Former Tennessee senator and presidential hopeful Fred Thompson ventured into hazardous terrain Thursday in Florida, where he suggested Congress had overstepped its bounds by involving itself in the Terri Schiavo case.
Coverage of his remarks, made to a cable television station, prompted his campaign to request a correction from at least one media outlet as to how its reports had characterized his response. It also prompted some political observers to note that Thompson, a former actor who played District Attorney Arthur Branch on NBC's "Law & Order," prosecuted a similar, fictional, version of the Schiavo case in that television drama.
Thompson directly refrained from sharing his opinion on the issue, which pitted Schiavo's husband, Michael, who wanted to remove the feeding tube of his wife, who was described by doctors to be in a persistent vegetative state. Her parents, brother and many religious conservatives, insisted, despite the overwhelming medical evidence, that she had some cognition.
Florida courts repeatedly sided with Michael Schiavo, but the case exploded to become a national obsession and Congress intervened in March 2005 to prevent her tube from being removed. Ultimately federal courts refused to intervene and Schiavo died on March 31, 2005.
"Local matters, generally speaking, should be left to the locals," Thompson said Thursday in what seemed to be a gentle way of suggesting that Congress had overstepped its bounds. "I think Congress has got an awful lot to keep up with."
Thompson also made sure not to impugn the motives of any of the religious conservatives whose support he now needs for his presidential campaign. "I know that good people were doing what they thought was best," he said.
The Associated Press originally characterized Thompson as having said he had no opinion, since Thompson said, "I don't remember the details of the case." But the Thompson campaign persuaded the wire service to change its language to suggest he didn't share his opinion — not that he didn't have one.
"Not being part of the situation, not being in the Senate at that point, he did not want to pass judgment," said Thompson campaign press secretary Jeff Sadosky. "He feels some decisions need to be made by families under state and local government."
As gruff, but lovable conservative Arthur Branch, Thompson didn't weigh in on the fictional Karen Burrows case, from a typical ripped-from-the-headlines episode of the cops-and-lawyers drama. Burrows was a stand-in for Schiavo on an episode entitled "Age of Innocence" that aired Oct. 12, 2005.
But Thompson's character supported the prosecution of those who murdered Robert Burrows, the Michael Schiavo character who was trying to have the feeding tube of his brain-dead wife removed.
In what may prove to be a case of life imitating art, this prompted criticism from conservatives.
"Arthur Branch — closet liberal," said a conservative radio talk show host on the episode. "I always suspected."
"Trust me, you're wrong," responded an assistant district attorney in the episode.
In the episode, Karen Burrows' brother and parents conspire with a conservative religious leader, the Rev. Harlan Dwyer, to kill Robert Burrows by planting a pipe bomb under his car to stop him from removing Karen Burrows' feeding tube.
At one point, Karen's brother, Steven Lamar, who plants the bomb at the reverend's suggestion, asks, "Isn't it like shooting a burglar in your house who's trying to harm your family?"
"The whole case is going to be the Harlan Dwyer show," Thompson's character says. "We're gonna look like patsies if it doesn't have the right ending."
Ultimately Steven Lamar is convicted of second-degree murder while Dwyer is freed because the jury cannot agree on his guilt.
While Executive Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy, played by Sam Waterston, is eager to retry Dwyer, Thompson's Branch seems reluctant to let him.
"There's always gonna be folks on the jury that are sympathetic to Dwyer's position on the bigger issue" as to who decides who lives and who dies, Branch says.
On the jury, and in key early primary states.
Teddy Davis contributed to this report.