The Joke Stops Here 

"It only hurts when I laugh." That's one of the oldest punch lines in the English language. Its meaning is so obvious that it really doesn't matter which of several imaginary catastrophes precedes it in the telling. Most often the joke's quoted speaker is someone so sorely wounded, so abominably distressed by circumstance that, of course, it is next to impossible that he could ever laugh again. That's the point. That's the joke. A textbook case of Humor 101. Har.

Only what happened over the weekend to one Harry Whittington, a Texas lawyer and good Republican, friend and donor to both President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, ceased to be funny when word got out that Whittington had suffered a heart attack as a direct result of being pelted with birdshot Saturday by fellow hunter Cheney. It seems that one or more of the errant pellets made its way into his heart cavity and caused a "minor" heart attack.

Up until that news, which came Tuesday, the media, the late-night TV comics, and even the president had enjoyed the proverbial field day at the vice president's expense. We ourselves had contemplated a humorous editorial with a headline something like "Ready. Fire. Aim." -- playing off a metaphor to the effect that, like so many of the administration's major ventures (most notably, Iraq), Cheney's seemingly bass-ackwards action had misfired badly, had been taken without adequate precaution or forethought, and had resulted in unforeseen consequences of the worst kind. That was the analogy. A textbook case of Political Cabaret 101. Har har.

Except now the consequences of that weekend hunting accident seem dire for real, and our chief impulse is to hope that no further harm has come to Whittington by the time you read this.

But it's also a fact that neither Cheney nor the White House were immediately forthcoming about the circumstances of the accident -- delaying any news about it until Sunday, a day later, and spinning its own account in such a light-handed, self-serving way as to give rise to much of the humor that later came. Inappropriately so, it now seems.

Questions have arisen about the incident, and -- accident or not -- the particulars should be fully divulged, or this event could emerge as yet another symbol of administrative incompetence or, worse, as an instance of the kind of governmental cover-up we have become too familiar with over the years when American lives, single or en masse, have been at stake.

In the meantime, we simply hope for the best for everybody's sake. It still hurts, even though we've stopped laughing.

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