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A Dark Chapter In Jeb’s Story

Jeb Bush
photo by Gage Skidmore

As the race to secure the Republican presidential nomination gains momentum, candidates are increasingly drawing attention to their opponents’ track records - or lack thereof.

After he secured the third-place slot in Iowa last week, Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio unsurprisingly came under fire from his opponents in the New Hampshire debate on Saturday. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose scant hopes for the White House hinge on his success in New Hampshire, took most of the shots.

Christie’s attacks on Rubio largely center on the senator’s alleged lack of accomplishments while serving in the Senate. Relying on his famously (or perhaps infamously) abrasive style, Christie has compared Rubio to a fourth-grader who lacks the experience needed to lead the country.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has been both cheering and joining Christie’s attacks on Rubio, who was once Bush’s protege. While Bush denied claims in The New York Times that his campaign secretly coordinated with Christie’s team in attacking Rubio, it is clear that he wants to paint the senator with Christie’s brush. He has called Rubio “charismatic” but not a “leader,” according to CNN.

“Every campaign, every candidate will be contrasted and compared,” Bush said. “Their records need to be shown.”

Right-o, so let’s look at some of the record. Christie ought to be well aware of this particular hazard. His accomplishments include a claim of complete ignorance of what his closest aides and most trusted lackeys were doing on the George Washington Bridge in 2013.

Bush, meanwhile, can certainly point to his track record as Florida’s governor from 1999 to 2007. A lot of it isn’t bad, but it is worth recalling how cruelly he and other self-proclaimed “right to life” conservatives treated Michael Schiavo in the prolonged legal fight over the end-of-life care Schiavo supervised on behalf of his unfortunate wife, Terri. Conservatives like to say they believe government should stay out of private matters, but in a situation that was both intensely private and immensely tragic, Bush blundered across the landscape, leaving a trail of emotional and legal destruction in his wake.

The Terri Schiavo case, which made headlines on and off for years, illustrated the heartbreaking consequences of an unforeseen medical disaster befalling an individual whose wishes were not made clear ahead of time. In 1990 Terri Schiavo collapsed at her Florida home and went into cardiac arrest at age 26, an event that was later attributed to complications of an eating disorder. While her heart was stopped she suffered catastrophic brain injury that left her in what doctors diagnosed as a persistent vegetative state. She was able to breathe on her own and to respond to physical stimuli, such as pain, but was otherwise unconscious of the world around her. She would remain in that state for 15 years.

Bush intervened repeatedly in the bitter dispute between Michael Schiavo, who was his wife’s legal guardian, and Terri’s parents, from whom he became estranged after seeking to remove her feeding tube in 1998. Among the steps Florida’s then-governor took was promoting and signing “Terri’s Law” in 2003, legislation which gave him the power to overrule a court that had affirmed Michael Schiavo’s right to remove Terri’s feeding tube. Bush exercised that power and had the tube replaced before Terri’s Law was struck down by the courts.

Later, Bush lobbied Congress to pass a federal law to again intervene in the case, a law that Jeb’s brother President George W. Bush signed. A federal judge, however, refused to issue an injunction that the Bush brothers sought, which would have required doctors to continue artificial nutrition and hydration while an entirely new review of the case was undertaken.

An aide to U.S. Rep. Mel Martinez was fired for putting in writing what was obvious from the start: that at least part of the motivation for all of the high-level intervention in this very private matter was to stir up the Republican social conservative base. If in the process it required them to trash the reputation of a sad but dutiful young husband, it was simply too bad. If the process exploited the understandable but irrational hopes of Terri Schiavo’s parents, it was collateral damage.

An understandably angry Michael Schiavo wrote a letter to the editor of the Miami Herald last year when it became clear the former governor planned to run for president, condemning Bush’s intervention in the strongest terms. “Jeb Bush had no right to do what he did,” Schiavo wrote, “and voters should consider what someone who used the power of government to hurt so many would do with the power of the presidency.”

If Jeb Bush and his brother thought they were intervening to preserve a human life, they were as deluded as they were arrogant in substituting their distant judgment for that of a judge who patiently sat through hours of expert testimony and carefully weighed it against the relevant medical literature. If they thought, instead, they were simply making a move motivated by astute politics, the Schiavo incident reflects on them even more poorly.

Certainly there were other prominent conservatives who jumped on the broken bandwagon in the Schiavo affair. I singled out one, Wall Street Journal Editorial Page editor Paul Gigot, for particular scorn at the time because of his page’s distorted and viciously personal attack on Michael Schiavo. But only one of those who used the Schiavo family’s pain for potential political gain is currently asking voters to consider him for the presidency.

In the unlikely event Bush resurrects his campaign and captures the GOP nomination this year, I will support him. The alternatives in the other party will likely do far more damage to the country, in my opinion. But my heart won’t fully be behind him as a candidate until I hear that he has apologized to Michael Schiavo for adding to his pain. I am not holding my breath.

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