It was open season on Vice President Dick Cheney on NBC's Today this morning as Katie Couric opened the show over a What's the Wait? graphic, continuing the media elite's whining that they aren't being spoonfed information from the White House: "Good morning, shooting itself in the foot? More fallout over Vice President Cheney's hunting accident as the victim suffers a minor heart attack. And once again the Bush administration delays telling the press."
Couric and Matt Lauer teased the upcoming segment with Tim Russert. Couric: "But first off still some rough sledding for the Bush administration over Vice President Cheney's hunting incident, right?" Lauer: "Yeah that's right Katie and we should also tell you that the man Vice President Cheney accidentally shot suffered a minor heart attack while still in the hospital on Tuesday. President Bush's press secretary knew about that before his news conference that same day but he didn't tell anyone. The administration was already under fire because it waited a day to tell the press when the accident happened. So what's going on? And is Vice President Cheney making a bad situation even worse by keeping silent about it? We're gonna have much more on that, Katie, with Tim Russert in just a couple of minutes."
Kelly O'Donnell's setup piece painted a bleak situation for the White House: "As the shooting victim's condition worsened the political consequences and complications for this White House became more difficult as the administration struggles to deal with events both within and beyond their control." O'Donnell raised doubts about the administration's candor: "Although he knew about it before appearing on camera McClellan did not tell reporters about Whittington's heart attack. A fact the hospital announced later. McClellan held that back and made only this reference to Whittington's condition."
This led into Russert's segment that was headlined: Cheney Under Fire, Things Get Worse For VP & Friend. The following is the full exchange between Lauer and Russert:
Lauer: "Alright Kelly thanks very much. Kelly O'Donnell at the White House this morning. Tim Russert is NBC's Washington bureau chief and moderator of Meet the Press. Tim, good morning to you."
Tim Russert: "Good morning, Matt."
Lauer: "So, so four days Tim without a public statement from the Vice President. His office put out a statement but I'm puzzled by this. What, what are you hearing behind the scenes? Why the delay?"
Russert whined for the national press corps: "Matt it's very straightforward when it comes to the Vice President of the United States. He's never one who's believed in the care and feeding of the national press corps. He has a constituency of one, George W. Bush. Since 1952 every presidential race has had an incumbent president or vice president running for president. This vice president is not gonna run for president. He doesn't seem to worry about his image and until or unless the White House, the President says to him, 'Mr. Vice President you must speak publicly,' he will not."
Lauer: "Yeah but what about just the emotions of this situation, Tim? I mean the office releases a statement, they use the third person, 'the Vice President ready to assist,' things like that. What's wrong with coming out and saying, 'Hey I'm distraught over this. I feel awful about this. I wish there were something I could do.'"
Russert: "By every indication the Vice President is devastated by this and we obviously all are deeply concerned about Harry Whittington this morning as we talk about it. But Matt I think the concern is obviously the questions that will be asked. And the two big ones are, why did it take so long to report this to the American people, was there any special consideration given to the Vice President because of his office? What was the distance involved between the Vice President and the victim? A lot of unanswered questions and they realize that if there's a full blown press conference it could also involve questions about Scooter Libby, his chief of staff who resigned, the war in Iraq, Katrina and so forth."
Lauer: "Well let me just follow up on that because you say that, that, you know, the Vice President doesn't want to really make an issue of this, at least not a public issue. And the White House, already criticized for waiting a day to announce the actual accident occurred, now we've got Scott McClellan standing in front of the press corps yesterday already knowing that Mr. Whittington has, has a minor heart attack and doesn't say a word about it. Doesn't that seem to add insult to injury?"
Russert: "Yes and it reinforces this storyline of an administration that seems to relish or enjoy secrecy or an administration that, in the eyes of the national press corps, is suspect in terms of credibility because of issues like Iraq, like Katrina. And Scott McClellan himself Matt, as you know, stood at the podium and said that Scooter Libby and Karl Rove had not been involved in the Valerie Plame situation. It is, it is a story that will not go away because the press corps believes that this is something they must pursue because of other times that they should've been more vigilant."
Lauer: "And, and by the way it's not just the press corps and Democrats jumping on this. Former Reagan press secretary Marlin Fitzwater quoted Tuesday as saying, that the Vice President, quote, 'ignored his responsibility to the American people,' end quote. And he went on to say, quote, 'that he was appalled by the whole handling of this.' So, so is that a fairly common feeling among Republicans as well?"
Russert: "And growing. Ari Fleischer the former press secretary for this president issued similar words. The National Review, a conservative magazine has said the Vice President should come forward. My sense is Matt that's what will happen. Obviously there's a lot of concern now about the health of Mr. Whittington and it's difficult to make a lot of statements while he is still in difficult situation..."
Russert: "...but there will, there will be a time and I think relatively soon where this president, this White House will tell the Vice President it's become a distraction, you have to go, come forward and talk to the American people."
Lauer: "And, and Tim I hate to even ask this question but should the unthinkable happen and should Mr. Whittington not survive, what, what position does that place the Vice President in? Quickly if you can."
Russert: "God forbid Matt there would have to be a further investigation down in Texas and obviously that could be very serious ramifications for everyone. Everyone insists it's, it's been a terrible hunting accident but obviously a death would trigger a very, very, very widespread investigation."
Lauer: "Yeah and again no evidence at all to suggest it was anything but a tragic accident. Tim Russert as always, in Washington, thanks so much."
Russert: "Thanks Matt."