Remembering Bush's worst public moment.
Even before he decides whether Stanley "Tookie" Williams shall live or die, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is scoring badly needed gravitas points for giving clemency a hard think. It's unlikely that Schwarzenegger possesses any doubt as to whether Williams, who admits to having co-founded the Crips, is a coldblooded killer; if he stays Williams' execution, it will surely be an act of mercy rather than forgiveness. News accounts have pointed out that governors used to stay the executions of the guilty all the time, but that in recent years they've usually stayed executions only when they've believed the prisoner to be innocent, or wronged in some way by the legal system. For Schwarzenegger to consider staying Williams' execution, even though he probably believes Williams has blood on his hands, makes him look thoughtful, nonideological—a defier of political trends.
In pondering the relationship between governors and the prisoners over whom they have power of life and death, I find myself remembering the single worst thing I ever heard about President Bush. It was something Bush, then governor of Texas, said to a reporter during his first presidential campaign. The reporter in question was Tucker Carlson—hardly a hostile figure—and Carlson reported it in Talk magazine in 1999. It was about Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer whose execution Bush, as governor, had refused to stay. Here is what Carlson wrote (as quoted in National Review, another source hardly known to be hostile toward Republicans):
In the week before [Karla Faye Tucker's] execution, Bush says, Bianca Jagger and a number of other protesters came to Austin to demand clemency for Tucker. "Did you meet with any of them?" I ask.
Bush whips around and stares at me. "No, I didn't meet with any of them," he snaps, as though I've just asked the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed. "I didn't meet with Larry King either when he came down for it. I watched his interview with [Tucker], though. He asked her real difficult questions, like 'What would you say to Governor Bush?' "
"What was her answer?" I wonder.
"Please," Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, "don't kill me."
The ugliness of a sitting governor mocking a prisoner's plea to spare her life horrified Carlson, especially after he looked up the transcript of Karla Faye Tucker's appearance on Larry King Live and discovered that nowhere did it show the prisoner asking Bush to stay the execution. It horrified a lot of other conservative journalists, too, including George Will, Richard Brookhiser, and the editorial page of the Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire.
What Bush said to Carlson was so obviously awful that he had no choice but to deny he ever said it, however unconvincingly:
Mr. Carlson misread, mischaracterized me. He's a good reporter, he just misunderstood about how serious that was. I take the death penalty very seriously. I take each case seriously. I just felt he misjudged me. I think he misinterpreted my feelings. I know he did.
A subsequent report, long after the election, that Laura Bush had dressed down her husband for his wisecrack to Carlson reduces to the vanishing point the probability that Carlson "misread" or "mischaracterized" Bush. Why scold someone for something he never said?
But then something peculiar happened. With the passage of time, reporters decided to forget the incident had ever happened. I can find no evidence that the anecdote has been reported anywhere during the past two years. Carlson himself weirdly steered around it in his memoir, Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites. In the book, Carlson expresses bafflement that the Talk piece stirred any controversy at all. He writes that he was surprised that Bush went ballistic over Carlson quoting him saying the word "fuck" and that Bush felt "wounded" by a wisecrack in the piece about Bush's taste in clothes. Carlson relates his own fury when Bush's spokeswoman, Karen Hughes, spread the word that Carlson had invented the quotes in the Talk piece. Nowhere, though, does Carlson reveal what was most obviously damaging to Bush's candidacy—the piece's horrifying description of Bush mocking Karla Faye Tucker.
It's almost as though the press has decided that the story is too ugly to repeat, even though it's obviously true. But at a time when the topic of governors and clemency is in the news, it's simply poor news judgment not to bring it up.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.