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Harry Whittington, an Austin lawyer who helped the Texas Republican Party rise to power in the second half of the last century and became the center of international attention in 2006 after he was shot by then-Vice President Dick Cheney in a hunting accident, died Saturday morning. .
He was 95 years old. Two people close to his family confirmed his death, which came after a short illness.
Whittington, an old-school Lone Star Republican, had worked for and supported both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush in their stints in Texas politics before they became president. He supported James A. Baker III in his unsuccessful run for Texas Attorney General in 1978 and John G. Tower in his victorious 1961 bid to be the first Republican to win a Senate seat since Reconstruction. But he never received more attention than when he was accidentally shot by Cheney while hunting quail on a farm near Corpus Christi.
They were on the 50,000-acre Armstrong Ranch, owned by another family with deep ties to the Republican Party. Cheney shot a bird and hit Whittington with shotgun blasts to the face, neck, and body.
“Quail hunting is a fast-moving business,” Whittington told the Austin American-Statesman years later. “The birds are flying and you swing at them and shoot the best you can. I had been hunting for 50 years before this incident. I was not a completely inexperienced hunter, and had never experienced an incident before.”
“And I can see how that could happen when the sun is going down and the person is waving a gun and they don’t see who’s coming at them,” he told the Statesman. “It was just an accident. … Cheney was swaying to his left, and when he did, he flipped toward where I was fishing.
But his actual memory of the shooting was limited.
“All I remember is the smell of burning gunpowder,” he told The Washington Post in 2010. “Then I lost consciousness.”
Whittington was taken to hospital, and news of the accident was not announced until 14 hours later. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times broke the story, which the White House confirmed. His face was bloodied and swollen. His doctors said a piece of birdshot near his heart caused a mild heart attack. He spent a week in the intensive care unit.
It has become international news. It is known that Cheney did not publicly apologize for the incident in its immediate aftermath. The hunting party’s hostess, Katherine Armstrong, said afterward that Whittington did not announce his presence as he walked toward the group of hunters after he picked up the quail he shot. Journalists invaded the hospital where he was being held. After his release, he said he was “deeply sorry for everything Vice President Cheney and his family have gone through over the past week.”
For the rest of his life, he had some bullets in his body.
Whittington grew up in Henderson, East Texas, to a family of Democrats. At the time, Texas was known for its highly influential Democrats. This was the mandate of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn. The Republican Party existed, but barely. The two strongest political factions were the Conservative Democrats and the Populist Democrats. But Whittington was attracted to the Republican Party’s messages about small government and low taxes.
He attended school at the University of Texas at Austin and its law school. The Henderson Republican later entered the state’s Republican precincts. He joined George H. W. Bush on the campaign trail in 1964, during the future president’s failed bid to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate. He financially supported George W. Bush in both presidential races, donating $1,000 to his first presidential race and $2,000 to his re-election.
Selected by Republican governors for appointments to Texas boards and commissions. He served on the Board of Directors of the Texas Department of Corrections and the Texas Criminal Justice Board, among others. He has pushed an initiative to improve the treatment of Texas prisoners with developmental disabilities. He also led the state toward federal compliance after the court found the state’s treatment of its prisoners unconstitutional.
“Harry was a very unique Republican. He was a very compassionate person, concerned about the inmates, concerned about conditions, but at the same time, a law-and-order kind of person,” said Rick Gray, who first met Whittington in the 1980s when Gray was a Republican. .an executive assistant in the attorney general’s office. They worked together on the federal lawsuit, bringing about reforms about the treatment of Texas prisoners. “I’m a fairly progressive Democrat, and he was the complete opposite, but he was as good a person as ever.”
Gray and Whittington would make trips to Huntsville to carry out executions. Gray said Whittington hated being there, but if the staff had to be there, he felt he had a responsibility to be there, too. On the return trips, Gray and Whittington would drink from a flask of bourbon and sit in silence.
After a series of changes at the Texas Funeral Service Commission, it was Whittington who asked the younger Bush, then governor, to take over as chairman of the state entity. Whittington helped settle a lawsuit brought by a state regulator that claimed she was fired over an investigation into a company headed by a Bush supporter. “If ever an agency needed divine guidance, it is this one,” he said as he chaired his first committee meeting.
Whittington, settled in his old ways, didn’t have a computer or bill his law clients by the hour, according to the Statesman. Gray said he always wore a suit and tie.
Whittington, a real estate investor, has also been in a legal battle with the city of Austin for more than a decade after it tried to seize a piece of real estate owned by him. In 2013, a Texas District Court ruled that the property belonged to the city, but ordered the city to pay Whittington $10.5 million in compensation.
For years after the shooting, Whittington’s voice was affected by the pellets that tore through his larynx. He spoke with a “tweet,” he told The Washington Post — no pun intended. He avoided the public attention it brought, and avoided speaking to reporters who showed up at his home and work.
Nearly five years later, he gave a rare interview to the Washington Post.
“I was lucky,” he said. “I feel like every day is a gift. Sometimes I wonder why I got these extra years.
In 2018, the incident was depicted in “Vice,” an unflattering biopic of Cheney. It shows Cheney shooting from a limousine. After Whittington’s face is covered in blood, the camera zooms in on the beer can. After seeing the trailer, Whittington called the portrayal “inaccurate.”
“There was no car there. We were walking behind the dogs, and there was no beer can. I didn’t see one,” he said.
Although he once said he was not particularly close to the vice president, the two remained friendly in later years. After Cheney dined with the Whittington family in 2018, Whittington told the Statesman that his family “all enjoyed meeting him and found him very likable and so forth.”
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