Yesterday, I ignited a bit of a debate over capital punishment with my post on a NY Times column that foolishly, in my view, attacked the custom of the president annually “pardoning” a turkey in advance of the Thanksgiving holiday. The real point of that column was to oppose capital punishment–which, however, is not really a partisan matter. Lots of conservatives have shared that opinion, including, most notably from my perspective, my father.
So I was attuned to the subject of capital punishment when I saw this Associated Press headline earlier tonight: “Ore. governor bans death penalty for rest of term.” The Oregon governor in question is my old friend, John Kitzhaber. John was a few years ahead of me at Dartmouth and lived on my floor during my first year of college. He was one of the most charismatic people I have known, but was not, at that time, anything like a liberal. Among other things, he played a major role in the beer-recovery mission that took place when word reached our dorm late one night that a train carrying a load of Budweiser had overturned somewhere in the nearby mountains of Vermont. He was one of the few people I have known who had an alias, just in case.
John went on to become an emergency room physician in his native state of Oregon. Along the way he became interested in public policy and, characteristically for him, action followed thought. He ran for the Oregon legislature; by that time, or soon after, he saw himself as a liberal Democrat. In 1994, bucking the nationwide conservative tide, he was elected Governor of Oregon, one of the few avowed liberals who won that year. Overwhelmingly popular with Oregonians, who appreciated the fact that he would chair official meetings with a beer in his hand, he was easily re-elected in 1998. After a few years out of office he ran for governor again in 2010, and, reprising his feat of 1994, he won in a down year for the Democrats.
This is what the AP says about his announcement on capital punishment:
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber on Tuesday imposed a moratorium on the death penalty for the remainder of his term, saying he’s morally opposed to capital punishment and has long regretted allowing two men to be executed in the 1990s.
Kitzhaber’s decision gives a temporary reprieve to a twice-convicted murderer who was scheduled to die by lethal injection in two weeks, along with 36 others on death row. …
His voice shaking, the Democratic governor said he has repeatedly questioned and revisited his decisions to allow convicted murderers Douglas Wright and Harry Moore to be executed in 1996 and 1997. …
A typically cool and unemotional Kitzhaber fought tears as he said he spoke to relatives of Haugen’s victims, saying they were difficult discussions and his “heart goes out to them.” He declined to discuss them further, calling them “private conversations.” …
Kitzhaber is a former emergency room doctor who still retains an active physician license with the Oregon Medical Board, and his opposition to the death penalty has been well-known. In a news conference explaining his decision, he cited his oath as a physician to “do no harm.” Kitzhaber was elected last year to an unprecedented third term as governor after eight years away from public office.
I can see both sides of the death penalty debate. On the whole, I come down in favor of capital punishment. At the moment, though, those policy differences are not the point. I haven’t seen John for four decades, and what strikes me now is how much water has gone under the bridge. We are all much older now and, one can only hope, a little bit wiser, wherever we may have come to rest on the political spectrum.