WASHINGTON — I am reminded of 1997 when Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died in the same week, each as different as two persons could be, yet both sealed in the public mind by their incessant exposure on television.
So this week with Pope John Paul II and Terri Schiavo, we had the melancholy presence in the Vatican window and the brain-damaged woman in the Florida hospice. He became part of our lives, believers and unbelievers alike, because television brought into our homes the gallant priest who struggled to speak.
Mrs. Schiavo, who died Thursday, became part of our lives because of the hundreds of times we have seen the four-year-old videotape of the vacantly smiling woman.
The power of the image led the president and Congress into the colossal blunder of trying to manipulate her condition to make political points. They misread the mind of the public which, by and large, wants death with dignity, without the benefit of political interference.
The Vatican made its judgment in the Schiavo case. Its organ L'Osservatore Romano said the feeding tube should be restored, adding, "Who can decide to pull the plug as if we were talking about a broken or out-of-order appliance?"
But in the case of the pope, diagnosed with advanced Parkinson's disease, the Vatican faced its own dilemma. According to the New York Times, the pope himself said in 1998 that keeping patients alive by "extraordinary or disproportionate means" and artificial "hastening of death" are both at odds with Catholic principles. He may not have dreamed, seven years ago, that he might face this dilemma himself.
According to the newspaper La Repubblica, the Vatican set up a hospital room in the Pope's quarters, complete with electronic ventilator, suction devices, and a resuscitation team.
In the end this week we were held spellbound by the dramas of two human beings whom television has made familiar to all of us. Two human beings whose lives were in the hands of someone else.
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.