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Cheney's missteps turned accident into p.r. disaster, experts say

WASHINGTON—Vice President Dick Cheney turned a tragic hunting accident into a public relations disaster by maintaining his business-as-usual approach to his life: that it's nobody's business.

His refusal to announce his involvement in the shooting irritated an already suspicious press corps and even prompted some Republicans to complain. And his failure to make a more public show of his regret over his friend's injury might have enhanced his image among many as an aloof and remote man, according to experts in political public relations and corporate crisis management.

To weather the political storm now, some experts said Cheney should show more candor, perhaps by taking questions at a press conference. Yet at least one expert said that wouldn't help. Others advised patience, saying that the story and the uproar would fade if and when the victim, Texas attorney Harry Whittington, recovers.

"The temptation is to say there is a textbook way to handle this sort of thing. There isn't," said Peter Mirijanian, a corporate public relations consultant who specializes in crisis management and has worked for several Democrats in the past.

Most experts agreed, however, that Cheney should have announced the shooting Saturday evening when it occurred and that he should have issued a public statement of his concern for his friend's well-being.

"I am appalled by the whole handling of this," Marlin Fitzwater, who served the elder President Bush as White House press secretary, told Editor and Publisher magazine Tuesday.

He recalled that when the elder Bush once collapsed at the Camp David presidential retreat, "the statement was on the wires before the helicopter had left to take him to the hospital. I can't believe they didn't have a similar plan here. It is all Cheney; he is the key that has to start this."

Cheney is secretive to the point of defiance about his public and private life. He refused to say, for example, which energy industry representatives he met with when drafting the administration's proposed energy policy. He often doesn't release his schedule. His trip to Texas for the hunting trip wasn't announced.

"Their bunker mentality hurts them at a time like this," said Dan Gerstein, a Democratic public relations consultant. "Cheney should go out publicly and take responsibility. He should say, `There was no wrongdoing, but I made a mistake and I will do everything I can to help Whittington.' I haven't seen any expression directly from the vice president."

Cheney hasn't appeared publicly since the shooting. His office issued a statement Tuesday that didn't quote Cheney directly but said, "The vice president said that his thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Whittington and his family."

Mirijanian said he didn't expect Cheney to hold a press conference. " I don't think he'd be a great asset," he said. "It wouldn't help the situation."

He said Cheney had already decided that it's not necessary to "feed the media beast every day." If that makes the news media angry, so be it.

"The fact that the White House press corps is very hungry for information isn't necessarily a negative to the supporters of the president and vice president," Mirijanian said. "This White House is very good at triangulating the press. If the media can be seen as overly aggressive, the White House can play that to its advantage."

This White House has shown it can wait out a political storm. Mirijanian recalled the pressure last year for President Bush to meet with anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan outside his Texas ranch.

"They took a beating," he said. "And after a while, it subsided."

A veteran Republican public relations consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating the White House, said Cheney erred first by not announcing the shooting, then by allowing it to be announced to a local Texas newspaper rather than to the national press.

"That fed a lot of mistrust that was already there. It raised the story to a level it might not otherwise have reached," the consultant said.

Then the White House erred by trying to ease the tension with humor early Tuesday. That was a mistake even before it was announced that Whittington had suffered a minor heart attack, the Republican said.

Now that the damage has been done, the consultant said, it's best for Cheney and the White House to ride it out.

"They're almost over it now. I don't know that they need to say much more about it now."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHENEY-SHOOTING

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