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Michael Kinsley

Dance of the Stem Cells

By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page B07

Maybe I missed it, but it seems as if Laura Bush has not had her Lady Macbeth Moment. This is the period, hallowed by tradition if not actually written into the Constitution, when the media discover that the president's wife is the power behind the throne. She is not the sweet helpmate she appears to be. Underneath, there is steel. In fact, she is a (insert a word -- there are more than one -- beginning with "b"). She is her husband's closest adviser and a fierce protector of his place in history. She curbs his partisan instincts or, alternatively, she keeps him on the ideological course. A well-known male rival for the president's ear has been fired on her instructions.

Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush all had their moments. It was a challenge to fit Hillary Clinton into this template, but with a few little fixes (the demure helpmate stuff had to go), she was squeezed in. But when does Laura Bush get her turn? For almost four years she has loyally played along with the treacly conceit, assigned to her at the beginning of the administration, that her only public policy passion is libraries. As far as anyone knows, she has never questioned or failed to obey the instructions of the president's official advisers and spinmeisters. Of course, neither has her husband.

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Then last week she suddenly popped off about stem cells. But this was hardly her breakthrough moment. A lot of Republican politicians and operatives spoke out about stem cells last week, all miraculously making the same argument -- an argument so embarrassingly silly and disingenuous that it could only be an official campaign talking point. Anyone thinking for herself would have a hard time getting it out without giggling.

As Laura Bush put it, George Bush "is the only president to ever authorize federal funding for embryonic stem cell research." She noted that "few people know" this. Few may have known it, but many might have guessed. It is true indeed that Bush's predecessors, from George Washington to Bill Clinton, failed to fund embryonic stem cell research. Even Abraham Lincoln. Not a penny for stem-cell research from any of them. Historians believe this might have been because it didn't exist yet. But that's just a guess.

George Bush gave this nascent research a tiny sliver of money and piled on a smothering load of restrictions. As Laura Bush did not note, that makes Bush the only president ever to authorize federal rules against stem cell research.

It is characteristic of George W. Bush that he would not see, or have no patience for, the irony of justifying a policy on moral grounds and then, when it comes under attack, claiming that the policy is not having the very effect he is supposed to want. Meanwhile, it is characteristic of the Bush political machine to be utterly fearless about insisting that things are the way it would be convenient for them to be, despite all evidence that things are the way they really are.

The purpose of Bush's stem cell policy is to discourage medical research using embryos. Bush is supposed to think that these clumps of a few dozen cells are every bit as human as the people who will suffer or die from diseases that stem cells could cure. He had better believe that, because stem-cell research uses embryos being discarded by fertility clinics and doesn't actually add to the embryonic death toll at all. Only a deep conviction about the humanity of these microscopic dots -- which have fewer human characteristics than a potato -- could justify sacrificing real human lives to make the purely symbolic point that these dots are human too.

Scientists are in agreement that Bush's policy is succeeding. Stem cell research has been drastically slowed. Yet Bush surrogates now pretend that the policy's real success is its failure to stop this research completely. Hey! You're supposed to think all those embryos being used in privately funded research are human victims, remember? It's a huge tragedy, remember? Stop bragging about it.

In a display of her husband's famous compassionate conservatism, Laura Bush scolded that "it really isn't fair to people who are watching a loved one suffer" to overplay the promise of stem cells. She said, helpfully, "We don't know that stem cell research will provide cures for anything."

As someone with a loved one (myself, as it happens) who has the disease (Parkinson's) for which stem cells hold the most promise, please allow me to say: Thank you so much, Mrs. Bush, for trying to make sure that I don't get too hopeful. While your husband and Sen. John Kerry make a major issue out of who is more optimistic, it is inspiring to have a first lady with the courage to say: Let's be pessimistic! Optimism is unfair!

But talk is cheap. While Laura Bush is destroying hope by the traditional method of spreading gloom and pessimism, her husband is bringing the pessimist's art into the 21st century by actually destroying the objective basis for hope. While she battles rhetorically against false hopes, he works to ensure that there is no hope at all.

On balance, I think I prefer her approach.

The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.


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