‘They’re Gonna Be Put to Death’


October 12, 2000—In a performance slightly less gooey than last week’s, Li’l Al eked out a narrow win last night over Shrub Bush, mostly by making the Texas governor look as though he doesn’t get what’s going on in his own state. Like the first debate, in Boston, this matchup was an awful bore, guaranteed to turn off voters and send them either to Nader or Buchanan or, more likely, the corner bar.

The one wide-awake moment in the deadly one and a half hours came when Bush, sounding like some power-drunk dictator of a banana republic, offhandedly talked about putting people to death, as if revenge killing were the best punishment for awful crimes and the stiffest deterrent against future wrongdoing. Bush has been accused of running mad with the criminal justice system in Texas, turning it into an out-of-control death machine that sends poor and minority prisoners to the grave with stunning regularity.

Asked why he opposed tougher state hate crimes legislation, Bush replied, “We have a law in Texas. The three men who murdered James Byrd, guess what’s going to happen to them? They’re gonna be put to death.”

But only two of the three men convicted of murdering Byrd—who was chained to the back of a truck and dragged to death behind—got the death penalty. The third was sentenced to life in prison. Bush’s spokeswoman Karen Hughes later explained that what Bush really meant to say was the prosecutor had sought the death penalty for all three men. But Bush never corrected himself, and despite wearing a look of slight apprehension at having broached a touchy subject with voters—particularly the people of color whom he was then trying to please—he continued to expound gleefully on the benefits of execution.

“In this case, we can’t enhance the penalty any more than putting those three thugs to death,” he said, “and that’s what’s going to happen in Texas.”

Gore rarely showed his muscle, but he pushed Bush on hate crimes, forcing him to flail around in a forest of bills that had passed and others that had died in committee. Shrub said Texas had a hate crimes bill, yet proponents of a new hate crimes law say the current statute is so vague as to be meaningless.

It’s true, as universally reported by the big-time mainstream press, that Bush was able to talk about foreign policy as if he knew where the countries are located on the map, but the impression he gave was of a man who has just learned to drive. Gore appeared more knowledgeable by far—despite his teacher’s pet act, which makes you want to slap him.

On foreign policy, the two have real differences. Gore said he wants to intervene abroad for nation building, while Bush insisted “we can’t be all things to all people.” Especially, it appears, if those people are black, as were the victims of genocide in Rwanda. Bush also said he was against intervention in Haiti, where his father’s administration actively supported the repressive military government, ostensibly for reasons of national security. Gore naturally endorsed Clinton’s decision to go in. But Haiti has turned out to be a bad example of nation building. The IMF has blocked loans to the country, and the Haitians have hunkered down, waiting for the return of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2001. Meanwhile the place remains dirt-poor, and is a growing base for the drug trade.

Gore argued that the U.S. military is strong enough to allow us to project power abroad. But Bush countered that the military is weak, and needs to be beefed up so as to be able to win wars. He spoke against using troops for peacekeeping.

Otherwise, it was the same old, same old with Bush and Gore agreeing not to register guns, not to recognize gay marriage. Bush said he wouldn’t extend civil rights protection to gays, while Gore moved toward more-inclusive civil rights coverage. The pair also agreed not to leave any child behind, not to leave any old people dying in the street, and to stand by Israel. And they were united in saying Americans should project power abroad by being “humble”—as when bombing Serbia into a parking lot.