Just a cheap shot

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 February, 2006, 12:00am

As tempting as it may be to join the joke fest surrounding US Vice-President Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of his friend during a hunting trip in Texas last weekend, I must hold myself back. This is, after all, a serious business, no matter what some of those late-night American television talk-show hosts might think.

Imagine, for a moment, that the victim, prominent Texas lawyer and developer Harry Whittington, 78, had died as a result of being shot in the face, neck and chest with birdshot. Mr Cheney could well have become the first high-ranking US official to be charged with manslaughter, a word so far conspicuously absent from media coverage of the event.

This may be because headlines like 'Cheney in chains' or 'Vice-president in prison' just don't scan well, especially with those in the White House. That was obviously why White House spokesman Scott McClellan performed an abrupt about-face on Tuesday between the morning and afternoon press briefings.

Initially, he had been jovial, announcing that President George W. Bush would be honouring the national college champions, the University of Texas Longhorns, whose football jerseys are orange and white. 'The orange they're wearing is not because they are concerned that the vice-president will be there,' the spokesman quipped. Then he pointed to his orange tie and said: 'That's why I'm wearing it.'

Around lunchtime, Mr McClellan must have had a humour transplant, because two hours later he was somewhat icier when confronted by questions about Mr Cheney. 'If you all want to continue to focus on this, you all can spend your time on it,' he told reporters coldly. 'We're going to keep focusing on the pressing priorities of the American people ... You're welcome to continue to focus on these issues. I'm moving on.'

Oh, I just remembered, around lunchtime on Tuesday it was announced that Mr Whittington had had a mild heart attack. This should have been reason for another joke because Mr Cheney has had a few of those in his time, a point picked up by Tonight show host Jay Leno, who observed that evening: 'The guy he shot ... had a mild heart attack, to which Cheney said: 'Oh you big baby, I get those all the time. Come on, walk it off!''

Now, I have never been much of a fan of American humour, most likely because it lacks irony, a staple of the British form of the craft. Once, confronted by a US immigration officer at Los Angeles International Airport asking how long I intended to stay, I responded, 'Six feet and four inches', and was given such a blank look that I suspect the poor man is still in psychotherapy.

Anyway, Leno is still cracking jokes as are other talk-show hosts, despite the matter no longer being funny. They did the same when Mr Bush almost choked to death on a pretzel; when his father, as president during a trip to Japan, vomited at an official dinner; and with ex-leader Gerald Ford who used to fall over his own feet a lot.

These are also not laughing matters - many is the time I have woken up after a night of researching beer to find I had difficulty working out which surface to put my feet on.

Mr Cheney is certainly not laughing. He shamefacedly said on Wednesday that the shooting had been 'one of the worst days of my life'. For someone who has undergone multiple heart surgeries, that is saying something.

Faced with the prospect of being stripped of high office and being forced into doing community work with the military in Iraq, or perhaps spending time in Guantanamo Bay - which I have been told has some of the worst torture in the American penal system - he must surely have been speaking from the heart.

Time, then, for Leno and others to move on, as Mr McClellan has suggested. Besides, it surely won't be long before Mr Bush opens his mouth again.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor