Compassion gets a new meaning under Bush


When Tina Brown launched her magazine, Talk, in late summer one of the mandatory talking points upon which the marketeers hung sales of subscriptions was the magazine's apparent ability to coax national figures on the US landscape into saying careless things.

Exhibit No 1 was George W. Bush, the shrub who would install himself on the White House lawn. Bush had apparently been letting his tongue run loose in the presence of a reporter. The subject had been the death penalty, a topic upon which Bush is almost uniquely qualified. In September the state of Texas executed the 100th person to have met death under his governorship.

Specifically the name of Karla Faye Tucker came up. Tucker, convicted of a double murder, had become a born-again Christian in jail and, as the date of her execution approached, had become a media star in many places, including Ireland.

In brief, Bush was apparently asked if he had met any of those pressing Karla Faye Tucker's case for clemency. Bush said he hadn't, but claimed to have seen an incident on the Larry King show wherein King had asked Karla Faye Tucker what she would say if she could speak directly with George W.

What was her answer? the Talk reporter asked Bush. And George W. apparently puckered his lips and, in a mocking, simpering tone said: "Please don't kill me."

For a while the old rap against Bush snr, the man born with a silver foot in his mouth, appeared to have returned to haunt George W. His campaign team denied that the exchange had taken place and the squall passed over quickly as America continued to admire the slick funding operation which has made Bush such a phenomenon. Anyway, with no presidential candidate officially against the death penalty, who was left to pursue the issue?

The American left, campaign groups and activist organisations mainly, have effectively been killed by the calculated kindness of the ruling class. Under the auspices of the 501 (c) 3 Designation from the Internal Revenue Service folks, finance donors are allowed to claim tax deductions on the full amount of what they contribute to groups.

Effectively this was a pact with the devil. In exchange, groups have lost the ability to form broad coalitions and must exclude themselves from involvement or comment in partisan political campaigns, or from trying to influence legislation. With George W. Bush making his run, campaigners against the death penalty who allow their donors tax relief are necessarily inhibited in their comments.

One group, Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, have voluntarily withdrawn from the application process for 501 (c) 3 status. Its director, Abe Bonowitz, stood outside the gates 18 months ago when Joseph Frank Cannon was executed in Texas.

The Cannon story is shocking. Hit by a pickup truck when he was four years old, causing him to be hospitalised for a year, placed in an orphanage, brutally abused (sexually and physically) through his childhood and teenage years, suffering from learning disabilities and brain damage due to solvents abuse, diagnosed as schizophrenic and treated in mental hospitals through his teens, he killed a white girl, Anne Walsh, when he was 17.

Cannon learned to read and write on death row. He was examined by a psychologist who found that, given the level of abuse he had suffered, he was thriving more in prison than he did outside. A Texas jury never got to hear about his background, however. After 17 years on death row, Cannon was killed by lethal injection in the spring of 1998.

Specific cases over which Bush has presided are mind-numbingly shocking. Jessie DeWayne Jacobs was executed in January 1995 for a crime for which his sister was convicted. The same prosecution put forward two entirely different versions of the killings at their respective trials.

Terry Washington was killed in May 1997. In two tests his IQ score was 58 and 69. A federal court agreed that he had organic brain damage. His defence lawyer was unaware of funding grants for the hire of mental health experts and presented no evidence as to the mental state of his client. Texas denied a petition for appeal.

Over this culture of killing has presided George W. Bush. Over a system wherein a presiding judge wisecracked, "The constitution says that a defendant is entitled to the lawyer of choice. He doesn't have to be awake." Texas is a merciless state. An Amnesty report last year noted that since the reintroduction of the death penalty in 1976, the Texas Board of Paroles and Pardons has never recommended commutation after considering a request from a condemned inmate.

All commutations granted by the board have been those sought by state trial officers and have been based on judicial or economic expediency. In other words, the decisions have been taken to avoid the costs of retrial.

The board refuses to meet inmates and refuses to provide written reasons for rejecting applications. In 1997 the board considered 16 clemency applications. Not one of the 18 members of the board voted for commutation in a single case.

Amnesty found the "clemency/commutation procedures in Texas to be in violation of international human rights standards. The process fails to comply with any reasonable concept of a fair procedure and provides no protection against arbitrary decision making."

Yet last year, before the killing of Karla Faye Tucker, George W. Bush was able to pronounce himself "satisfied that everybody who has been put to death in the State of Texas has been given full accord under the law. I believe our system has treated people on death row fairly."

This is the Bush of small government, the man who got the Texas legislature (which meets for a leisurely 140 days every second year) to pass a bill allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons, who presides over a state of low taxes, high technology, high crime rates and a bloodthirsty approach to criminal justice.

The Texas of George W. Bush is an ugly place, with the highest incarceration and violent crime figures in the US while running second-last in the provision of social services. If you live below the poverty line in Texas, you have a one in 10 chance of receiving welfare.

And following in the steps of his brother comes Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida whose addiction to the electric chair as the specific method of death is to be considered by the US Supreme Court after two controversial midweek executions were stayed.

So, on the cusp of election year the Bush family wheeze of marketing themselves as "compassionate conservatives" is the best political use of oxymoron around. Until we hear from some evil do-gooders it is unlikely to be bettered.