Who Is George W. Bush?

To Paul, Evan, et al.:

I don’t think any discussion of Bush’s compassion or his conservatism would be complete without taking a look at how he treats criminal-justice issues. And in Texas, any discussion of criminal justice must start with the death penalty.

I happen to be horrified at the number of people being executed in Texas, but I also flinch when I see stories that refer to how many executions have occurred on Bush’s watch. That makes it sound like Bush himself is down in Huntsville, black-hooded, syringe in hand. You’ve got to understand that the folks being executed now were tried and convicted—most before Bush even became governor—by Texas juries, with prosecutors and judges elected by Texas voters. Texans support the death penalty and have shown pretty liberal willingness to invoke it. The legislature, elected by Texans, has repeatedly approved new circumstances for application of the death penalty (murder of a child under the age of 6 comes to mind) while declining opportunities to curb its use (the legislature rejected an effort to prohibit the execution of mentally retarded offenders).

As governor, Bush is empowered to do three things about executions: He can give a pardon, he can commute someone’s sentence to a life sentence, or he can grant a 30-day reprieve (allowing someone whose appeal hasn’t been thoroughly vetted more time). While there have been 100-plus executions during the Bush administration, I know of no circumstance where someone on the verge of death has been proved at the last minute (by DNA or other conclusive evidence) to be innocent. So, unlike the governor of Illinois, Bush has not had a case where the governor needed to act immediately to stop the state from making a heinous mistake.

Pam mentioned the case of Betty Lou Beets, the woman who claimed she killed her husband because he abused her. Certainly everyone concedes that the discovery of not one, but two, dead husbands’ bodies in Ms. Beets’ backyard makes her a less sympathetic figure. But let’s assume Betty Lou deserves our sympathy. It is important to note that Bush could have commuted her sentence to life imprisonment. He could not have given her a sentence of life without parole—that option does not exist in Texas. So, Betty Lou would have been eligible for parole and possibly released. I’m reminded of the last time a Texas governor commuted a bunch of death-penalty sentences to life, which happened when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the existing death-penalty law was unconstitutional. One of the less-than-delightful human beings who received a commuted sentence was Kenneth Wayne McDuff. (People from Texas reading this need no further explanation; for you non-Texans, McDuff went on to kill a half-dozen more people in pretty horrific circumstances before he was caught again.)

But what about executing mentally retarded offenders? Our current law is based on the assumption that the offender committed with 1) malice aforethought and that 2) he or she has proclivities for future dangerousness. I fail to see how those standards can be applied to the mentally retarded. Last session, the legislature considered a bill that would have exempted the mentally retarded from the death penalty. It had some Republican support, but not Bush’s. The measure died. We’re killing enough folks here in Texas; I hardly think we need to be executing the mentally impaired. That’s not compassion. The governor missed a good opportunity to demonstrate his concern for society’s less fortunate members.

Paul, Evan, as far as how the governor seems to be handling himself on a national scale: Let’s not ignore the effect of negative spin by the national press. Paul, you mentioned Bush’s “whining” about his pillow in January. I read the same stories and had a different reaction: I wondered how the pack journalists, who were in full swoon over McCain at the time, would have reacted if the senator from Arizona had admitted he missed his own bed. I can only imagine: “McCain has thrown himself so completely into this effort, the poor thing’s exhausted.” “Isn’t that cuuute … he’s a homebody at heart.” Please. That’s why it’s dangerous to try to glean character from what might simply be personality quirks. Bush’s smirk, for example, has impressed some of us as a well-tuned sense of irony. Even self-deprecation. I’m continually amazed at the level of pure contempt expressed in the regular news columns. Maureen Dowd, Molly Ivins, have at it. But the anti-Bush sentiment is palpable in almost every newsmagazine story I read.

Evan, I disagree that literacy is a “soft” issue. Fill in the blank: Our sprawling Texas prisons are filled to capacity with 1) contemptible human beings, 2) minorities, 3) poor people, 4) illiterates. If you didn’t choose “all of the above,” you don’t have the full picture. Illiteracy is at the root of most of our social problems. Yeah, it may play well with the effort to win the women’s vote, but I know you’re not insinuating that women don’t care about important things, right?