Special Report

Is This “It”?

Terri Schiavo as a national turning point.

By 3.24.05

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Conservatives have been asking themselves the question for years: "Is this finally it?" "This" being whatever event in the news exemplified a current gag-making excess of the culture or the polity or the law, and "it" being the point at which the nation as a whole simply won't take it anymore. There have been many points along the way when it seemed as though society might rear up and refuse to go in the current direction.

So far, no.

The Bill Clinton impeachment wave fell well short of taking out the establishment dam. Al Gore, fortunately, did not win the 2000 election, which I thought might lead to rebellion in the land, so that "it" never got tested. And while the 9/11 attacks moved the political center to the right, they did not "change everything," as it seemed they might. More recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court's creation of "gay marriage," while it influenced a number of state elections, still did not quite create a massive political turnaround -- rather something more like a teeth-grinding Clinton stall.

Certain "it" moments have actually occurred. The left has been trying to re-stage the destruction of public support for the Vietnam war and, twinned with it, Richard Nixon's downfall, ever since. California's Proposition 13 campaign, described in my column, "The California Circus Redux," started a round of tax rollbacks that inspired other state tax-cut initiatives and climaxed in the 1984 Tax Reform Act under Ronald Reagan. That, in turn, led to the prosperity which has latterly defined American life. My column pointed out the similarities between Proposition 13 and the Gray Davis California gubernatorial recall vote, all the ramifications of which have yet to be realized.

"Sooner or later," I concluded, "voters will rise up and cut politicians off at the knees. The results might not be pretty. Only richly deserved."

IS THE TERRI SCHIAVO CASE THE "IT" MOMENT OF NATIONAL POLITICS? Will this be the point at which country's consciousness turns, as it turned on the flights of two helicopters, one from Saigon, one from Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s? Or on the landslide brass-off the voters delivered to the political establishment decades ago in California?

It will depend on how the question gets answered, "Who killed Terri Schiavo?" Because, by the time this column appears, Terri Schiavo will have gone more than 150 hours with her feeding tube disconnected. She cannot last long.

So far, Democrats have acted as though they were most afraid the answer was going to be, "Democrats Killed Terri Schiavo." A little elementary political legerdemain could have made that one impossible. The Democratic leadership could have simply backed the bill to save Terri's life. That's what it was, after all, nothing more complicated than that.

The Democrats, stuck in Bolshevik oppositionism, couldn't do it. As a result, they still may get blamed.

Ideally, a conservative political movement would like to make the answer, "The Courts Killed Terri Schiavo." Several things argue in favor of that one. Notably, it's true. Most recently, the three-judge appeals court's panel's refusal to reconnect Terri's feeding tube should be seen for what it is: Slow-walking the case, and Terri, to death. That decision, now reaffirmed by the full Eleventh Circuit, shows the judiciary at its most remote, arrogant, and imperial, deliberately ignoring the will of Congress for a "de novo" review of the case.

The judiciary could have dodged that one, too, and simply made the case disappear. Some lower court judge long ago should have seen this case on its human merits and found a reason to set aside husband Michael Schiavo's petition. But judges, a score of them so far, have proved just as ossified as Democrats.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the last resort, could pull some Solomon-like stroke from beneath his robes. If he doesn't somehow get Terri's feeding tube re-attached, and soon, he risks arousing a public answer like, "Anthony Kennedy Killed Terri Schiavo" or "The Supreme Court Killed Terri Schiavo."

WHAT WILL GEORGE W. BUSH DO? He will carry the message, whatever it is. If he were a Gingrich-esque ideologue, he would try to invoke The Culture of Death. If he were as ruthless a machine politico as Lyndon Johnson, with Johnson's malign gifts, he would blame the Democrats. Because he has campaigned for years against activist judges, it seems most likely he will try to do some version of that here.

One remarkable thing stands out. The U.S. Congress, ordinarily the most craven and cowardly of institutional creatures, has been moved to act -- and act fast -- to stand up to the judiciary. Conservatives would love to be able to say that judicial overreach has finally gone far enough. Finally, in this view, legislators will have been compelled to try to hammer some sense into courts grown increasingly remote from, and destructive to, the nation as a whole.

If George W. Bush can make the nation cry, "The Courts Killed Terri Schiavo," he may be able to engineer a long-overdue reassertion of the people's power over judges. But that has to be done through Congress, and Congress will likely reassert its cowardice, not its courage. It will try to hold hearings, ill-defined and exhaustively broadcast, and come up with some new "Bill of Rights," toothlessly meddlesome. Enough Republicans could defect to the desire for quiet to sign on.

If that happens, the judiciary will get away with murder. President Bush has not only to rally the nation, but to keep the heat on Congress.

Courts have been disobeying people for a long, long time. If poor Terri Schiavo rouses the people and their representatives to start disobeying the courts, then yes, this will be it, the moment of a political generation.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.