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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Culture War

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 25, 2005; 7:31 AM

Our great national shouting match over Terri Schiavo has moved way beyond the brain-damaged woman herself.

Fueled by media excess, grandstanding politicians, feuding relatives, screaming activists, limelight-loving lawyers and the usual panoply of high-decibel pundits, each side now accuses the other of hypocrisy, bad faith and worse.

_____More Media Notes_____
Singling Out Schiavo (washingtonpost.com, Mar 24, 2005)
Shouting Over Schiavo (washingtonpost.com, Mar 23, 2005)
Retooling the Nation's Newspaper (washingtonpost.com, Mar 21, 2005)
Swing and a Miss (washingtonpost.com, Mar 18, 2005)
DeLaying the Story (washingtonpost.com, Mar 17, 2005)
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The prime target is George and Jeb Bush, Tom DeLay and the Republicans who, according to liberals, have cast aside their conservative principles to posture as guardians of morality who would spare Schiavo's life. There has been less fire directed at the Democratic position -- quite possibly because there apparently is no Democratic position -- but those who say the courts have already ruled and Michael Schiavo's position should be respected are getting their share of abuse as pro-starvation murderers.

In short, the transformation is now complete: The Schiavo case, which has dragged on for 15 long years, is now a full-fledged chapter in the culture wars. The case has become a club with which the various warriors smack each other. And the media, which love political combat as much as they cherish soap operas, are gorging on both as they turn the case into a round-the-clock talkfest with "breaking news" gusto.

The state courts, the federal courts, the Supreme Court, Congress, Bush and the Florida legislature may all have acted, but as long as Terri Schiavo's life hangs in the balance ("7TH DAY WITHOUT FEEDING TUBE"), journalists have their Easter-season narrative.

Losing track of all the appeals? "The Supreme Court declined Thursday to hear the case of Terri Schiavo, and a state judge rejected Gov. Jeb Bush's effort to intervene, prompting a last-ditch legal scramble by Ms. Schiavo's parents as her death grew more imminent," reports the New York Times.

"The rulings Thursday by the nation's highest court and by the trial judge who first handled the case seven years ago added to a long string of legal defeats for the parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, despite aggressive efforts by Congress, the White House and, most recently, the governor of Florida to force the resumption of life support."

Is the family feud really about money? "The Schindlers say their son-in-law is starving Terri to death. They want to keep her alive and try to [rehabilitate] her," says USA Today.

"But it also appears to be a fight over money -- how a $1 million malpractice settlement Schiavo won 13 years ago over Terri's care should be spent.

"Without that emotional public schism, the Schiavo case might simply have been one of thousands of wrenching family decisions about life and death that unfold quietly every year."

Let's turn it over to the debaters, beginning with Andrew Sullivan angry about the GOP's drift:

"It's been a fascinating few days, watching today's Republicans grapple with their own internal contradictions. It's been clear now for a while that the religious right controls the base of the Republican party, and that fiscal left-liberals control its spending policy. That's how you develop a platform that supports massive increases in debt and amending the Constitution for religious right social policy objectives. But the Schiavo case is breaking new ground.

"For the religious right, states' rights are only valid if they do not contradict religious teaching. So a state court's ruling on, say, marriage rights or the right to die, or medical marijuana, must be over-ruled -- either by the intervention of the federal Congress or by removing the authority of judges to rule in such cases, or by a Constitutional amendment. Fred Barnes, a born-again Christian conservative makes the point succinctly here:

"True, there is an arguable federalism issue: whether taking the issue out of a state's jurisdiction is constitutional. But it pales in comparison with the moral issue.

"You can't have a clearer statement of the fact that religious right morality trumps constitutional due process. Of course it does. The religious right recognizes one ultimate authority: their view of God."

And that brings this gay commentator to his favorite issue:

"The case also highlights -- in another wonderful irony -- how religious right morality even trumps civil marriage. It is simply amazing to hear the advocates of the inviolability of the heterosexual civil marital bond deny Terri Schiavo's legal husband the right to decide his wife's fate, when she cannot decide it for herself. Again, the demands of the religious right pre-empt constitutionalism, federalism, and even the integrity of the family. When conservatism means breaking up the civil bond between a man and his wife, you know it has ceased to be conservative. But we have known that for a long time now. Conservatism is a philosophy without a party in America any more. It has been hijacked by zealots and statists."

Equally impassioned, on the other side of the moral and cultural debate, is Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan

"I do not understand the emotionalism of the pull-the-tube people. What is driving their engagement? Is it because they are compassionate, and their hearts bleed at the thought that Mrs. Schiavo suffers? But throughout this case no one has testified that she is in persistent pain, as those with terminal cancer are.

"If they care so much about her pain, why are they unconcerned at the suffering caused her by the denial of food and water? And why do those who argue for Mrs. Schiavo's death employ language and imagery that is so violent and aggressive? The chairman of the Democratic National Committee calls Republicans 'brain dead.' Michael Schiavo, the husband, calls House Majority Leader Tom DeLay 'a slithering snake.'

"Everyone who has written in defense of Mrs. Schiavo's right to live has received e-mail blasts full of attacks that appear to have been dictated by the unstable and typed by the unhinged. On Democratic Underground they crowed about having 'kicked the [expletive] out of the fascists.' On Tuesday James Carville's face was swept with a sneer so convulsive you could see his gums as he damned the Republicans trying to help Mrs. Schiavo. It would have seemed demonic if he weren't a buffoon.

"Why are they so committed to this woman's death?

"They seem to have fallen half in love with death.

"What does Terri Schiavo's life symbolize to them? What does the idea that she might continue to live suggest to them?

"Why does this prospect so unnerve them? Again, if you think Terri Schiavo is a precious human gift of God, your passion is explicable. The passion of the pull-the-tube people is not."

InstaPundit registers a dissent:

"I certainly don't know Ms. Schiavo's condition, as I'm not a doctor and haven't evaluated her -- not that that's stopping others. But I think it's absurd to claim, as many are, that a cabal of liberal judges wants to murder Terri Shiavo because it is -- in Peggy Noonan's absurdly over-the-top phrase -- 'half in love with death.' To be fair, Noonan aims that phrase at others, really. But I think that many on the right have succumbed to hysteria here. This is a tragic situation, and it's been turned into a circus."

New York Post columnist Deborah Orin captures the partisan bickering:

"Republicans, with just a few exceptions, joined in backing Terri's law, making this another issue -- like Iraq -- on which Dems are split down the middle, while Republicans, however uneasily, share a broader agreement

"Many Democratic strategists now point to polls that claim most Americans back letting Terri Schiavo die -- but Republicans say those media polls are badly flawed by biased questions, including one that falsely said she's on life support. 'I think the Republicans are making fools of themselves -- the public thinks they're grandstanding,' said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

"But GOP pollster Ed Goeas said: 'You'd get a very different answer in a poll if you asked, 'If this was your child, would you want to kill her?' "

Former Clintonite Sid Blumenthal slams both Bushes and the Republicans:

"The politics of piety were transparently masked by Republicans in their attempt to make capital over the fate of Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman who has been locked in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years and whose feeding tube was ordered removed by a Florida state judge at the request of her husband. At last, the case that had been considered by 19 judges in seven courts and appealed to the Supreme Court three times, which refused to hear it, seemed resolved.

"But Republican congressional leaders and President Bush seized upon the court ruling as the moment for 'a great political issue,' as a memo circulated among Senate Republicans put it. The Democrats, it declared, would find it 'tough,' and the conservative 'pro-life base will be excited.' The president, who had hesitated for three days before making a statement on the tsunami last December, rushed from his Crawford, Texas, ranch back to the White House to sign the legislation. . . .

"In 1999, then Gov. George W. Bush signed a Texas law permitting hospitals to cease artificial life support when doctors decide reasonable hope is gone, even if the patient's family objects. Now, two months into his second term, his major domestic initiative to privatize Social Security is doomed, his budget dead on arrival and his favorability ratings down to 45 percent approval, his low point. His brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, has campaigned for years on the Schiavo holy crusade, and has even hired a prominent religious right-wing leader as the lawyer to represent the state in the case. The agonized parents in their legal battle have made themselves financial dependencies on two conservative groups, one antiabortion, the other with a stated mission to 'confront and challenge the radical legal agenda advocating homosexual behavior.' (The Schindler-Schiavo Foundation is under investigation by the state of Florida for operating illegally.)"

American Prospect's Terence Samuel meanwhile, is more upset about DeLay:

"While a close reading of this case suggests that it is about many things (including politics, religion, modern medicine, aggressive weight loss, fertility treatments, medical malpractice awards, and deep moral and ideological beliefs), the moment Congress got involved, you suddenly realized that there are new, unknown depths of amazement yet to be plumbed in Washington.

"House Majority [Leader] Tom DeLay teared up as he talked about Terri's -- and he always called her Terri -- 'parched' mouth and her 'throbbing' hunger pangs. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist -- that is, Dr. Bill Frist -- said that, based on a (four-year-old) videotape he had seen, he was not sure if 15 years worth of legal and medical opinion asserting that Schiavo was in a 'persistent vegetative state,' with almost no prospect of recovery or rehabilitation, was sufficiently reliable to allow the removal of her feeding tube. And it was on these wispy feelings and amorphous evidence that Congress set out to make law -- law, it must have been clear, that would have no practical effect in the Schiavo case. There was no lack of conviction or moral clarity.

" 'I say again: The legal and political issues may be complicated, but the moral ones are not,' DeLay insisted. 'A young woman in Florida is being dehydrated and starved to death. For 58 long hours, her mouth has been parched and her hunger pangs have been throbbing. If we do not act, she will die of thirst. However helpless, Mr. Speaker, she is alive. She is still one of us. And this cannot stand.'

"Pardon the cynical among us who could also discern a certain political byplay in the proceedings, an overture to the high-maintenance, Christian evangelical wing of the GOP, which is constantly looking for new fronts to wage the war on abortion and found one in the Schiavo case."

Kevin Drum is following the numbers at Washington Monthly:

"A couple of days ago ABC News released a poll showing that huge majorities thought congressional action in the Terri Schiavo case was motivated by political expediency, not by genuine concern for Terri Schivao. Conservatives immediately cried foul, saying that the wording of the poll was fishy and the results not to be trusted.

"On Wednesday, CBS News released its own poll. The result? An even bigger landslide for political expediency, 74% to 13%. The public -- including even most stone conservatives -- sure seems to have Tom DeLay pegged, don't they?"

Steven Hart at Opinion Mill ratchets up the rhetoric even further:

"It's now official: the Terri Schiavo cult has sundered its last connections with reality and is drifting rudderless on a sea of obsessions. The tragedy of a woman whose brain has been destroyed, and the misery of a husband trying to keep faith with her wishes, no longer has any meaning to the people who claim to be protecting her. Terri Schiavo is now a mascot . . . cherished by religious zealots who fancy themselves persecuted because the eagle on the National Seal has not yet been replaced with a 3-D image of Jesus Christ. Terri Schiavo has become all things to all wingers. . . .

"We are witnessing the birth of a new legend. Winger historians will add the Schiavo story to their oft-repeated tales of activist judges, liberal journalists and secret cabals led by Hillary Clinton."

Powerlinewhich played a role in exposing CBS's National Guard memos, is wondering about the Republican strategy memo that, oddly enough, fails to list an author:

"Confirming what we reported, ABC News has admitted that it knows nothing about the origins of the 'GOP talking points' memo that it first published. An ABC source writes:

"the memo discussed a republican bill and was distributed to repulbican senators. That's what we reported. we are obviously not going to divulge our multiple sources. I appeciate your questions, but believe you are approaching this from the wrong end. We asked numerous sources -- all confirmed that senators had received the memo in conjunction with one of the bills on the floor. For three days none of those sources has given us any reason to think there is more to the memo than a particularly naked expression of the politics of Shivo case.

"Try to ignore the spelling. ABC first reported the memo as a bombshell that disclosed Republican strategy. Now it says that the memo 'discussed a republican bill' and was 'distributed to [some] repulbican [sic] senators.' Whatever ABC may think of the 'politics of the Shivo [sic] case,' the network admits that it knows nothing about who authored and distributed the memo.

"UPDATE: I should have made clear that this email wasn't sent to me, I got it from another blogger who has had extensive communication with ABC on this topic."

Maybe the Powerline gang is right. But knocking down an unsigned memo by reporting an unsigned e-mail?

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