In the week that it dominated the national news, the Cheney hunting incident went from being an unfortunate accident to being a revealing moment. Revealing moments reinforce a public figure's image. There have been many in the past.
President Carter being attacked by a "killer rabbit" in 1979 was such a moment. It underscored Carter's image as weak and ineffectual. When President Ford tripped gewtting off an airplane, the stumble bolstered his image as clumsy and inept. When Vice President Quayle misspelled "potato," the mistake strengthened the impression that he was not very bright.
Nancy Reagan was once overheard instructing her husband on how to answer a press question: "Tell them we're doing everything we can," she whispered. "We're doing everything we can," President Reagan echoed, reinforcing his image as someone whose lines were scripted for him. President George H.W. Bush seemed unfamiliar with a supermarket price scanner. That was in keeping with his image of being out of touch with ordinary Americans. President Clinton added to his reputation for being slick and evasive when he told a grand jury, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."
The Cheney hunting incident reinforced the risk-taking, sometimes reckless image of the Bush administration. George W. Bush has taken bold risks as president—tax cuts, the Iraq war, the plan to overhaul Social Security. He came out of the sports and business worlds, where risk taking is a way of life. Bush said of Dick Cheney, "This is a man who likes the outdoors, and he likes to hunt. He heard a bird flush, and he turned and pulled the trigger, and saw his friend get wounded."
The incident also reinforced the image that the administration is closed and secretive. Cheney epitomizes that image of secrecy. His delay in reporting the hunting accident, in which he seriously injured someone, confirmed it.
Cheney seems to prefer to exercise power privately rather than publicly. He began his career as President Ford's chief of staff, the ultimate behind-the-scenes position. Former Rep. Vin Weber, R-Minn., who served in the White House with Cheney, said, "His job was to be supportive, to stay behind the scenes—as far behind the scenes as you could get."
That's how Cheney has operated as vice president. He kept the records of his energy task force private. His former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, says Cheney authorized him to leak classified intelligence information to the news media in order to make the case for the Iraq war—privately.
Operating in secret carries risks. The press doesn't like it. Cheney's supporters contend that clash is what drove the shooting controversy. "It's a classic inside-the-Beltway story," GOP consultant Charles Black said. "The theme is entitlement of the press rather than the health of the victim." But the public doesn't like secrecy, either. Americans distrust private power. It feeds conspiracy theories. The Left has long nurtured the view that Cheney is the "unelected president." Cheney even joked about it at a press dinner in 2003. "I miss those stories you used to do about my running the White House and being the power behind the scenes," the vice president said. "Those were the best, most accurate stories you people ever did."
The White House press corps suspected a cover-up in the hunting incident. "Why is it that it took so long for the president, for you, for anybody else, to know that the vice president accidentally shot somebody?" a reporter asked the White House press secretary. The Right saw a conspiracy, too. An e-mail from the conservative Media Research Center contended, "In a conspiracy to tarnish the vice president's reputation, the liberal media is blowing this accident out of proportion."
Of course, Cheney doesn't need to cultivate a positive public image. He has made it clear he's not running for president. That makes him the first sitting vice president in nearly 100 years not to seek the White House.
The hunting incident confirmed a damaging stereotype about the vice president and the rest of the Bush administration—that they hide things, that they don't want people to know what's really going on.
Revealing moments are self-inflicted and inadvertent. That's what makes them revealing.