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Martin Dyckman: Jeb Bush’s behavior in the Schiavo case is unworthy of a governor — or a president

If it’s too early to anoint a presidential front-runner among the Republicans, the national media are obviously treating Jeb Bush as one. Among the in-depth articles already up and running is a Boston Globe inquiry into his teenage years at the elite Phillips Academy nearly half a century ago.

Another is a biting review on Politico of Bush’s unprecedented interference in the tragedy of a brain-dead woman whose husband wanted to let her die.

The Globe article spoke of classmates who said they remembered him bullying smaller students. Bush said he didn’t remember that and was surprised to hear it.

No one today would confuse the Globe article’s indifferent, pot-smoking Andover freshman who nearly flunked out with the high-achieving policy wonk Bush became. But the campus bully would be familiar to people who knew him as governor, his only elected office.

He did not gracefully accept compromise, let alone defeat. The Terry Schiavo tragedy was a conspicuous example.

Nancy Argenziano was among the only 12 Republicans in the Florida Legislature to oppose Bush.

“He put us through hell with the Schiavo issues and that was despicable,” she said. “He is a spoiled man who has no empathy for anyone not born with a silver spoon.  I could never cast a vote for him.”

As many readers will recall, Schiavo was the young woman from St. Petersburg who had been brain-dead for 10 years, in a persistent vegetative state, since suffering a heart attack attributed to potassium imbalance from an eating disorder.

In 2000, Schiavo’s husband, Michael, obtained permission from Circuit Judge George Greer to remove the feeding tube that was keeping her corpse alive. Greer cited evidence that recovery was impossible and that she had expressly wished not to be kept alive in such a situation.

Theresa’s parents, devout Roman Catholics, fought the ruling through more than three years of unsuccessful appeals to state and federal courts, attracting a large and vocal right-to-life following that included Florida’s governor. Bush even filed a brief against Michael Schiavo in federal court. When that appeal failed and the feeding tube was removed, Bush asked the Legislature for a law to let him intervene directly.

The law, tailored to the Schiavo case, was enacted on Oct. 21, 2003, the day after it was introduced.

For the only time in Florida’s history, the state seized a patient from her guardian and caregivers. The feeding tube was reinserted.

After the Senate’s 23-15 vote, I went down from the press gallery to ask members about the pressures they had felt.

Argenziano was the senator from my district. The stricken look on her face spoke a thousand words. That one time, I addressed a legislator as a constituent rather than a journalist.

“Thank you,” I said.

She nodded and went to her office to await the hate mail.

“Yes, we had death threats,” she told me last week. “Also right-wing wackos wrote they hoped my son, and they knew his name, would be in Schiavo’s same condition.  One asked simply, ‘How is your son Joseph,’ trying to scare me.  A few wrote that they wished I got stomach cancer and died.  Wonderful Christians!

“I had to close my district and Tallahassee office because I was worried for my staff.  It was horrible. Jeb added to that insanity when he told his extreme followers that the Republicans who voted no are to blame, too.  I remember feeling at that time that he was going to get us killed.”

A circuit court found the law unconstitutional, and so did a unanimous Florida Supreme Court, 11 months later, ruling it offensive to “the fundamental constitutional tenet of separation of powers.” Bush had appointed two of the justices. The long legal record, the justices said, showed that Theresa Schiavo’s due process rights–the pretext for Bush’s intervention–had been respected at every step in every court.

“What is in the Constitution must always prevail over emotion. Our oaths as judges require that this principle is our polestar, and it alone,” the court said.

Bush appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to take the case.

That didn’t end it. Congressional Republicans took it on–one called it “a great political issue”–and George W. Bush, the president’s brother, signed a bill giving the parents a unique right to intervene in federal courts. A federal judge at Tampa refused to reopen the case. The feeding tube came out again and Schiavo neared death.

As the Politico article restates, Jeb Bush still wasn’t done. First, he had his Department of Children and Families attempt to intervene based on anonymous allegations of abuse. A court thwarted that, too.

An autopsy confirmed what doctors had told the courts: Schiavo’s brain had begun to disappear. There had never been a prospect of consciousness, let alone recovery.

Bush then asked a state attorney to investigate whether criminal conduct by Michael Schiavo might have harmed his wife 15 years before. The prosecutor absolved him.

Even if acting out of sincere religious conviction, Bush flouted the only principle–his state’s Constitution–that he was sworn to respect. His final action, inviting a criminal investigation of Michael Schiavo, was a vindictive act unworthy of the governor of a great state — or of a president.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives near Waynesville, N.C. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

 

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