By Charles P. Pierce, Dec 23, 2014 @ 1:40 PM
The one abiding characteristic of the two generations of the Bush family that have gifted the nation with their political leadership is a reckless, selfish brand of political ambition. Quite simply, in the calculations of the Bush family, there are two kinds of people: Us and Everybody Else. And they don’t care how many of the latter get ground up as long as the Bush family gets what it wants. They are like the Russian mob of politics; they’ll do business with anybody. They have a steel-reinforced steamer trunk in which they can park the family’s collective conscience when one of them sees even a scrap of power that belongs to someone else. This was how patriarch Prescott worked with the Nazis. This is how Poppy Bush put the now-deceased ratfcker Lee Atwater to work, slandering and race-baiting Poppy’s way to the White House. (Not for nothing did Richard Ben Cramer title his sweeping account of the relatively petty 1988 presidential campaign, What It Takes.) Son George was masterminded into a position to screw up the world by Karl Rove, who learned his trade from Atwater, but who was so foul a presence that he even turned Poppy’s cast-iron stomach. If it meant getting what they wanted, and what they in their bones know they deserved, the Bush family would have kissed Carlo Gambino’s ass in Nieman Marcus’s window at high noon on Christmas Eve.
Now comes son Jeb (!), and he has this family trait in spades, even though a lot of people are working hard through the holidays to re-cast him as the reasonable candidate of the “Republican Establishment.” However, back when his dim sibling was in the White House, Jeb (!) was governor of Florida and, as such, he helped put some wonderful people doing god’s own thankless work through a personal kind of hell just because Jeb (!) thought there would be a political advantage to be gained by doing so, both for himself and for his dim brother. He allied himself with vandals, trespassers, and people who put bounties on other people’s heads. He put the power of his office behind the efforts of people who call in bomb threats to elementary schools just because they happen to be down the road. He threw in his lot with the people who phone in death threats to federal judges. For his own pathetic political aggrandizement, he helped an organized brigade of dangerous, god-bothering lunatics to threaten and to torment some people whose shoes he is not fit to shine.
This is their story.
Reprinted with permission from Idiot America by Charles P. Pierce (Random House, 2009)
In The Politics of Heaven: America in Fearful Times, Earl Shorris argues that fundamentalist Protestantism—and, indeed, American religion in general—has been changed, well, fundamentally by embroiling itself in the pursuit of secular political power. “It has changed from a congregation or a conference into a faction,” Shorris writes.
Defenders of republican government all the way back to Aristotle have mistrusted factions. Mr. Madison went out of his way to wave red flags, most vigorously in Federalist 10, in which he cautions that “the latent causes of faction are [thus] sown in every man, and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points … have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for the common good.”
It is not an accident that Mr. Madison listed religion first among the sources of dangerous faction. He looked on religious activity in the political sphere the way most people would look on a cobra in the sock drawer. While listing the faults of the government established by the Articles of Confederation, he went out of his way to note the failure of that government to restrain—or, at the very least, to manage—the “enthusiasms” of the people. “When indeed Religion is kindled into enthusiasm,” he wrote, “its force like that of other passions is increased by the sympathy of a multitude.”
* * *
The neighborhood’s not stylish enough for strip malls. It’s an exhausted stretch of low-slung buildings of weather-beaten cinderblock and scraggly lots carpeted in dust and fire ants, a noisy, greasy place where they fix things that are made out of iron. Deep in the line of machine shops, something large and heavy and metallic hits the cement floor with a mighty clang, and someone curses almost as loudly, and the sounds ring through the heat of the high afternoon. Until they get to the fence, and there the clamor seems to dissipate within the boughs of the pine trees just inside the fence, as though it’s been swallowed up in a cool and private atmosphere through which discordant sounds cannot travel, through which not even the heat seems to be able to pass.
There’s a brook running through the place. You hear it before you see it. There are silk prayer flags hanging in the pine trees, rippling and flowing on the breezes that stir the wind chimes into song. Gentle sounds merge into a kind of stillness. Even the birds seem muted here. There are stone paths to walk on, and stone benches to sit on. People walk the stone paths, lost in thought or abandoned to memory, noticing or not noticing the brook, watching or not watching the prayer ribbons, hearing or not hearing the wind chimes. They talk in low voices. They pray quiet prayers. They nod to other people who have come to walk the paths, and exchange a word, if they’ve come to know each other. Inside the low brick buildings behind them, their relatives are gently dying. That is why people come to the Woodside Hospice. They are looking for a good death, a peaceful death, a cool and private atmosphere where they can live, fully, until they cannot live any more, and where their loved ones can come and be with them, and can be alone for a moment, if need be. “There is a good ending,” explains Annie Santa-Maria, the director of inpatient and residence care at the hospice. She’s a dark-eyed, fierce woman, the daughter of Cuban emigres. “Hospice people come to believe that there is such a thing as a good day and that there is such a thing as peaceful closure, that death is a reality,” she says.
“All of us are going to die. We live in a culture that would rather give you Botox, have a bacteria rather than look old and face your death. Most of our culture doesn’t accept death, but we all know we’re going to die of something, so better to leave the world with a sense of completion and dignity, and have some support and compassion, and not just people diagnosing you, and shooting you up.
“After a particularly tough death, they’ll come out here and take a walk. That’s the staff, the other residents, the families, everybody.”
The hospice grounds are designed for walking meditation, after the ancient English tradition of pilgrim prayer. The prayer flags reflect a Tibetan custom. You write a letter, or a prayer, to your loved one who has passed, and you hang it from the tree to stir in the breeze, and the thoughts and prayers find their way to whatever afterlife there may or may not be. In the center of the garden is a small chapel with stained-glass windows that face all four points of the compass so that, depending on the time of day and the angle of the sun, the chapel is flooded with different kinds of light. It is a sacred spot, but not a sectarian one. It could be Christian or Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, Hindu or Wiccan. There’s nothing here that suggests that there is a right answer to the biggest question of all. Just that the question is worthy of contemplation. “Depending on the time of day, the light changes in the chapel,” Annie says. “There’s a different kind of feeling in this place.”
The main building of the hospice is divided by corridors off a main lobby, and the corridors are given street names. On March 31, 2005, in a room off Beech Street, a woman died after a long illness. A service was held for her in the little chapel along the stone path. The entire staff turned out. So did the woman’s husband. Her parents did not come. Hers had not been a quiet death. The clamor had gotten through the fence, and nobody at Woodside ever was the same again.
“Over there,” Annie Santa-Maria says, as an elderly couple pass along the stone path, “that’s where the guy got over the fence, and the narcotics cops—we had off-duty narcotics cops patrolling the grounds at night—and over there’s where they grabbed him.”
She points past the pine trees and over the fence, toward one of the wide dusty lots across the street. That’s where they all had been—the crowds with their bloody signs and their empty crosses, and their useless, vain cups of water; the cops and the crazy television monks. At the end was the field where the television trucks had parked, their tall transmitters spiraling toward the sky, the electronic Golgotha concluding of a vicarious Media Dolorosa that began outside her office where, early one evening, two priests had nearly gotten into a fistfight. She’d have broken it up, she says, but there was a federal marshal standing in her way.
“Your business,” Annie Santa-Maria says to a curious visiting journalist, her eyes flashing, and, for a moment, the quiet in the little grove seems to have some heft behind it. “Let me tell you about your business.”
* * *
In 1961, Rafael and Lillian Santa-Maria were trying to find their way out from under Fidel Castro. Rafael was a neurosurgeon, one of the few remaining in Havana, so he was watched quite closely by government agents. He had trained in the United States, and his family had roots there going hack to the antebellum South, where some of his ancestors had built a plantation that they had lost because they had insisted on giving their slaves property of their own. Rafael and Lillian slipped their children out of the country a few at a time, shipping them off to live with uncles and aunts who’d already emigrated. The last to leave were the two youngest, including Annie. “We were divided,” she recalls. “Myself and my brother, we stayed with my dad so the government wouldn’t know.”
Finally, one day, Rafael was allowed to attend a medical conference in the United States. He was allowed to leave Cuba as long as he brought along only $200 and a single suitcase. Lillian left the door of their house open, knowing that they would never he back. The family never learned what became of the rest of their belongings.
The Santa-Marias settled in Ohio; Rafael took a job with the Veterans Administration, which developed a dire need for neurologists as the war in Vietnam ramped up. Eventually, he went into private practice. Annie felt herself drifting into health-care as well. She earned a degree from Miami University in Ohio. She hated the northern winters, though, so she moved in with her sister near Tampa and got a master’s degree in social work from the University of South Florida.
It was the early 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was beginning to reach floodtide. Much about the disease was still a mystery. AIDS put almost every hot-button issue into play all at once. It attacked gay men most conspicuously. It was a plague for the Gut, engaging unreasoning fear and apocalyptic religious fervor to feed off each other. “God is not mocked,” the Reverend Jerry Falwell thundered at his television congregation, intimating that the disease was God’s curse on a sinful population. Political calculation and religious judgmentalism became so thoroughly mixed that there were seventy thousand cases of AIDS in the United States before then-President Ronald Reagan said the name of the disease in public. In 1989, after Reagan had left office, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, utterly fed up with theocratic sniping behind his back on this and other issues, simply quit in disgust. (At one point, Koop had been expressly forbidden from mentioning AIDS in public, an odd directive to hang on the nation’s doctor.) “I am the nation’s Surgeon General,” Koop said after leaving his post. “l am not the nation’s chaplain.”
The reaction to AIDS was mindless and visceral. Annie watched as the unreasoning national hysteria broke out. Nursing homes rejected AIDS patients. Health-care providers refused to care for them, coroners refused to autopsy their bodies, and undertakers refused to bury them. This abandonment of the dead and dying that gave new momentum to the hospice movement: back then, AIDS patients, had a 100 percent chance of dying from their disease. The community of the disease began to fend for itself, building a supportive infrastructure almost from scratch.
“In ’81 and ’82,” Santa-Maria recalls, “we just knew of the gay men. It wasn’t really until the mid to late eighties where they started diagnosing Haitians and so on. So there were no services, so we were scrambling to put the services together.
“I was a volunteer at first, and we started at a local church, which has a large gay population. We started the services and then we started an AIDS coalition.”
One of coalition’s biggest problems was to find places that would accept AIDS patients. Woodside was one of the few places that would take in AIDS patients. Annie went to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to learn which dangers were real and which were imaginary. She came back armed with what she believed to be firm medical facts. It didn’t matter. Even at Woodside, there were nurses whose husbands didn’t want them working in a building with AIDS patients, let alone working with the patients themselves.
“That was the fear,” she recalls. “I mean, if you’re going to help people, help them. We had regular staff meetings for that.”
The whole thing baffled Annie. Some of what she was hearing from the government and seeing in the media, and hearing from her friends and even from medical professionals, didn’t seem to have anything to do with the reality of the disease with which she worked. Yet those things affected her work as surely as that reality did. The situation reminded her a little of the way things had worked in Cuba·, where the government would tell you something that you knew from your own experience could not possibly be true, yet people seemed willing to believe that it was, and to act upon that belief, until the manufactured reality displaced the actual one. She felt she was working in parallel worlds. There was the world of the disease, and of the people who had it; and then there was another world, in which everything was a symbol and in which her patients stood for something. That second world orbited close by and caused the world of the disease always to wobble a little perilously in its orbit.
Eventually, in 1994, Annie went to work full-time at Woodside. She left briefly to work at another hospice hut came back in a matter of months. Right about that time, a man named John Pecarek submitted a report to a Florida court. Pecarek had been appointed guardian ad litem to look after the interests of Terri Schiavo, a woman who’d suffered cardiac arrest on February 25, 1990, and who, having never regained consciousness, had been provided food and water ever since by means of a percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) tube.
Over the next three years, relations had deteriorated between Robert and Mary Schindler, the woman’s parents, and Michael Schiavo, her husband, who had been appointed his wife’s guardian three months after she was first hospitalized. In two separate malpractice suits, Terri Schiavo and her family had won well over $1 million. Shortly after the second of these awards, the relationship between Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers had broken down entirely. In 1994, the parents had tried to have Michael removed as guardian. Pecarek’s report shot down their motion. Michael Schiavo, it said, had acted “appropriately and attenatively [sic]” toward his desperately ill wife. In 1998, he moved her into the Woodside Hospice. In May of that year, citing what he said had been the express wishes of his wife, Michael Schiavo petitioned a court to have his wife’s feeding tube removed so that she could die in peace. Her parents opposed the motion.
The case already had a life beyond the hospice. In 1990, a similar case involving a woman named Nancy Cruzan had galvanized religious conservatives, but they had lacked the media savvy and technological ability to create the political momentum seriously to exploit it. The Schiavo case was different. The right had the means to make its case, and many people were more than willing to listen.
“Unlike in 1990,” wrote Damon Linker in The Theocons, his memoir of his career inside the religious right, “opponents of the right-to-die now had talk radio and cable news—not to mention a sympathetic president and Congress—on their side to counter the indifference of the mainstream media to their cause.”
In 2001, Annie Santa-Maria had been appointed director of inpatient and residence care at the hospice. She walked into the job with her eyes open. One of her duties was to mediate disputes among family concerning a patient that was dying. People argued about money, about the disposition of the body. She felt something familiar in the Schiavo case. Over the intervening year, something was stirring that she remembered from her experience during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Something was being fashioned out of this case. That other world was close by again, and her world was beginning to wobble in its regular orbit.
“When Terri came, we thought, Well, okay, it’s going to be a couple of weeks, then we’ll get her admitted, and then the judge will assign the date of when actually to remove the tube,” Annie tells me. “We thought it was just going to be a matter of a few weeks, of getting it on the court docket—that’s what Mr. Schiavo expected, and that’s certainly what we expected. Well, their attorneys kept throwing out allegations, and that one gets dismissed, so, ‘Well, let’s file another one.’ We had no idea that this was going to be years.
“What’s stunning, and what was never really reinforced in the media, was that this happens every day, hundreds of times a day, in each county in every state of this land. People remove a ventilator. People remove a feeding tube. But in this case, people had something new every few months. There was a new allegation. There was a legal proceeding for something wrong with her care that they kept bringing. They had to bring evidence, and then that evidence was dismissed because there really was no evidence, and then it was ‘Okay, let’s start with the next one.’ And they went through many attorneys to do this, to either accuse Michael of being abusive or accuse us of not doing our jobs. They tried every which way to do that. And then when that stopped working, what they did was try the case in the public, you know? That’s when the right wing got involved.”
On April 24, 2001, after a Florida appellate court upheld an order by Circuit judge George Greer, the PEG tube was removed from Terri Schiavo. People inside the hospice noticed that a few people with candles had gathered on the other side of the road. Two days later, another court, acting on a motion filed by the Schindlers, ordered that the tube be reinserted. A television truck from CNN arrived shortly thereafter. It was big and boxy and it parked in the dusty lot down across the street from the Cross Bayou Elementary School. More people gathered. More television trucks arrived. The people in the row of machine shops made some money renting space to the media. What Annie Santa-Maria now calls the siege had begun.
* * *
One night at the height of the siege, Mike Bell was driving home late from the office. It was late and he was tired. He had spent the day trying to coordinate daily life at Woodside, one of several hospices he supervised as director of the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast. By the beginning of 2005, there were checkpoints several blocks away at either end of 102nd Street. You showed your ID and the police checked it against a list provided by the hospice of who was supposed to work that day. Anyone wishing to visit a resident had to notify the hospice in advance so the police could be notified.
“You had to clear that last checkpoint, right before the property, to be cleared,” Bell explains. There already had been several attempts—one by someone posing as a produce delivery man to smuggle a camera into Terri Schiavo’s room. “Once you got inside, it stayed pretty sheltered.”
Even past the checkpoints, the hospice workers at Woodside now were running a gauntlet made up of camera crews, radio hosts, ambitious pundits, print reporters, angry monks, people waving crosses, and Jesse Jackson. A group of students from Ohio State came to Tampa over spring break, not to party, but to protest. A man sent his twelve-year old up the driveway with a cup of water to give Terri. Given her condition, it would have drowned her. It turned out the father was a convicted pedophile from another state and had failed to register with the Florida authorities when he’d arrived to protest outside the hospice. His kid got arrested for trespassing. He didn’t. There were police snipers on the roof of the elementary school. One day a hospice cook walking to work and was called a Nazi.
At his office, Mike Bell got a steady stream of reports. He heard about the bomb threats, and a bout one phone call that was traced to Texas and how the FBI had made it to the guy’s door almost as soon as he’d hung up the phone. Bell also had to monitor all the cable networks to see what was going on in the world beyond 102nd Street, because he knew that, as soon as something happened in a courtroom, or someone got up in a legislature and made a speech, the impact around the checkpoints would be nearly immediate, as though everyone involved in this case were suddenly standing on the same great fault line.
“What was amazing,” says Bell, “was the choreography of it. We would just be learning of the next development and, here we are, the care providers, and we would get a fax or an e-mail, or a phone call and, within two seconds, there would be someone our front from Channel 8 or Channel 10, telling us that there’s a new group and this is what their signs say, and it was just a mobilization.
“The thing we kept saying was that we respect your rights to your strongly held beliefs, but we ask that you also try and respect the fact that there are seventy-one other people on a very personal and private journey inside this place, not to mention these other people, coming and going, jnst doing their job, volunteering, the cook in the kitchen, and they have nothing to do with these decisions.”
There was no relief for Bell. His wife’s best friend lived next door to Michael Schiavo. Sometimes, when the friend’s children were coming home from school, they had to get off the bus up the block so as to avoid the storm of picketers on the sidewalk, calling the besieged husband a murderer. Bell’s wife told him that her friend had organized an escape route for Schiavo in case the crowd tried to take his house. Her friend had removed a panel from the fence that separated their properties. If he needed to, Schiavo could slip through the fence, sneak into the neighbor’s garage, and escape in a car that had been secreted there for the purpose.
One night, exhausted from another day of the siege, another day of being called a Nazi and an angel of death, Mike Bell drove home in his car, the one whose Florida license plate read “Hospice—Every Day’s a Gift.” The main roads were clogged with traffic, so he took his usual alternate route, zigzagging along back roads through residential neighborhoods.
“It was one of those days where, in the e-mail, we were all being condemned to hell, and I’m driving home, and this car is just a little too close, and it just seemed to be doing it the whole way. For some reason, at a traffic light, it just very vividly in my mind went, ‘I have a hospice license plate.’ And it was crazy, I thought, They used to bomb abortion clinics, you know, and if they think we have a side in this, and they’re out to get us because we’re the angels of death—And it just struck me, and I didn’t like it, and I didn’t stay in that place. But I was very aware that everywhere I went [my car) said, ‘Hospice,’ and that I couldn’t, even for a minute, turn that off.”
It galled them all—Mike Bell and Louise Cleary, who ran the hospice’s media relations, and, especially Annie Santa-Maria—to see their work being fashioned simultaneously into a weapon of political advantage and an engine of media frenzy. It had become plain that the least important factor in all of this was the health and well-being of Terri Schiavo. There were political and religious agendas. There was apparently a bottomless national desire for a televised freak show. There were advantages to be gained, and money to be made, in the fashioning of “hospice” into the kind of buzzword that is central to the vocabulary of a lunatic national dialogue. In such a dialogue, there is no debate, because debate admits at least the possibility of eventual synthesis between the opposing positions. The manufacture of a buzzword requires the reckless unleashing of a noisy public frenzy that does not so much defeat the opposition as simply exhaust it. There is no more debate present at those times than exists between a rock and a window.
Nobody knew better than did the people inside the hospice the delicate and painful questions that revolve around end-of-life issues. They knew the debate. They’d seen the debate in the eyes of the people who came every day to say goodbye, the people who came up to them now and wondered what would happen to their loved ones, what with hospice being compared daily on national television to Auschwitz. Those people wept with the concern that Woodside would be closed. The real debate was in all the families, grouped in knots in the hallways, talking in low voices, sometimes fiercely, about the decisions that had to be made. The debate was in the people taking long walks out back along the stone paths, in a deep and silent place within them where the murmur of the brook and the music of the wind chimes did not reach. The quiet moments were the real debate, when the room grew still and breathless. Bringing peace to those moments was what hospice was about.
They knew the debate and they knew that what was going on around them in the glare of the lights was not the debate. Instead, it was something that reduced the debate to the counterfeit currency of a performance argument. They knew—oh, God, how they knew—that a lot of the people across the street wouldn’t last long doing the kind of work they did every day inside the hospice.
Yet those people were believed. The louder they yelled, the wilder their claims, and the more brutal their rhetoric, the more the outside world seemed to believe them. The people inside the hospice knew the truth, but truth was different now. Truth also was anything anyone was willing to say on television. Truth also depended on how fervently you performed for the cameras, how loudly you were willing to pray, how many droplets of blood you painted on your sign, and how big your papier-mache spoon was. Enough people believed and were willing to act fervently on behalf of those beliefs, so those beliefs must be as true as any others. The Great Premises of Idiot America were all in play. Events began to run in a pattern. A court would rule in favor of Michael Schiavo. The Schindlers would appeal. There would he a delay. The appeal would be denied. The Schindlers would file another motion. Another court would rule. The Schindlers would appeal. Some legislature would get involved. The crowd across the street would grow. The TV lights would grow brighter. Ar every juncture, there would be new characters introduced into the ongoing drama. A judge to be vilified. A bold legislator with wet eyes and a golden tongue, channeling the thoughts of a woman whose brain was dissolving. The tube would be removed. The tube would be replaced. Someone inside the hospice would have to do it.
On October 21, 2003, at the encouragement of Governor Jeb Bush, the Florida state legislature passed “Terri’s Law,” a measure specifically giving Bush the unilateral power to replace Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, which had been removed, for the second time during the endless litigation, six days earlier. The law was nakedly, almost hilariously, unconstitutional, in part because it directly contradicted a law the legislature had passed during a less frenzied time several years earlier.
It seemed to Annie Santa-Maria that she had become hostage to a situation detached from any familiar reality. She knew the issues involved in the actual debate, knew them backward and forward. Hell, she’d helped develop the procedures going all the way back to her volunteer days with AIDS patients. But, now, in this one case, it seemed that her life and her work were following a script written by someone else. This was the way she remembered living in Cuba.
“I was watching this”—Annie laughs—”and I’m thinking, ‘Surely, they’re not going to pass this. They’re going to overturn the self-determination act they passed years ago.’ And they did. They created a law that was so narrow, that was just for this case, that it was unconstitutional. And when that didn’t work, they went to the Florida Supreme Court, and then to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“When they went to the [U.S.] Supreme Court, and they needed other attorneys to help write the briefs, none of the local attorneys would work with Michael Schiavo. So they were forced to go to the ACLU because the president had so much power, and his brother, the governor, had so much power, that the lawyers were afraid it was going to kill their practice if they touched it because this was a political firebomb to promote the Republican and the Christian agenda that the president and his brother had and nobody wanted to get in the middle of that and ruin their career over that.”
Annie argued with the lawyers. They were throwing away their own rights to self-determination because they were afraid of politicians and preachers. “I told them, ‘Look, you want to be tied to technology against your will because somebody’s afraid that their religious views will be damaged?’
Annie began to monitor the newscasts, as Mike Bell did, trying to discern the outline of the next day’s story. She stopped concerning herself with whether the story might have anything to do with what actually was going on in the hospice. “We had things happen here and then the [Schindler] family would come out and tell us something totally different than what had happened and the press would run with it. And whatever story they created that night, that’s how we knew what to prepare for the next day. It was always based on whether or not they thought they were doing well. And when they knew the media would be here, there would be more of them doing the carnival circus. You know, it was time for their press releases and their messages of hate and disruption, and yelling at the staff as they drove by, and holding out signs, and calling them murderers, and asking us to repent and not work for hospice, and ‘You don’t have to do this.’ ”
Annie turned down police protection, although she’d gotten death threats. “They offered me police, but I didn’t need it,” she says. “There were so many other people they wanted to kill.”
* * *
“ANNIE?” says Captain Mike Haworth. “Annie rocks.”
It was Haworth’s job throughout the siege to coordinate security in the neighborhood of the hospice on behalf of the Pinellas Park Police. It was Haworth whose men had busted the fake deliveryman who’d been bribed to smuggle in a camera. It was Haworth who’d have to tell Jesse Jackson’s driver that there was no room nearby in which to park the reverend’s limousine. Shortly thereafter, while Jackson was giving a press conference down the block, a man sprinted across the street and made it all the way up to the driveway of the hospice. He was going to rescue Terri Schiavo from the people inside who were killing her.
“He made it right to about here, where he engaged one of my canine officers,” says Haworth, pointing to a spot not far from the front doors. “The good news for him was that my canine officer had left his canine in the cruiser. The bad news was that the officer deployed his Taser. And that was our only Tasing out there.”
Haworth is a native Floridian, a brawny serious man with a signifying crewcut and a steady gaze. He is the kind of cop who asks you politely to do something, and is willing to do so repeatedly, always politely, but with something formidable there in reserve. The son of a police chief in Dunedin, Haworth went away to Texas for college and did five years in the Air Force before returning to Florida, where he worked his way up through the ranks at the Pinellas Park department from traffic officer, through narcotics, until he was placed in charge of the department’s SWAT team. He and his men were sent to the neighborhood around the hospice on three lengthy deployments.
“It was always about Michael, Terri, the legislators, the governor, the president,” he says. “It was about everybody but us. We did not want to be the story. We wanted everything else to be the story.”
From the start, Haworth was aware that his job was to be at least as much a diplomat as it was to be a policeman. Anything his police did they were going to be doing on national television. “‘Pleasant’ is not the right word. But it was accommodating,” he says. “We were very accommodating. I mean, my direction to my troops through my lieutenants was ‘Look, they [the protestors] have a job to do. We have a job to do. Okay? It’s hot. It’s miserable. It’s nasty out here, you know? And we’re all just waiting, literally, for this woman to pass away.
“From a legal standpoint, we did it in the beginning. We established that this is where we’re going to allow you to protest. We’re not going to allow you to be on the sidewalk. We’re going to keep that clear because we’ve got a school down there.”
Haworth’s third deployment to the neighborhood came in March 2005. At the end of February, Pinellas-Pasco County Circuit Court Judge George Greer again had ordered the removal of Terri Schiavo’s PEG tube. Absent a successful appeal, his order would go into effect on March 18.
(At this point, Greer had been the judicial point man on the case for over five years, consistently ruling in favor of Michael Schiavo and against his in-laws. Greer’s rulings were just as consistently upheld in the state appeals courts. As a result, not only was Greer asked to leave his church but a North Carolina man offered to kill Greer for $5o,ooo. The same man set the price on Michael Schiavo’s head at five times that. The FBI arrested him.)
Around the hospice, and out on the police lines, there was a sense that the endgame had been reached. Haworth sensed a desperation among the demonstrators. “They would grasp onto anything,” he recalls. “If Jesse Jackson came, maybe he could save the day. If there was a federal subpoena, maybe that could save the day. Maybe, if there was a piece of federal legislation that everybody flies back from [George W. Bush’s ranch in] Crawford, Texas, to get done, that’ll be it, you know? They kept waiting for it and, you know, our whole position was that she’s in the dying process and we were there to keep the peace. That’s what our job was.” Haworth personally spent several hours on duty in Terri Schiavo’s room on Beech Street.
“We always,” he says, his voice catching just a bit, “had someone on her.”
Haworth struggled for control as much as anyone else did against the heedless momentum of the events around them. The event of the thing seemed totally unstrung. After three years of seeing their children walk a gauntlet every morning, school administrators finally evacuated the Cross Bayou Elementary School. The last straw was a threat that came in through the FBI. A man had warned that he would take the school hostage and kill a child for every ten minutes that nourishment was withheld from Terri Schiavo. The decision to evacuate was made on Easter Sunday. To Marcia Stone, the principal at Cross Bayou, it felt like a surrender.
She’d come to education because being a stewardess had seemed too dangerous. Flying for National Airlines, Stone had broken her foot when the flight she was working had flown through a hurricane. A career in education had seemed like a safe and sane alternative. Now, she was being forced to abandon her school in the face of a threat that she was not allowed to communicate fully to her staff because of security concerns.
“That Saturday night, l sent out the message to my staff that I want you to trust me on this, that we must vacate the school,” she recalls. “So, the next day, Easter Sunday, the staff met me here and I still couldn’t give them any details even then.” On Monday, Stone talked to the parents of her students, and she couldn’t give them any details, either.
One thing that Haworth and Stone shared was affection for Michael Schiavo. “I like Mike a great deal,” Haworth says. And Stone had a connection to the case because her son-in-law, Patrick Burke, had worked at Palm Gardens Nursing Home, the first place Terri had been taken after her cardiac arrest. Burke had been the first physical therapist to work with her.
“Michael was just incredible, my son-in-law said,” Stone explains. “My son-in-law said, ‘I can save her,’ you know, with the therapy. Eventually, he worked through the reality of, ‘She’s never going to get any better,’ and Patrick said that this was the first real incident where he realized, no matter what he did, no matter what anyone did, that there was brain death.”
All of these people—Haworth, and Stone, and the people working at Woodside—watched in amazement as the detachment of the coverage from the actual facts reached a mad crescendo. Hospice officials, forbidden by law to discuss the specifics of the case, watched medical professionals with only the most tangential connection to the case trotted out to convince the nation that Terri Schiavo could walk and talk and was demanding to be freed from her captors. They watched as people accused them of letting Terri’s lips crack and bleed, as though there weren’t an entire protocol for mouth care for people in her situation, and as though the hospice staff weren’t following it just as they followed it for every patient. Some of the families of the other residents wanted them to respond, angrily and publicly, to defend hospice care against the slanders of people who didn’t care what damage they did. They could not.
“There were people in our community who got a little mad at us,” says Louise Cleary, the hospice’s spokesperson. “They wanted us to come out stronger. They wanted us to defend ourselves. They wanted us to say, you know, ‘We’re the good guys.’ But we really did stick to the story that this is not our story to tell, that we just happened to be the hospice where Terri was.”
Almost everyone involved inside the hospice was frustrated beyond endurance. Elizabeth Kirkman, whose volunteer work had been so extensive that she had been congratulated personally by both presidents Bush and by Governor Jeb Bush, wrote the governor a scathing letter condemning his meddling. “It was unsettling to us,” Elizabeth said. She and her husband went out of their way to make sure their living wills were ironclad.
Annie Santa-Maria had to work harder than most to keep from lashing out. “To have the staff here listen to the Schindler family lawyer, and the Schindler family out there, saying, ‘Oh, Terri. We’re going to have you home by Thanksgiving. You’re going to be eating turkey with your friends and family,'” she recalls. “They would be saying they had these yuck-it-up conversations with someone who’s not responding. We’d be aghast. She didn’t say a word. She didn’t move. She didn’t blink. But nobody knows that. But that’s what the country’s hearing—that we’re killing somebody who has limited dialogue ability. And none of it was true.”
Ultimately, the Columbia journalism Review published a study that concluded that “coverage of the Schiavo case [has] consistently skewed toward the emotional over the factual. … With its performance to date in the Schiavo case, the press is displaying a tell-tale tendency for tabloid-style exploitation in the guise of serious reporting.” The Gut, faith-based as always, was in the saddle and driving events.
Bizarre, almost otherworldly slanders flew through the air. A nurse named Carla Sauer Iyer appeared on both Fox and CNN, claiming that Michael Schiavo had poisoned his wife with insulin. She also claimed she’d heard him shout, loudly, “When is the bitch going to die?” Neither network noted that Judge Greer had nearly laughed the woman out of his courtroom almost two years earlier. (On CNN, an anchor named Kyra Phillips breathlessly reported the complete canard that Iyer had come forward for the first time that day.) However, nobody frosted the people at the hospice more than did Sean Hannity of Fox News. “He’s a peculiar piece of work,” says Cleary. “He’s not the kind of journalist who’s interested much in the truth, let’s say.”
At one point, Hannity got caught on camera coaching some of his interviewees to be harsher in their assessment of Michael Schiavo. It was Hannity—along with Joe Scarborough of MSNBC—who brought to the nation the spectacular charlatanism of William Hammesfahr, a doctor who’d been one of many brought in to evaluate Terri Schiavo as part of the seemingly endless litigation over the previous five years. Hannity relentlessly pointed out that Hammesfahr had been “nominated for the Nobel Prize in medicine.”
(In fact, a Florida congressman once wrote a letter to the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine on Hammesfahr’s behalf. That’s not how one gets nominated for a Nobel Prize. If it were, Hannity could “nominate” himself in the category of distinguished letters.)
Hammesfahr had told Judge Greer that he could rehabilitate Terri Schiavo. Judge Greer had rejected his findings outright and called him a self-promoter. Previously, he’d been only one of dozens of medical professionals who’d collided with the case, but now he suddenly became useful. He popped up in a number of media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times and on CBS. He argued that Terri could be rehabilitated. That she could be speaking within two years. The people working at the hospice gazed in angry fascination. None of them would have been surprised to see Hammesfahr on television claiming that, in no time at all, he could have Terri Schiavo playing linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“How is it possible,” Hannity would intone in meat-headed awe, “we’re in this position if you have examined her. You were up for a Nobel Prize. This is mindboggling to me.” Hammesfahr was a television star, an actor in the drama. He had a role to play: presenter of the Other Side of the Argument, to whom fair-minded people were somehow obligated to pay heed, no matter what nonsense he spouted. No place was more fair-minded at that point than the Congress of the United States, which somehow managed to go out of its way to make everything infinitely worse.
“What is really frightening,” says Elizabeth Kirkman, that once beloved Point of Light for the Bush family, “is that we’re so gullible that crazy people scare us, and they scare our politicians into foolish, foolish decisions. And that, to me, is just mindboggling—that our politicians are such wusses that they are so swayed by this kind of thing.”
* * *
Judge Greer’s final order mandated that Terri’s PEG tube he removed for good on March 18, 2005. On that evening, Annie Santa-Maria was in her office. A federal marshal was there with her. That afternoon, the U.S. House of Representatives had voted to subpoena Michael Schiavo and several doctors, some hospice personnel, and all the equipment being used to keep Terri Schiavo alive. It also subpoenaed Terri herself to come and give testimony. So the marshal stayed with Annie to make sure that she was there to receive her subpoena, and to take delivery of a subpoena demanding testimony from a woman Annie knew could no longer move or speak or think.
In anticipation of Terri’s passing, Annie had contacted a local Catholic priest who was on call to deliver the last rites if necessary to the residents of the hospice. She was unaware that Terri’s parents had contacted their own priest. The two men encountered each other in the lobby outside Annie’s office. Voices were raised to an unholy volume. It looked very much as if a full-scale clerical hooley might ensue. Annie moved to break it up. The marshal blocked her way. He was sorry. She had to stay in her office. She couldn’t go break up a fight between two priests because she had to stay there and wait for a subpoena to be served on a woman who was, for all practical purposes, dead. A few minutes later, the Schindlers were outside, telling the world that the hospice wouldn’t let them send a priest to give Terri the last rites.
(Later, Annie tried to explain to her mother what had happened. “I said, ‘Mother, that’s just not true,'” Annie explains. “‘That woman had last rites many times over.’ And my mother said, ‘Why would a priest lie about that?'”)
The last-minute intervention by both the Congress and the president reflected the Schindler family’s last throw of the dice. They’d lost, time and again, in the state courts. They wanted an act of Congress that would then be upheld in the federal system. Remarkably, and to the astonishment of everyone at Woodside, they got what they wanted. Senate Bill 686 was filed and debated and, improhably, passed into law on a resoundingly bipartisan basis, although the U.S. Senate bravely did so on a voice vote only.
The bill was not merely aimed at one woman in Florida. A memo that circulated on the floor of the Senate described the case as a “great political issue” for Republicans going forward. The bill was aimed at voters in Pennsylvania in 2006, where incumbent senator Rick Santorum, who’d shown up at the hospice to pray with the Schindlers, had a rough reelection fight, and at voters in Iowa who would caucus in 2008 to pick the next Republican nominee. For its Democratic supporters, the hill would serve to blunt future attacks on them from the same quarters, even though every poll consistently showed that the public overwhelmingly wanted the federal government to butt out of the case. To vote for the bill was a careful act of preemptive cowardice.
Senate Majority Leader William Frist of Tennessee was one of the people with serious designs on those Iowa Republicans in 2008. Frist was also a licensed physician and an accomplished cardiac surgeon. After viewing a carefully edited videotape provided by Terri’s parents, Frist proceeded to diagnose her from fifteen hundred miles away. She was not in the persistent vegetative state that her doctors claimed. House Majority Leader Tom Delay agreed: “Terri Schiavo is not brain-dead. She talks and she laughs, and she expresses happiness and discomfort.”
March 20, 2005, was Palm Sunday, a fact noted so often on the floor of the House that Tom Delay should have ridden to work on a donkey. Late that night, flying all the way back from Texas and interrupting a vacation for the first time in his presidency, President Bush signed what was now called, inevitably, the Palm Sunday Compromise. A great roar went up across the street from the hospice. The Schindlers hurried into federal court to apply for a federal order to replace the PEG and to move Terri to another facility.
Federal judge James Whittemore had gone to bed that Sunday night, but, a little after three in the morning, his phone rang. His clerk was on the line and she was in tears. “I am so sorry,” she told him. The Schindlers’ last-chance lawsuit had landed in his court.
The case shook Whittemore so much that he declines to discuss it to this day—unlike Judge Jones, who will talk about the Kitzmiller intelligent design case to anyone who will listen. However, the two men shared a panel at a meeting of the American Bar Association that discussed the pressures of working high-pressure, high-visibility cases. Whittemore opened up to that panel about the longest three days of his life. The day they got the case, he and his staff worked all night. At about ten o’clock, somebody sent out for pizza. At that exact moment, Nancy Grace, a CNN legal commentator who combines the nuance of a sledgehammer with the social graces of a Harpy, was raging at what she said was Whittemore’s delay in ruling on the Schindlers’ motion to have the PEG tube reinserted. What’s keeping this judge? Grace wondered. He’s probably out having a steak with his family.
On the fly, Whittemore and his staff were enveloped by a complex security system. They unplugged all their phones; Whittemore’s secretary had gotten physically ill from the abuse. They secured the phones to the point that even Whittemore’s mother’s phone was routed to the federal marshal’s office. Whittemore’s sons were placed under protection. (A run-of-the-mill neighborhood arson in St. Petersburg turned into a federal case because it happened behind the house in which one of Whittemore’s sons lived.) The person who cared for Whittemore’s disabled daughter had to pass a full background check. “It does take its toll on you,” Whittemore told the ABA panel. These were not idle precautions. As mentioned earlier, the man had already been arrested for offering a bounty on Judge Greer. The media was aflame. Michael Savage called Democrats “an army of soulless ghouls,” and the former White House aide and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan lumped the removal of the feeding tube with activities of German doctors in the 1930s. He called it a “crime against humanity.”
The talk in more respectable quarters was little better. On the floor of the Senate, Senator John Cornyn of Texas seemed to threaten federal judges with physical harm, and this in a year in which one federal iudge, and the spouse of another, already had been killed. Other members of Congress talked darkly of defunding courts whose rulings they did not like.
For all the emotions swirling around him, Whittemore’s ruling was simple and direct. The new law did not mandate a stay, so he was not prepared to grant one; and his court lacked jurisdiction in the matter. This ruling was affirmed on appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. At 9:05 A.M. on March 30, 2005, Terri Schiavo died.
“I can tell you it was a sacred time,” Annie Santa-Maria recalls. “We had a really moving moment where all of the staff just said goodbye and thank you for the privilege of letting us help you.” The head of the housekeeping staff came in and cleaned the room up personally. Hospice workers lit a candle. Outside in the hallway, thirty people lined up silently to watch the body go by.
An autopsy revealed that Terri Schiavo’s brain had atrophied almost to the point of insignificance. It had been in that condition when the U.S. House of Representatives had subpoenaed her to testify as to how much she wanted to live. The autopsy showed no evidence of abuse by Michael Schiavo, or by anyone else, for example the staff of the Woodside Hospice. She didn’t even have any bedsores.
The late Terri Schiavo had a brief afterlife as a political tool. The following April, at a conservative political conference entitled “Confronting the Judicial War on Faith,” a reporter for The Nation heard one panelist refer to the removal of the PEG tube as “an act of terror in broad daylight aided and abetted by the police under the authority of the governor.” Another participant cited a saying of Stalin’s that, the speaker opined balefully, suited the situation: “No man, no problem.” The Nation‘s correspondent noted that Stalin coined the phrase as rationale for solving political problems with political murder.
Conservative commentators noisily charged that the memo describing the case as a political godsend to the GOP, which so engaged the Senate, had been a piece of Democratic disinformation aimed at making the Republican majority look foolish. This conspiracy theory took flight, attaining the giddy heights of briefly being taken seriously in The Washington Post. Alas, an aide to Florida Republican senator Mel Martinez confessed that he’d written the memo. In the case of Terri Schiavo, the congressional majority hadn’t needed the majority’s help to look foolish. Bill Frist declined to run for reelection. His presidential hopes were stillborn. Tom Delay departed the House under a federal indictment for corruption. Polls indicated. In 2006, the voters handed the majority of both houses over to the Democrats.
The bonds forged in the siege are as strong as ever. Captain Mike Haworth and his officers regularly participate in charity fund-raisers—10K runs and the like—to benefit the hospice. Louise Cleary tries to interest the press in them. She now only watches CNN when she wants to watch it; doing so isn’t part of the job any more. Mike Bell had a had moment when he was mad that someone had put what they claimed was Terri Schiavo’s PEG tube up for auction on eBay. He checked. The feeding tube was still in the sealed bag it was placed in the moment it came under congressional subpoena. Terri was going to go to Washington and explain how it worked.
The kids are back at school down the street at Cross Bayou Elementary, and Marcia Stone doesn’t talk to the FBI any more. The lots are empty and dusty in the high morning sun. No pundits walk the perimeter. There is no perimeter anymore. Back at work as a volunteer, Liz Kirkman doesn’t have to stop at checkpoints anymore. She can walk up the driveway toward the Woodside Hospice and nobody calls her a Nazi. There are no priests slugging it out in the lobby, and there’s a new patient in the room down on Beech Street.
Annie Santa-Maria walks the stone paths out back in the meditation garden. She has been changed by what happened. Her devotion to her patients and their families remains unflagging. But, she finds that her faith in her fellow citizens is not what it was. She has seen private suffering coined into public advantage, and she’d seen the public, for all its pronounced disapproval, eat the story up as just another television program.
Like the rest of the country, Annie was riveted by the coverage of the massacre perpetrated by a young man named Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech University. She sympathized with the families of the victims. She also sympathized with the other students who, confronted by cameras, tried to explain the inexplicable. She believed in their grief, but that was all she believed. She had lost something she’d brought from Cuba, something very much like faith.
“I knew, okay, that they’re probably getting thirty or forty percent of the truth,” she says. “The rest? We don’t really know what’s happening because we’re only getting that little piece of the pie that somebody wants them to get.
“And I have to ask you, as a journalist, how do you live with that, in a profession that we’re so blessed to have in this country, but you know the truth isn’t in there. I don’t feel vindicated. I still think the public at large is still very confused about what happened.”
The heat of midday doesn’t penetrate the trees. Neither does the grinding of the machine shops across the way. The clamor of Idiot America is gone, too, and all that’s left is the murmuring of the water and the fluttering of the prayer ribbons. And the wind chimes ring like the songs of ghosts in the trees.