The following is a commentary by CBS News correspondent Bill Plante
When the vice president of the United States accidentally sprays a hunting companion with buckshot while on a weekend excursion, how does the White House handle the news?
Begrudgingly, that's how.
The accident reportedly occurred at about 5:30 p.m. Central Time on Saturday in Texas, and President Bush was told within the hour there had been an incident. But it took several hours more before he was informed that it was Vice President Dick Cheney who had pulled the trigger.
However, the information wasn't made public until Sunday afternoon — almost 24 hours later.
At his regular daily briefing on Monday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, doing what he's paid to do, tried to put the best possible spin on things. McClellan said that the first priority had been to make sure that the wounded hunter, Harry Whittington — an Austin, Texas, attorney — was getting the medical care that he needed.
The vice president's office said McClellan had spoken with his hostess, Katharine Armstrong, an eyewitness to the shooting and the owner of the ranch, and agreed that she should make the information public.
White House reporters were slack-jawed at the notion that it's appropriate to have a private citizen inform the press of the vice president's involvement in an accident rather than have the White House put out the story. And, in fact, the story did not become public until Mrs. Armstrong told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times newspaper on Sunday.
McClellan, like all White House press secretaries, is extremely sensitive to any suggestion that he would cover up or lie outright. Perhaps expecting the regular reporters to read between the lines, he said he believed it is important to get information out as quickly as possible — and reminded us that he had done just that last summer, when the president had a biking accident in Scotland in which a policeman was injured. That was a clear signal that he had told the vice president's staff as much — but his suggestion was ignored.
The Secret Service reports that it informed the local sheriff of the accident about an hour after it happened, and that the sheriff interviewed the vice president the next morning.
McClellan himself did not learn that Cheney was the person who caused the accident until early Sunday morning, but then did not make the news known. He left it to the vice president's staff, which said nothing until the story began to break on the newswires mid-afternoon.
Reporters challenged McClellan's assertion that the focus on getting medical attention for the victim delayed reporting of the incident. The vice president is accompanied everywhere by a Secret Service protective detail that can communicate instantly with the White House. It seems unlikely that the Secret Service detail would not have known immediately — not only of the shooting but of the identity of the shooter. Reporters asked McClellan to get someone from the vice president's office who could respond in more detail; no promises were made, and at this writing no such briefing has been held.
By the end of the briefing, there were no answers. Why did it take so long for the president to learn that the vice president was involved? Why was the White House press secretary not informed until the next day? Why did the vice president or his office elect not to disclose the incident — and leave it to their hostess?
Bottom line: If the vice president had wanted this story out, it would have been public much sooner.