Terri Schiavo

I won’t attempt to take sides between the husband and the woman’s family. That was a civil case contesting the claims of the husband and her relatives. We can't argue the merits of the case, because we don't know whether Michael Schiavo's statements about his wife’s wishes are true or false. One can take an ironclad position only if one is opposed to suicide or assisted suicide under all circumstances (or, I suppose, if one is opposed to life under all circumstances).

When participants can't agree, our system provides only one remedy – a civil court case. And in this case the courts decided in favor of the husband. The judges ruled on questions of law; they weren’t trying to produce Solomonic decisions of "what’s best."

What we should look at are the political aspects. And there’s no question in my mind that the Republican response to the situation was entirely political. The Congress and the President were speaking the only language politicians know – the language of Grandstanding.

Congress passed a law that applied to only one person. That fact alone demonstrates that there was no principle involved – only a desire to bring about a specific outcome. Had there been a principle involved, the law would have applied to all Americans, not just to one person. Not only that, what Congress passed was an ex post facto law – changing the rules relating to a specific case after the case was underway.

As we’ve seen over and over, Congressmen consider themselves in a position to use their power to force anything they want on the American people – from overruling courts in the case of a dying woman to whether or not steroids should be prohibited in Major League Baseball.

Perhaps next year they’ll legislate that all houses on your block should be painted purple.

President Bush joined in the Grandstanding. In the wee small hours of Monday, March 21, he interrupted one of his frequent vacations to fly back to Washington to sign the bill Congress had passed – the bill that allowed the Schiavo family to sue in federal court (a power that is given to Congress nowhere in the Constitution).

Bush’s flight to Washington was purely political. His aides frequently fly to Texas to have him sign bills before time runs out for him to sign them. There was no reason they couldn’t have done that this time. His going to Washington was purely symbolic. In fact, after signing the bill to much ado, he flew all the way back West for a town meeting in Tucson, Arizona.

At the town meeting, he explained his signing of the bill by saying, "It is wise to always err on the side of life." I’m not sure I’m aware of any other situation where he’s taken that position. Certainly, he didn’t hesitate to plunge into Iraq – and he still says that whatever he thinks he’s achieved there is worth the tens of thousands of lives that were snuffed out.

But back to our exciting story.

The next day the poll results began to surface. Time magazine found that 75% thought it was wrong for Congress to intervene. A CBS poll found that 82% thought Congress and the President should butt out. Those opposed to government intervening even included Republicans and evangelicals.

So what did our President, who always errs on the side of life, do?

He backtracked, of course. The White House apparently leaked the information that President Bush hadn’t really wanted to sign the bill; he did so only because of pressure from his political base. That, of course, is what great leaders do – allow themselves to be tossed and turned by the whims of their political backers. Leaders are not expected to help shape public opinion by educating people; they’re expected to follow public opinion. A "great leader" is someone who can rush to the front of an existing parade.

It’s just that occasionally the leader jumps in front of the wrong parade by mistake.

April 2, 2005