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Whats worse The exploitation

What's worse? The exploitation of tragedy in the Terri Schiavo case, or the exploitation of triumph in the previous big media human interest story, Ashley Smith? (In case you somehow missed it, Smith was the young woman who managed to pacify and then escape serial murderer Brian Nichols in Atlanta, ultimately leading to his peaceful surrender).

The former is far worse, no doubt, since the exploiters have explicitly political goals and some very specific plans for each and every one of us.

But now The New Republic's Lee Siegel has broken the general taboo against publicly uttering what I heard many people privately saying at the height of the Smith furor: the media, and especially CNN, bought into the religious interpretation of Smith's courageous acts with an almost evangelical avidity. As you probably know, the part of the story that's led it to be described as some sort of theodicy (an illustration of the divine purpose in apparent evil) is the fact that Smith read Nichols a passage from The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren's evangelical self-help bestseller. She also discussed her own difficult life with Nichols, and cooked him pancakes with "real butter," but it's the Warren book that's getting the credit, almost as much as Smith's own level-headedness.

Now it's not terribly surprising Smith had a copy of Warren's book on hand; it is, after all, the largest selling hardcover book in publishing history, with 20 million copies sold so far (a figure that's sure to climb still higher on the wings of the Smith story). And I have little doubt that being in the presence of an accused rapist and multiple murderer--indeed, sitting with him as the television showed nonstop coverage of the manhunt for him--led Smith, like anyone else, to a preoccupation with Ultimate Things.

But the idea that Smith was simply the Handmaiden of the Lord--the instrument for Nichols' redemption, and for the ever-more-efficient disseminatinon of the Therapeutic Gospel according to Rick Warren--is a story line that's gaining a surprising amount of currency, even in mainstream media sources (I can only imagine what conservative Christian media are doing with it).

Siegel accuses CNN of using the Smith saga to improve its reputation and viewership among Christian evangelicals. I suspect its saturation coverage of the whole event had more to do with proximity than strategy; CNN invariably over-reports any story originating near its Atlanta studios.

As a Christian, I have a holy fear of this kind of story, because it is almost invariably exploited by those who want to sell a very particular type of Christianity in implied hostility to every other form of faith. Remember that previous alleged divine intervention in Georgia, the claims by one Nancy Fowler that she was receiving private messages from the Virgin Mary in a location near the suburban town of Conyers? Those messages invariably endorsed a particularly conservative Catholicism--so conservative, in fact, that the Church hierarchy largely disavowed them.

Those Christians who are rushing to take sectarian credit for Ashley Smith's courage are committing a whole host of spiritually dangerous and ethically questionable acts, among them the breezy dismissal of Brian Nichols' victims as collateral damage in the divine plan to get more readers for Reverend Rick. They need to get away from the cameras, and the cameras need to get away from this story, for good.

This weekend WaPos David

This weekend WaPo's David Broder did a column hyping Rep. Clay Shaw's "idea" of throwing in the towel on Social Security privatization and just borrowing a few trillion bucks to create "add-on" accounts, which in a different form were once proposed by Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

But today the LA Times' Ron Brownstein rains pretty hard on add-ons as any sort of "face-saving" compromise.

Clinton and Gore backed the idea when the federal budget enjoyed a huge surplus; now, with the government again so deeply in the red, skeptics are asking whether subsidizing more retirement saving should be a higher priority than expanding access to healthcare or reducing the deficit itself.

And GOPers, despite their growing interest in a way out of the Social Security cul de sac where Bush has taken them, like "add-on" accounts even less:

Almost all congressional conservatives view such accounts as a new entitlement that would expand the welfare state; that's the view among Bush's top economic advisors as well. And that conflicts with a key, if rarely articulated, conservative goal in this debate: shrinking the size of government and encouraging Americans to rely more on the market, and less on public programs, for economic security.

"I don't think you solve a problem with an old entitlement by creating a new entitlement," says one senior administration official.

Thus, says Brownstein:

Add-on accounts may look like a reasonable midpoint between the two sides in this struggle. But in a polarized capital where the only constant is conflict, it increasingly appears that add-ons don't add up for either party.

Sure looks that way to me. A theoretically possible "deal" on add-on accounts would have to depend on a barely imaginable deal about the overall shape and direction of the federal government and the tax code. Borrowing a few trillion smackers to "save face" for the GOP may be less damaging that borrowing many trillions to screw up Social Security forever, but it's deficits and debt, not retirement security, that's today's unmistakable "crisis."

The Schiavo emergency in

The Schiavo "emergency" in Washington is temporarily over with the passage of a private bill giving Terri Schiavo's parents a hearing before a federal judge. But if that judge doesn't do what the Schindlers and their hyper-politicized backers want, then the protests and demands for ever-more-drastic intervention will start right back up again, aimed no doubt at plenary legislation banning any terminations of life support absent explicit instructions from the person in question. And at that point, Congressional Republicans will be hardly be in a position to say no.

And even if Schiavo's particular case somehow gets out of the news, the precedent has now been set, as Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) pointed out today: "Every aggrieved party in any similar litigation now will go to Congress, come to Congress and ask us to make a series of decisions. This is a terribly difficult decision which we are, institutionally, totally incompetent to make."

One thing is for sure: this case will boost the execution of Living Wills into the stratosphere. After this weekend, each of us must decide if we want to control what happens to us if we wind up like Terri Schiavo. Otherwise, Tom DeLay will decide it for us.

If I were a

If I were a congressional Republican, or a supporter of the Schindler family's efforts to obtain federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, I'd be more than a little troubled by the high profile being assumed by the infamous anti-abortion extremist, Randall Terry. Terry accompanied Mary Schindler to a press appearance earlier today, and is also organizing an effort to get Jeb Bush and Florida legislators to visit Terri Schiavo.

One of the distinctive traits of Randall Terry is that he's been very honest in the past about his contempt for the political opportunism of Republicans who have found limited common cause with him in similarly "symbolic" cases. Here's how the conservative U.S. Newswire summarized Terry's views on "partial-birth" abortion in 2003: "Randall Terry, Founder of Operation Rescue says, 'Partial-Birth Abortion Ban is a Political Scam but a Public Relations Goldmine.'" The press release from Terry heavily quoted in the article blasted the "partial-birth" ban as illogical, hypocritical, and essentially meaningless, but went on to laud the issue for its "educational" potential.

Gee, could it be that Terry thinks of the Schiavo case, and its Washington advocates, similarly?

Just wondering.

Speaking of gambling with

Speaking of gambling with Social Security, there is an extremely odd and interesting New York Times piece by Damien Cave out today about Bush's failure to get young'uns psyched about privatizing SocSec. There are several Onion-quality passages in this article--including the suggestion that Bush needs some Youth Celebrities (maybe hip-hop artists?) to give his sort-of-plan the requisite sex appeal. But here's the money quote:

To compete, the White House might want to up the ante. Robert J. Shiller, the Yale economist and author of "Irrational Exuberance," an examination of the 1990's boom, said that for this generation, the investment options Mr. Bush's plan will probably offer - low-risk bonds and stock-index funds - are "pretty dull," especially compared to the freedom people have when they invest online or with their 401(k) plans.

Young workers, he said, are likely to see the plans as paternalistic, designed by and for their parents. The White House, Mr. Shiller said, might consider offering economic transformation, in the form of more money to invest, or more options.

"Young people today are captivated by poker," Mr. Shiller said. "All this excitement that the president wants young people to feel can only happen when they are playing the game."

From what I know of Schiller's views on Bush's plan, I suspect his tongue was planted so firmly in his cheek during the interview with Cave that he must have spoken in a muffled lisp. But if Rove and his spinmeisters take this idea seriously, they must now find a way to counteract all the Safe 'n' Sound talk about Social Security privatiziation that they've aimed at seniors and near-seniors. According to Cave's analysis, Bush needs to make his proposal sound dangerous and exciting. Gamble on your future! Get control of those payroll taxes now! Screw security! Who wants to get old, anyway? And who cares if insecurity will trouble your sleep? You can sleep when you're dead.

Aside from the theatre

Aside from the theatre of the Schiavo melodrama, Republicans are engaged in a variety of entertainment spectacles these days. And as always, the GOPers from my home state of Georgia are in the vanguard of play-acting, as illustrated by two separate items in John Harris's SundayPolitics column in today's WaPo.

Neither of these items involve that classic impresario Ralph Reed, who is running for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, and who will soon have to stage a true Oscar-quality performance to explain his role in the ever-burgeoning Ambramoff/Indian Casino scandal, destined to become an HBO miniseries.

First, Harris reports on the acting studio that Rep. Jack Kingston, who chairs the House Republican Conference, has set up to train GOP congressmen and staff in how to deal with hostile constituents in all those Social Security town hall meetings they are reluctantly hosting. Turns out most of the sparse audience for Kingston's Method Acting production wants to know about substance, not style, and there the Georgian is at a bit of a loss. He is, however, offering pizza to his attendees.

Second, and for dessert, Harris notes that a familiar figure has joined the Retread Circuit in Las Vegas:

If you are on the Vegas Strip next month and get shut out for tickets to Wayne Newton, you could have a fallback with a different Newton. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is playing at Vegas next month, with an April 14 appearance at the Silverton casino, just a few miles south of the Strip. The Silverton said Gingrich will appear to "tell his inspiring story."

I'm not a big Vegas fan, and have never been to the Silverton casino, but with Gingrich as the headliner, you have to figure this is a place where the most exciting action is Keno. Still, Vegas is Vegas, and Gingrich will probably have to croon a few tunes between episodes in the "inspiring story" of his rise from young party hack to right-wing incendiary to national pariah and twice-divorced hypocrite, and back again. Given what we have heard about his future plans, he probably won't belt out his own version of the other Newton's signature song, Auf Wiedersehen.

Let's hope that this time, for real, "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."

And BTW, what's with Republicans and casinos these days? Is that what makes them so determined to gamble with Social Security? You tell me.

UPDATE: In an amazing demonstration of the omniscience of TPM readers, I have learned from several sources that Wayne Newton's teutonic signature song is not "Auf Wiedersehen," but "Danke Schoen."

But according to a quick Google search, here's the signature line of that signature song:

"Though we go on our separate ways, Still the mem'ry stays, for always, My heart says, danke schoen. Danke shoen, auf weidershein, Danke shoen."

Spelling issues aside, I still don't think this is a sentiment Newt would want to deliver in Vegas, or in Washington.

Why ask several bloggers

Why, ask several bloggers and more than a couple of emails to this site, do Senate Democrats, and particularly Democratic Leader Harry Reid, seem to be cooperating with the Schiavo travesty? In particular, a lot of folks are very unhappy with a statement referring to the Senate's version of the Schiavo bill as "bipartisan," and suggesting House Republicans may not be willing to pass it.

There's a lot of confusion over Reid's statement and its timing (on Thursday, well before the latest round of shenanigans), but best I can tell, Senate Dems are going along with a "private bill" giving Schiavo's parents a hearing before a federal judge as a way to head off what House Republicans really want to do, which is to establish a new federal law on life support withdrawal that will apply to all cases, not just to Schiavo's.

Now that the effort to get the House to approve the "private bill" on a voice vote has failed, no telling what Republicans will try to do, but it's a pretty good bet Reid and other Senate Dems will strongly resist any effort to pass a "no right to die" bill.

In other words, the fight is escalating, and it's a fight that both Tom DeLay and Senate GOP leader Bill Frist seem to be entering into with considerable relish. DeLay, of course, would love nothing more than to identify himself with something, with anything, other than the pack of ethics problems surrounding him like a "treed" possum.

As for Frist, I think my colleague Marshall Wittman (a.k.a. The Bull Moose) probably hit it on the head in a quote that he served up to the London Times today: “I suspect that Senator Frist has his eye more on the Iowa caucus than the Hippocratic oath."

As I awoke this

As I awoke this Palm Sunday, I somehow hoped I had dreamed the whole Schiavo case (sorta the same dashed hope I had each morning for about a month after election day). No such luck.

After House Democrats objected to a maneuver to whip though Schiavo legislation on a voice vote with only a few Members present, it's now clear Congress is coming back in the middle of its Easter Recess to conduct an emergency session--usually the sort of thing reserved for the outbreak of war--aimed at intervening in this family and medical decision and overriding Florida law.

And why? Well, here's the explanation Republican Senators were given, in the form of a (hate to profane the term) talking points memo that the Washington Post got hold of:

"This is an important moral issue and the pro-life base will be excited that the Senate is debating this important issue," said the memo, which was reported by ABC News and later given to The Washington Post. "This is a great political issue, because Senator Nelson of Florida has already refused to become a cosponsor and this is a tough issue for Democrats."
Since my angry post on this travesty last night, I've gotten a lot of very interesting emails, including one from a deeply religious, deeply family-oriented man who had to make the same decision as Michael Schiavo twice within a short period of time, for each of his parents. The idea that Tom DeLay, the Human Ethics Charge Magnet, is morally superior to this man, or in a better position to decide such matters, is too offensive for words. Yet words like "murder, "barbarism," and "medical terrorism" continue to spew from DeLay's mouth.

The one email that most gave me pause was from a woman who described herself as a "full-fledged, card-carrying Democrats," and then said this: "I may be a scientist, but that doesn't trump the fact I'm also a mother and when I read the about this case, my mother instincts dominate."

Once again, my stubborn refusal to watch television may be impairing my political judgment. I get the feeling that the image of Terri Schiavo's mother, Mary Schindler, begging George W. Bush to "save my little girl" may be more powerful than the facts.

But the people exploiting this saga have other fish to fry. One of the protesters outside the Pinellas Park hospice where Schiavo lingers on, the Rev. William Witt from Ohio, said this to the Post: "There's a cultural war going on."

So maybe Congress is coming back into emergency session to deal with the outbreak of war after all.

If supporting the culture

If supporting the "culture of life" in one case in Florida requires an emergency congressional session, then perhaps when John Bolton's nomination for ambassador to the U.N. comes up, Senators should ask him about his manifest contempt for human life outside out borders. After all, Bolton has consistently argued that the murder of innocents in strategically unimportant places like Bosnia, Kosova, and Africa, is not a concern of the United States, and should not be a concern of the U.N., either.

Sure, in every country the lives of their own are pre-eminent. But in an administration that trumpets its commitment to universal concepts of human rights, there should be something of a consistent policy towards the right to live of one person in Florida who subisides in a vegetative state, and the right to live of millions of fully living, thinking beings in places like Sudan.

In this particular case, there's no doubt what Jesus would do. And unless he eats crow and bends the knee, there's no doubt John Bolton has fatally defied the Culture of Life.

Like Harry Shearer I

Like Harry Shearer, I have been reluctant to wade into the Terri Schiavo case, given the comic-book biology and tabloid metaphysics that have dominated media treatment of this poor woman's fate.

But that was before Republicans called Congress into an emergency session this weekend to take jurisdiction over the case away from the Florida courts, and take control of Schiavo's body away from her husband.

During a long drive today, while trying to find a basketball broadcast on the boombox that provides radio in my very old car, I happened upon the voice of Tom DeLay pontificating on the Schiavo case, and it made me physically ill. His claim was that what's happening to Schiavo would be illegal if it happened to a dog.

The cynicism and hypocrisy of that line of reasoning is breathtaking, even coming from Tom DeLay. Untold tens of thousands of American families face the same agonizing decision--whether or not to continue mechanical life-support in terminal cases--every year. My own family faced it a few years ago. And very often, the issue is the same as in the Schiavo case: taking out the feeding tube, or continuing it indefinitely.

The only unique thing about this case, of course, is the extended legal battle between Shiavo's husband and parents, and the media notoriety that has made it so ripe for political opportunism.

Do DeLay, his supporters in Congress, and those Men of God so conspicuously on display down in Florida really propose to picket every intensive care unit, nursing home, and hospice in America to ensure that no family facing Schiavo's situation is allowed to let their loved one die? Is Congress really going to legislatively ban natural death so long as some theoretical means is available to continue it? Oh no, says James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and DeLay's prime enabler in this weekend's grandstand play: the "emergency" legislation is "narrowly targeted" and not designed to set a precedent.

In other words, this is pure political exploitation of a private family conflict that's become a media sensation, even though it involves a very common, if, for the people involved, agonizing event.

As such, the GOP's Schiavo intervention is of a piece with other cynical efforts by Bush and his supporters to signal support for a "culture of life" without much regard for logic and consistency. It's a whole lot like the Bush position on human embryo research, as a matter of fact. Many thousands of human embryos are created each year in fertility clinics; it's only when it is proposed that these certain-to-be-discarded embryos be used for life-saving research that the Hammer comes down and Congress is asked to take a stand for life. Wouldn't want to inconvenience or embarass possible Republican voters utlilizing those fertility clinics, right?

But this time, I suspect the transparent cynicism of the we're-absolutists-on-life-if-it's-in-the-news posture of the GOP may backfire. It is very hard to pose as a pro-family, pro-states-rights, anti-Washington political party when you call Congress into an "emergency session" to interfere with the laws of Florida and the prerogatives of one poor husband trying to respect his wife's wishes. If, as we are told, George W. Bush is about to lend his authority and signature to this disgraceful exhibit of overweening government power, the persistant media idea that he's just a genial well-meaning man who happens to preside over a party of loony extremists and corrupt hacks needs to die a natural death.