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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Singling Out Schiavo

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 24, 2005; 8:27 AM

When I was a New Jersey newspaper reporter in the 1970s, we ran many stories on the saga of Karen Ann Quinlan. The case drew national attention when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that the 21-year-old brain-damaged woman could be taken off a respirator, although it turned out she survived until 1985.

During this furor over Terri Schiavo, I've been looking back at other such cases. Turns out there were a lot of them.

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The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports on Peter Busalacchi, whose teenage daughter died in 1993 after he won a two-year legal battle to remove her feeding tube after a car accident. John Ashcroft, as governor of Missouri, intervened to prevent the removal of the tube. "He just injected his own religious beliefs in my daughter's case," says Busalacchi.

The Detroit Free Press reports that Mary Martin tried to get her brain-damaged husband's feeding tube removed in 1992. Michigan's highest court blocked removal of the tube, and the Supreme Court refused to take the case in 1996. Martin died of pneumonia in 2001.

The Washington Post reports that Michele Finn of Virginia tried to remove her husband's feeding tube in 1998, but was opposed by his brother, Edward. James Gilmore, then Virginia's governor, intervened against Finn, but the state Supreme Court rejected his appeal and Hugh Finn died later that year.

A blogger named Holden reports at First Draft:

"When my sister, my eldest sibling, was 41 (the same age as Terri Schiavo is today) she suddenly developed a large aneurysm next to her brain stem that, after emergency surgery, left [her] with some paralysis and slurred speech. One week later the distended artery in her brain burst, spraying blood onto her brain stem. . . .

"She had no will, living or otherwise, and had never married. My mother and I, together with no input from any minister, lawyer, congressman, senator or president, decided that my sister would not want her body to be kept alive in this manner. . . .

"How much more horrible would the whole experience have been if a family member had disagreed and the government stepped in, I can't imagine. Frankly, I doubt I would be able to contain myself. I don't know how Michael Schiavo does it, I would be foaming at the mouth and thrashing out at all enemies, genuine and perceived, were I him."

All of which leads me to ask: Why Schiavo? Why now? Heart-rending though her case may be, none of the issues are new.

But she has been elevated to a national symbol by cable news, which wasn't as tabloid a few years ago and didn't exist when Quinlan was hospitalized. The fact that Jeb Bush got involved boosted Schiavo's visibility, as did the fact that her husband and parents were not just fighting but willing to do so on television (Michael Schiavo, for instance, called Tom DeLay a "little slithering snake"). And then the Republican congressional leadership seized upon the case, giving journalists a political angle as well as the legal and moral arguments that drive the coverage of such life-and-death disputes.

I also think it's a factor that Terri Schiavo is a woman, for much the same reason that cable is constantly jumping on reports of missing young girls but you rarely hear about missing young boys.

For now, at least, the outcome in the federal court hearings mandated by Congress is the same as in state court, and Jeb is getting involved again:

"After a predawn ruling by a federal appeals court that rejected efforts to restore nutrition to Terri Schiavo," says the New York Times, "Gov. Jeb Bush on Wednesday succeeded in getting a state court to hear new motions in her case, presenting an affidavit from a neurologist who said Ms. Schiavo's condition appeared less severe than previously thought.

"Governor Bush held a hastily convened news conference Wednesday afternoon to announce the affidavit, and he suggested that state officials might seek to gain legal custody of Ms. Schiavo. Later, state lawyers appeared before Judge George W. Greer of Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, who ordered Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube removed last week, and asked for the second time in a month to intervene in the case. Ms. Schiavo's parents were seeking an appeal with the Supreme Court, which previously had declined to become involved in the case."

And who is Jeb's new expert, William Cheshire? "Dr. Cheshire is the director of a laboratory at the Mayo Clinic branch in Jacksonville that deals with unconscious reflexes like digestion, and a fellow of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, a nonprofit group founded by 'more than a dozen leading Christian bioethicists,' in the words of its Web site."

"And," says USA Today, "if Terri Schiavo's parents expect relief from the U.S. Supreme Court, they'll probably be disappointed.

"The justices have long emphasized the role of the states, rather than federal courts, in deeply personal matters of life and death. They also have resisted congressional interference in matters traditionally decided by courts."

Here are some poll numbers from CBS News:

"An overwhelming 82 percent of the public believes the Congress and President should stay out of the matter. There is widespread cynicism about Congress' motives for getting involved: 74 percent say Congress intervened to advance a political agenda, not because they cared what happened to Terri Schiavo. Public approval of Congress has suffered as a result; at 34 percent, it is the lowest it has been since 1997, dropping from 41 percent last month. Now at 43 percent, President Bush's approval rating is also lower than it was a month ago."

The subject is huge in the blogosphere, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

"Popular as the uncensored bastions of ideological chest-thumping, Web logs have emerged in the debate over Terri Schiavo's fate as something more mature: a place where people struggle to make sense of their complex and contradictory feelings.

"Rantings and ravings still rule the day in the blogosphere, as it's known, with plenty of political sniping. But the saga's strong human element and moral undertones appear to be muting some of the shrillness and creating a virtual backyard fence for people to chat over. . . .

"Mentions of 'Terri Schiavo' on Web logs rose from fewer than 10 a day in December to more than 4,000 on Tuesday, according to Technorati, a search engine that tracks blogs. Another service, BlogPulse, found that online diaries made more mentions of Schiavo between Friday and Monday than they did of President Bush."

Roger Simon is appalled:

"Leave it to Congress to reduce tragedy to farce.

"Leave it to Congress to summon Terri Schiavo to leave Florida . . . and testify in Washington even though she has spent the last 15 years in a persistent vegetative state, a state also called 'wakefulness without awareness.'

"Leave it to Congress to try to 'save' the life of Terri Schiavo, who, according to her doctors, cannot think, feel or have memories. . . .

"Where does Congress get the power to determine the proper medical treatment for individuals? Whatever happened to the sanctity of the family?"

Bill Frist has become something of a lightning rod in the case, as this New York Daily News story makes clear:

"Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who has championed the 'rescue' of Terri Schiavo, is a renowned heart surgeon who has pulled the plug on a 'regular basis,' his office acknowledged Tuesday.

"But Frist (R-Tenn.) ended life support only when the patient was ruled brain-dead, and he is convinced Schiavo is not brain-dead."

A doctor offers a second opinion on Frist's diagnosis in the New Republic.

Josh Marshall, back from his wedding, tries to nail the Hammer:

"Tom DeLay, this is truly the last refuge for this man. The cable networks seem not quite to have caught on to the fact that almost every tentacle of the political machine this man has created is now careening toward federal or state indictments. So here he is wrapping himself in the cloth of this family tragedy, in an effort to whip up the most whippable of his supporters in his defense, and in so doing finding the hand of God working in this woman's hospice care and in his own exposure as one of the most corrupt congressional leaders in American history."

One of the advantages of having a Web site is that you can attempt to correct mistakes by other media, as Jonathan Last does here in the Weekly Standard,:

"In her article Provocative Snapshots of a Many-Layered Issue in Wednesday's New York Times, Virginia Heffernan writes:

"William Kristol, the founder of The Weekly Standard, ventured to assert with conviction on Fox News, 'She can recover substantially if she gets the proper rehabilitation.'

"Heffernan is incorrect on two counts. First, the statement on Fox News Sunday was made by Fred Barnes, not William Kristol. Second, Barnes was not, as Heffernan suggests, offering his own judgment. Here is what Barnes said:

"And thirdly, Majority Leader Bill Frist did do one thing that was important. He talked to one of the neurologists who has examined her who says she can recover substantially if she gets the proper rehabilitation."

Elsewhere in the political realm, ordinary MSM members can't make such declarative judgments, but Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg has this to say about Social Security:

"George W. Bush's plan to remake the Social Security system is kaput. This is not a value judgment. It's a statement of political fact. In the months since the president first presented the idea as his top domestic priority, Democrats in Congress have unexpectedly unified in opposition to any reform based on private accounts. Several Republican senators whose votes would be needed for passage are resisting private accounts as well. And public opinion, which has never favored any form of privatization, is trending even more strongly against Bush's scheme. At this point, there's just no way that the president can finagle enough votes to win.

"This means that Bush is about to suffer -- and is actually in the midst of suffering -- his first major political defeat. After passing all his most important first-term domestic priorities (a tax cut, an education-reform bill, domestic security legislation, another tax cut), Bush faces a second term that is beginning with a gigantic rebuke: A Congress solidly controlled by his own party is repudiating his top goal. It's precisely what happened to Bill Clinton, when Congress rejected his health-care reform proposal in 1993. As the Clinton example shows, such a setback doesn't doom an administration. But how Bush handles the defeat is likely to be a decisive factor in determining whether he accomplishes any of the other big-ticket items on his agenda.

"The first question to ask is whether Bush can face up to defeat. Not whether he can acknowledge defeat publicly: Few presidents are capable of graciously admitting their screw-ups, and this one is more reluctant to do so than most. The issue is whether Bush can acknowledge to himself that's he's belly-flopped on Social Security. If he can't, the endgame is likely to be fairly ugly for the GOP. Bush will expend more political capital twisting the arms of senators in a fruitless cause."

Of course, Bush could still work out a compromise far different than his original proposal and declare victory.

I thought we knew everything, good and bad, about Richard Milhous Nixon, but Newsweek's Mike Isikoff and Mark Hosenball come up with an eye-opener:

"Assigned to research the history of U.S. counterterrorism policy, a September 11 Commission researcher last year stumbled upon a bizarre discovery: in the aftermath of the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972, President Richard M. Nixon was briefed on terror plots that had been divined by professional psychic Jeane Dixon.

"The relationship between Nixon and Dixon, whose followers believed had prophesied the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, has been almost entirely overlooked by historians. But Dixon's supply of psychic 'intelligence' to Nixon is fully documented on little-noticed White House tapes. They show that the president's loyal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, gave the president detailed briefings on offbeat national-security forecasts from a woman that Nixon called 'the soothsayer.' "

Holy cow! And they made fun of Nancy Reagan for consulting an astrologer?

After the '72 Olympics massacre, " 'There are going to be killings here in America, bombing of Jews,' Woods told the president, explaining she had just been told this in a recent session she had with Dixon. The psychic (who at the time wrote a newspaper astrology column) warned that Jewish leaders were going 'to commence attacks on you [Nixon] for not protecting them,' according to Woods's briefing. But she said Dixon was concerned for the president -- and advised him not to 'say something.'

"Dixon's reasoning: there were so many prominent Jewish Americans ('all the big radio stations and TV stations and the newspaper people are Jewish people') that 'there was no way to protect them.'"

All of them were Jewish?

"One possible terror target was Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham, whose father was born Jewish. 'Harm could come to Kate Graham if she opens some package in her office -- not her house,' Woods reported to the president. 'But [Dixon] is not going to pass that on, she's not going to call Graham and tell her this.' "

Fortunately for those of us at The Post, Dixon was wrong.

Nixon, meanwhile, apparently took these things seriously: " 'Rose talks to this soothsayer, Jeane Dixon, all the time,' Nixon told Kissinger, according to a tape of the Sept. 21, 1972, meeting. 'They are desperate that [the terrorists] will kidnap somebody. They may shoot somebody. We have got to have a plan.'"

And how reliable was Dixon? "She predicted, for example, that World War III would erupt in 1958 over the offshore Chinese islands of Quemoy and Matsu. She predicted that the Soviets would beat the United States to the moon. She predicted that cancer would be cured by 1967."

Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum chides The Washington Post over the following:

"Look, I know that mocking headlines on news websites is sort of silly. Sometimes there isn't room to say anything other than an obvious banality.

"But honestly, 'Cheney Lauds Bush Appointees'? Is it seriously supposed to be front page news that the vice president thinks well of the president's appointees? Can a toughminded interview with Jenna and Barbara be far behind?"

It was later changed to "Cheney Defends Bush Appointments" to match the front-page headline in the paper, which doesn't exactly undercut Drum's point.


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