NEWFANE, Vermont — Cindy Sheehan and I are traveling Vermont this weekend, stopping in close to a dozen towns from Burlington to Brattleboro, to talk about why we think the president and vice president should be impeached — and the essential role that Vermonters are playing in the process. We come not to tell the people of Vermont how to vote on impeachment resolutions at two dozen town meetings next week. That would be not just presumptuous but foolish. Frankly, the Vermont voters who have given America George Aiken, Ralph Flanders, Jim Jeffords, Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders do not need any advice from us about how to make political choices.
Rather, we come to celebrate the wisdom of local activists Dan DeWalt, Ellen Tenney and the thousands of others who have chosen to embrace a Jeffersonian vision of how Americans relate to their federal government, and to take a little of that wisdom back to the rest of the country.
It was Thomas Jefferson who observed more than two hundred years ago that, “Yes, we did produce a near-perfect republic.”
It was Jefferson, as well, who asked of those who would inherit that republic: “But will they keep it?”
The answer to that question, for this particular moment in history,will come from the Vermont town meetings that debate calls for theimpeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney next Tuesday. Last year, seven towns voted to impeach. This year, the numbers will multiply dramatically — and town meetings in the neighboring states of New Hampshire and Massachusetts are taking it up, as well, this spring.
No, decisions made in town meetings across the Green Mountain State will not, in and of themselves, restore the republic — which, rather than the punishment of individual men, is the purpose of impeachment. But, as Americans in towns and cities across this great country despair at the determination of their president to surge the country deeper into the quagmire that is Iraq and react with horror at courtroom revelations about the manner in which their vice president has used his office to manage attacks on the reputations and livelihoods of an administration critic and his spouse, Vermont can signal to the nation that there is an appropriate response to the crisis.
More importantly, Vermont can put that response — impeachment — backon the table for use by the American people and their Congress. Theattention to the votes cast by Vermonters will remind Americans that the founders did not intend for the people or their representatives toallow any president or vice president to act as “a king for four years.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was wrong to suggest, as she did during the heat of last fall’s election campaign, that impeachment was “off the table.”
No section of the Constitution can or should be rendered inoperable byany politician — even a well-intentioned one.
The Constitution does not belong to the politicians. It belongs to allof us. And the medicines it prescribes for the ailments of the bodypolitic are ours to administer.
Jefferson argued that all power must ultimately rest with thepeople, believing that citizens at the grassroots would always be better suited than politicians in Washington to recognize the point at which friends of the republic must defend its democratic aspirations and the rule of law that underpins them. “It behooves our citizens to be on their guard, to be firm in their principles, and full of confidence in themselves,” the author of the Declaration of Independence explained. “We are able to preserve our self-government if we will but think so.”
Jefferson believed that the process of impeachment would at times begin outside of Washington, with petitions from the states. His manual for the conduct of Congress, written in 1800 and adhered to this day, mandates that Congress must accept such petitions and give them due consideration. Hence, the votes cast at town meetings across Vermont Tuesday can extend beyond symbolism. If the Vermont legislature responds to the message from the voters by conveying to Congress articles of impeachment, as several legislators have suggested it should, the struggle to hold the president and vice president to account will have been advanced. If Vermont’s representative in the U.S. House, Peter Welch, chooses to sorespond, he can introduce articles of impeachment incorporating language from the resolutions adopted at Vermont’s town meetings.
As the mother of a slain soldier who has proven that one person canconfront the most powerful man in the world and be heard, and as an author who has spent a lifetime examining the interplay between people and power, we come to Vermont to say that the impeachment process really can begin in the town halls and community centers of this state.
And, we are arguing, this is exactly as the founders intended.
The authors of the American experiment had a deep and healthy distrustof concentrated power, especially when that power was held by a regalfigure, be he identified as king or president. They crafted aConstitution that made no mention of God, corporations or political parties. They made no effort to establish a process for nominating candidates for the presidency, and gave only the barest outlines for the selection of the commander-in-chief — an electoral college was established, but little preparation was made for how or when the electors would be chosen, let alone who would do the choosing.
The founders figured that the American people would figure out how tochoose their leaders.
They feared, however, that after the selection process was done,Americans would forget that they have the power — and, indeed, theresponsibility — to remove executives who transgress against not just the law but the rule of law. The oath that the president and vice president take binds them to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” A failure to do so, as identified by the people and acted upon by their elected representatives, forms the basis for sound articles of impeachment.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney have, with their manipulationof intelligence in a scheme to launch an unnecessary preemptive war,with their repeated refusals to cooperate with a Congress that issupposed to serve as a coequal branch of government, with their assaults on scientific inquiry in order to prevent a fact-based discussion of global warming by that Congress and the American people, with their violations of laws that prevent presidents from ordering secret spying on the American people, and with their abuses of positions of public trust to punish critics of the administration’s policies have failed to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
They have created a Constitutional crisis.
Now, it is suggested that those who would address the crisis with thetools afforded them by the founders are doing harm to the politicalprocess and perhaps the nation. The claim that impeachment represents a dangerous diversion from the work of nations is at odds with everything we know and love about our country.
No less an American than James Madison said, after assuring that theConstitution would include a broad authority to sanction members of the executive branch, observed that “… it may, perhaps, on some occasion, be found necessary to impeach the President himself…” The occasion has arrived. The necessary arguments for the impeachment of the president — and the vice president — have been identified. That Vermonters are among the first to recognize the circumstance does not surprise us. Rather, it inspires us. This is why we have come: to share in a great democratic moment, and to carry the faith forward to other Americans in other states. It is the faith of the founders, a faith that is being restored by the people of Vermont.
John Nichols’ new book is