The Call From The Governor

The miasma of sexual detritus that has swirled around Bill Clinton as though he were some grown-up variant of the "Peanuts" character Pig Pen began in earnest on the national stage in January 1992. That was when the supermarket tabloid Star introduced the electorate to Gennifer Flowers. Her tale of good loving gone bad eventually spawned a Penthouse pictorial, a lackluster career as a lounge singer, the first wave of tasteless Clinton jokes and a public discussion of what was known as the character issue.

But at the same time that Ms. Flowers's story of a 12-year affair appeared at the checkout counter, next to the gum and the TicTacs, Mr. Clinton was failing a test of character infinitely more important and exacting. While everyone still remembers Gennifer with a "G," there is collective amnesia about Rickey Ray Rector, whose notoriety peaked at about the same time, but less spectacularly.

Rickey Ray Rector killed a police officer, then literally blew his own brains out. The surgery that saved his life left him with what one doctor called "the mind of a 6-year-old," but a 6-year-old who barked like a dog, thought there were alligators in his jail cell and had no memory of the events that led him to Arkansas's death row. Rickey Ray was so out to lunch that even the warden was shaken by his death sentence. Clinton, then governor, apparently was not. Trailing accusations of adultery, he left the presidential-campaign trail and went home to Little Rock, to be on the scene when a man as mentally incompetent as a man could be was executed. The juggernaut that suggested that Clinton was morally suspect because he'd had sex with a woman not his wife rolled on, leaving Rickey Ray a whisper amid the clamoring of the vox populi.

We have chosen to judge public servants on the basis of sex and drugs instead of life and death, so they can scarcely be blamed for following our lead and taking the cheap and easy way. Perhaps it is simpler to assess concupiscence than conscience. The first gives us the candidates we can manage to stomach; the second, those we are obliged to admire. In the crucible of the death penalty there is a unique opportunity to know what they are made of, their public faces pressed up against the terrible one-way mirror of mortality. Yet we scarcely seem to notice.

The issue has always been debated with arguments that work the margins and conveniently ignore the core. Deterrence, public support, righteous revenge: all warily circle the underlying problem, which is that capital punishment is the endgame of a system run by humans, and therefore will always be subject to human error. Anyone who honestly considers the witches' brew of sometimes overzealous prosecutors and police, incompetent or overworked defense counsel, and racial and class bias in capital cases would have to admit that error is inevitable. As capital punishment became seen as some panacea--when really it was a placebo--public officials who knew better chose to avert their eyes.

That is no longer possible. Science has been given credit because of advances in DNA testing, testing that can use evidence to nab the guilty and clear the innocent. But it is really the character of one elected official that has turned the capital-punishment debate on its head. God bless Gov. George Ryan of Illinois. Faced with the astonishing statistical news that more people on the state's death row were being exonerated than executed, he instituted a moratorium. Though the governor is a conservative Republican and a death-penalty advocate, he has said he doubts that anyone else will be executed during his term.

This contrasts sharply with the response of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who, during the last five years, has overseen an execution assembly line in which 131 inmates have died. The Republican presidential candidate says, "I'm confident that every person that's been put to death under our state has been guilty of the crime charged."

Any demographer would wonder how Illinois wound up with a staggering 13 men exonerated against 12 executed, while Texas managed to make no mistakes. Are Texas juries cannier or fairer? Do Texas prosecutors make fewer errors? Certainly there are notable differences in character between the two governors. Ryan seems a man humbled and horrified by the possibility of error, "the ultimate nightmare, the state's taking of innocent human life." Bush, on the other hand, last year made fun in an interview of a double murderer who had found God in prison and asked for executive clemency. He imitated Karla Faye Tucker's request in a mocking whimper: "Please don't kill me."

It is worth mentioning that that glimpse into the darkest side of the governor's middle-school persona was shockingly underpublicized. It appeared in the first issue of Talk magazine, its fire stolen by sex, by a Hillary Clinton profile that was described in press shorthand--inaccurately, if you read the whole story--as an apologia for Bill's womanizing based on his difficult childhood. At the time the biggest question about the character of Bush the younger was whether he'd ever used cocaine.

(Personally, I'd vote for a former cokehead over the kind of guy who makes fun of dead women any day of the week.)

It's unlikely that many major political figures will have the guts to oppose the death penalty; there's no Election Day premium in it, since most Americans have been taken in by the placebo effect. But the least they can do is approach the act of taking the life of another with the awe, the respect and the special care that it deserves. While we were worrying about casual drug use, Bush was being casually cruel about a woman pleading for her life. His response showed an immaturity that is a singular defect in character. While we were wondering how Hillary felt about Gennifer, Clinton was turning his back on a man who was a poster child for executive clemency. Clinton's lack of response showed a finger-to-the-wind approach that is a singular defect in character. Maybe both of them figured we wouldn't notice. And we didn't.