CHEYENNE, Wyo. — He dropped by the office of his one-time intern, who is now speaker of the Wyoming House of Representatives, to chat. He shook hands with old friends and admirers as he worked his way down the aisle of the state Capitol. His wife teared up when the crowd gave him a standing ovation as he left the chamber.
Vice President Dick Cheney came back to Wyoming on Friday, wrapping himself in the warm embrace of this sub-zero city where he started his political career. By his own account, it was a relief following the pummeling he took after accidentally shooting a fellow hunter last weekend.
"Thank you for that welcome home," Cheney told state legislators after they greeted him with applause and whistles, which he said were especially appreciated "when we've had such a long week."
Cheney's previously scheduled trip here was his first public appearance since wounding a prominent Texas GOP attorney, Harry Whittington, during a quail hunt. Cheney had wheeled to shoot at a bird, unaware Whittington had dropped back and was standing in his line of fire.
The 78-year-old Whittington, who on Friday was released from the hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, said he hoped he had not caused the vice president trouble. "Accidents do and will happen," he said. "My family and I are deeply sorry for all that Vice President Cheney and his family have had to go through this week."
That sentiment was echoed in the salmon-colored halls of the Wyoming Capitol, and in bars and restaurants across this politically savvy town.
"We do love him [Cheney], and he's welcome home at any time," Randall Luthi, the speaker of the Wyoming House, said after the vice president's remarks.
Cheney may be the second-most-powerful man in the nation. But in the least populated state, he's something more.
"He's our hero," said Republican state Rep. Gerald Gay.
"We have somebody from Wyoming who made it to second-in-command, and that's a big deal for us," said Jim Kallgren, manager of the Snake River Pub & Grill, located a few blocks from the Capitol. "Because we get so many negative things [said] about us being so behind the times."
Many here have stories of their own about a near-death experience while hunting. So while there have been a sprinkling of jokes in Cheyenne bars about the Cheney shooting incident, they don't see why their favorite son has had to suffer such ignominy.
"I mean, there are leaders in other countries who shoot people intentionally," said Malik Hegge, a 27-year-old contractor. "With all the events going on, can we focus on things that are more important?"
Cheney arrived Friday morning at Cheyenne's municipal airport, where a small group of protesters held up signs condemning the Bush administration. Creta O'Hollerand, a homemaker who was on hand to greet the vice president, was outraged. She ran to a nearby Office Depot and got material to make a sign reading: "Wyoming Loves Cheney."
Standing inside the Capitol, O'Hollerand praised the Bush-Cheney administration. "I think they're doing a wonderful job," she said. Of the accident, she added: "It's an honest mistake; it can happen to anyone."
Members of the state House and Senate, along with Wyoming's small congressional delegation and state officials from the governor to the superintendent of education, crowded into one chamber to greet Cheney. Senate president Grant Larson boasted that he represented the Cheneys, who have a home in Jackson Hole -- where the vice president and his family headed for vacation after his remarks.
Frequently stern in his public appearances, Cheney seemed at ease and relaxed as he spoke for 17 minutes Friday, reminiscing about Wyoming political figures. While a graduate student at the University of Wyoming, Cheney served as an intern during the state Senate's 40-day session in 1964, earning a $300 stipend. "The experience was one of life's turning points," he said. "It sparked a fascination with the business of government, which stayed with me for a lifetime."
The vice president praised Wyoming's bipartisan political culture, noting that the heavily Republican state has consistently elected Democratic governors. He said the small, part-time Legislature was "close to the ideal of a citizen legislature" -- lawmakers who are close to their constituents and not professional politicians.
"I've always found it easy to stick to my roots," Cheney said at the end of his speech. "I would not be where I am today were it not for the friendship and assistance of people across this great state."
Born in Nebraska, Cheney attended high school and college in Wyoming. But he has spent much of his adult life in Washington and Texas, serving in the Nixon and Ford administrations before becoming Wyoming's sole House representative from 1978 to 1989.
As a result, some locals have never accepted him. "He's not that down-home," said Taso Kallas, a 57-year-old retired silversmith. "He's more of a Washington inner-circle kind of a guy."
But Kallas -- a Democrat in a state where Republicans have a 2-1 edge in registration -- acknowledged that he was in the minority in doubting Cheney's sincerity. Kallas said he was troubled that the vice president did not disclose the hunting accident for more than 18 hours, leaving it up to the owner of the ranch were it took place to make the announcement.
"What business is it of the media's?" asked Kallgren, the restaurant manager.
Echoing the vice president's contention that getting Whittington medical care was the first priority, Kallgren said: "He's more concerned about the gentleman he shot."
Avid hunters in Wyoming say they know the risks of the sport. Art Maldonado, 56, recalled how a friend had fired on a deer, only to hit a hunter who was hidden on the other side of the animal. "Accidents happen, I don't get excited about it," he said.