Jeb’s Moment

Why Jeb Wouldn’t Pull The Plug On Terri Schiavo

It may or may not end up mattering politically, but did Jeb do the right thing on Terri Schiavo? The judge who crossed him says: sort of.

02.05.15 10:45 AM ET

It is almost a decade since a banner flew over a Florida hospice from a small aircraft taunting, “Who’s Gov? Bush or Greer?” Inside the normally secluded facility was 41-year-old Terri Schiavo, unaware and uncomprehending, the center of a battle between then-Governor Jeb Bush and Florida Judge George Greer, who had ordered Schiavo’s feeding tube removed and had repeatedly rebuffed Bush’s attempts to have it reinstated.

Judge Greer, now retired, rarely talks to reporters, but when I reached him on the phone to get his perspective on the events surrounding Schiavo’s death on March 31, 2005, and what those events might tell us about Bush as a possible president, he didn’t immediately hang up, and he was more supportive of Bush than I expected. He separated Bush from the “religious right” protestors, even though Bush sided with them and suggested in an emotional press conference that he could use his executive power to have the state police remove Schiavo from the hospice and take her to a hospital.

“I was a very conservative Republican, a Southern Baptist,” Greer told The Daily Beast. “And I was thrown under the bus by those people.” His pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater asked him to leave the church. There were death threats and dead flowers delivered to his wife with the note, “no food, no water.”

Bush was a hero to the right at first, but then he backed away from his threat to apply the full weight of the state to keep Schiavo alive. “In the showdown over Terri, Judge Greer didn’t blink; Governor Bush did,” Rev. Patrick Mahoney, who led the protests, told me at the time.

When I told Greer that I thought Bush got the worst of both worlds with the activists turning on him and the secularists, if that’s the right word, thinking he overreached in the service of the religious right, he agreed that it was “probably fair to say….Bush is a moderate,” Greer said. What every moderate learns when dealing with activists on the right (or the left) is that it’s never enough. If the Schiavo experience informs Bush as he navigates the nominating process of a party energized by its farthest right wing, it’s that a line has to be drawn somewhere.

Bush turned to Catholicism after losing his first race for governor in 1994. Both Jeb and his older brother sought more from their faith than their parents’ traditional Episcopalian church offered. George W. found it in evangelical Christianity, and Jeb in the Catholicism of his Mexican-born wife, Columba. And while the Schiavo case had plenty of political overtones, no one at the time, or since, questions Bush’s sincerity. Contemporaneous newspaper accounts noted that he often appeared anguished and could be seen fingering rosary beads when talking to the press.

In an interview then with the Associated Press, Bush attempted to set some boundaries: “There’s a point past which I can’t go, irrespective of what my views are. We have 90,000 abortions that take place in our state. That troubles me equally because I believe that is the taking of innocent life. But I don’t have the ability to prohibit that.” If he were to become president, Bush would select judges that oppose abortion rights, but that can be said of every other Republican in the current field.

When Greer ruled on the Schiavo case, he defied the expectation that as a Republican, and a church-going Christian, he would side with the Schindlers, Terri’s parents, in their quest to keep her alive. “My expectation was to follow the law. That’s the only expectation I had,” Greer said.

Twice before, Schiavo’s feeding tube had been ordered reinstated, in 2001 by an appellate court judge, and in 2003 when Bush used a special session of the legislature on another matter to push through what became known as “Terri’s Law.” It gave Bush the right to pardon Schiavo the way he might spare a prisoner on Death Row. Terri’s Law offered a short reprieve before it was declared unconstitutional by a colleague of Greer’s, whose ruling was upheld in the Florida Supreme Court “seven-zip,” Greer says, noting that among the seven are several Bush appointees.

Polls found lopsided majorities opposing government intervention in Florida and in Washington, surprising conservative activists, who thought they had a winning issue. President Bush had interrupted his Easter vacation to fly back and sign legislation passed by voice vote in both the Senate and House demanding federal courts step in and review the Florida state court rulings. The feds backed up the state decisions. “Clearly people don’t think this is an area that government should be involved with,” Greer says.

Meanwhile, as Schiavo lay dying, the hospice served as a backdrop for politicians and the media. Rev. Jesse Jackson came at the invitation of the Schindler family, and said the proper role of Congress would be a renewed commitment to long-term care. Jackson also made a trip to Tallahassee where he stood in solidarity with Bush.

“Sean Hannity showed up in front of the hospice where he did at least one show,” Greer recalled. “There were another 55 families in there with loved ones dying that he couldn’t care less about. A hospice is full of people that are dying, only one of which is Terri Schiavo.” The media circus was a real hardship on the other families, Greer said with evident disgust at the grandstanding.

After Schiavo died in 2005, an autopsy disproved the myth that Schiavo could track a balloon, an image that had run over and over on the cable channels. The portion of the brain to which the optic nerve is attached was gone, Greer explained: “There was nothing to plug into.” Two days after the autopsy report describing Schiavo’s brain as atrophied and “grossly abnormal” was released, Bush announced an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Schiavo’s collapse some 15 years earlier. “He kept doing stuff,” Greer says. It all came to naught.

When Bush is asked today about Terri Schiavo, and his intervention, he will likely respond the same way he did 10 years ago, with no regrets, saying: “This is an extraordinary and sad case, and I believe that in a case such as this, the legislative branch, the executive branch, ought to err on the side of life, which we have.” 

I watched this whole sad saga unfold while my husband was dying at home with hospice. Tom passed away quietly the day before Terri Schiavo left us in the midst of a political firestorm. I wrote a book contrasting the two deaths, trying to understand how so many people, including Bush, got swept up in prolonging the shell of a woman who was once Terri Schiavo in defiance of numerous court rulings. The answer is deep seated and rooted in the politics of abortion, and the common ground that Judge Greer staked out with the rule of law and government stay out in my view should be every politician’s first principles.