Campaign 2000: Making Their Bones
During the final debate of the 1988 presidential campaign,
Bernard Shaw of Cable News Network asked Michael Dukakis,
Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you
favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?
opposed the death penalty all my life, Mr. Dukakis replied,
and then wandered off into a discussion of murder rates in
Massachusetts. He became, on the spot, unelectable. Not only
had he never made his bones; he apparently didnt even
want to kill anybody.
Arkansas, Governor Bill Clinton was watching and learning. During his own
race for the presidency four years later, he made sure to fly home from
New Hampshire in the middle of the primary so he could oversee in
person the execution of a brain-damaged killer named Rickey Ray
Rector. Governor Clinton, who knows everything about getting
elected in America, was just doing the necessary.
In their fascinating
book, Homicide, evolutionary psychologists Margo Wilson and
Martin Daly write:
Having killed is a decided social asset in
many, perhaps most, prestate societies. The classic examples
are such practices as head-hunting and coup-counting, customs
whereby a young man might attain full adult status only by
notching his first kill, and experienced killers might add to
their honors by running up the list of their victims. Such
practices are known from warring tribal societies in all parts
of the world.
In our own warring tribal society*, notching that first
kill has become an absolute prerequisite for the Presidency.
Consider the record since President Roosevelt.
HARRY TRUMAN HAD KILLED as an artillery captain in World War
I. Dwight D. Eisenhower killed on a massive scale in World War
II. John F. Kennedy was presumably prepared to kill in the
Pacific, although the Japanese sank his PT boat before he had
the chance. With the Bay of Pigs, Mr. Kennedy removed all
doubt. He too was a killer.
Lyndon B. Johnson engaged in no combat during his few
months in the Navy, although he maneuvered a Silver Star for
himself. But by 1964, when Mr. Johnson came up for election in his
own right, he had already killed thousands of people in Vietnam. He
used to wear the lapel device for his unearned decoration as
he hung the Medal of Honor around the necks of real heroes.
Richard M. Nixon had killed no one by the time he got his
partys presidential nomination in 1968, but he was a Navy veteran
who talked as if he were capable of manslaughter at the very
least. And his opponent, Hubert H. Humphrey, was widely
suspected of a private preference for peace over war.
contrary suspicions about Mr. Nixon were correct. Once in the
White House he set right to work on what would be four years
His opponent for reelection in 1972 was George S.
McGovern, whose experience as a decorated combat pilot in
World War II had not left him enthusiastic about dealing out
death. Senator McGoverns plans for Vietnam were the same as
candidate Nixons secret plan to end the war--a quick
surrender--but the senator admitted it. Whats more, his
partys platform called for an end to capital punishment. The
electoral vote was 520 to 17, with the senator carrying only
the District of Columbia and Massachusetts.
THE NEXT PRESIDENT, Gerald R. Ford, had won ten battle stars
as a naval artillery officer in World War II. He was thus
willing to kill, at least at long distance, and he quickly did
so again when Pol Pot seized an American merchant ship, the
This gave Mr. Ford a welcome opportunity to wag the
weenie. He and Mr. Kissinger proceeded to kill an unknown
number of Cambodians and 41 American soldiers during the
rescue of the 39 crewmen. (They were not precisely rescued;
as the White House knew, the crew was in the process of being
freed before the attack.)
Then came Jimmy Carter, who couldnt
have killed anybody as governor of Georgia even if he wanted
to, the death penalty being illegal at the
time. But as he had been an officer on a nuclear submarine,
voters could presume that he was comfortable with the idea of
killing his fellow man in wholesale quantities.
presumption, however, was false. He was an odd duck, Mr. Carter, who
turned out to believe that the sixth commandment applied even
This curious belief cost him the presidency in
1980. If Mr. Carter had had the good sense to make war on Iran
over the hostage crisis, the noncombatant Ronald Reagan would have remained a
footnote in history like Michael Dukakis.
Mr. Reagan spent World War II in Culver City, although he had
often played at killing in the movies. As president he immediately set out
to live his warrior dreams by sending Navy
jets to shoot down Libyan pilots as they threatened our national
security by carrying out maneuvers off their own
He found the role so enjoyable that he continued to
play it wherever he could find a suitably harmless opponent:
in Grenada and Central America, over Libya once
more, and in the waters of the Persian Gulf.
George Bush, a Navy pilot who had actually seen combat, nonetheless felt it
necessary to bring his credentials up to date with attitude corrections in Panama and
Kuwait. Neither live-fire maneuver had a hope of achieving its
principal long term goals--oil prices are up again, and
the drugs still flow through Panama--but that really didnt
matter from the political point of view. The medium was the
And no one is more sensitive than the draft-dodging
Mr. Clinton to the thrilling message carried to the American
heart by the medium of state violence. Even more quickly than
his predecessors in the White House, he rushed to notch his
gun overseas. Hearing of an unproven and highly dubious Iraqi
plot to assassinate his predecessor George Herbert Walker Bush
in Kuwait, the new president took revenge on twenty civilians
in Baghdad. Among those killed by his bombs was a prominent
woman artist, Layla al-Attar. Somalia followed. Et cetera,
et cetera, et cetera. No one kills with quite so much abandon as
a man whose courage is in doubt.
THROUGHOUT I HAVE MADE sure to ascribe all killings to the
various presidents themselves, as if they were solo murderers
like O.J. Simpson. But presidents do not kill--would not kill--without
accomplices. We are those accomplices.
Let our leaders strap
on the guns and we just wriggle with excitement. At
home, seven out of ten of us support the death penalty. Overseas, the
Gulf War made Mr. Bush more popular in the polls than Mr. Reagan had ever been.
For most politicians, numbers like this represent a clear
call to duty. One such is George W. Bush, who as
governor of Texas has found himself with no choice but to
stand by while more than a hundred convicted murderers somehow got dead. The
state of Texas did it, he says. Like many other moral
simpletons in high office, he understands democracy to mean
that he must drift with every breeze that comes from the voters. And if you
dont like it, fella, why dont you go back to Russia?
evolved political thinkers who have taken part in the current presidential race,
like Vice President Gore and Bill Bradley, back the death
penalty for a different reason. They are cowards.
McCain, supports the death penalty, too, but not because he is an evolved political
thinker or afraid of the polls. Like many of his stands, this one seems
to be the product of his military upbringing and his political environment
rather than of lengthy consideration.
It is easy to imagine
the senator, given actual power over life and death, doing as
Governor George Ryan of Illinois has done. Senator McCain, too,
might well conclude that the death penalty is badly
broken in this country, and we had better back off for a while
until we can figure out how to fix it.
AS FAR AS I CAN DETERMINE, only one American president has
ever carried out a state killing with his own hands. This was
the estimable Grover Cleveland, who personally hanged two
murderers while sheriff of Erie County, New York. It was
customary for a deputy to spring the trap, but Mr. Clevelands
character would not permit him to lay such an awful burden on a subordinate.
Today we would be as astonished to find
character of this sort in a president as to learn that he
hewed to the Code of the Samurai or the teachings of Jesus.
But this need not stop us from dreaming. Think how it might go:
Lethal injection requires a
certain modest skill, but Governor Clinton could hardly
have made a worse job of it than his agents, who took
fifty minutes to find a suitable vein in the hugely
obese Rickey Ray Rector. It would have been instructive
for the future president to spend nearly an hour jabbing the
lobotomized inmate. Mr. Clinton might even have felt his victims
pain, and spared Layla al-Attar hers.