The thing Harry Whittington refused to lie about

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Harry Whittington didn’t want to be known as The Man Dick Cheney Shot. Having lived a long and fulfilled life, he was pained by the inordinate attention he received after America’s second most powerful man sprayed him with bird bullets, perhaps as much as the wounds he carried until the end of his life.

Whittington’s reluctance to talk about his only moment of planetary fame was a mark of courtesy and propriety. Whittington, who died Saturday at 95, never blamed Cheney for nearly killing him, or the White House for misrepresenting events that late afternoon in 2006. After emerging from a Texas hospital, Whittington even seemed to blame himself.

“My family and I are deeply sorry for everything Vice President Cheney and his family had to go through last week,” he said.

That comment contributed to distortions surrounding the shooting, which occurred during a brief quail hunting trip to a South Texas ranch. This suggested that Whittington, not Cheney, was responsible for the accidental shooting – an impression that the White House was only too happy to nudge and Whittington simply shrugged off later. As George W. Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, told reporters at the time, “Protocol was not followed by Mr. Whittington when it came to briefing others that he was there.”

Not so. But Whittington, a prominent and successful Austin lawyer, kept his own attorney. It was almost five years after the events that he opened up about what happened that day.

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

He did not assign blame, but he sketched out circumstances that clearly suggested Cheney had been negligent, at best. His account suggested that much of what was reported — and much of what the White House wanted to report — was wrong, or at least shaded in terms favorable to the vice president.

Whittington, as usual, was reluctant to speak when I phoned him in 2010 to request an interview. Rejected once, I called him back and offered to come to Austin. We could meet, without obligation. He accepted, suspiciously.

We met at his office at 7 a.m., when Whittington, then 82, regularly started his work day. We talked, mostly about his life – his Depressed childhood in East Texas; his college scramble as a concert promoter that once brought Nat King Cole’s trio to segregated Austin; his long legal career; his involvement in Republican politics and his years of service on state commissions.

I wanted to know more about Cheney, but I was careful not to push too hard. He wasn’t ready.

After a few hours, he said, “Do you want lunch?” We went to the country club he had co-founded several years earlier.

I could feel a change. He started introducing me to his friends and showing me around. Afterwards, he invited me to meet his wife, Mercedes, at their beautiful home overlooking Lake Travis. He pointed to the houses of his neighbors (“That’s where Andy Roddick lives, and Lance Armstrong lives there…”). Then he abruptly left the room.

I still hadn’t asked him a single question about the shooting.

When he returned, Whittington was holding a strange object on a coat hanger. It was an orange safety vest, slit down the side as if someone was in a rush to take it off. There were brownish stains of dried blood on it.

For the next few hours, he told me what had happened that day – at least what he remembered before he passed out from his injuries.

Whittington barely knew Cheney; they were not “friends” or “hunting companions” as the media portrayed them. They had only met a few times before and had been invited to the ranch by its owner, a mutual friend.

It was late, around 5:30 p.m., and the February light was fading when Cheney fired his errant shot. Whittington said he stood slightly downhill and to the right of Cheney, his body angled in Cheney’s direction.

Although Whittington did not say so explicitly, his description suggested that Cheney had violated two fundamental security protocols. First, rolling over a bird flying out of the brush, Cheney fired without checking to see if his line of fire was clear. Second, he had aimed down sights, ignoring a rule requiring bird hunters to observe “blue skies” before shooting.

The aftermath of the shooting was calamitous. The ambulance that transported the unconscious Whittington from the huge ranch to a hospital punctured a tire. The trip took almost an hour.

The injuries he had sustained were far worse than those originally reported. The blast hit Whittington with over 200 pieces of lead shot, causing dozens of wounds across his eye socket, hairline, neck and torso. A piece lodged near his heart and caused a mild heart attack a few days later. One of his lungs collapsed. Another piece narrowly missed his carotid artery. He almost bled.

Whittington recounted these details without anger or sadness. It was an accident, he insisted, and Dick Cheney was a good man.

After talking for almost 10 hours, I had one last question. Had Cheney ever apologized?

Whittington looked at me.

“I’m not going to dwell on that,” he said after a short pause.

His face was frozen. I could feel his discomfort.

Harry Whittington wouldn’t lie. He was too kind for that.

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