Cheney's Heart Is in the Hunt

Times Staff Writer

She heard the shot and then the guns fell silent, and it was at that precise moment that fellow hunter Nancy Negley realized "a perfectly glorious and fabulous day" had come to an end.

She was lamenting not only that the vice president had accidentally wounded one of their friends on a quail shoot in South Texas last weekend, but also the possibility that Dick Cheney might never hunt again.

To those who have stalked through the brush with the vice president in bright orange vests and with shotguns held aloft, at private game reserves and large sprawling ranches and swamps from Texas to South Dakota, Cheney is never more in his glory than when he is hunting.

Born in Nebraska and raised in Wyoming, Cheney says he cherishes the West as his home, the well from which he draws his independent streak. A covey of quail or a pheasant on the wing, friends say, is his singular moment of release from the pressures of Washington.

Former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, a fellow Republican who grew up in Wyoming learning to fire BB guns bigger than he was, said that while other politicians took to the golf course, this one found his niche in the woods and fields.

"I tell you he is a crack shot," Simpson said. "He's an amazing marksman. He uses a 28-gauge when the rest of us are using [20-gauge shotguns]. That's a lighter gun with a smaller shot pattern, and you have to be a better shot.

"And I've seen him get doubles where you shoot doves, two for one. For me, I usually have to wait for them to land in the trees and then blast them out."

Cheney hunts with Republican fundraisers and donors, as was the case last week in South Texas. He hunts with fellow politicians, as he did during a Pennsylvania pheasant outing that attracted some unwelcome attention. He has hunted with the likes of former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

He makes an annual pheasant-hunting trip to South Dakota, where he stays at an upscale private lodge. He has hunted ducks in Arkansas and Louisiana. He has been a regular visitor to the South Texas ranch where he shot Harry Whittington.

Cheney treats these trips as private affairs (although he travels there on Air Force Two) and hasn't said much publicly about his hunting.

In his interview last week with Fox News about the shooting accident, Cheney said he had been a hunter for 12 or 15 years. But during a campaign speech for the 4-million-member National Rifle Assn. during the 2004 election year, he described himself as a "lifelong gun owner."

"Like many of you," Cheney said, "I grew up close to the land, learned from my dad how to handle a gun, and still look forward to every chance to join up with friends to go hunting. I take my hunting seriously, in part because I think Lynne still expects me to bring dinner home once in a while."

Despite Cheney's penchant for privacy, his hunting adventures have made headlines before.

In December 2003, he and his hunting party drew fire for bagging hundreds of pen-raised pheasants at a private game club in southwestern Pennsylvania. According to press reports, Cheney brought down the most -- more than 70 -- in a controlled shoot in which the birds were released from cages and then fired upon by Cheney and his crew.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) was along for the hunt that day and later said, with apparent regret, that it seemed more like "how Tyson's and Pilgrim's Pride and other people do it." A slaughter, he meant.

"I must tell you," Cornyn told the Dallas Morning News, "people don't necessarily hunt the same way in Texas that they hunt in Ligonier, Pa. But it was enjoyable."

A year later, in January 2004, it wasn't the hunt but Cheney's companion that prompted criticism. He and Scalia hunted in southern Louisiana at a time when the high court was considering a suit demanding that Cheney reveal the names of his secret energy task force.

Despite the political recoil that resounded back to Washington, St. Mary Parish Sheriff David Naquin was quite impressed with Cheney. "The man's been around hunting before. He knows guns," Naquin said. "That wasn't the first time putting a gun in his hands, that's for sure."

For two days, Naquin joined Cheney and Scalia in firing at ducks from fixed platforms. The hunting wasn't very good. In the evening, they sat around a campfire, and Naquin took the opportunity to update the vice president about erosion problems in the bayou.

But Naquin said his office would use Cheney's accident last weekend as an example to teach youths in Louisiana gun safety.

Simpson recalled that on hunts with Cheney, hired crews were paid to clean the dead birds and pack them in dry ice for the flight back to Washington. At the Armstrong ranch in South Texas, fellow hunter Negley said she was unsure what came of Cheney's kill.

But the day, she said, began with such promise.

In the morning, they set out in separate teams, with horseback riders in front searching for coveys of quail and bird dogs along to flush them out. The terrain is rough, she said, pocked with knee-high brush that is tall and razor sharp and tough to maneuver around. The hunters dodged that problem by traversing the fields in SUVs.

At the lunch hour, they assembled under a giant oak tree for a meal of sweetbread, two kinds of salad and charbroiled nilgai, an Asian antelope that is raised and shot on the Armstrong spread. Cheney had a beer.

The shooting of Whittington at about 5:30 p.m. brought the day to a close. That night and in the morning, Negley recalled, Cheney was beside himself. He was on the phone constantly.

"We all worried he was going to have another heart attack," Negley said.

In his television interview, Cheney said he would "let some time pass" before he thinks about hunting again.

Negley said she hopes he does not give it up. "He just adores it so much."

The vice president's old friend Simpson said Cheney would never put away his shotgun. "The only way to get it out of your system," he said, "is embalming fluid."

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