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Greenfield: A political Rorschach test

News about Cheney's hunting accident: Cover-up or overblown?

By Jeff Greenfield
CNN Senior Analyst

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(CNN) -- What did you see when you saw the story about Vice-President Cheney's hunting accident?

If you were a comedy writer, you saw definitive proof of the existence of God.

If you hold the Bush Administration in minimum high regard, you saw enough metaphors to power a Ph.D. thesis: a reckless, inept use of force directed at the wrong target, compounded by a cover-up.

If you support the administration, you saw the press in full hysteria, "going nuts" (as a FOX News personality put it), by pounding White House spokesman Scott McClellan on the 20-plus hour delay in making the news public.

If you were me, and you heard the news that a piece of birdshot lodged in the victim's heart, you heard -- OK, I heard -- an echo of a plotline I used in a novel a decade ago: the just-elected president dies after breaking his leg, when a tiny piece of bone marrow works its way into his bloodstream, causing a fatal embolism.(Cheney shooting victim suffers 'minor heart attack')

What's so striking, I think, is how a story like this becomes an instant Rorschach test, with political predispositions substituting for inkblots. We know the meaning of this incident because we know how we feel about the vice president, or the administration, or the war in Iraq, or the press -- and therefore, we know how to judge the event.

Look, I have never hunted in my life (assuming you don't count hunting for a parking place in Manhattan). I have no more knowledge of the rules that govern a quail hunt than I do about the topography of Neptune. But the same massive level of ignorance doesn't seem to be stopping a whole lot of people from explaining why the vice president was innocent, careless, criminally negligent, or homicidal. Similarly, it seems all but impossible to separate your judgment of the White House's response -- perfectly appropriate, sloppy, or an inexcusable attempt at cover-up -- from your broader view of the president.

There are plenty of grounds on which to make out a case against the vice president's performance in office; there are plenty of examples where his easy assurances -- about weapons of mass destruction, about the way the U.S. would be greeted in Iraq -- have turned out to be dramatically wrong-headed. But I'd prefer to see those arguments stand or fall on their merits. As for the comedy writers, they're exempt from any analysis, rigorous or otherwise. Some temptations are, literally, irresistible.

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