Harry Whittington, the man whom former Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot while they were hunting quail on a Texas ranch 17 years ago, has died. He was 95.
Whittington died at his home Saturday in Austin, family friend Karl Rove said Monday.
Before the accidental shooting thrust Whittington into the national spotlight, the attorney was long known for helping build the Republican Party in Texas into the dominant political force it is today and for being the man governors went to when they needed to clean up troubled state agencies.
Rove, an influential Republican strategist and former adviser to former President George W. Bush, said Whittington was “a man of enormous integrity and deep compassion” who was called on by leaders for “important tasks.”
Whittington and others were hunting with Cheney on the sprawling Armstrong Ranch in South Texas on Feb. 11, 2006, when Cheney, while aiming for a bird, struck Whittington, who was 78 at the time. The accident wasn’t publicly reported until the next day when the ranch owner called the local newspaper — the Corpus Christi Caller-Times — and told the paper what had happened.
Whittington was sprayed with birdshot pellets to his face, neck and chest and suffered a minor heart attack because a pellet lodged near his heart. When he left the hospital about a week after the accident, he said “accidents do and will happen,” and apologized to Cheney, saying he was “deeply sorry for everything” Cheney and his family had to deal with after the incident.
Cheney was criticized for breaking a cardinal rule of hunting — that someone holding a gun should make sure they know what they are firing at before pulling the trigger — and for not immediately going public with what happened.
The accident also spawned countless jokes. Jay Leno, then-host of “The Tonight Show” on NBC, quipped that Cheney would be capitalizing on the accident for the upcoming Valentine’s Day with a new cologne named “Duck.” Billionaire Bill Gates greeted his audience at a conference by saying, “I’m really glad to be here. My other invitation was to go quail hunting with Dick Cheney.”
In an interview with Fox News days after the accident, Cheney said it was “one of the worst days of my life at that moment.”
Cheney said the accident happened after Whittington had stepped out of the hunting party to get a downed bird in deep cover. Cheney said that Whittington was dressed properly in orange and the upper part of his body was visible, but that he was standing in a gully with the sun behind him.
“You can’t blame anybody else,” Cheney said. “I’m the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend.”
Whittington owned a downtown Austin building where many of the state’s GOP power brokers built their empires. Bush used the building for his gubernatorial campaign headquarters, as did former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Rove also had his office there.
Whittington was a longtime player in Texas politics. In 1961, he worked on John Tower’s campaign for the U.S. Senate and later helped a young Bush run for Congress, a race he lost. He was also a go-to guy for governors trying to clean up troubled state agencies and spent decades serving on state boards.
In the 1980s, Republican Gov. Bill Clements appointed him to the former Texas Board of Corrections, which oversaw a state prison system a federal judge had declared unconstitutional because of brutal conditions.
Whittington became an advocate for change in a prison system that lacked basic medical care and where people serving time were subjected to beatings by other inmates. He was also an advocate of the rights of inmates who have mental disabilities.
Bush, then governor of Texas, appointed him in 1999 to lead a restructured Texas Funeral Services Commission, which was embroiled in a whistleblower lawsuit.
Rove said Whittington not only served his community in countless ways but was also “an enormous source of good counsel and mentorship to dozens,” including him. He said Whittington was not only his landlord, but also the secretary and treasurer of his company.
“He was an extraordinary human being, and to be remembered as being the victim of a hunting accident sort of gripes me,” Rove said.