Hate Crimes Debate Recalls Bush 2000 Jaw-Dropper
To be sure, the heated debate over expanded hate crimes legislation in the House provided yet more lowlights for that chamber. In what may have been the second most disturbing utterance ever on the subject, North Carolina Republican Virginia Foxx described the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepherd which inspired the bill as a "hoax." But the most ghoulish statement still belongs to George W. Bush. And as it turned out, it almost cost him the presidency in 2000.
During his second debate against Al Gore in October 2000, Governor Bush was asked about his position on hate crimes laws in the wake of the brutal dragging death of African-American James Byrd in his home state of Texas. His disturbing response - accompanied by a sickening grin - produced gasps among the audience:
"The three men who murdered James Byrd, guess what's going to happen to them? They're going to be put to death. A jury found them guilty. It's going to be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death.
In this case when you murder somebody it's hate, Jim. The crime is hate. And they got the ultimate punishment. I'm not exactly sure how you enhance the penalty any more than the death penalty."
The backlash against Bush's clear satisfaction over the looming executions moved the Republican's campaign into damage control mode. In the third debate, candidate Bush tried to counter the impression of apparent blood lust:
MEMBER OF AUDIENCE: In one of the last debates held, the subject of capital punishment came up, and in your response to the question, you seemed overly joyed and as a matter of fact proud that Texas led the nation in the execution of prisoners. Sir, did I misread your response and are you really, really proud of the fact that Texas is number one in executions?
BUSH: No, I'm not proud of that. The death penalty is a very serious business, Leo. It's an issue that good people obviously disagree on. I take my job seriously. And if you think I was proud of it, I think you misread me, I do.
The rest, as they say, is history. But in July 2005, then Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman offered a pathetic epilogue. During a particularly cynical speech to the NAACP delivered as part of the GOP's failed effort to reach out to African-American voters, Mehlman confused victim and villain in retelling the Byrd tale. As he recounted days later to CNN's John King:
"The NAACP unfortunately in the 2000 campaign likened the president to James Byrd, who was a racist killer in east Texas, who the president brought to justice."
Thanks to his 2007 veto threat, President Bush never saw the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act reach his desk. But as Rep. Foxx and friends delivered their slanders on the House floor today, somewhere in his formerly all-white Dallas community George W. Bush was grinning again.