When Bill Gates appeared at a computer security conference in San Jose, Calif., this week, he greeted his audience with a quip. "I'm really glad to be here," said the Microsoft Corp. chairman. "My other invitation was to go quail hunting with Dick Cheney."
Cheney's accidental shooting of his hunting companion is occupying a prominent and unusual place in the national zeitgeist, provoking hilarity and horror all at once. As the Elmer Fudd references fly, the 78-year-old victim lies in the hospital with a shotgun pellet lodged near his heart. But whether you're amused or horrified, there's no question the incident has provided irresistible fodder for chat - any kind of chat.
There were the undeniable comic implications, which late-night TV hosts grabbed with gusto. Although the story took on a much more serious tone Tuesday when victim Harry Whittington suffered a mild heart attack, that did little to stop the jokes.
"The guy he shot ... had a mild heart attack," Jay Leno said Tuesday night. "To which Cheney said: 'Oh you big baby, I get those all the time. Come on, walk it off!"
It was one of 20 Cheney jokes Leno told in two nights. David Letterman told 21. As for Jon Stewart, he told his "Daily Show" audience after the heart attack that he was "downgrading" the story from "incredibly hilarious" to "still funny but a little sad."
"Late-night comics are the largest focus group in America," says Matthew Felling, media director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. And in politics, he says, "almost nothing is out of bounds" when it comes to jokes.
Add the secretive nature of Cheney the man, which makes the incident all the more fascinating. "He leaves a lot to the imagination," Felling said. "That's manna from heaven for these comics."
It isn't just television, of course. On Wednesday afternoon, the Web site technorati.com, which monitors blogs, listed 2,960 entries on the Cheney incident. Some were serious and fell along political lines. "If you ask me, Democrats and their liberal base are privately hoping for the worst," wrote Matt Margolis on Blogs for Bush. "Who are the Democrats to criticize?"
Others, like actor/writer Steve Martin on The Huffington Post, took a satirical tack:
"Vice President Dick Cheney, while hunting wild geese in the Rose Garden, accidentally shot President Bush twice, once in the heart and once in the head. 'I didn't really shoot the President twice,' said Cheney. 'The second time I shot him, I was president.'"
Yet another reason for the obsessive coverage: "The metaphoric implications are irresistible," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for Popular Television at Syracuse University, referring to the Iraq war. "If you look at the symbols, this hits you right in the face."
To wit: Stewart's interview with a fake "firearms mishap analyst," who told him: "The vice president is standing by his decision to shoot Harry Whittington. According to the best intelligence available, there were quail hidden in the bush."
Presidential mishaps, though usually less serious than this one, have always attracted huge popular attention: Recall, for example, when the elder President Bush vomited at a dinner in Japan, or when the current President Bush choked on a pretzel, or when President Ford kept tripping, giving a huge boost to the career of comic actor Chevy Chase. Or when President Carter said he'd been attacked by a rabbit on a fishing trip.
For one pop culture analyst, the current brouhaha is yet more proof of society's need to focus on "mega-events."
"The Super Bowl is over, Hurricane Katrina is finished, there are no hurricanes brewing in the Gulf," said Jerry Herron, a professor at Wayne State University. "This will be big until the next big event."
Of course, everything could change radically if the victim's health deteriorated further — or if, in the absolute worst-case scenario, he happened to die.
"Then," says Felling, "there would be absolutely nothing funny about it at all."