Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Bush's hypocrisy truly unbearable

Bush's hypocrisy truly unbearable
The pols confused law with theology and allowed tabloidism to trump privacy.


As Texas governor, George W. Bush presided over 152 executions, more than took place in the rest of the country combined. In at least a few of these cases, reasonable doubts were raised about the guilt of the condemned. But Bush cut his personal review time for each case from a half hour to a mere 15 minutes (most other governors spend many hours reviewing each capital case to assure themselves no doubt of guilt exists). His explanation was that he trusted the courts to sort through the life-and-death complexities. That's right: the courts.

I bring up that story because it's just one of several ironies that have arisen in connection with the Terri Schiavo saga, in which the president said that the government "ought to err on the side of life." Fine, but whose life? The inmate who might not be guilty? The poor people across the country denied organ transplants (and thus life) because Medicaid — increasingly under the Bush budget knife — won't cover them?

The poor people across the world starving to death because we won't go along with Tony Blair when it comes to addressing global poverty?


How about Sun Hudson? On March 14, Sun, a 6-month-old with a fatal form of dwarfism, was allowed to die in a Texas hospital over his mother Wanda's objections. Under a 1999 law signed by then-governor Bush, cost-conscious hospitals are empowered to decide when care is "futile." The Hudson case is the first time ever that a court has allowed bean counters to override the wishes of parents. "They gave up in six months," Wanda Hudson told the Houston Chronicle. "They made a terrible mistake." Wanda apparently was not "cable ready," as they say in the TV world, and she failed to get Randall Terry and the radical anti-abortionists on her side. Tom DeLay never called.

Could there be politics at work here? Knowing that they cannot deliver on a gay-rights amendment or abortion ban, Karl Rove & Co. settled on bonding to the base with the Schiavo case. The beauty part, as Ross Perot used to say, was that they could be cynical and sincere at the same time, even if it meant twisting themselves into ideological pretzels. The same conservatives who have spent the last generation attacking "judicial activism" and federal intrusion in state jurisdictions were suddenly advocating what they had so long abhorred.

They argue they had a moral duty to intervene. If Terri had been on a respirator, like Sun Hudson, no issue would exist, they claim; a feeding tube is different. Says who? Says the pope, for one. Of course the pope also says that the war in Iraq is wrong, the death penalty is wrong and the West has been too stingy in sharing its wealth. So never mind the pope.


In a complex world, consistency is usually asking too much. (Seeing Democrats talk about "states' rights" last week was also a little rich.) But if you're going to accuse Michael Schiavo and the judiciary of murder (right-wing blogs and talk radio) or commit virtual malpractice by "examining" a patient long distance via outdated and heavily edited video (Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist) or advocate breaking the law by sending in state troopers to reattach the feeding tube (Pat Buchanan and William Bennett), you'd better be willing to look in the mirror.

I'm a father. I can sympathize with Terri's frenzied parents. Nothing must be harder in the world than watching your child die. And I still don't understand why Michael Schiavo didn't turn over custody and get a divorce. He says he's trying to carry out his wife's wishes and preserve her dignity. The endless litigation and public spectacle have hardly achieved that goal.

The right wing should be ashamed of the way it has treated this man, who spent the first seven years after Terri's collapse doing everything imaginable to save her — even training as a nurse. Fox and CNN gave air time and credibility to one Carla Iyer, who accused Michael of shouting "When is the bitch going to die?" and claimed hospital authorities doctored her nursing charts — preposterous, unsubstantiated charges.

When this excruciating circus leaves town, the only sensible conclusion is a morally and constitutionally nuanced one. It should be possible to argue both that Terri Schiavo's case didn't belong in court — and that the courts are the only place to resolve such wrenching disputes when families cannot. That custody laws should contain a little more flexibility where the wishes of the patient are unclear — and that the president and Congress did real damage to their own principles by sticking their nose in this mess. They replaced reason with emotion, confused law with theology and allowed politics and tabloidism to trump the privacy this agonizing family tragedy deserved.

— Jonathan Alter is senior editor at Newsweek. You can reach him at or by fax at (212)445-4120.