Cruel and Unusual

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

June 23, 2005

"Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" asked Joseph Welch in his famous confrontation with the pathologically cruel Joe McCarthy. "Have you left no sense of decency?"

More than a half-century later, I would ask the same question of Florida's governor, Jeb Bush.

In an abuse of power that has been widely denounced, and has even appalled many of his own supporters in the Republican Party, Governor Bush has tried to keep the Terri Schiavo circus alive by sending state prosecutors on a witch hunt against her husband, Michael.

The state attorney who has been pushed by the governor into pursuing this case told me yesterday he has seen nothing to indicate that a crime was committed. Nevertheless, the inquiry continues.

Governor Bush asked Bernie McCabe, the state attorney for Pinellas County, to "take a fresh look" at this already exhaustively investigated case to determine, among other things, whether Michael Schiavo had perhaps waited too long to call for help after discovering that his wife had collapsed early one morning 15 years ago.

Mr. McCabe did not seem particularly enthusiastic about his mission. "I wouldn't call it an investigation," he told me in a telephone conversation. The word "investigation," he said, "is a term of art in my business."

He then explained: "When I conduct an investigation, it would mean that I have a criminal predicate. In other words, that I have some indication that a crime has occurred. That's my job.

"In this circumstance, that does not exist at this time. So what I'm attempting to do is respond to the governor's request by conducting what I'm calling an 'inquiry' to see if I can resolve the issues he raised."

He chuckled at his use of the word inquiry. "It may be a distinction without a difference," he said.

Whatever term is used, the governor's continued pursuit of Mr. Schiavo in the absence of any evidence that he has done anything wrong is a clear example of government power being used as a club to punish someone for political reasons. The unwarranted harassment of an ordinary citizen by the most powerful political figure in his state is an affront to the very idea of freedom that Mr. Bush and his brother in the White House are so fond of preaching.

The political exploitation of this tragic case has been uniquely grotesque. Ms. Schiavo died March 31 following the court-ordered removal of her feeding tube. An autopsy supported Mr. Schiavo's contention that his wife had been in a persistent vegetative state. She was unaware of anything and incapable of recovering. At her death at age 41, Ms. Schiavo's withered brain was half the normal size for a woman her age.

Governor Bush was one of the leaders of the pack of politicians who vehemently opposed Mr. Schiavo's efforts to have his wife's feeding tube removed. Much of what was said was outrageous. Eleven days before she died, Tom DeLay declared: "Terri Schiavo is not brain dead. She talks and she laughs, and she expresses happiness and discomfort. Terri Schiavo is not on life support."

Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican and a physician from Oklahoma, said: "All you have to do is look at her on TV. Any doctor with any conscience can look at her and know that she does not have a terminal disease and know that she has some function."

All agree that Terri Schiavo is now dead, but Governor Bush insists on keeping the craziness going.

Mr. Schiavo has said over the years that his wife collapsed around 4:30 or 5 o'clock in the morning and that he quickly called 911. He has always stressed that he was making a rough estimate about the time. His call to 911 was recorded at 5:40 a.m.

Quick, try to remember with any precision the exact time of a traumatic incident that happened to you or a relative 10 or 15 years ago. Not only is it difficult to do, but the degree of precision deteriorates as the years pass.

Governor Bush's continued pursuit of Mr. Schiavo is not just pointless, it's cruel and unconscionable.

I pressed Mr. McCabe, the state attorney. If there's no evidence that a crime has been committed, I asked, then what is the purpose of the inquiry?

"My purpose," he said, "is simply to respond to the governor. The governor's asked me to do something, and I'm going to try to do it."

Welcome to power politics, American style.

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com