The reeling Bush campaign is pulling out all the stops to show that George W. is not only a true leader of men, but a warm soul. ``He's had to sit in the chair,'' cries Gov. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina, whose state faces a Feb. 19 primary now touted as crucial for Bush. ``He's had to make life-and-death decisions.'' ``He has a human touch, a personal touch that most candidates don't have,'' an aide whispers to the New York Times. But it's hard to reinvent George W. at this late hour, when most Americans access his warmth through bulletins of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, announcing executions in the months ahead.
It'll be a busy time in the Huntsville Death House. Feb. 23 sees Cornelius Goss strapped down for his last shot, followed the very next day by 64-year old Betty Beets. March will bid adieu to Odell Barnes, Timothy Gribble and Dennis Bagwell, and Super April will be crueler yet, with lethal injections for Orien Joiner, Victor Saldona, Robert Carter, Robert Neville and Ricky McGinn. Carruthers Alexander goes to his maker on May 3. Such, at least, is the present execution calendar. Six whites, four blacks and one Hispanic. Check it out on www.gwbush.com, carefully described on Yahoo as a ``parody'' site, but as useful a place as any to locate Gov. Bush's leadership skills and decision-making powers.
Bush has two vulnerabilities he can't disguise: He's the son of George H.W. Bush, and he's chief executive officer of the Texas death industry. We already know the fatal political consequences when voters are reminded of his parentage. It took but one brief outing by his parents to New Hampshire, one characteristically jaunty throw-away line by the former president about ``this boy, this son of ours,'' probably to double the margin of George W's terrible defeat. The man would do better if he claimed he'd been turned out on a mountainside in infancy and suckled by wolves.
But can it be counted as a deficit to have signed more death warrants than any other elected official alive today in America? Don't polls show that a robust majority of Americans favor the death penalty? There are compelling signs that popular opinion is changing. Take a Public Policy Institute poll of Californians, released last month. In recent years, asked whether they favor the death penalty, Californians have been giving a robust vote in favor of death by 3 to 1. The Public Policy Institute poll asked a different question. If the choice was between death and life imprisonment without possibility of parole, what would the respondent choose? This choice produced nearly a dead heat: 49 pro death, and 47 for life imprisonment. Hispanics opted 57 percent against the death penalty, and Democrats opposed it 65 percent to 38 percent, which suggests that Democratic candidates may soon feel like the governor of Illinois.
The governor in question, George Ryan, announced last week that he is suspending imposition of the death penalty in his state forthwith on the grounds that he ``cannot support a system which has proven so fraught with error.'' Since 1977, Illinois has executed 12 -- and freed 13 from death row on the grounds that their innocence had been conclusively established. Nationwide, the number of such people spared the execution chamber (sometimes, by as slim a margin as a day or two) on grounds of proven innocence is 85. Ryan's decision is one of huge significance in the unending national debate on the death penalty. Here's a Republican who had been pro-death, now, stating flatly, that the police and judicial system of Illinois cannot be trusted to produce a just conviction in trials on capital crimes.
If Illinois is in this sorry condition, what can we say of Texas, where defendants are denied trained lawyers, appeals are rushed through often as mere formalities, and clemency is almost never granted? In Bush's gubernatorial term, 113 have been put to death, with clemency granted in only one case. In 1995, Bush oversaw passage of a law accelerating death-penalty appeals in state courts, a move defense lawyers have called the ``speed the juice'' law. And even though Texas now has a law prohibiting the execution of mentally ill prisoners, this same law explicitly exempted death sentences handed down before it was passed, and so Bush recently OK'd the lethal injection of Larry Robison, a lunatic who killed six in 1982.
It's not as though Bush will face direct challenge from his political opponents on the issue of the death penalty. It's more a matter of the steady drip of public information about how Bush and his state convict and kill people. They do it with a gleeful callousness. Bush has hastened the appeals process and vetoed a law to replace the legal-resource centers eliminated by Clinton and Congress. His staff says he spends between 15 and 30 minutes on each case, and of course, Bush declares his confidence that no innocent person has been executed on this watch. Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota (one of the few states -- all in the Midwest -- without executions) lost no points when he came out against the death penalty last year, saying that he personally could not abide the thought that he might doom an innocent being. Bush has never had the humanity even to admit that fear. It's part and parcel of Bush's eerily two-dimensional quality, which has engendered a campaign defined by the millions he's raised, and paced by the drumbeat of executions carrying the thumbprint of his approval.
Alexander Cockburn is a syndicated columnist.
© 2000 Mercury Center.