The audacity of Jeb Bush: A governor goes all in on the Terri Schiavo case

Danielle Harris of Pinellas Park leans against a large photo of Terri Schiavo and her mother, Mary Schindler, during a vigil outside the Woodside Hospice Villas in 2003.
Danielle Harris of Pinellas Park leans against a large photo of Terri Schiavo and her mother, Mary Schindler, during a vigil outside the Woodside Hospice Villas in 2003.
Published Dec. 15, 2015

Tricia Rivas had never written to an elected official, but gripped with emotion, she composed an urgent email to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "Please save Terri Schiavo!" she wrote from her home in Tucson, Ariz., on March 20, 2005. "Do something before it is too late … please! Every parent is watching this drama unfold … and will remember the outcome in future elections." Schiavo would be dead by the end of the month at a hospice near St. Petersburg, but not before Bush took a series of actions that, looking back a decade later, are stunning for their breadth and audacity.

A governor who was known for his my-way-or-the-highway approach — and who rarely was challenged by fellow Republicans controlling the legislative branch — stormed to the brink of a constitutional crisis in order to overrule the judicial branch for which he often showed contempt. Bush used his administration to battle in court after court, in Congress, in his brother's White House, and, even after Schiavo's death, to press a state attorney for an investigation into her husband, Michael Schiavo.

While many Republicans espouse a limited role for government in personal lives, Bush, now a leading contender for president in 2016, went all in on Schiavo.

"At this moment I am terribly disappointed and embarrassed to be a member of the Republican Party," a woman in Lake Mary emailed the governor during his quest. "How can politicians not realize that the best possible thing they can do for Mrs. Schiavo's parents is to help them to finally grieve for their daughter and move on."

Time has moved on, but the Schiavo ordeal is a stark reminder of how conservative the governor was and how he could dig in when he felt he was right, as was almost always the case. The most wrenching and human crisis Bush endured in his two terms provides a window into a leader who was as commanding as he was polarizing.

"This was all about his personal feelings. It had nothing to do with running the state. To make allegations, when he didn't even know Terri, it was just unbelievable," Michael Schiavo, a registered Republican, said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "He never called me, and if he was so interested why didn't he come see her?" he added, recounting how Bush made time to appear on ABC's Extreme Home Makeover show in St. Petersburg but not to see Terri Schiavo, who was minutes away.

Bush did communicate with Terri Schiavo's parents and brother, Bobby, who now runs the nonprofit Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network.

"While my family and I wished Gov. Bush could have done more, I think he probably did as much as possible within his jurisdiction at the time," Bobby Schindler said in an interview. "He has never backpedaled from his position since Terri's death. I wish I could say the same about other politicians who were supportive in Terri's case but who, subsequent to her death, changed their positions with the political tide to avoid controversy."

The long fight

The safe thing for Bush would have been to avoid the war between Terri Schiavo's husband and her parents. It began in 1990 when Terri's heart stopped beating because of a potassium imbalance possibly related to an eating disorder. She entered a "persistent vegetative state," according to medical experts. She had never written a will. Her husband sought treatment, but, with no sign of recovery, family friction grew. There were allegations of abuse and fighting over a $1 million medical malpractice settlement.

A messy conflict that played out in court gained national attention in 2003 as Michael Schiavo, who contended his wife would not want to be kept alive, accumulated legal victories. Her parents argued that Michael was an unfit guardian, that their daughter was not in a chronic vegetative state, and that she would not want to end her life.

The case had made its way through the courts for five years when Bush waded into uneasy constitutional territory — and applied overt political pressure — by asking Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer for a guardian to review the case before Terri Schiavo's life support was cut off.

"I normally would not address a letter to a judge in a pending legal proceeding," Bush wrote in late August 2003. "However my office has received over 27,000 emails reflecting understandable concern for the well-being of Terri Schiavo." Greer, a Republican, was not swayed.

The emails Bush cited — and tens of thousands of others covering a range of issues from his eight years in Tallahassee — have long been part of the public record but are getting a new look from reporters and opposition researchers as the 61-year-old strongly considers a run for president.

There were passionate voices on both sides but the interventionists were strongest, many appealing to Bush's faith. Raised Episcopal, he converted to his wife's Catholicism in 1996 and was unafraid of wading into social issues such as abortion.

"I can't believe you as a Catholic would say this woman has no right to live," a woman named Cheryl wrote on Aug. 8, 2003. "Would you starve one of your children to death? This situation could happen to anyone at any time due to a car accident, a drug overdose, etc. You need to prayerfully think about your decisions. God granted you the privilege of serving others in your position, you need to turn to him right now and ask for guidance, don't ask the lawyers."

Terri's Law

When Greer ruled in October 2003 that Michael Schiavo could remove his wife's feeding tube, Bush pressed the Florida Legislature to pass Terri's Law. In an emergency session, lawmakers sidestepped the court and allowed the governor to order the feeding to resume. State troopers were on hand when Terri Schiavo was transferred to a Clearwater hospital. She had gone six days without nourishment.

Again, Bush and his allies were on dubious legal footing. Many constitutional lawyers and bioethicists were certain the law would be tossed. As governor, though, Bush showed little patience for anyone questioning his judgment and often complained of judicial activism.

To defend Terri's Law, Bush brought in trial lawyer Ken Connor, a prominent Christian conservative activist who had run against Bush for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1994.

"He authorized us to advocate with vigor and aggressiveness," Connor said in an interview. "Some people in a situation like that will want to do something just for show. He made no attempt to check or put a harness or a bridle on his lawyers."

"He staked out a position rooted in principle and he never wavered — even though he came under intense criticism from the media and several other quarters," Connor added, recounting Bush as "fully engaged" and understanding the facts of the case far better than most others in the debate.

Connor, who later became president of the Family Research Council, jokes that he never would have spent the time and money to run against Bush in 1994 had he known how conservatively he would govern. That's something many Republicans outside Florida fail to understand about John Ellis Bush.

"He is not George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush. Jeb is a solid, convicted conservative, and I think he has the record to prove it," Connor said.

Terri's Law, as predicted, was overturned in court in May 2004. Bush appealed, but the Florida Supreme Court, which included three of his own appointees, issued a unanimous ruling that the law was unconstitutional, violating "a cornerstone of American democracy" that is the separation of powers. The U.S. Supreme Court declined a review.

Undeterred, Bush changed tactics. In March 2005 he sought to have the state's Department of Children and Families take custody of Schiavo, a move Judge Greer rebuffed with a restraining order. Bush had relied on a neurologist and bioethicist with Christian leanings who said it was "more likely" that Schiavo was minimally conscious than in a vegetative state.

"He has to be bogus, a pro-life fanatic," responded another neurologist who studied Schiavo on behalf of the court. "You'll not find any credible neurologist or neurosurgeon to get involved at this point and say she's not vegetative."

The governor had a hand in an even more surreal drama that played out in Washington, pressing allies in Congress to act. "I'm not sure we can get it done here in Florida," Bush told Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida after another Schiavo bill stalled in the state Legislature. "Do whatever you can federally."

Congress scrambled to act over its Easter recess and President George W. Bush flew back from his ranch in Texas to sign into law a bill allowing a federal court to intervene in the case. "These actions today are a clear threat to our democracy," said then-Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa, even as other Democrats voted with Republicans. (Many came to regret their votes and polls showed overwhelming public disapproval of the political intrusion.)

A day later, on March 22, a federal judge refused to order the re-insertion of the feeding tube, which had been removed under court order March 18, the third time in the saga. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider a challenge.

With the nation watching, Schiavo, 41, was pronounced dead at Woodside Hospice House in Pinellas Park at 9:05 a.m. on March 31. For days before, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the facility, some holding signs demanding that the governor do more. One protester carried a 5-foot foam spoon that read, "Jeb, Please Feed Terri."

In the hours before Schiavo died, there was talk that Bush would dispatch state law enforcement agents to the hospice, a move that would have set up an unprecedented confrontation with local police. It never came to pass.

"Many across our state and around the world are deeply grieved by the way Terri died," Bush said in a statement. "I feel that grief very sharply as well. I remain convinced, however, that Terri's death is a window through which we can see the many issues left unresolved in our families and in our society. For that, we can be thankful for all that the life of Terri Schiavo has taught us."

Throughout the ordeal, even as he relentlessly pursued his goal, Bush chose his words carefully. In emails to people across the country he said he believed "we should err on the side of life," but added he had to work within the confines of the law. "This is a heart-wrenching case, and I have not taken any action without thought, reflection and an appreciation for other points of view," he wrote.

Bush's persistence

But Bush still wasn't done.

Three months after Schiavo died, the governor asked State Attorney Bernie McCabe to look at the circumstances of her collapse in 1990, chiefly how long it took before Michael Schiavo called 911. McCabe did the review and concluded there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

In an interview last week, McCabe said he did not think Bush's actions were inappropriate. "He's the guy that decides where he sticks his nose. That's what you get to do when you're the governor." But the Republican prosecutor added: "I felt that the case was litigated thoroughly in the court system."

Greer, the now-retired judge who took to wearing a bulletproof vest during the ordeal, was reticent about Bush's role and what it says about his leadership style. But he said, "Clearly the majority of people didn't think this was a place where government ought to be going."

Some saw a political upside. Martinez, the Florida senator, inadvertently handed Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa a memo saying it was "a great political issue" and would excite the pro-life base. An aide took responsibility for the memo, which was leaked to reporters.

Bush knew the politics were lousy and yet persisted — a sign, supporters say, that he is willing to take the heat for what he believes in. But that also speaks to a trait visible throughout Bush's tenure.

"He can be stubborn when he thinks he's right," said Matthew Corrigan, a political science professor at the University of North Florida and author of the new book Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida.

He said the Schiavo matter emphasized how Bush combined policy with religious and moral beliefs, and had a history of hostility toward the judicial branch.

That history stands in contrast to what Bush had to say this month after courts invalidated Florida's voter-approved gay marriage ban, which Bush championed. "We live in a democracy, and regardless of our disagreements, we have to respect the rule of law," Bush said.

What's more, Bush's Schiavo stance rubs against comments he has made in recent years about the GOP being too rigid on a number of issues such as tax increases and immigration. Those comments and the rise of the tea party have helped shape the current image of Bush as moderate.

"The public has a short memory, but I think he wears Schiavo around his leg like an anchor," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU Florida, which provided legal backing to Michael Schiavo. "I don't think he should be allowed to free himself from that anchor until he explains whether he stands by the Schiavo decisions.

"He's using different words and different tone on other issues, but he hasn't said anything as far as I can see about this. It was a shameful performance."

Bush, who is traveling the country to raise money for his campaign, declined an interview.

He is expected to discuss Schiavo in a forthcoming book about his time as governor that will be based on 250,000 emails. While politically risky at the time, it could help Bush with religious-minded GOP primary voters. Conversely, it would likely turn off moderate Republicans and independents.

He has won over Rivas, the Arizona woman who sent the email a decade ago demanding Bush save Schiavo, reminding him his actions would be remembered in future elections.

"We have so many people in politics who won't take stands," the 50-year-old nurse said in an interview. "The fact that he would try says something about him."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports. Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.