The Terri Schiavo passion

Posted: Mar 24, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- When the case of Terri Schiavo came to Washington in what appears to be the last stages of that poor woman's life, it evoked passion contrasting with the usual political play-acting in the nation's capital. The intensity aroused by the Republican-controlled Congress trying to intervene was demonstrated in two instances last Saturday.

 In Texas, Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards worked hard to find an airline seat from Houston to Washington for the Sunday session of the House to consider the Schiavo affair. Normally a faithful follower of the Democratic line, he supported the Republican bill interposing federal court jurisdiction.

 In Washington, I was engaged during a Saturday night dinner party in debate at a level of intensity I had not seen since the bitter '60s and '70s. My dining companions, mostly mainstream Washington journalists a generation younger than I, were passionately opposed to the congressional intervention.

 These disparate activities suggest crosscurrents that do not fit conventional politics. This is not the cold, analytical debate over Social Security. Involved here is a private decision to take a life. Debate about abortion has turned to private decisions taking the lives of indisputable human beings -- increasingly important as life and death questions are posed about an aging population.

 The intensity was brought home to me at the Saturday dinner party. A fellow journalist asked me what I thought about the congressional intervention. When I responded that I approved, several colleagues asked how in the world I, of all people, could approve of federal intervention in local affairs. I told them I did not care about that issue but wondered why they were so anxious to end Terri Schiavo's life. They responded that Republicans in Congress were only interested in politics. I had not engaged in such a heated debate with colleagues since the Vietnam War.

 These and other critics of saving Schiavo are in the unusual position of citing rights of her husband (whose commonlaw wife has bore him two children) and even states' rights. On ABC's "This Week" Sunday, moderator (and former Clinton aide) George Stephanopoulos asked: "Isn't this a classic case of states' rights?"

 The harsh views expressed in a private social situation Saturday were spelled out openly over CNN Monday morning by the network's resident curmudgeon, veteran television journalist Jack Cafferty: "It's all about politics. It has nothing to do with Terri Schiavo. This is all about the abortion debate and right to life and the right wing of the Republican Party. And it's all cloaked in some, you know, mantra that says, 'Oh, we're worried about this woman's life.' Baloney!"

 Evidence that Cafferty had it wrong and that the politicians were different from the journalists came with Sunday's vote in the House. The party-line polarization ended with Democrats who came back to vote splitting down the middle -- 47 for, 53 against. It was significant that Chet Edwards was one of the 47. Although he calls himself a "moderate," his liberal voting record (as measured by Americans for Democratic Action) is usually around 80 percent. He is a partisan Democrat who last year narrowly escaped Majority Leader Tom DeLay's Texas redistricting.

 While 102 House Democrats did not find their way back, Edwards made sure he got there. Finding all seats filled on Continental and United planes from Houston to Washington, he managed to get a seat on a Southwest flight to Baltimore. When he listened to the debate, he was struck that Republicans seemed to be pleading for help for the unfortunate while Democrats were arguing legalisms. "It was difficult," Edwards told me, "but if we had to err, it would be better to err to keep her alive."

 Nine members of the Congressional Black Caucus agreed. So did such tried-and-true Democratic stalwarts as James Oberstar of Minnesota, Dale Kildee of Michigan and Jose Serrano of New York.

 On Monday night, Ralph Nader was substituting as left-wing host on CNN's "Crossfire" and seemed uncomfortable grilling Republican Rep. David Dreier of California. After the show, the old reformer noted to me that it was illegal to starve a dog to death but it was being done to Terri Schiavo. This is an issue truly transcending normal political boundaries.