Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Jeb Bush has no second thoughts about the Schiavo case?

On the New Hampshire campaign trail last week, Jeb Bush was asked by a voter about his actions as governor of Florida in the Terri Schiavo controversy of more than a decade ago.

Even with the benefit of 10 years' hindsight, "I don't think I would have changed anything," Bush said. "I stayed within the constitutional responsibilities, or authority, that I had.”

That's just remarkable.  Driven by what amounted to mass political hysteria surrounding Schiavo -- hysteria that Bush more than any other person was responsible for creating -- the state and federal government intervened directly into what should have been an extremely private if tragic decision. As doctor after doctor said at the time, and as an autopsy later confirmed, Schiavo's brain had atrophied into liquid after a massive stroke 15 years earlier. For all intents and purpose, she no longer existed. As the courts also repeatedly ruled, Schiavo had expressed the desire to be allowed to die under such circumstances rather than be kept in a permanent vegetative state.

But Bush thought he knew better. He fought Schiavo's husband, the courts and the doctors at every step of the way, including personally pressuring judges to rule that Schiavo be kept "alive." After losing his final appeal, Bush pushed special "emergency" legislation through the Florida Legislature that supposedly allowed him to ignore the courts. He then ordered state troopers to take custody of Schiavo's body so that feeding tubes could be reinserted.

After the Florida Supreme Court unanimously overrode Bush, concluding that the governor had vastly overstepped his bounds, Bush still wasn't satisfied. He used his influence with his brother's presidential administration to push the issue into Congress. Another round of "emergency" legislation followed, with President George W. Bush taking the extraordinary step of flying back to Washington from vacation to sign the bill.

Once again, the courts ruled properly that it was unconstitutional to bring the full force of government into such a private sphere, and nature was eventually allowed to take its obvious course. Yet even after Schiavo's death had seemingly put an end to the circus, Bush was not satisfied. He ordered a criminal investigation into the actions of Schiavo's husband that of course went nowhere.

In short, it is not remotely true that Bush "stayed within the constitutional responsibilities, or authority, that I had."

The Schiavo episode was a shameful fever dream, and many of those who got caught up in it later expressed regret for succumbing. Bush, by contrast, says to this day that he would change nothing except the outcome.

In those comments last week, Bush did go on to make the sensible suggestion that people ought to put down, in writing, what medical treatment they wanted or did not want should they become incapacitated. He also took the notion a notable step further.

“I think if we’re going to mandate anything for government, it might be that if you’re going to take Medicare, that you also sign up for an advanced directive where you talk about this before you’re so disabled,” he said.

In 2010, you may recall, President Obama proposed to reimburse doctors under Medicare if they voluntarily took the time to counsel patients on filing end-of-life directives. For that, conservatives swarmed to the attack, bizarrely accusing Obama of wanting to set up "death panels" that would deny medical care to the seriously ill and disabled, including children with Down syndrome.

Bush, a top candidate to be the GOP 2016 presidential nominee, now proposes to make the filing of such a directive a mandatory condition of receiving Medicare, yet so far it hasn't generated anything like the reaction to the more restrained Obama proposal. The New York Times surmises that the difference "showed how much public opinion has shifted on the subject since" 2010, but I think that explanation assumes a level of rationality that simply isn't justified.

Instead, the "death panels" hysteria of 2010, like the Schiavo hysteria of 2004-2005, was an eruption of a subterranean, conservative anxiety that is constantly seeking opportunities to vent itself. It is not rational in its source so it is not rational in its expression. Its latest iteration may be the "Christian persecution" theme now popular in some quarters, in which we are told that this is a Christian nation in which, somehow, Christians are its most persecuted minority.

For many Americans that doesn't make sense, but for millions of others it is experienced sincerely as truth. And in the political realm, believing that it is real makes it real, with potentially real consequences.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.