George W.'s Answer

Anthony Lewis, The New York Times, Editorial

November 30, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

A small incident may give us crucial insight into the character of a presidential candidate. That happened last week when George W. Bush appeared on the NBC television program "Meet the Press."

Tim Russert asked Governor Bush whether he would meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization of gay Republicans. "Oh, probably not," Mr. Bush replied.

Why not? "I don't believe in group thought," Governor Bush said, "pitting one group of people against another. . . . I mean, it's as if an individual doesn't count, but the group that the individual belongs to is more important."

So is Mr. Bush refusing to meet with other groups? Jewish Republicans, say, or the Christian Coalition, or Hispanic organizations? Of course not. No one can run for president, or governor, without meeting all kinds of groups – ethnic, economic, religious, ideological.

The real reason for Mr. Bush's decision to shun the Log Cabin Republicans is plain. He does not want to offend the Christian right and other conservatives. It would have been easy for him to say, "I'll meet anybody." He didn't have the courage to say it.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell had a well-publicized meeting with gay leaders. Senator John McCain met the Log Cabin Republicans. But not George W. Bush.

His answer was especially disappointing because of his admirable record as governor on two sensitive issues: immigration and race. He steadfastly refused to follow the example of his fellow Republican governor Pete Wilson of California, who used them as wedge issues.

Governor Bush never appealed to xenophobic fears of Mexican immigrants, as Mr. Wilson did. Nor did he copy the Wilson attack on affirmative action. When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reached out beyond the precedents to block state universities from considering the race of applicants, he supported a substitute plan to admit all Texas high school graduates in the top 10 percent of their class – a plan that has had considerable success in maintaining student diversity.

Those positions took considerable courage: more, one would have thought, than a willingness to meet the Log Cabin Republicans. Could Mr. Bush's backbone be softening as he tries to please a national audience?

But in his record as governor there was one similarly troubling episode. Mr. Bush showed an insensitivity to the need for elementary fairness in the criminal justice system.

Texas executes more people than any other state: 195 since executions were resumed in this country in 1977, 31 so far this year. Most capital defendants are too poor to hire their own lawyers; under the Constitution the state must provide one. But some of the lawyers appointed to represent Texas defendants have done notoriously incompetent jobs. At least three slept while their clients were on trial for their lives. Others were drunk.

One reason for the failures of indigent defense in Texas appears to be a cozy relationship between certain judges and the lawyers they appoint as counsel. Judges have to run for re-election every four years. Their campaigns cost thousands, even millions of dollars, and much of the money is contributed by lawyers. Judges have appointed contributors as defense counsel.

This year the Texas Legislature passed – unanimously in both houses – a bill to reform the system for providing counsel to poor defendants. Because it has sometimes been weeks before an accused person even saw a lawyer, the bill also required that one be provided within 20 days. Most states put that limit at 72 hours.

The legislation brought an outcry from judges. Governor Bush vetoed it.

Those accused of crime have little public sympathy or political influence. For that very reason their fair treatment – the treatment required by the Constitution – is a telling test of political character.

Bill Clinton told us much about himself in 1992 when he flew home from the New Hampshire primary to see to the execution of a brain-damaged Arkansas prisoner, Rickey Ray Rector. If we look for courage in presidents, as we should, we want someone who will stand up for fairness despite political risk.