Human Nature

Deathbed Conversion

The lesson of Tom DeLay’s mortal hypocrisy.

In 1988, Tom DeLay’s 65-year-old father, Charles DeLay, suffered catastrophic brain damage and went into a coma. He had no hope of recovery but evidently reacted when his son entered the room. Although Charles DeLay had no living will, his family concluded that he would be better off dead and wouldn’t want to go on living this way. Tom DeLay joined other family members in deciding to withhold dialysis. His father died.

That story, pieced together from interviews and medical and court records by Walter F. Roche Jr. and Sam Howe Verhovek of the Los Angeles Times, defies Tom DeLay’s pronouncements 16 years later. In the Terri Schiavo case, DeLay condemns the reasoning he and his relatives followed when the tragedy was theirs. Which is more honorable: what DeLay says as a politician, or what he did as a son? And what does that tell us about the wisdom of families and politicians in matters of life and death?

Physically, Charles DeLay was in far worse shape than Terri Schiavo. He needed dialysis, not just nutrition. He was 65, not 41. His body, unlike hers, was failing. But mentally, his condition was similar. According to his sister-in-law, doctors told the family that Charles DeLay would “basically be a vegetable.” A neighbor who had visited him in the hospital said he “did a bit of moaning and groaning, I guess, but you could see there was no way he was coming back.” Tom DeLay’s mother told the Times that her husband seemed unconscious except that “whenever Randy [his son] walked into the room, his heart, his pulse rate, would go up a little bit.”

Friends and relatives considered Charles DeLay’s quality of life and concluded he’d be better off dead. “He was all but gone,” said the neighbor. “He would have been better off if he’d died right there and then.” According to Charles’ sister-in-law, his brother “prayed that, if [Charles] couldn’t have quality of life, that God would take him—and that is exactly what [H]e did.”

God may have taken Charles, but his family held the door open. They inferred, without written evidence, that Charles wouldn’t have wanted to go on living in this condition. “Daddy did not want to be a vegetable,” said Vi Skogen, who at the time was Charles’ daughter-in-law. Tom DeLay’s mother told the Times, “There was no point to even really talking about it. There was no way [Charles] wanted to live like that. Tom knew—we all knew—his father wouldn’t have wanted to live that way.”

That was then. This is now. At a press conference on March 18, Tom DeLay denied that quality of life could be valid grounds for withdrawing Schiavo’s feeding tube. “It’s not for any one of us to decide what her quality of life should be,” he said. “It’s not any one of us to decide whether she should live or die.” Congress, DeLay explained, was intervening against Schiavo’s husband “to protect her constitutional right to live.”

In the absence of a living will, DeLay argued, Schiavo’s spouse couldn’t legally vouch for her wishes, as DeLay’s mother had done—on less apparent basis—for DeLay’s father. When a reporter noted that “Terri Schiavo’s husband has said that she expressed a verbal desire that she not continue in this sort of state,” DeLay replied, “The sanctity of life overshadows the sanctity of marriage. I don’t know what transpired between Terri and her husband. All I know is Terri is alive. … And unless she had specifically written instructions in her hand and with her signature, I don’t care what her husband says.”

A day later, DeLay told reporters that Congress had to intervene rather than “take it from just a few people that have decided whether she lives or dies. For one person in one state court to make this decision is too heavy. That’s why it does take all of us to think this through, think about the Constitution and its protection of life.”

DeLay hasn’t confined his condemnation to the principles on which his family acted. He has condemned the character of people who now apply or defend those principles. On March 18, he charged, “Senators Boxer, Wyden, and Levin have put Mrs. Schiavo’s life at risk to prove a point—an unprecedented profile in cowardice.” A day later, he said of Schiavo’s husband, “I don’t have a whole lot of respect for a man that has treated this woman in this way. … My question is: What kind of man is he?”

Why the difference between then and now? Maybe because DeLay saw his father as a human being. He speaks of Schiavo as something more—and less. “It’s more than just Terri Schiavo,” DeLay told the Family Research Council on March 18. “It is a critical issue for people in this position, and it is also a critical issue to fight the fight for life, whether it be euthanasia or abortion. And I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, one thing that God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo, to elevate the visibility of what’s going on in America.”

This is what happens when you approach a tragedy as a politician rather than as a family member. You see quality of life as a slippery-slope abstraction, not as a reality affecting someone you love. You find it easy to impose a standard of documentation that would have forced your family to break the law. You second-guess a spouse in a way you would never second-guess your mother. You challenge people’s competence and impugn their character. You perceive the afflicted person more as God’s tool than as God’s child.

I don’t have a lot of respect for a man who treats a woman this way. But to dismiss him as a hypocrite would further politicize a case he has already politicized too much. My question is: What kind of man is he? My answer is: He’s a better child than politician. So are we all. That’s why families should make these decisions, and Congress should stay out.