Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Turning Point

After winning the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush said he had acquired "political capital" during the campaign.

It didn't take him long to squander it, though.

And I believe that he began running through his stash on this day five years ago.

For it was on this day that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was removed at her husband's request.

The Terri Schiavo case has to rank as one of the saddest episodes in recent American life. It would have been a tragic matter even if it had remained private, involving only Schiavo's biological family, her spouse and her doctors.

But it was made even more tragic — not to mention shameful — by the way that public figures and politicians, mostly Republicans (but some Democrats as well) and from the White House on down, elbowed their way in.

Just to provide a little background — a little refresher, unpleasant though it is, to put things in perspective — Schiavo collapsed in her home in February 1990. She suffered respiratory and cardiac arrest, but she survived, although there was considerable brain damage, leaving her in what is called a "persistent vegetative state" (PVS), which is a state of very deep unconsciousness.

Before the Schiavo case came along, there were really only two instances of PVS that had been in the news in my memory:
  1. Sunny von Bülow, who suffered severe brain damage in 1980 and remained in a PVS until her death nearly 30 years later.
  2. Karen Ann Quinlan, a young woman who lost consciousness after a night of partying in 1975 and lapsed into a PVS, igniting a legal battle that resulted in significant precedents in right–to–die law.
There were other cases, I'm sure, but those are the ones I remember being prominent in the news. Suffice to say, PVS was not something with which most people were familiar, even five years ago. Anyway, there had been a lot of legal wrangling by the lawyers representing Schiavo's husband and her parents, especially since 1998. Her husband wanted to remove her life support; her parents wanted to prevent that from happening. By 2005, the case had reached a crossroads. No matter which way it went, it seemed, there was no turning back. And all sorts of prominent people — Jesse Jackson, the governor of Florida (Jeb Bush), the majority leader of the U.S. Senate (Bill Frist), the speaker of the House (Dennis Hastert) and the president of the United States (George W. Bush) — intervened, ostensibly because they were pro–life, when the judicial machinery appeared to be favoring Schiavo's husband. Their involvement turned a private family tragedy into a national debate. And there were times when it bordered on the bizarre. Like when Frist, a doctor by training as well as professional experience prior to his entry into politics, opposed removing Schiavo's life support on the basis of what he had seen in a video tape. Frist was an experienced surgeon who had performed more than 100 heart and/or lung transplants. But he was not a neurologist. And he was criticized by many for making such a crucial diagnosis based only on a video tape. Many denounced the involvement of both the Congress and the White House in the Schiavo matter. For my part, I have always been fond of the editorial that ran in the Boston Globe, which stated, "The US Congress has no place at Terri Schiavo's bedside. Neither does the president of the United States." At the conclusion of a strongly worded editorial, the Globe wrote, "They say they are doing God's work, but should consider that it is man's machinery that has prolonged this sad shell of a human being. All religions teach that there is a time to let go." Their reluctance to let go amid their protestations that they were pro–life understandably made many people suspicious a few months later, when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, producing the kind of death and destruction that is rarely seen on this continent.

At that time, when TV cameras transmitted images of the catastrophe that was unfolding, Americans were baffled and, frankly, frightened by the delayed response they saw coming from the government at all levels. Black Americans wondered — not without some justification — if, considering that New Orleans was disproportionately black compared to most North American cities, racism had played a role. After all, those who had so loudly proclaimed that they were pro–life in March, when the life of one white woman with PVS was on the line, seemed strangely silent when many thousands of black Americans were drowning or their homes were being destroyed in a major flood.

In more than two centuries, Americans have seldom re–elected a president who has already served a full four–year term. Whenever they have done so, whether by a wide margin or a slim one, there is a strange phenomenon that seems to occur. The very act of re–electing a president who was elected in his own right seems to be perceived as an endorsement of the public's collective wisdom.

And that, in turn, seems to produce a reservoir of good will for the president, even among those who voted against him. Maybe that is what Bush was talking about when he said he had earned political capital.

If so, I believe he — and Congress, although Congress seldom gets good marks from the public, no matter which party is in the majority — used up most of it with partisan and transparently political actions in the Schiavo case. And, like the budget surplus that Bush inherited from the Clinton administration and then wantonly squandered before the September 11 terrorist attacks, it was gone when he really needed it.

Starting on this day in 2005, I believe Bush irretrievably lost the public's support and laid the foundation for Republican electoral defeats in the next two elections.

It may have been the most rapid decline in public support for a president who had just been re–elected in American history.

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