local Corpus Christi newspaper and not the White House press corps at large or notify the public in a national way?”

Cheney defended himself on Fox News.

“I thought that made good sense,” he said of the ranch owner calling the paper, “because you get as accurate a story as possible from somebody who knew and understood hunting.”

“I thought that was the right call,” he continued. “I still do.”

Though the ranch owner and other witnesses laid blame on Mr. Whittington, saying he had drifted off without letting the other hunters know he was back, Cheney took full responsibility, telling Fox News, “Ultimately, I’m the guy who pulled the trigger and fired the round that hit Harry.”

“And you can talk about all of the other conditions that existed at the time,” he added, “but that’s the bottom line. And there’s no – it was not Harry’s fault. You can’t blame anybody else. I’m the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend. And I say that is something I’ll never forget.”

But Cheney, who was criticized by some hunting experts for not checking to see whether anyone was in his line of fire, stopped short of apologizing then. The only apology came from Mr. Whittington.

After his discharge from the hospital, he told reporters that “my family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this past week. We send our love and respect to them, as they deal with situations that are much more serious than what we’ve had to deal with this week.”

As the years went by, with birdshot pellets still lodged in his face, forehead and near his heart, Mr. Whittington held that stance. “Naturally, people want to make it appear that it’s someone’s fault,” he told The Post. “I didn’t care. Plain and simple, it was an accident. It could happen to anyone.”

Although Mr. Whittingon was severely injured, Democrats and late-night TV hosts rushed to make light of the shooting.

“Bush-Quail ’06,” Democratic strategist Jenny Backus quipped in The Post.

On “The Daily Show,” host Jon Stewart showed a CNN.com headline that said: “Shooting victim apologizes to vice president.”

“Wow,” Stewart said. “How powerful a man do you have to be to be able to shoot someone in the face and have that guy say, ‘My bad?'”

Harry Milner Whittington was born in Henderson, Tex., on March 3, 1927. His father owned a dry-goods store that shuttered during the Depression. Working odd jobs, Mr. Whittington paid his way to attend the University of Texas and graduated from its law school in 1950.

He opened a law office near the state Capitol in Austin, where he worked on property transactions, oil and gas leases, and other financial transactions. He invested heavily in local real estate and eventually owned an entire downtown block.

Mr. Whittington, always dressed in a suit and tie, had a gentle East Texas drawl that could mask his intensity. He came from a family of Democrats, but Mr. Whittington was a Republican. Entering politics, he supported moderate Republican candidates and managed John Tower’s winning campaign for U.S. Senate in 1961.

With a reputation as a behind-the-scenes fixer, Mr. Whittington became friends with many prominent Republicans, including George H.W. Bush. He also helped Republican strategist Karl Rove start his direct-mail firm.

His political work varied, but he favored small government and low taxes. He was also an advocate for those with mental disabilities, including prison inmates.

Survivors include his wife, the former Mercedes Baker, whom Mr. Whittington married in 1950. They had several children. A complete list of survivors was not available.

Cheney was not charged in the shooting, receiving only a citation for not having a proper stamp on his hunting license. He wrote about the incident in his 2011 memoir, “In My Time.”

“I, of course, was deeply sorry for what Harry and his family had gone through,” Cheney wrote. “The day of the hunting accident was one of the saddest of my life. And I will never forget Harry Whittington’s kindness.”

In 2018, Mr. Whittington and his family went to dinner with Cheney.

“My family had been rather disappointed that I was shot,” Mr. Whittington told the Austin American-Statesman, adding that some members “felt like maybe there was a malfeasance or something.”

There wasn’t, Mr. Whittington told them.

“And so I got them all together and we had dinner,” he said, “and they all enjoyed meeting him and found him to be very likable and so forth.”