fb-pixelHarry Whittington, Texas lawyer shot by Cheney, dies at 95 - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Harry Whittington, Texas lawyer shot by Cheney, dies at 95

Mr. Whittington, shown in his office in Austin, Texas, in 2005, was shot by then vice president Dick Cheney during a hunting trip the following year.KELLY WEST/Associated Press

Harry Whittington, a wealthy and well-connected lawyer who gained sudden global fame as the unintended victim of a shotgun blast by then vice president Dick Cheney, died early Saturday, his wife said. He was 95.

Mr. Whittington typified the breed of Texan known as the good ol’ boy, a traditional Lone Star tribute to wit, understatement, and loyalty. He regularly played cards with a nonagenarian former Texas Supreme Court chief judge and enjoyed a bantering relationship with President George W. Bush. He died peacefully at home, his wife said Sunday.

His strong Republican connections led to his hunting on a Texas ranch with a group that included Cheney, whom Mr. Whittington had before met only briefly. In the encroaching dusk of Feb. 11, 2006, Cheney abruptly wheeled around to shoot a quail, and instead shot Mr. Whittington in his face and upper body. He suffered scores of shotgun wounds.

Advertisement



The story seized the nation’s attention as two eyewitnesses and a White House spokesperson blamed Mr. Whittington for the accident, saying he stepped into Cheney’s line of fire. Texas authorities cited Cheney only for not having a proper game stamp on his hunting license.

But at the time and later, hunting experts questioned whether Cheney had followed proper safety procedures and had heeded a shooter’s obligation to know what is in front of him before pulling the trigger.

Many were surprised — late-night comedians were delighted — when Mr. Whittington, not Cheney, apologized for the incident. Cheney acknowledged only that he was responsible for pulling the trigger.

After his release from intensive care a week later, a frail Mr. Whittington famously said, “My family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this past week.”

In an interview with The Washington Post in 2010, Mr. Whittington said his wounds were more serious than was revealed at the time. Doctors reported he had a mild heart attack after birdshot moved into his heart. He suffered a collapsed lung, and about 30 pieces of shot remained in his body, including one near his heart.

Advertisement



In 2011, Cheney offered an apology of sorts. “I, of course, was deeply sorry for what Harry and his family had gone through,” he wrote in a memoir, “In My Time.” “The day of the hunting accident was one of the saddest of my life.”

Mr. Whittington achieved wealth through a law practice focusing on oil and gas, and through real estate investments. In politics, he was at the forefront of former Texas Democrats who switched their allegiance to the Republican Party, ultimately making it the dominant party in the state.

In 1960, he managed John Tower’s successful campaign to become the first Texas Republican senator since Reconstruction. He later worked on campaigns for both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and helped Republican strategist Karl Rove set up his first direct-mail firm. This political work led to his being appointed to state boards by five governors over 27 years.

As a lawyer and investor, Mr. Whittington was a fierce proponent of property rights. He repeatedly questioned the city of Austin’s use of eminent domain to acquire private property — some of it his own — for public purposes.

Harry Whittington was born in Henderson, Texas, on March 3, 1927, and his family struggled in the Depression as his father lost his dry-goods store and cotton gin. Harry did many odd jobs to pay his way through the University of Texas and its law school, from which he graduated in 1950. He then practiced law in Austin.

Advertisement



In 1979, Governor Bill Clements appointed him to the Texas Corrections Board (now the Board of Criminal Justice), where he found himself the only Republican on a nine-member board that had tended to rubber-stamp everything prison managers wanted.

“It was time for somebody to question,” Mr. Whittington said in an interview with the Austin American-Statesman. “There was no other way I knew how to do it.”

He uncovered secrets that stunned him, from drug-running by prison officials, to no-bid contracts, to families paying off guards to protect their loved ones. At meetings, he asked hard questions.

His tenacity won the creation of a separate unit for developmentally disabled prisoners and an end to wardens using prisoners to punish other inmates.

Mr. Whittington ultimately became a prime catalyst in toppling corrupt management. When he served on the state’s bond approval agency, he fought for disclosure of contributions to political candidates from Wall Street firms. As chair of the agency that oversees the funeral industry, he was credited with improving the handling of consumer complaints.

In 2001, Mr. Whittington urged Texas Governor Rick Perry to sign a bill banning the execution of developmentally disabled people. (The issue mattered to him; one of his daughters has such disabilities.) Perry, a Republican, vetoed the bill, saying that it would diminish juries’ power and that Texas did not execute people with mental disabilities anyway. The US Supreme Court later struck down capital punishment for developmentally disabled prisoners.

Advertisement



Mr. Whittington married Mercedes Baker in 1950.

Mr. Whittington, speaking with the media after his release from the hospital for treatments for shotgun wounds to the face and chest. PAUL IVERSON/Associated Press

In 2018, the shooting accident was featured in a scene in “Vice,” a biopic on Cheney starring Christian Bale. Mr. Whittington said he planned to see the movie, although he disputed some of the details portrayed in a trailer for the film. He also told the Daily Mail that he had “no hard feelings toward the vice president.”

Mr. Whittington kept the bloodstained vest he was wearing when Cheney shot him, using it to show children the danger of firearms, The Washington Post reported. He said he hunted infrequently after the accident, explaining, “Some of my enthusiasm is gone.”