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Wounded Quail

The vice president's credibility is peppered with holes.

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Of course the jokes are flying all over Texas -- "What's the fine for shooting a lawyer?" -- and so forth. Dick Cheney's shooting of Harry Whittington is fraught with irony. It's not as though the ground in Texas is littered with liberal Republicans. I think the vice president winged the only one we've got.

Not that I accuse Whittington of being an actual liberal -- only by Texas Republican standards, and that sets the bar at about the height of a matchbook. Nevertheless, Whittington is seriously civilized, particularly on the issues of crime, punishment, and prisons. He served on both the Texas Board of Corrections and on the bonding authority that builds prisons. As he has often said: "Prisons are to crime what greenhouses are to plants."

In the day, whenever there was an especially bad case of new-ignoramus-in-the-legislature -- a "lock 'em all up and throw away the key" type -- the senior members used to send the prison-happy neophyte to see Whittington for a little basic education on the cost of prisons.

When Whittington was the chairman of the Texas Public Finance Authority, he had a devastating set of numbers on the demand for more, more, more prison beds. As Whittington was wont to point out, the only thing prisons are good for is segregating violent people from the rest of society, and most of them belong in psychiatric hospitals to begin with. The severity of sentences has no effect on crime.

I am not trying to make a big deal out of a simple hunting accident for partisan purposes. I just thought it was a good chance to pay tribute to old Harry, a thoroughly decent man. However, I was offended by the never-our-fault White House spin team. Cheney adviser Mary Matalin said of her boss, "He was not careless or incautious [and did not] violate any of the [rules]. He didn't do anything he wasn't supposed to do." Of course he did, Ms. Matalin. He shot Harry Whittington.

Which brings us to one of the many paradoxes of the Bush administration, which claims to be creating "the responsibility society." It's hard to think of a crowd less likely to take responsibility for anything they have done or not done than this bunch. They're certainly good at preaching responsibility to others -- and blaming other people for everything that goes wrong on their watch.

Of course, the Cheney shooting was an accident. But is it an accident if your home and your life are destroyed by the flood following a hurricane? Especially if the flood was caused by failed levees, a government responsibility?

Is it an accident if you are born with a clubfoot and your parents are too poor to pay for the operation to fix it? Is there any societal responsibility in such a case?

Is it an accident when your manufacturing job gets shipped overseas and all you can find to replace it is a low-wage job at the big-box store with no health insurance, and your kid breaks his leg, and you can't pay the bill, so you have to declare bankruptcy under a new law that leaves you broke for good, with no chance of ever getting out of debt? Or was all of that caused by government policy?

Cheney has a curious, shifting history on issues of blame and responsibility. He was vice chair of the congressional committee that spent 11 months investigating the Iran-Contra affair and the author of its minority report. The 500-page majority report concluded the entire affair "was characterized by pervasive dishonesty and inordinate secrecy." But Cheney's report said the Reagan administration's repeated breaking of the law were "mistakes in judgment and nothing more."

Those of you who saw Cheney's interview with Jim Lehrer last week may recall the passage on Darfur in western Sudan that ended with this:

Lehrer: "It's still happening. There are now 2,000,000 people homeless."

Cheney: "Still happening, correct."

Lehrer: "Hundreds of thousands of people have died, and -- so you're satisfied the U.S. is doing everything it can do?"

Cheney: "I am satisfied we're doing everything we can do."

His head still tilts more to the right when he lies.

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