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    A Times Editorial

    Trivializing a tragedy

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 6, 2002

    It's bad enough that Gov. Jeb Bush would snicker like a homophobic school boy while discussing an ongoing tragedy as thoroughly humorless as the one involving still-missing foster child Rilya Wilson. But Bush's excuse -- that he didn't know a reporter was present in a meeting he considered private -- only made the episode worse.

    Does Bush really think so little of Panhandle politicians as to presume they would guffaw at his "juicy details"? And since when did a meeting with sitting legislators and legislative candidates, held to discuss policy issues, become private anyway?

    It should go without saying that Florida's chief executive is expected to encourage tolerance, not foment intolerance and ridicule, no matter how many people -- or reporters -- may be in the room.

    Bush made the offensive comments last week after Geralyn and Pamela Graham, the two caregivers for the missing Miami girl, were arrested on charges of defrauding the government. During a meeting with three Republican Panhandle legislators, two GOP state House candidates and others -- including a reporter whose account was later printed in the Pensacola News-Journal -- Bush implied that the two caregivers were lesbians.

    "Bet you don't get that in Pensacola," Bush reportedly told the attendees, after relaying that one woman had referred to the other as her "wife."

    The Rilya Wilson tale is sad enough without Bush trivializing it with innuendo. Rilya's sixth birthday came and went last Sunday, with investigators evidently no closer to solving the mystery of her disappearance. Officials have acknowledged their desire to use the arrests to "squeeze" information about Rilya. That's a tried-and-true law-enforcement tactic, and one that would be more troublesome in this case were it not for the long list of allegations supporting the charges. Some have questioned the timing of bringing charges just before the November elections, but the charges themselves look legitimate.

    The same day he was caught ridiculing the women, Bush was touting their arrest as proof that the state is committed to solving the Rilya mystery. "The arrests in Miami today . . . signal our intention to leave no stone unturned in our efforts to locate the missing little girl," Bush told reporters.

    The governor should keep his comments focused on finding Rilya, not belittling her family.

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