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Harry Whittington, an Austin attorney who helped the Texas GOP 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. His death, which followed a short illness, was confirmed by two people close to his family.
An old-school Lone Star Republican, Whittington worked for and supported both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush in their stints in Texas politics before they became president. He backed James A. Baker III in an 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 gained more attention than when Cheney accidentally shot him while hunting quail on a ranch near Corpus Christi.
They were on the 50,000-acre Armstrong Ranch, owned by another family with deep ties to the Republican Party. Cheney fired on a bird and hit Whittington with birdshot in the face, neck and body.
“Quail hunting is a fast-moving procedure,” Whittington told the Austin American-Statesman years later. “The birds fly and you swing on them and shoot the best you can. I had been hunting for 50 years before this accident. I wasn’t exactly an inexperienced hunter, and I’d never seen an accident.”
“And I can see how it can happen when the sun is setting and a person is swinging the gun and not seeing who he is swinging toward,” he told the Statesman. “It was just an accident. … Cheney was swinging to his left and when he did he swung over into where I was hunting.”
His actual memory of the shooting was limited, however.
"All I remember was the smell of burning powder," he told The Washington Post in 2010. "And then I passed out."
Whittington was rushed to a hospital, and news of the accident wasn't made public until 14 hours later. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times broke the story, which the White House confirmed. His face was bloodied and swollen. A piece of birdshot near his heart caused him to have a mild heart attack, his doctors said. He spent a week in the ICU.
It became an international news item. Cheney famously didn’t publicly apologize for the accident in its immediate aftermath. The hunting group's host, Katharine Armstrong, said afterward that Whittington did not make his presence known as he walked toward the group of hunters after picking up a quail he had shot. Reporters swarmed the hospital where he was kept. After he was released, he said he was “deeply sorry for all that Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this past week.”
And for the rest of his life, he had some shotgun pellets in his body.
Whittington grew up in Henderson in East Texas to a family of Democrats. At the time, Texas was known for its high-powered Democrats. It was the state of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn. The Republican Party existed, but barely. The two most powerful political factions were conservative Democrats and populist Democrats. But Whittington was attracted to the GOP’s messages of small government and low taxes.
He put himself through school at the University of Texas at Austin and its law school. The Henderson Republican then later entered state Republican circles. 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 backed George W. Bush in both presidential races — donating $1,000 to the first presidential race and $2,000 to his reelection.
Republican governors selected him for appointments to Texas boards and commissions. He served on the board of the Texas Department of Corrections and the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, among others. He pushed an initiative for better treatment of incarcerated Texans with developmental disabilities. He also shepherded the state into federal compliance after a court found the state’s treatment of its prisoners unconstitutional.
“Harry was a very unique Republican. ... He was a very compassionate individual, concerned about the inmates, concerned about conditions, but at the same time, a very law-and-order type person,” said Rick Gray, who first met Whittington in the 1980s when Gray was an executive assistant in the attorney general’s office. They worked on the federal lawsuit together, bringing about reforms around the treatment of incarcerated Texans. “I’m a fairly progressive Democrat, and he was just the opposite, but he was just as good a person as there ever was.”
Gray and Whittington would take trips to Huntsville for executions. Whittington hated being there, but if staff had to be there, he felt he had a responsibility to be there too, Gray said. On the flights back, Gray and Whittington would drink from a flask of bourbon and sit in silence.
And, after a series of shakeups at the Texas Funeral Service Commission, it was Whittington who the younger Bush, then the governor, asked to chair the state entity. Whittington helped settle a lawsuit filed by a state regulator who claimed she had been fired over investigating a company headed by a Bush supporter. Leading his first meeting at the commission, he said, “If any agency needs divine guidance, it’s this one.”
Settled in his old-fashioned ways, Whittington did not have a computer or bill his legal clients by the hour, according to the Statesman. And he almost always wore a suit and tie, Gray said.
Whittington, a real estate investor, was also in a legal fight with the city of Austin for more than a decade after it tried to seize a block of property he owned. In 2013, a Texas district court ruled the property belonged to the city but ordered the city pay Whittington $10.5 million in compensation.
For years after the shooting, Whittington's voice was affected by a pellet that pieced his larynx; he spoke with a “warble,” he told The Washington Post — no pun intended. He shunned the public attention it brought, avoiding speaking to the reporters who showed up to his home and his work.
Nearly five years later, he gave a rare interview to the Post.
“I was lucky,” he said. “I just feel like every day is a gift. Sometimes I wonder why I got these extra years.”
In 2018, the accident was depicted in the movie “Vice,” an unflattering biopic of Cheney. It shows Cheney shooting from a limo. After Whittington’s face is bloodied, the camera zooms in on a beer can. After seeing the trailer, Whittington called the portrayal “inaccurate.”
“There was not an automobile around there. We were walking behind dogs, and there was no beer can. I didn’t see one,” he said.
And though he once said he wasn’t particularly close to the vice president, the two remained cordial in later years. After Cheney had dinner with Whittington’s family in 2018, Whittington told the Statesman that his family "all enjoyed meeting him and found him to be very likable and so forth.”
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