Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, On Foot

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Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, On Foot

by
David Morgan

To many, it seemed quixotic, in a season where so much attention is showered on prospective presidents-to-be, to raise flags about a lame duck.

But John Nirenberg, who has called for hearings into the conduct of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, with the possibility of impeachment, says rescuing America's standing in the world demands it.

The 60-year-old professor from Brattleboro, Vt. argues that, with a year left in Mr. Bush's term, there is still time to investigate his conduct of the Iraq war, as well as other issues which have brought criticism against his administration - the outing of a CIA agent, the surveillance of Americans without warrants, and the abuse of detainees.

He said he shudders with anger and fear in response to actions and statements, such as a willingness to redefine what is torture and when it can be used, made by Mr. Bush and Cheney: "Anger because we have stooped so low, fear because all of what we have cherished as a nation - indeed, all of the great things about the United States that we have shown the world - are being destroyed by the current administration."

With the White House refusing to turn over documents or testimony in response to Congressional subpoenas, the only weapon in the arsenal of lawmakers seeking accountability, critics say, is impeachment. Yet even before the Democrats officially took back control of Congress and she was elevated to House Speaker in January 2007, Rep. Nancy Pelosi announced that impeachment was "off the table."

And so Nirenberg, an Air Force veteran who built a career as a social studies teacher, college professor and organizational consultant, and is a former dean of the School for International Training, decided to take action.

Although he did not consider himself an activist, Nirenberg decided to test his mettle in a way to attract attention to his cause: walking the 480 miles from Boston to Washington, D.C. His goal was to meet with Pelosi and hand-deliver petitions and letters from citizens pleading for the Speaker put impeachment back on the table, if only to shed light on the administration's behavior.

"I can't sit back any longer satisfied with my outrage," he wrote on his Web site, Marchinmyname.org. "It isn't enough."

Putting Rubber (Soles) To The Road

Nirenberg set out on foot on December 2, from Faneuil Hall in Boston, walking primarily along Route 1. Averaging 12 miles a day, he carried his posters reading "Save the Constituion: Impeach Bush/Cheney" through good weather and bad, being joined along the way by supporters, and often stopped to give talks.

Nirenberg blogged about his experience on the Web site, telling of the hazards of walking along a highly-traveled route - ideal for visibility but less so for comfort and personal safety. And he writes of the reactions from and connections made with people along the way, such as the father and son who approached him in Princeton, and addressed him by name. It turned out the man's brother in Japan had read of Nirenberg's trip, and the father sought him out.

What got the man interested in impeachment, Nirenberg asked?

He told Nirenberg, "There has just been too much blood spilled. Too much. Over 600,000 people have died in Iraq since we've been there."

In cities and at universities along his route, he attended rallies and vigils organized by anti-war groups, students and other activists.

Such demonstrations also attracted counter-demonstrators, who displayed signs proclaiming "Protestors strengthen the enemy and kill our troops" and "The surge is working."

"The public's reaction was fabulous. Ninety percent of those people who chose to express themselves - we're talking in terms of horn sounds on the roads, thumbs-up, a few fingers thrown in - were positive. Incredibly, people know what's going on, even without it being a major topic of concern in the press."

It may not be surprising given recent polls: In November American Research Group said that 64% of American voters believed Mr. Bush had abused his powers of office, and 34% said such actions warranted his removal from office. Seventy percent said Cheney had abused his office, with 43% calling for his removal.

But impeachment is rarely a topic of conversation when so many other issues - Iraq, recession, the subprime mortgage crisis, health care, Britney Spears - are at the forefront. The challenge for impeachment advocates like Nirenberg is to make the case that most every issue affecting Americans today can be linked to the question of whether high crimes and misdemeanors in the executive branch occurred and are provable and, if so, prosecutable.

And the hardest ones to convince are the very ones with the power to do something about it.

A Capra-Esque Journey

In the classic 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Jimmy Stewart plays a political appointee sent to the Senate to keep a seat warm and not make waves. But the Junior Senator finds himself caught in a one-man fight against corruption which ties the chamber in knots - a filibuster! - until right triumphs amidst a flood of telegrams.

But this is 2008, and life is not a Frank Capra film. At least that's what Nirenberg saw when he arrived in the capital to spread his message.

An early experience should have been a portent of things to come: Visiting the National Archives building, which houses the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, he and a group of like-minded supporters were blocked from entering by security guards, who demanded they remove articles of clothing - hats, T-shirts, ponchos - carrying impeachment messages.

While trying to arrange a meeting with Pelosi, whose office repeatedly said she was unavailable, Nirenberg held a press conference, gave interviews, and visited other Congressional offices to bend the ears of lawmakers (or at least their staffers) about their positions on impeachment.

He got up to a speed of visiting 15 offices per hour. In most every case, Congress members were not available. Nirenberg delivered his talking points, and perhaps the names of constituents who wanted their views passed on; staff members noted his interest, and that was that.

At the office of Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., he asked the young staffers, "The Congressman does defend the Constitution, doesn't he?"

"Well, yes, I suppose," was the response.

Republican staffers seemed particularly surprised at his entreaties, as if they thought Nirenberg was lost and was aiming for the Democrat next door.

But it is hard to convince many that impeachment is a non-partisan issue.

"Maybe I'm crazy, I've been spending time now in Washington, and everyone is going about their business like nothing's happened, there is no threat to the Constitution."

The fact that impeachment was not apparently on staffers' radar is not for lack of trying on the part of advocates. An op-ed co-authored by three members of the House Judiciary Committee published in the Philadelphia Inquirer last month called for hearings. Former Sen. George McGovern wrote a Washington Post op-ed calling for impeachment; and last week a committee in the Washington State Senate approved an impeachment resolution (though it is unclear when or if it will be brought to the full chamber).

There was also a great deal of media attention last week for a study released by the Center for Public Integrity and the Fund for Independence in Journalism, which enumerated 935 false statements made by Mr. Bush, Cheney and other high government officials over two years about Iraq's weapons capabilities and alleged ties to al Qaeda, leading up to the 2003 invasion.

But Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have offered the rationale that, were Congress to delve into hearings, it would divert time and resources away from other pressing matters which they believe voters hold more dear; and by raising the specter of impeachment, they would be painted (they fear) as obstructionists, or as merely seeking payback for the 1998 impeachment and near-removal from office of President Bill Clinton.

Nirenberg thinks that view is misguided, especially given that in the past parties that pursued impeachment hearings improved their public approval ratings and scored in subsequent elections, because "People want the truth.

Nirenberg finally got a call from Pelosi's office arranging for him to see not the Speaker but two senior staffers. So on Wednesday Nirenberg went to the Cannon House Office Building to meet with Joe Odek, Pelosi's senior counsel (whose areas include civil liberties and constitutional law), and Michael Techlenburg, the Speaker's legislative assistant (who in addition to being a Columbia University Law graduate also happens to be deaf).

Nirenberg did not miss the terrible, poetic irony that, while failing to meet Pelosi in person, he was invited to deliver his message of impeachment to a deaf man. "Unbelievable, it was just amazing, actually."

Nirenberg did come away with hints of what can be expected from Congress in the coming months: a vote on contempt citations for Harriet Miers and Joshua Bolton, probable hearings in February on the President's signing statements (in which he declares his intent not to enforce certain laws enacted by Congress), and ongoing investigations into no-bid contracts, CIA tapes, FISA spying, and possibly the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison.

But on impeachment, views were unchanged on both sides, with the staffers speaking to the importance of "unity," a quality in scarce supply in Washington.

"It's because they still think politically and not historically, and they're not willing to lose a battle," Nirenberg said of the majority party. "So the question I have for Pelosi if I should ever in the future get in to talk to her is: If this isn't important enough to fight for, and possibly lose your own seat for, what issue would be important enough?"

Rep. Dennis Kucinich met with considerable resistance from leaders of his own party when he introduced a resolution calling for impeachment hearings on Cheney last November. Democrats wanted to table the resolution, fearing a backlash; Republicans called their bluff, voting to keep it alive, if only to embarrass Democrats. The spectacle put the lie to President Bush's quip, ironically spoken that very day, that C-Span was a boring channel.

The resolution was sent to the Judiciary Committee, where it has lain dormant. [Kucinich has vowed to introduce a similar resolution aimed at the president on Monday, the day of his State of the Union address.]

Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., had even written a book calling for impeachment of the president. But that was before the 2006 election, when he was in the minority; now he is the Judiciary Committee Chairman, and he has squelched talk of moving ahead on the issue, including Kucinich's resolution.

"Frankly, he can draw a line in the sand and say, 'The public is demanding this and we need to start,'" said Nirenberg. "He's getting a lot of pressure that might push him that he could allow a subcommittee to open hearings."

On January 15, Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., spoke on the House floor, where he delivered a petition with more than 189,000 signatures calling for hearings. "A growing chorus of American citizens are calling for this Administration and this Vice President to be held accountable. The response from Congress thus far has been silence and denial."

"[Wexler] was a doubter for a long time and he bought the party line, and I have yet to find out what it was that switched him," Nirenberg said. "But now he is a very strong advocate for impeachment.

"I think what he's found - and this is what I'm trying to get through to Pelosi - is that once you take a forceful position on this and illuminate the truth, then good things come to you. In this case he's got a bump; his home district seems to be more favorable to him now. He is the darling now of the impeachment movement."

Not that there are THAT many darlings to go around. Kucinich's Cheney resolution has 24 co-sponsors (out of 435 representatives). There were twice as many co-sponsors on a resolution honoring the late winemaker Ernest Gallo.

But impeachment proceedings could actually curtail obstructionist behavior on the part of the Bush administration. Although the White House has repeatedly refused to answer subpoenas for documents or allow testimony by officials in a number of high-profile cases, claiming executive privilege, such privilege cannot be used in matters of impeachment.

So House and Senate Committees that have been refused access to documents about the U.S. attorneys firings, the Valerie Plame outing, the destruction of CIA torture tapes, the loss of millions of White House e-mails, Cheney's secret energy meetings, the EPA's rejection of California's greenhouse gas emissions law, or other topics of more than academic interest, have a means to finally get them: call an impeachment hearing.

But Nirenberg says even that objective isn't likely to occur. He thinks the Democrats dread any possibility of opening up the topic with Republicans: "They think that would add to the divisiveness and they would be the ones responsible for it - not the criminals, but the prosecutors. It's laughable how I think they've miscalculated, because people see them as spineless."

And if you think Democrats' ears burn when Nirenberg speaks, you can imagine what he has to say about Republicans.

"Obviously I've got my biases, but [lawmakers] are so ideological they don't even see the point of the Constitution - it's all a matter of whose party is winning and got the power?

"I think they could feel that way only as long as they believe that the public doesn't really care that much. They believe the public would see it as distracting or as political, and I think they're wrong. I think the crimes are so egregious the public would instantly appreciate the fact that nobody is above the law and that something is done about it.

"And Congress is the only body that can do anything."

So what did he learn about himself from his journey?

"I shouldn't have delegated my citizenship to special interests, let's say, or even the usual activists," he said. "Everybody's got to get involved here, and that's what makes the difference."

"So it's been an interesting experience, from my complacency (which I really am ashamed of) to doing something this extraordinary - to be walking 500 miles to see somebody who has an extraordinary power of denial, claiming to be holding this administration accountable.

"And the other thing is, that even if you are in a minority, when it comes to sensitivity about human rights and constitutional issues, you can't be too sensitive.

"With a name like Nirenberg it's not a great leap of imagination to see how I'm also very conscious about what happened at the Nuremberg trials, and what it meant for Americans - so proud of having fought back tyranny and having established principles that Americans don't torture, even in the most horrifying war then known to Man. And now the president talks about it openly, basically saying he has the right to decide. So if we're not sensitive now to such things, then when it's time it touches us directly, it's much too late.

"So I guess I learned that I have a lot more courage than I imagine."

© 2008 CBS News

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