The Price of Political Efficacy


February 24, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago. -- Not many people paid attention to the fate of Ricky Ray Rector during last year's presidential campaign. Only the left tried, without much success, to stir up interest in the black man with a damaged brain who was executed in Arkansas a year ago while Bill Clinton's campaign seemed to be foundering in the Gennifer Flowers scandal. Occasionally one read in The Village Voice or The Nation that Rector was the victim sacrificed to Bill Clinton's ambition.

Marshall Frady has written a very long, very good, very dramatic account of Rector's violent life and zombie-like death in the current New Yorker. Those who tried to prevent Rector's execution say he was not mentally responsible when he stood trial -- he had shot himself in the head after killing a policeman, leaving him with only a partial brain, and that part damaged.

By Mr. Frady's account, Rector was always mentally defective, one whose actions were unpredictable, even to himself. Certainly no ''deterrent theory'' of capital punishment would have deterred him in his thoughtless youth. He shot a man in a quarrel over a dance ticket. When his family persuaded him to surrender, they called for a policeman who had dealt kindly with Rector, a white officer who was trusted in the black community. The officer was talking to Rector's mother at her kitchen table when Rector came in the door and shot him. Rector bolted the house, stopped under a tree, and shot himself.

Mr. Frady makes a convincing case that Rector was not sane enough to stand trial. But experts testified on both sides of that issue at a hearing on his competence, and the judge ruled that he could be tried. He was convicted, and the conviction was upheld on appeals (in the state Supreme Court and -- twice -- in the U.S. Supreme Court). A clemency panel held two sessions and refused to recommend clemency. On these grounds, Mr. Clinton let Rector die.

The legal grounds were certainly there, but was this a moral act? Is any execution moral? Can we use human beings as didactic instruments to warn others, especially when the evidence for the efficiency of such use is thin to non-existent? Gov. Edmund Brown Sr., when he was governor of California at the time of the famous Chessman execution, examined the findings on the effectiveness of capital punishment. In later years he came to believe that there was no proof that deterrence worked. He wrote a book against capital punishment.

But public support for the death penalty has become overwhelming in some places. In California now, for instance, it is virtually certain that no candidate can win statewide office while opposing the death penalty. So Dianne Feinstein, the newly elected senator there, reversed many years of outspoken opposition to state executions.

The same pressures exist in most parts of the South -- so Andrew Young reversed his position when running for governor. Mario Cuomo continues a principled stand against the death penalty, but that may be one reason why he did not risk a run for the presidency. It may also be a reason why he will never serve on the Supreme Court, despite the fact that he is eminently qualified for that position.

How are we to judge a politician who goes along with a law he or she disagrees with? How about a governor who believes that abortion is murder? Must he or she override laws that allow it? Rep. Barney Frank, a liberal who supports gun control, says it would be suicidal for a politician in, say, Texas to express that view while campaigning.

Mr. Frady raises the parallel of Bill Clinton's mentor, Sen. William Fulbright, who was a liberal on most issues but never resisted segregation. President Roosevelt, who needed the votes of Southern committee chairmen to pass New Deal legislation, refused to support anti-lynching laws. He even refused to support an anti-lynching plank in the Democratic platform.

Politicians have to pick their fights. They do not normally waste political capital on battles they cannot win, or even affect in the desired direction. Abraham Lincoln refused to support emancipation in the South, and even backed a constitutional amendment to freeze slavery there, since he thought he could not have any impact in the South. He was trying to use all the pressure he could apply to keep slavery out of the territories.

Perhaps those kinds of moral decisions are the price one must pay for political effectiveness. Mr. Frady's article makes it clear that the price is a high one.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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