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Cheney: 'One of the worst days of my life'

Vice president defends handling of hunting accident
Vice President Dick Cheney walks back to the White House after his television interview Wednesday.


Has U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney handled questions about his shooting accident in the right way?
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Vice President Dick Cheney took responsibility Wednesday for shooting a friend during a weekend hunting trip but dismissed criticism he waited too long to disclose the incident publicly.

"I am the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend," Cheney told Fox News in an interview broadcast Wednesday evening. "That is something I will never forget."

Cheney's host at the south Texas ranch where the accident took place Saturday evening had earlier said that the victim, 78-year-old Harry Whittington, had been shot after rejoining the quail-hunting party without announcing himself. (Watch why secrecy has been Cheney's modus operandi -- 1:43)

But Cheney said Wednesday, "Ultimately, I am the guy who pulled the trigger and fired the round that hit Harry.

"You can talk about all the other conditions that existed at the time, but that's the bottom line," he said. "It's not Harry's fault. You can't blame anybody else." (Full transcript)

The vice president said that after the shooting he ran to Whittington, who was bleeding, and that Cheney's own medical team -- which always travels with him -- administered first aid.

"I said, 'Harry, I had no idea you were there,'" Cheney recounted. "He didn't respond."

The interview marked the vice president's first public remarks on the Saturday evening shooting that left Whittington in intensive care at a hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Hospital officials said Whittington, an Austin lawyer long active in Texas Republican politics, was in stable condition Wednesday after a piece of birdshot lodged in or against his heart muscle triggered a mild heart attack a day earlier.

"The image of him falling is something I will never be able to get out of my mind," Cheney said. "I fired, and there's Harry falling. And it was, I'd have to say, one of the worst days of my life, at that moment."

The White House has spent the past three days fending off questions about the accident and its belated disclosure. News of Whittington's shooting did not emerge until Sunday, after Cheney's host, Katharine Armstrong, told a Corpus Christi newspaper about the incident.

Senior aides to President Bush, who was notified of the accident Saturday night, expressed unusual and increasing frustration about the way the matter was handled. (Timeline)

But Cheney defended his decisions, saying he needed to wait for accurate information about Whittington's condition. And he said it "made good sense" for Armstrong to deliver the news rather than to release it through his office.

She was an eyewitness, had hunted on the ranch all her life and was the immediate past head of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department -- "an acknowledged expert in all of this," he said.

He denied that notifying a South Texas newspaper was an attempt to bury the report, saying, "There wasn't any way this was going to be minimized."

No reporters were accompanying the vice president on the trip, and he said none of his press aides were around at the time.

Since the story broke, Bush aides became more open in private conversations about trying to find a way to persuade the vice president to speak out.

Cheney said the accident was "a difficult subject to talk about, frankly." But he said Whittington has been "a gentleman in every respect."

"He literally was more concerned about me and the impact on me than he was on the fact that he'd been shot," said Cheney, who visited Whittington in the hospital Sunday before returning to Washington.

Handling criticized

Democrats have pilloried the White House's handling of the situation, calling it symbolic of an administration obsessed with secrecy.

"The refusal of this administration to level with the American people on matters large and small is very disturbing," said Sen. Hillary Clinton, a New York Democrat.

And Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said: "The vice president has not held a press conference since 2002."

Even a Republican congressman, Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays, told CNN he believes Cheney "does need to have a full press conference."

"It's like they don't learn," Shays said of the Bush administration.

"It had to have been terrible for him, and obviously the individual he shot and everybody who was there. But the information needs to be made public and made public quickly," Shays said.

The handling of the situation also raised questions about whether Cheney had been drinking at the time of the shooting, about 5:50 p.m. Cheney told Fox he had had a beer at lunch, but the hunt did not begin until "sometime after 3 p.m."

"The five of us who were in that party were together all afternoon. Nobody was drinking, nobody was under the influence," he said.

The Kenedy County Sheriff's Department, which interviewed Cheney about the accident Sunday morning, concluded there was "no alcohol or misconduct involved in the incident." A state game warden gave Cheney a warning for hunting without a required stamp on his license, for which the vice president's office later submitted payment.

Armstrong, a longtime friend of the Cheney family, told CNN before the vice president's interview that she never saw Cheney or Whittington "drink at all on the day of the shooting until after the accident occurred, when the vice president fixed himself a cocktail back at the house."

Cheney was not asked Wednesday about the fact that he was not interviewed by police until the morning after the shooting.

Whittington 'walking around'

Armstrong told CNN she had talked to Whittington on Wednesday and he is "up and walking around."

Peter Banko, a spokesman for Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital, told reporters Whittington is doing well after the heart attack.

He is "sitting up in a chair, eating regular food and actually plans on doing some of his attorney work in his room today," Banko said.

He said Whittington will probably stay in the hospital another six days, and explained that he is still in the facility's intensive care unit for "personal privacy reasons."

Dr. David Blanchard, the hospital's emergency room chief, said he believes the pellet near Whittington's heart will stay where it is.

Banko said he had spoken with Whittington about the uproar surrounding the shooting, and his reaction was that it was "much ado about nothing."

CNN's Dana Bash, Suzanne Malveaux and Tim McCaughan contributed to this report.

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