Right Hook

Invoking bin Laden, Nazism and beheading by chainsaw, right-wingers pulled out all the stops to make their case for "saving" Terri Schiavo.

By Mark Follman
Published March 30, 2005 11:17PM (EST)

As the Terri Schiavo case moved into its final days, hard-line conservatives boiled over with moralistic hysteria. In their effort to stake out the high ground, they left no depth unplumbed, from imagining Osama bin Laden in Schiavo's place, to offering $5 million to "buy" her away from husband Michael in an ad-hoc "divorce settlement," to evoking Columbine and Auschwitz.

The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan wasn't the only one to compare her opponents to Nazis. Jay Nordlinger, managing editor for National Review Online, saw fit to declare advocates of removing Schiavo's feeding tube worse than the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

"In a discussion with a friend," Nordlinger wrote, "I mentioned something about Dr. Mengele's laboratory. He said, 'No, this is worse. Mengele had the pretense -- indeed, the argument -- that he was benefiting humanity [with his inhuman experiments]. Where's the argument here? They're just starving her to death.'"

Nordlinger cited another "friend" (one who apparently didn't require anonymity) to explain the thinking behind liberals' rage over the case.

"I have a friend -- Michael Walsh, the writer -- who insists that liberalism is a 'death cult.' (Michael has a well-thought-out explanation of this. And, by the way, when I say 'liberalism,' I'm using it in the contemporary American sense -- which is bonkers, but that's not my fault.) He wrote me the other day -- concerning Schiavo -- and said, in essence, 'See?' Yes, I see. It's amazing how they -- you know: they -- need her to die. She has to die, or they will be livid. Her continued life is a kind of offense to them. If she doesn't die, then Tom DeLay and Jerry Falwell ... well, they'll be happy!"

He also shared a few thoughts about how to alleviate Schiavo's condition.

"And, by the way: Rather than starve her to death, why not shoot her? I mean, why not put a bullet through her head, or chest, or whatever? What's the difference (except that the gunshot may be 'kinder')? 'Removal of the feeding tube' sounds so anodyne -- they're just starving her to death. Why pretty it up? Why not shoot her? Or take a chainsaw and behead her? If the point is to have her dead -- is the method all that relevant?"

Ways of killing Schiavo appeared to be the talking point of choice over at National Review, an attempt (just a wee bit transparent) to frame liberals' position -- and most of America's, for that matter -- in diabolical terms. Editor Rich Lowry's point of departure was "one expert" who told the New York Times that Schiavo wasn't being denied food and water with the removal of the tube because Schiavo, being in a persistent vegetative state, had "no knowledge of food."

"By this logic," Lowry said, "it would be morally acceptable to suffocate her with a pillow since she has 'no knowledge of air.' She could be dropped out of a 15-story window because she has 'no knowledge of gravity.' She could be shot because she has 'no knowledge of ballistics.'"

While flashing those faces of death, Lowry did in fact acknowledge a "misuse of words" -- but in reference to Michael Schiavo's no-longer-pristine marital status.

"Then there is the misuse of words that are thrown at Republicans to prove their alleged hypocrisy. For example: Why aren't conservatives respecting the 'sanctity of marriage' here? But Michael Schiavo -- perhaps understandably, given the wrenching circumstances -- long ago moved in with another woman, with whom he has two children. This is no longer a case of simon-pure 'sanctified' marriage."

Preaching a miraculous prognosis
In the face of all medical evidence, many on the right sought to deny that Schiavo's physical condition was hopeless. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, compared Schiavo's condition to his own recent ailment, implying that she might very well be on the verge of rising up out of bed to deliver the gospel.

FALWELL: "She has never been on life support. A month ago, I was on a ventilator to breathe, and I had a feeding tube down my nose, just like she. And thank the Lord, I'm out of it, and I preached two times this morning in my Easter services. But I've already given my living will. Don't you dare pull the plug on me. I want to wake up in 14 years and say, 'What day is it? What time is it?' But I really think that the courts have been wrong -- "

BLITZER: "But Reverend Falwell, you can't compare, you can't compare, Reverend Falwell, the condition that you've been in -- and thank God you're OK right now -- to her condition. It's been years since she's been able to utter a word or anything along those lines. And all of the doctors, apparently, who have testified before various courts have suggested she's not going to improve."

Falwell, however, was unimpressed with the expert testimony.

FALWELL: "Well, it's actually been 15 years and she has been aware. Everyone that I have listened to whom I do believe, like a lady last night on one of the shows, said that they were contemplating divorce before she had her illness, and they were actually buying furniture, she and the lady friend, to get away from him. But it is, to me, the courts -- this has not happened suddenly. When they legalized abortion on demand, then came infanticide, now euthanasia."

The Rush Limbaugh polling company
Even though polls have shown a nation overwhelmingly in support of Michael Schiavo's decision to remove the feeding tube, former Bush speechwriter David Frum argued that many Americans actually "do not care very much about Terri Schiavo." Talk radio kingpin Rush Limbaugh heartily agreed, offering up some polling of his own, carried out in earnest among plain ol' regular folk over Easter weekend.

"I was all over the place this weekend," Limbaugh announced on his Monday broadcast, "and I've seen all these polls out there that supposedly say 75% of the American people, 'Pull the tube, let the woman die, it's a private matter.' I couldn't find any -- one person. I found one person who has that view and they weren't really even that committed to it. The most common view I found, and I was not hanging around with political people. This was a social weekend for me, and I was hanging around with people playing golf, doing other things, and the thing I heard just over and over and over again was, 'I can't believe we're killing this woman.' That's what I heard. I didn't hear any 75% of the -- I'm not denying that there are people out there with that point of view, but you would think that you'd run into a lot more of it. Maybe it is that people don't have the guts to say those views in public but they'll say them to a pollster or what have you."

If Limbaugh is suspicious of pollsters, he sure doesn't trust those inconsistent liberals, either. On his show last Thursday, he shared some expertise on the psychology of marine mammals in order to expose the utter hypocrisy of the save-the-whales crowd:

LIMBAUGH: "I'm sure before the day is over some whales somewhere or some dolphins somewhere will beach themselves wanting to die, that's why they beach themselves, and the liberals will just march out everywhere, the environmentalists, and try to send these dolphins, even though they're telling us they don't want to live, that's why they beach themselves, they'll be down there, they'll be throwing them back in the water. They'll keep them alive, put them in various places -- ice chips to make sure they don't get dehydrated and so forth, because of course that could lead to terrible problems for the dolphins and the whales. Somewhere this will happen today or this week, and of course we will mount all of our worldly efforts to save these beached beasts, stop their euphoria and so forth and try to feed them so that they can stay alive. We'll get ice chips and do whatever we can to keep these beached whales hydrated."

In promoting ice chips for Schiavo, Limbaugh must've shared notes with MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, who also pondered liberals' pure anti-Bush rage on his show that same day.

SCARBOROUGH: "Why is it that the same activists who fight to save the whales, the spotted owls, and a snail darter, for God's sake, sit quietly by while the U.S. government helps kill Terri Schiavo? Why do we see the visceral reaction by leftist organizations to the attempts to save Terri Schiavo's life? Do these liberals really hate George Bush so much? And that's all you ever hear about, George Bush. You never hear about Terri Schiavo. But do they hate George Bush so much that they are cheering for Terri's death only because the president of the United States and his brother are fighting for Terri's life?"

According to Operation Rescue's Randall Terry, brother Jeb in fact doesn't quite measure up to brother George. "If Gov. Bush wants to be the man that his brother is, he needs to step up to the plate like President Bush did when the United Nations told him not to go into Iraq," Terry said during protests outside the hospital housing Schiavo in Pinellas Park, Fla. "Be a man," he said. "Put politics aside."

A Republican Party in big trouble?
What's been most striking, though, is the right-wingers who've planted themselves firmly on the other side of the battle line. Syndicated radio host Neal Boortz, traditionally unwavering in his role as a conservative Republican yes-man, broke ranks from the get-go. The political fallout from the Schiavo story remains to be seen: The calculus in favor of religious conservatives, some are arguing, is that mainstream Republicans put off by it now will have forgotten the drama by the next round of elections in 2006. But in Boortz's view the outlook for the GOP is not pretty.

"In spite of the delusions of grandeur of the abortocentrist crowd and religious extremists, George Bush was not elected to facilitate a government takeover of the ovaries of every fertile American woman, nor was he elected to establish a theocracy," Boortz wrote on his blog late last week.

"This story will not die after Terri Schiavo passes away," he continued on Monday. "Republicans will be feeling the repercussions for some time to come. Randall Terry will be sad to discover that the majority of Americans don't want a Christian Theocracy. They want to live in a society where people are free to practice their religion as they see fit, but where they are not free to use the police power of government to impose their religious beliefs on other people. Most Americans now realize that Terri Schiavo has already been kidnapped. Jeb Bush would have been too late. She's been kidnapped by religious extremists and the anti-abortion movement.

"Have you stopped for a moment to consider the long-term consequences of the Republican Party's fawning over these religious extremists? Watch President Bush's judicial nominees. Watch the Democrats use the Schiavo matter to illustrate what might happen to other Americans if Bush's nominees are confirmed. And watch the congressional elections next year. If it's close, and if the Republicans lose their majority, look back to the crowd gathered since last week in Pinellas Park for an explanation."

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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