A Notebook Moment

Finally, proof that Dick Cheney and Howard Dean aren't so different after all.

You remember the Dean scream, right? After a disappointing third place showing in the Iowa caucuses in January 2004, Howard Dean's speech before his supporters included a yelp – well, a yeeeeeeeearrrrrrhhhhh, really – that the press corps and late night comics seized on as evidence that Dean is an angry hothead, a presidential candidate "with the personality of a hockey dad," in the words of David Letterman. It didn't matter that the ill advised yelp, which really wasn't all that bad in the first place, was hardly evidence of presidential competence, or lack thereof. The scream helped kill Dean's candidacy because it gave reporters and commentators a chance to unload all of their suspicions about the surprise frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, suspicions they hadn't been able to tie to a story previously. It allowed them to empty out their notebooks – to tie a campaign's worth of misgivings about the candidate to one seminal moment.

Dick Cheney, six years into his vice presidential tenure, is now experiencing much the same phenomenon. The Cheney shooting would have been big news no matter what, of course: In case you're forgotten, the vice president of the United States shot a 78-year-old man in the face. But the coverage of what seems to have been, ultimately, a pretty routine hunting accident has been nothing less than overwhelming. Front page play in the Washington Post and New York Times yesterday, along with multiple stories in each today; top story treatment on last night's CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News; and prominent play on the cable news networks and news Web sites.

The poor handling of the event by the White House didn't help matters. In a comment he jokingly admitted was in "terrible taste," Howard Kurtz pointed out that "the White House shot itself in the foot" by not immediately releasing the news and offering up its own spin. (It opted instead to leave the task to a private citizen.) "Seriously," Kurtz wrote, "[w]hat were they thinking?...the administration essentially thumbed its nose at the national press."

But while the news was handled badly, not informing the national press about the shooting for nearly a day was, while irresponsible, a fairly minor transgression in the grand scheme of things. This was not, after all, a case of misrepresenting intelligence or denying sexual relations with "that woman." It was neglecting to take the proper public relations strategy in the immediate wake of a hunting accident. Nonetheless, yesterday's heated press briefing had the makings of a public flogging, though the victim was a mere proxy. "[White House Press Secretary Scott] McClellan was left twisting in the wind," says CBS News White House correspondent Bill Plante. "He was in the unfortunate position of being hung out to dry by the vice president."

But Cheney isn't going to get off easy either. For one thing, outrage, as McClellan intimated yesterday in an insulting exchange with NBC's David Gregory, is in season for reporters these days. But more importantly, the press corps now has its notebook moment – its chance to tie all of its distrust of and bitterness towards the vice president to a seminal moment, just as it did with the Dean scream. That's why the delay in sharing the story with the press is a significant blow to Cheney. Had this been a mere hunting accident, it surely still would have made great fodder for late night comedians, and it would have fed, albeit rather obliquely, into the notion that the vice president, with his neoconservative credentials, is the kind of guy who shoots before he's quite sure of the target. But withholding the information took the transgression to a much more damaging level, because it gave reporters a chance to say what they've been thinking for years: That Cheney simply isn't willing to level with the American people.

"[Cheney] clearly doesn't like doing things under the full scrutiny of the media," says Plante. "No other vice president in the White Houses I've covered has had the ability to write his own rules the way this one has. He operates in his own sphere, with the apparent acceptance of the president. That creates a certain frustration for the press."

And that frustration is now manifesting itself in the flurry of stories about the shooting and the lag in letting the press corps know about it. Cheney might be in for a hard year: Last week, his former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, told a grand jury that his "superiors" instructed him to leak classified information to the press. (Dean is suggesting Cheney should resign if he's the superior who did so.) The press corps' attitude towards the vice president is sure to impact Cheney's ability to keep any coming controversies under control. By giving reporters their notebook moment, he's handed them more leeway in pushing the story of his possible malfeasance to the public. The shooting and its aftermath may not come back to haunt Cheney, but even a politician as disdainful of the press as he is must know it's important not to give reporters an opening. If he doesn't, he might want to sit down with Howard Dean.