The Rev. Jesse Jackson is prodding the incoming Democratic Congress to take more seriously its duty to hold President Bush and members of his administration to account for engaging in abuses of power that overtly and aggressively affront the strict controls on executive power detailed in the Constitution.
"How do we hold presidents accountable when they trample these limits?" asks Jackson. "Presidents cannot be indicted. They are immune from civil lawsuits on the basis of their official actions. The only recourse in the Constitution is impeachment."
The two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who remains an influential player within the party and in the broader progressive movement acknowledges that soon-to-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, has been saying that the question of impeaching the president is "off the table." He recognizes that most of Washington's political and media elites are ill at ease with talk of accountability in general and of impeachment in particular. And he admits to a measure of personal caution -- rooted in memories of abuses of the impeachment process by Republican critics of former President Bill Clinton -- with regard to the remedy recommended by the founders for the controlling errant executives.
Jackson is not saying that a new Democratic Congress should rush to impeach a Republican president.
"But in the current circumstances, the question isn't merely rhetorical or partisan," he argues in a provocative assessment of the impeachment debate offered in advance of the pro-impeachment rallies and forums that are being organized for Sunday by activists across the country.
"While in office, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have asserted an extraordinary array of extra-constitutional powers," he explains. "Bush argues that he has the right to declare war on his own. He claims he can designate any American an ‘enemy combatant.' For those under that suspicion, he claims the right to wiretap them without warrants, arrest them without charges, detain them without lawyers, torture them without judicial review and hold them until the war ends. He also says that neither Congress nor the public has any right to review his decisions, or to gain access to the papers that he chooses to keep secret. Because Bush himself says the war on terror will last for decades, the scope of this assertion is staggering."
Using powers that were never afforded by the founders to the executive branch, Jackson notes, "Bush and his men drove us into the war of choice in Iraq, distorting intelligence to gain public support and undermining our credibility across the world. His policies led directly to the disgraces of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. His assertions have trampled the rights of American citizens, as well as those from other countries. Lack of accountability squandered billions in taxpayer dollars on waste, fraud and abuse of major contractors in Iraq. The list goes on."
Referencing the concerns expressed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison about the prospect that an out-of-control executive might impose an "elective despotism" on the United States and serve as "a king for four years," Jackson bluntly states that, "Bush's remarkable assertions would make the president an elected king. That is not what the founders intended. They wrote the Constitution to create a system of checks and balances to limit presidential power. They gave Congress the right to declare war, arguing that 'no one man' should ever have that power in a republic. They passed the Bill of Rights to guarantee rights to the people."
Jackson's got his history right. The founders created the system of checks and balances -- including the impeachment option -- with an eye toward preventing presidents from unleashing "the dogs of war" and toward sanctioning them when they use the excuse of foreign conflict to undermine domestic liberties.
Jackson's also right when he suggests in a column for the Chicago Sun-Times that, "The Democratic Congress has a duty to the Constitution to investigate Bush's claims to be above the law."
While the veteran civil rights leader acknowledges that Representative John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who will take change of the House Judiciary Committee "may well put off any consideration of impeachment" for the time being, he asserts that Conyers "has a duty to convene serious hearings on the scope of the president's claims, the abuses to the Constitution and to citizens resulting from those claims, and the remedies to them."
Jackson does not suggest that the establishment of a case for impeachment must be the initial goal of these inquiries, nor that they should necessarily lead to an effort to remove the president from office before the end of his current term. But Jackson argues well and wisely that appropriate inquiries must be undertaken, that appropriate questions must be asked, and that "Congress must act to defend the Constitution before America turns completely into an elected dictatorship."
John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism has been hailed by author Gore Vidal as "essential reading for patriots." David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, says: "With The Genius of Impeachment, John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so."
The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com