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2006-02-15

As Cheney Victim Suffers Heart Attack, Questions Raised About Secrecy and Cronyism

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Harry Whittington, the Austin lawyer and Republican fundraiser V.P. Dick Cheney shot during a hunting trip, has suffered a heart attack. The incident has embarrassed the White House and made headlines around the world, among them: "We are all Harry Whittington." The Bush administration has come under criticism for its long delay in informing the public on both the incident and Whittington’s condition. The incident has also raised new questions about cronyism and lobbying at the White House. We speak with Texas-based journalist Robert Bryce, author of "Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate." [includes rush transcript]

Harry Whittington has suffered a heart attack. Doctors say it was likely related to the birdshot Whittington has lodged in his heart. Doctors expect Whittington to remain in the hospital for at least one more week. The incident has embarrassed the White House and made headlines around the world, among them: "We are all Harry Whittington."

Meanwhile, the fallout continues over the shooting. Cheney is again being accused of withholding information on Whittington’s condition. Over the weekend, the White House waited at least 19 hours before announcing the shooting. Today, the New York Times is reporting Cheney was informed of Whittington’s heart condition when he arrived at the White House Tuesday morning. But according to senior administration officials, Cheney did not pass the information on to President Bush’s aides, including White House Press secretary Scott McLellan.

At a press conference later in the day, McLellan did not mention Whittington’s heart problems and even joked he was wearing an orange tie so he could be clearly visible in front of Cheney.

Criticism has come from all quarters. Former press secretary Ari Fleischer said, "It could have and should have been handled differently." And Marlin Fitzwater, former press secretary to Bush’s father and Reagan said Cheney had "ignored his responsibility to the American people" by failing to disclose the accident. Cheney was on a hunting expedition at the Armstrong Ranch in South Texas. The Armstrongs have long had close ties to Republicans in Texas and nationally. Cheney’s hunting party included Harry Whittington, Katharine Armstrong, a lobbyist for many companies including Lockheed Martin, and Pamela Pitzer Willeford, the former ambassador to Switzerland and Lichenstein.

  • Robert Bryce, Texas-based journalist and author of "Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Here to talk with us further is Robert Bryce, journalist based in Texas, author of Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Robert.

ROBERT BRYCE: Hi. Good morning. Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you tell us, first, reaction in Texas right now and just who Harry Whittington is?

ROBERT BRYCE: Sure. Well, you know, here in Austin, in particular, you know, and I speak personally, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Harry Whittington. He is a wonderful guy, personally very warm. He’s been active in state politics trying to — doing volunteer work, trying to improve the state’s prison system, mental health systems. He’s volunteered — sits as the chairman of the Texas Funeral Service Commission. He’s a very personally very honorable guy and a man of tremendous principle. And Democrats and Republicans alike have tremendous respect for him.

And I think, you know, for many people here in Austin, in particular, the fact that the Cheney group is trying to blame Whittington for this is just outrageous, because it was Cheney who had the gun. And, you know, as a former hunter myself, that responsibility lies with the shooter, not — don’t shoot the gun unless you know where everyone is. So, I mean, on a personal level, and I think for a lot of people, particularly here in Austin, the fact that Whittington is being blamed for this accident by Cheney’s people is the most outrageous part of it.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting when we hear the stories right now about what happened on Saturday to understand that we obviously are only getting them from one perspective. I’m not sure if it was the former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson who’s been speaking out a lot, saying that in his hospital bed, Mr. Whittington took responsibility?

ROBERT BRYCE: Well, and you know —-but I think, look, I mean, what are you going to do? You know, you’re lying in the intensive care unit, and the man who shot you is the Vice President? I mean, it’s not the time when you’re going to say, "Oh, you know, the bastard shot me." You know, but -—

AMY GOODMAN: But the idea that the only thing we know about actually what happened, obviously, is being filtered through the White House or the owner of the ranch, Katharine Armstrong.

ROBERT BRYCE: Exactly. And Katharine Armstrong has every reason to try and protect Cheney, not Whittington. You know, and the other part that really sticks in my mind on this whole thing is, you know, that Katharine Armstrong is part of the Republican political aristocracy here in Texas. And NBC just reported last night that Katharine Armstrong has, in fact, lobbied the White House. She was paid $160,000 and was doing that legal — that lobby work for Baker Botts.

Well, you know, the other part that really is amazing here is just how small the world of Dick Cheney and Baker Botts and Halliburton is. Baker Botts is a very powerful Texas law firm. James A. Baker III is Of Counsel to the firm. It was founded by his great-grandfather. Baker Botts represents Halliburton. Baker Botts’s lawyer William Jeffress also represents "Scooter" Libby in the criminal charges in Plamegate scandal. Baker Botts is, you know, perhaps the law firm with the closest ties to the Bush administration, and here is Katharine Armstrong hosting Cheney and having lobbied the White House directly on behalf of Baker Botts. The part that’s the most, I think, is the most stunning is Armstrong nor Baker Botts will disclose for whom she was lobbying the White House for Baker Botts.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Katharine Armstrong and her business partner also — or her business partner represents Lockheed Martin?

ROBERT BRYCE: Karen Johnson is her business partner, and she has apparently very close ties to Karl Rove. She lobbies for Lockheed Martin and has a number of other lobby contracts. You know, she has — her profile has grown, particularly here in the last couple of years, because of her associations with Rove, but also just her close ties to the administration more generally.

If I can just jump back to Armstrong real briefly, the other connection with Rove here is that Armstrong’s parents, Anne Armstrong and the late Tobin Armstrong were the people who originally backed Rove as a political consultant back in the early 1980s. When Karl Rove started Rove & Company, the capital that he needed to start that business came from the Armstrongs. Further, Rove now has an office in the White House. The office that he occupies used to be occupied by Anne Armstrong. She was a leading figure in the Nixon White House, and so she had an office in the Nixon White House and was one of the people, in fact, allegedly, who helped to convince Nixon to resign after the Watergate scandal.

So, you know, the Armstrong Republican connection here in Texas are long and deep. And the fact that this is happening on the Armstrong ranch, where Rove has hunted many times and big shot Republicans have been hunting for years is, I think, just another indicator of this Republican elite, you know, political elite that exists here in Texas, and hunting is what they do when they want to get together.

AMY GOODMAN: Anne Armstrong was a director of Halliburton when the board chose Dick Cheney to be the C.E.O.?

ROBERT BRYCE: She was. And the other thing that I find interesting about her and about the Halliburton connection is that for many years, while she was on the Halliburton board, she was also on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Well, why is that interesting? Well, because the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board has access to America’s most secret secrets. And there’s another connection that exists even today with Halliburton on the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, and that is that Ray Hunt, who is another — has close ties to the Bush White House, is also on the — sits on the board of Halliburton and sits on the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board simultaneously, which was the case that Anne Armstrong had for many years. She sat on both the PFIAB and the Halliburton board at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Bryce, Texas-based journalist, author, among other books, of Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego and the Death of Enron and Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate. Now, this is yet another controversial quail-hunting trip. Of course, several years ago, Vice President Cheney went on another hunting trip with the Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. He — but I think Antonin Scalia came out unscathed.

ROBERT BRYCE: Well, that was duck hunting. You can’t mix the quail and the ducks! But, yes, this is another example of, you know — now, you know, there’s no Supreme Court justices on this case, but the Scalia trip in — I guess it was in 2004, you know, that was a case where Cheney was doing — vacationing and hob-knobbing with the people who could help his case later, in fact, in terms of whatever issues came before the Supreme Court.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you think will now happen? Of course, we don’t know right now the condition of Harry Whittington. I mean, we understand that he had a heart attack yesterday, has birdshot in his heart.

ROBERT BRYCE: Well, and that’s really — I mean, you know, I’m very concerned. You know, Harry is, as I said, he’s such a wonderful guy, a very decent man. You know, he’s 78. You know, you don’t want to be having heart attacks, nor do you want to be shot, when you’re 78. So, I think a lot of people are very concerned about his health and what this could mean if he, you know, God save us, that he would die. But, yeah, I mean, this is something that I think is not going to go away. And there was a very good piece in the Austin American-Statesman yesterday by Mike Leggett, who’s their hunting or outdoors reporter. And, I mean, he just went right after Cheney, and he ended his piece by saying to Cheney, he said, "Stand up. Take responsibility. Be a man. You shot a guy." And I think that that really cuts to the heart of the matter, that for Cheney not to publicly apologize, for him not to, you know, say, "I made a mistake. You know, I made the worst error a hunter can make," I think it’s just indicative of the arrogance that this White House, and particularly this Vice President, shows.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Bryce, I want to thank you for being with us. Author of Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate, speaking to us from Texas.

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