So I was at a party the other night, the talk turned to politics, I said off the cuff that Jeb Bush struck me as “sane” – and I got bushwacked from all sides. Somebody said, “Whattaya mean he’s ‘sane?’ What about the Schiavo case?”
Oh, right, the infamous Schiavo case. I should’ve remembered – especially since I wrote so much about it back in the day. I should’ve remembered Florida governor Bush’s flagrant abuse of executive power, his relentless, unconstitutional attempts to impose his moral standards on a long-suffering spouse.
Today that long-suffering spouse, Michael Schiavo, is speaking out: “(Jeb) put me through hell….It was a living hell, and I blame him.”
Coincidentally, we’re approaching the 10-year anniversary of case closure. And with Jeb tuning up fast for a White House bid – a bid arguably strengthened by Mitt Romney’s self-deportation – this is indeed an opportune time to revisit his conduct. Because it does raise questions about his character.
To refresh your memory: A 26-year-old Florida woman, Terri Schiavo, collapsed in 1990. From lack of oxygen, she suffered irreversible brain damage. Permanently comatose, she hovered near death, kept alive by a feeding tube. After eight years of stasis, her husband Michael decided it was time to remove the feeding tube and let nature take its course. Her parents objected, so a trial was conducted in a Florida court. The judge, after hearing doctors’ testimony, ruled that Terri was in a “persistent vegetative state,” and that her brain had been “replaced by spinal fluid.” On Feb. 11, 2000, this judge (a southern Baptist Republican) gave Michael permission to remove the feeding tube.
But right-wing Christians didn’t like the doctors’ testimony, nor the judge’s ruling for Michael, nor the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to review the rulings for Michael. So they demanded that Gov. Bush step in and overrule the judiciary. At first he refused. His staffers said publicly: “The Florida Constitution prohibits the governor’s intervention in matters that should be resolved through the court system.” Jeb himself said, “I’m really limited on what I can do.”
This was before he tried to do stuff that he wasn’t empowered to do.
The feeding tube was not removed; Michael’s in-laws managed to tie up the case well into 2003, arguing in various appeals that the doctors’ testimony had been wrong. They wanted the case moved to federal court. Jeb jumped in for the first time, filing a legal brief to move the case to federal court. That effort was rebuffed; the ruing judge said the case had to stay where it was, in state court. And again, Michael was told that he could remove the feeding tube. He did. This was on October 15, 2003; the prognosis was that Terri would die her natural death by the end of the month.
But Jeb had decided for himself that removing the tube was morally wrong – no matter what the courts had said, no matter what the doctors had said, no matter what Terri’s spouse wanted. He quickly cooked up a bill (“Authority for the Governor to Issue a One-time Stay”) and whisked it through the compliant Republican legislature in less than a day. He then issued an executive order compelling doctors to reinsert the feeding tube.
A state judge soon ruled that Jeb’s move was unconstitutional. Not long after, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Jeb’s move was unconstitutional. (The state Supremes said that Jeb had tried to subordinate the judicial branch, and had violated “the rights of individuals, including the well-established privacy right to self-determination.”) Undeterred, Jeb asked the U.S. Supreme Court to back him up. The U.S. Supremes refused to get involved.
More litigation, more delays, but again, in early 2005, Michael was given permission to remove the feeding tube. Again he did it. But meanwhile, up in Washington, the Republican Congress decided to invade his privacy. They cooked up their own quickie bill to put Terri’s tube back in – House GOP leader Tom DeLay famously decreed, “I don’t care what her husband says” – and Jeb’s brother speedily signed it. (I wrote at the time about the disconnect of Republicans claiming to favor “small government,” yet using government to invade people’s privacy in the name of morality.)
But a federal judge said that Congress had no business getting involved, that the case belong where it had always been, in the Florida courts. So the tube stayed out, and Terri was finally allowed to die, on March 31, 2005.
Nevertheless, Jeb still wasn’t done messing with Michael Schiavo. As he said in a speech that spring, “There is such a thing as right and wrong…and passion about absolute truth.”
So in June ’05, even after Michael had finally gotten closure, even after the autopsy report had supported the doctors’ original testimony – Terri’s brain had atrophied, she had “no remaining discernible neurons,” she couldn’t even feel pain – Jeb kept going. He tried to target Michael for prosecution, claiming that Michael may have played a role in Terri’s collapse…back in 1990.
Think about that one. Jeb had already been repeatedly slapped down for executive overreach, the case was over, Terri was gone – yet here he was, trying to subject Michael to a criminal probe. Jeb-watchers say that move was totally in character. As Florida political analyst Aubrey Jewett told Politico, Jeb “will pursue whatever he thinks is right, virtually forever.” Bioethicist Arthur Caplan simply said that “trying to overrride the entire judicial system (is) very, very dangerous.”
By the way, Jeb’s attempt to sic a prosecutor on Michael went nowhere; the prosecutor quickly concluded that Michael’s conduct when his wife collapsed was “not indicative of criminal activity.”
The case ended there. And I doubt it will come up during the ’16 GOP primary season. Jeb’s conservative rivals want to paint him as a moderate (especially on immigration and the Common Core education standards), and it would wreck their narrative to highlight his right-wing morality crusade. Nor will Jeb bring it up, because to win the White House he needs moderate swing voters. Nor will Republicans highlight Jeb’s power abuses in the Schiavo case, because “executive overreach” is a charge they prefer to aim only at Obama.
But Jeb’s handling of the case arguably provides clues to his character. And in the words of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “Character is destiny.”