The Man Who Dick Cheney Shot

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Attorney Harry Whittington at his office in Austin, Texas, last year

Accidentally shooting a lawyer is never a good idea, especially one who's known for being something of a pistol himself. But Harry M. Whittington, the irascible, 78-year-old attorney from Austin who wound up on the wrong end of the Vice President's quail-hunting gun on Saturday, is a longtime supporter of President Bush and longtime friends with White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, with whom he helped build the once-moribund Texas Republican Party into today's powerhouse. And he is said by friends to be taking his wounds with good humor.

Whittington, a wealthy real-estate investor, is well-known in the Texas capital for a six-year dispute with the city over a downtown block owned by his family that was taken by the city for use as a parking garage. Just two weeks ago, he won his third legal victory in the case, a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court.

A Mr. Fix-It who has taken over troubled state agencies for several governors, including George W. Bush, he is often the first to arrive — by 5:30 or 6 a.m. — in the workout room of the West Austin club he helped found. After getting both his undergraduate and law degree from University of Texas, Whittington eventually became very active in Texas Republican circles, serving once as the only Republican on the board of the Texas Department of Corrections, now the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, and also doing a stint as chairman of the Texas Public Finance Authority Board. "He's very tough," James R. Huffines, chairman of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas System, and a 25-year friend of Whittington, told TIME. "He's a real tenacious competitor in everything he does. I hate to use this pun, but he really is a straight shooter in all sense of the word, with a real sense of right and wrong for the taxpayers."

The White House did not announce the incident, but confirmed it when the Corpus Christi Caller-Times asked about it more than 12 hours after the 5:30 p.m. Saturday incident. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan was peppered Monday with questions about that decision. "The very first priority was making sure that Mr. Whittington was getting the medical care he needed," McClellan said. "Secondary to that is gathering the facts so you can provide that information to the public. Those facts were coming back to us throughout the evening and into the morning."

Whittington was listed in stable condition. "He seems in good spirits. He's talking and conversing," said Yvonne Wheeler, a spokeswoman for Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial. "His condition is really looking good. They're just taking every precautionary measure. Recovery looks very positive." Added Peter Banko, the hospital's administrator, "He is a true gentleman... I hate to say sweetheart because it makes me sound like a female, but he is wonderful to be around. He is joking with the staff." Whittington was expected to be taken out of intensive care Monday afternoon and moved to a trauma step-down unit in preparation for discharge.

For his part, Cheney visited Whittington in the intensive care unit of the hospital on Sunday night and said through an aide afterward, "I was pleased to see that Harry's doing well. He's in good spirits." The Vice President flew down to Texas on Friday after working at the White House, his office said. He remained there Sunday but did not hunt, his office said, before flying back to Washington on Sunday night. He joined Bush on Monday afternoon during an Oval Office meeting with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, but left before reporters were allowed in for questions; Bush ignored any questions shouted his way about the incident. White House aides can be expected to say that the Vice President did not shoot Whittington, which suggests a bullet, but rather sprayed him with birdshot, a type of ammunition made up of tiny pieces of lead or steel.

It was Whittington who Bush turned to, as Texas governor in 1999, to take over the Texas Funeral Service Commission after the regulatory agency's executive director alleged that she had been fired for investigating a company headed by a financial supporter of the governor. Whittington assured the Dallas Morning News at the time that he would keep politics out of the board's work. "There is no Republican or Democratic way to bury anybody," he said. Presiding over his first meeting, Whittington said, "If any agency needs divine guidance, it's this one." The state settled a lawsuit by the former executive director in 2001, and Whittington's term as head ends next year.

Whittington, who donated $1,000 to Bush's first presidential campaign and $2,000 to his reelection, is married to Merce Whittington, who also has been active in Republican politics; they have several children, including two daughters who still live in Austin. In a profile of Whittington last year, the Austin American-Statesman described him as being old-fashioned enough that he did not have a computer or bill by the hour. Luckily for Dick Cheney, that seems to extend to his being able to laugh off being accidentally shot at by the Vice President. For a lawyer, even a Republican, that's no easy feat.

With reporting by Hilary Hylton/Austin