Cheney’s Quail-Gate makes ‘Feeding Frenzy Hall of Fame’


Now that the hub-hub about Dick Cheney’s shooting accident has died down, the Crystal Ball can add a bit of perspective. Quail-Gate was a classic media feeding frenzy, and your author wrote the book on the phenomenon entitled, well, Feeding Frenzy.

Amazingly little has changed since the first edition was published in 1991. In the Kabuki Theater of American politics, everyone plays a well practiced role:

  • The public official in the eye of the storm makes a mistake or commits a gaffe [The Shooting]. Instead of coming clean quickly and answering all the relevant questions, in order to limit the damage, he delays, obfuscates, or shifts blame [Long delay in releasing the news, the leak to the Corpus Christi paper only, an appearance of blaming the victim–Harry Whittington].
  • The public official’s assistants and superiors fail to make a strong case to him for a different handling of the problem, or fail to convince the official that he is headed for trouble [The Bush communications team seems to have understood what Cheney’s didn’t].
  • The incident plays into the “subtext” that has long existed for the public official [Cheney is secretive]. Where bad relations already exist between the media and the official, the table is further set [Mutual distrust between Cheney and the press has long been present].
  • Reporters’ suspicions are aroused and their adrenaline begins to pump. The news media become convinced of a cover-up or worse, and they press hard for answers to uncomfortable questions [Those White House grillings of Scott McClellan reminded everyone of Clinton-land]. Excesses inevitably occur in the questioning or news coverage [Reporters show anger and argue with officials, or show up on TV wearing blaze orange].
  • At this point, the partisans jump in. Members of the attacked official’s party accuse the press of bias and bad behavior, while members of the other party rail against the press for not asking “the tough questions”[Too numerous to mention].
  • Unsubstantiated rumors swirl that the known facts are just the tip of a nasty iceberg, and the innuendo is fed by both the mainstream media and the internet [Cheney was drunk; no, he was dead drunk; and the accident couldn’t have happened the way they are claiming: there must have been a second shooter on the grassy knoll].
  • The late-night comedians and others cash in, turning a frenzy into a farce–and generating water cooler conversation and spin-off jokes across the nation [At least Jon Stewart looked to the heavens and gave thanks for his bounty].
  • As he moves from one lost pint of blood to two, the beleaguered public official decides at last to stop both the bleeding and the swirling sharks. He does this by doing what he should have done on Day One: making himself available to tell the truth, warts and all [Cheney agrees to be interviewed by Brit Hume, and the Veep is clearly remorseful for the accident and takes responsibility, however tardy].
  • With the demand for information having been at least partly satisfied, the waters calm a bit, and the press and public hit the mute button–unless additional damning information is revealed or until the next feeding frenzy [Whittington exonerates the Vice President, and Cheney owes him “big time”–but there’s always Scooter Libby around the corner].
  • The image and credibility of the man or woman in the eye of the storm are damaged, perhaps permanently so, and a new paragraph is added to the obituary file of the official in question [Cheney can ask his Republican predecessor Dan Quayle].
  • The press takes its lumps, too. The partisans are pleased by this, since in the modern polarized era they are in the business of delivering lumps to the media, as well as one another.

Unlike the mega-frenzies (Watergate, Iran-Contra, Clinton’s impeachment), Dick Cheney’s Quail-Gate has no earth-shattering revelations that redefine the political landscape. And since Cheney is definitely not running for President in 2008, there is no campaign damage to repair, as there has been for many dozens of other national candidates in recent decades. Still, the jokes survive–and despite the laughs, a sour taste lingers all around. No one looks good. Most of the players will want to put this episode to bed quickly. That has often been true in the sordid history of the feeding frenzy.

One tiny footnote: My book’s first title, before the publisher and I settled on Feeding Frenzy, was Open Season. Little did we know how appropriate that alternate label would one day be!