WASHINGTON — Speaking publicly for the first time since he shot and wounded a hunting companion last weekend, Vice President Dick Cheney took responsibility Wednesday for the accident but defended his decision not to immediately disclose the episode.
Cheney's comments struck a more conciliatory tone than did earlier statements by the White House and some defenders of the vice president, who had said Texas lawyer Harry Whittington might have erred by stepping into Cheney's line of fire and failing to announce his presence.
"Well, ultimately, I am the guy who pulled the trigger, that fired the round that hit Harry," Cheney said in an interview with Fox News. "It's not Harry's fault.
"I fired, and there's Harry falling," Cheney said. "And it was, I'd have to say, one of the worst days of my life, at that moment."
Cheney's decision to appear on television, and to display an unusual level of contrition, came as White House officials hoped that Whittington's improving condition might quell an uproar over the administration's failure to disclose the news immediately after the Saturday afternoon accident.
The vice president, an avid hunter, shot Whittington in the face and torso during a quail hunt on a sprawling ranch near Corpus Christi, Texas. On Tuesday, Whittington, 78, suffered what hospital officials described as a mild heart attack after one of the birdshot pellets from Cheney's 28-gauge shotgun migrated toward his heart.
On Wednesday, doctors said Whittington's condition had stabilized.
Throughout the 27-minute interview, Cheney spoke quietly and in his familiar monotone, even as he described the wrenching moment in which he shot his friend, a prominent Texas Republican.
Cheney said he was standing about 30 yards from Whittington, who had gone seeking a downed quail in some brush. The vice president said he didn't see his hunting companion coming when he fired his shotgun.
While Whittington was dressed in hunter orange, "there was a little bit of a gully there, so he was down a little ways below land level," Cheney said. "All I could see was the upper part of his body — but I didn't see it at the time I shot, until after I fired. And the sun was directly behind him there, affected the vision too, I'm sure. But the image of him falling is something I'll never be able to get out of my mind."
Cheney described Whittington "laying there on his back, obviously bleeding. You could see where the shot had struck him."
Cheney recalled saying: "Harry, I didn't notice you were there."
Whittington was breathing, but he did not respond.
At that point, Cheney's medical team, which travels with him, tended to Whittington, who eventually was transported to Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital in Corpus Christi.
In submitting to questioning, the vice president chose Fox News as his venue, rather than what likely would have been a more confrontational news conference. The decision followed a typical pattern for Cheney, who has been interviewed in recent weeks by fellow conservatives Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham.
Speaking to Brit Hume, Cheney filled in details of Saturday's events and his decision-making that followed.
He said that on the day of the accident he drank a beer during a lunch break, though he insisted that at least an hour passed before he resumed hunting and that "nobody was drinking, nobody was under the influence."
Cheney said he did not talk to a White House official until Sunday morning, the day after the accident, when he spoke to White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. He said he did not discuss the matter with President Bush until Monday.
Cheney took full responsibility for the decision to withhold the news until Sunday, when Katharine Armstrong, whose family owns the ranch, consulted with Cheney on how to notify the public and then called a reporter for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.
Critics have questioned why the White House did not release the information more quickly, and have said the slow reaction reflected a general penchant for secrecy.
Cheney acknowledged what many had speculated in recent days — that there was a split at the highest levels of the White House over how to handle the incident. He said two of Bush's top aides, counselor Dan Bartlett and Press Secretary Scott McClellan, were urging him to "get the story out."
"The decision about how it got out, basically, was my responsibility . That was my call," Cheney said.
He said his primary goal was accuracy. He said Whittington's condition late Saturday was unclear, and that understanding the incident required a knowledge of hunting.
"This is a complicated story that, frankly, most reporters would never have dealt with before," Cheney said.
He said he did not speak directly after the accident with Bush's closest political advisor and the man who zealously molds the White House image, Karl Rove. But Rove, Cheney said, spoke to Armstrong, who had witnessed the shooting.
The vice president, known for his stormy relationship with the national press corps over the last five years, suggested that media complaints about the lack of immediate disclosure of the accident was a sign of professional jealousy.
"They didn't like the idea that we called the Corpus Christi Caller-Times instead of the New York Times," Cheney said. "But it strikes me that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is just as valid a news outlet as the New York Times is, especially for covering a major story in South Texas."
One Democrat, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, said Wednesday that Cheney's appearance did little to allay critics' concerns about how the vice president and the White House had handled the incident.
"Doing an exclusive interview with any single news organization is not enough," Schumer said. "The vice president hasn't had a press conference in 3 1/2 years, and he ought to have one to clear the air not only on this issue, but more importantly on the many other issues that have been shrouded by a veil of secrecy."
Bartlett said Wednesday that Cheney's freedom to handle the release of information about the accident reflected his special role in the administration.
"Obviously there's an extreme deference to his own opinion," Bartlett said. "But I don't think you will find a situation where he is operating independent of administration policy or positions on anything."
Mark Skurka, the first assistant district attorney in Corpus Christi, said Cheney's consumption of a beer during lunch before the accident was probably irrelevant.
"If the guy had a gun in one hand and a bottle of Jack Daniels in another hand, that'd be another thing," he said. He added that no other witnesses had apparently described the vice president as intoxicated, and that a regular person can absorb a beer in an hour.
In his 20 years with the district attorney's office, Skurka said, he had never seen a prosecution for a hunting accident.
Doctors at Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital would not say Wednesday whether they had measured the alcohol content in Whittington's blood.
Whittington remained in the intensive care unit "purely for privacy reasons," hospital officials said.
He was no longer experiencing the irregular heartbeat that had alarmed doctors Tuesday, but he would remain under observation for another six days, said Peter Banko, the hospital's administrator.
Banko and Dr. David Blanchard, the hospital's director of emergency services, said they were satisfied that the single pellet that had lodged in or next to Whittington's heart was stable. That pellet triggered Tuesday's heart attack.
Cheney is scheduled to make two public appearances Friday in his home state of Wyoming. But it seemed unlikely from his comments Wednesday that the vice president would take his shotgun on the trip.
He said hunting was "part of my heritage growing up in Wyoming. It's part of who I am. But as I say, the season is ending. I'm going to let some time pass over it and think about the future."
Wallsten reported from Washington and Riccardi from Corpus Christi.