At one time, Texas politics were controlled by a powerful Democratic machine. But Harry Whittington was one of the people who helped change that, elevating the Republican Party in the state little by little over the course of the last century.
Two people close to his family say that Whittington, an old-school Austin lawyer and GOP heavyweight, died early Saturday morning after a short illness. He was 95.
When Vice President Dick Cheney shot him by accident while hunting quail on a ranch near Corpus Christi in 2006, the incident garnered widespread media attention. He lived his last years with almost twenty-two shotgun pellets remaining lodged in his body.
Whittington was raised by a Democratic household in Henderson, East Texas. However, he was drawn to the Republican Party by its promises of limited government and lower taxes. He paid his own way through college and law school at the University of Texas at Austin.
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After that, the Henderson Republican became involved in the state GOP. In 1964, when George H.W. Bush was running unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in Texas, he accompanied his future running mate on the campaign route.
A Washington Post article claims that he backed Republican candidates James Baker (who ran unsuccessfully for Texas attorney general in 1978) and John Tower (who became the first Republican to win a Senate seat since Reconstruction in 1961). He was also a staunch supporter of George W. Bush, donating $1000 to Bush’s first presidential campaign and $2000 to his reelection.
Whittington has been appointed to several Texas boards and commissions by Republican governors. Both the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Texas Department of Corrections have him on their boards. He advocated for a program to improve conditions for Texans with developmental disabilities who are currently in prison.
Younger Bush, who was governor at the time, appointed Whittington to lead the Texas Funeral Service Commission following a number of leadership changes. Whittington was involved in the settlement of a lawsuit brought by a state regulator who claimed she had been fired for probing a corporation led by a Bush supporter.
Leading his first meeting at the commission, he said, “If any agency needs divine guidance, it’s this one.” According to the Austin American-Statesman, Whittington was so set in his ways that he didn’t use a computer or charge his legal clients by the hour.
Real estate investor Whittington fought the city of Austin in court for over a decade after the city attempted to acquire a piece of land he owned. A district court in Texas determined ownership of the land in 2013, but it mandated that Whittington be compensated $10.5 million.
In 2006, however, Whittington and Cheney went on a disastrous quail hunting expedition to South Texas, which is when he first became widely known. They were staying at Armstrong Ranch, which is owned by yet another politically connected family. When Cheney shot at a bird, he accidentally hit Whittington in the head, neck, and upper torso.
Whittington told the Austin American-Statesman years later:
“Quail hunting is a fast-moving procedure”
“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”
“It was just an accident. … Cheney was swinging to his left and when he did he swung over into where I was hunting.”
The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported the incident a few hours after Whittington was taken to the hospital. He was in the intensive care unit for a full week.
The news quickly spread around the globe. While it is well-known that Cheney didn’t apologize for the tragedy immediately after it happened, Whittington did express regret for what Cheney and his family had to go through in the wake of the incident.
Even while he later admitted that he and the vice president weren’t particularly close, he asserted that they maintained a polite relationship nonetheless. After Cheney had dinner with Whittington’s family in 2018, the Statesman reported that Whittington said, “They all enjoyed meeting him and found him to be very likable and so on.”