Saturday, August 09, 2003

Those compassionate conservatives again

John Cole at Balloon Juice has revived a popular GOP meme that demonstrates, once again, the moral vacuity at the core of the conservative movement:
When not comparing the GOP to the Confederacy or making references to the Taliban, the NAACP has written, financed, and aired such charming 'non-partisan' commercials such as the following doozy equating President Bush's (then Governor Bush) actions to the brutal murder of an African-American:

I’m Renee Mullins, James Byrd’s daughter. On June 7, 1998 in Texas my father was killed. He was beaten, chained, and then dragged 3 miles to his death, all because he was black.

So when Governor George W. Bush refused to support hate-crime legislation, it was like my father was killed all over again.

Call Governor George W. Bush and tell him to support hate-crime legislation.

We won’t be dragged away from our future.

- "Byrd Vote-TV," 30 sec. TV spot run in AR, GA, IL, KY, MI, MO, NJ, OH, PA and WI starting Oct. 25, 2000.

Let's review the facts of the case:

The hate-crimes debate in 1999, inspired in part by James Byrd's horrifying murder, included yet another effort to pass an effective law in Texas. The key player: George W. Bush.

Texas already had a hate-crimes law, passed in 1993 -- which was in fact the source of the problem. Passed amid a rancorous debate over the inclusion of sexual orientation as a bias category, it was watered down so that law defined a hate crime by referring to the selection of victims "because of the defendant’s bias or prejudice against a person or group." This language was so vague as to render the law constitutionally unsound and virtually worthless; a similar Utah statute was thrown out in 1999 by a state judge who called the law "incomplete" and "unenforceable." Consequently, Texas prosecutors rarely used the law -- and indeed, the number of cases pursued under the law in the ensuing years numbered exactly two.

Bush, however, had already made clear where he stood: "I've always said all crime is hate crime," he told a March 1999 news conference. "People, when they commit a crime, have hate in their heart. And it's hard to distinguish between one degree of hate and another."

But the governor was on the verge of launching his ultimately successful campaign to capture the presidency, and he had already made clear he intended to present to the voters a vision of "compassionate conservatism" -- a platform that suggested some moderation on social issues. At the same time, any bill approved in Texas that would grant hate-crimes expansion to include gay-bashing, or might otherwise grant "special rights" to gays, was certain to attract the wrath of the Christian right, who comprised one of the Republicans' chief national constituencies.

So when State Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston introduced a bill in the 1999 Texas Legislature to replace the state's weak hate-crimes law, Bush chose to take, officially, no position on its passage. Indeed, when it passed the House 83-61, Bush said he would consider the bill if the Senate passed it. Then, quietly, his office went to work to kill it.

The bill faced difficulties anyway; Texas legislative rules severely limit the length of time bills are allowed to linger between houses, and Senate Republicans promptly set about sidetracking the measure in the Criminal Justice Committee, where it remained. Supporters then turned to their trump card: James Byrd's family, who came to Austin in May to lobby Bush for his support.

Byrd's 29-year-old daughter, Renee Mullins, met with Bush on May 6 in his office. Accompanying her were a cousin, Darrell Verrett; state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston; and a gay rights lobbyist.

Mullins later described the meeting to Salon's Jake Tapper: "I went in there pleading to him. I said that if he helped me move it along I would feel that he hadn't died in vain ... [Rep.] Thompson said, 'Gov. Bush, what Renee's trying to say is, Would you help her pass the bill?' And he said, 'No.' Just like that.

"He had a nonchalant attitude, like he wanted to hurry up and get out of there. It was cold in that room."

Of course, the issue returned during Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, partly because Al Gore raised it in their second debate:
GORE: And as for singling people out because of race, you know, James Byrd was singled out because of his race in Texas. And other Americans have been singled out because of their race or ethnicity. And that's why I think we can embody our values by passing a hate crimes law. I think these crimes are different. I think they're different because they're based on prejudice and hatred, which gives rise to crimes that have not just a single victim, but they're intended to stigmatize and dehumanize a whole group of people.

MODERATOR [to Bush]: You have a different view of that.

BUSH: No, I don't, really.

MODERATOR: On hate crimes laws?

BUSH: No, I don’t, really, on hate crimes laws. No, we’ve got one in Texas. And guess what? The three men who murdered James Byrd, guess what’s going to happen to them? They’re going to be put to death. A jury found them guilty. And I -- it’s going to be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death. And it’s the right cause, so it’s the right decision.

... Well, what the vice president must not understand is we've got hate crimes bill in Texas. And secondly, the people that murdered Mr. Byrd got the ultimate punishment.

... But let me say to you, Mr. Vice President, we're happy with our laws on our books. That bill did -- there was another bill that did die in committee. But I want to repeat; if you have a state that fully, you know, supports the law, like we do in Texas, we're going to go after all crime, and we're going to make sure people get punished for the crime. And in this case, we can't enhance the penalty any more than putting those three thugs to death, and that's what's going to happen in the state of Texas.

A brief flap erupted in the press because Bush had clearly misstated the outcome of the Byrd murder trials -- only two of the three men had been sentenced to death. Several commentators also noted Bush's apparent glee in talking about the death sentences; a member of the audience, in fact, asked Bush about this in the subsequent debate on Oct. 17. And it was clear that Bush had misrepresented the debate in Texas and the state of hate-crimes laws there, adhering all the while to his "all crimes are hate crimes" mantra.

But the Gore campaign focused on the factual mistake -- for which Bush campaign officials issued a printed correction the night of the debate, with Bush adding at a post-debate press conference, "Listen, we all make mistakes" -- particularly since, as constitutional lawyer Lawrence Tribe pointed out, Bush's remarks suggested a prejudice in a case for which he was still responsible for deciding any pending death-sentence appeals. However, the issue gained little traction in the press, which had shown a marked preference for focusing during the campaign on Gore's alleged misstatements instead. Indeed, the conventional wisdom was that Bush, not Gore, had won the debate.

James Byrd's family was outraged but not surprised. Renee Mullins in particular was angry about Bush's performance, saying: "It was just another way of him misleading the public. He didn't have the statistics right."

The NAACP, which had supported the Byrd family's efforts in Texas, made a national campaign issue out of Bush's handling of hate-crimes laws, with the family in a starring role. It prepared a series of television, radio and newspaper ads questioning the governor's commitment to racial justice, featuring Renee Mullins saying: "I went to Governor George W. Bush and begged him to help pass a Hate Crimes Bill in Texas. He just told me no."

The Bush camp responded testily: "Throughout the process, Governor Bush has treated the Byrd family with a great deal of respect," spokesman Ray Sullivan said. "He spoke to them prior to Mr. Byrd's funeral. He gave 45 minutes of his time to meet with Miss Mullins. The governor's office helped to fund the prosecution of Mr. Byrd's killers."

But in truth, no one in the Byrd family could recall Bush phoning the family -- and in fact, he had stayed away from the funeral by suggesting that the atmosphere was too "politically charged," even though other top state Republicans (including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison) had shown up. Nor was the contribution from the governor's office to the prosecution anything out of the ordinary -- $100,000, or about an eighth of the actual costs (the federal government, in contrast, contributed about $250,000).

Reality notwithstanding, Republicans in short order turned the NAACP's attack ads into a liability for Democrats, accusing the civil-rights group of "reprehensible" behavior for linking Bush to the Byrd killing. By the time the election rolled around in early November, it had become conventional wisdom in the press that the ads "implied that George W. Bush killed James Byrd." Right-wing pundit Ann Coulter featured the meme in her later book, Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, suggesting that Bush's support for the penalty should have mollified his critics, but instead, "they would not rest until the killers were found guilty of 'hate' and forced to attend anger-management classes.”

Cole, in his recent post, adds this, commenting on Renee Mullins' remarks:
Charming, hunh? Bush did sign Hate Crimes legislation, it should be noted- just not the bill the NAACP wanted.

The legislation he's referring to was a 1997 bill that attempted to tweak the 1993 law without altering its basic, unconstitutionally vague language. It was widely recognized as having even less impact than the '93 law.

The reality is that Texas conservatives, including George W. Bush, did their utmost to prevent an effective hate-crimes law for their state for most of the 1990s. (Freed of Bush's restraints, Texas finally passed, in 2001, a viable hate-crimes law.) The message this inevitably sent to the victims and their families of hate crimes was one of callousness, telling them, in essence, that their pain was insignificant.

This, of course, is what Mullins meant when she said that Bush's refusal was like having her father killed all over again. When Bush said 'No,' he was telling Mullins that Byrd's horrifying murder, and the pain he suffered, were for naught. Any good that the family might have been trying to create from the horror was wiped away.

Of course, Republicans have a hard time understanding this. Greed, selfishness and political Machiavellianism have a way of wiping the concept of genuine compassion.

But it's always fun to twist the words of a suffering family into an attack on liberals, isn't it?

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