Republican Calvin Coolidge visited Vermont eighty years ago this fall to deliver one of the last speeches of his presidency, a paean to his native state in which he predicted, “If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the Union and support of our institutions should languish, it could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people of this brave little state of Vermont.” Vermonters appreciated the line so much that they inscribed it on their statehouse.
Across the dark interregnum of another Republican presidency, Vermonters have done their best to use the state’s institutions to battle the assaults on constitutional governance that have been the hallmarks of George W. Bush’s administration. Vermont communities passed resolutions opposing Bush’s rush to war in Iraq, calling for an investigation of the use of the state’s National Guard units in the conflict and ultimately urging immediate withdrawal of all US troops. Cities and towns passed resolutions opposing the excesses of the Patriot Act and related assaults on privacy, as did the Vermont General Assembly. When all else failed, forty Vermont towns passed resolutions proposing impeachment of the president, and the Vermont Senate petitioned Congress to take action.
As Bush prepares to exit the White House–with the Iraq War ongoing and impeachment taken “off the table” by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi–activists in the brave little state are not satisfied to let a lawless president simply hightail it home to Texas. Enter Charlotte Dennett, muckraking author of books and articles detailing environmental destruction caused by Big Oil companies; National Writers Union activist; and practicing attorney from Cambridge, Vermont–population 3,186. Running for state attorney general on the ticket of Vermont’s feisty Progressive Party–which holds a half-dozen legislative seats and a statewide ballot line–Dennett declares, “The Office of Attorney General allows me to combine my investigative skills with my legal powers in order to put these skills to work for you. As the state’s top lawyer, I will prosecute those who willfully break the law. I believe that no one, not even the President of the United States, is above the law.” That’s not just campaign rhetoric. If she wins her uphill race, Dennett proposes to appoint Vincent Bugliosi, the man who put Charles Manson in jail during a career in which he successfully tried twenty-one murder cases, as a state special prosecutor charged with bringing Bush to justice.
Dennett takes her inspiration from Bugliosi’s bestselling book The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, in which the lawyer argues that it is within the jurisdiction of any state attorney general to charge the president with murder because Bush lied about the threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in speeches that were broadcast in every state and then engaged in “overt acts” to recruit residents of those states to fight and die in his war. With Bugliosi campaigning at her side before the election, Dennett argues that Vermont is uniquely suited to take the lead in prosecuting Bush, since the state has had more soldiers killed in Iraq per capita than any other and since Vermonters have so clearly expressed their objections to his actions. “Vermonters pay a huge amount of money and a disproportionate share of soldiers’ lives in this illegal war,” she explains. “If our elected representatives will not act to hold President Bush accountable, it is up to us to use this final remaining tool.”
Dennett’s crusade drew a rebuke from the Republican National Committee, which claimed she was more concerned with “radical left-wing provocation than upholding the law of Vermont.” And the incumbent attorney general she is challenging, Democrat William Sorrell, argues that for a state attorney general to have the authority to mount such a prosecution, the murder would have to have taken place in his or her jurisdiction. Since Vermont “is still the only state George Bush has not visited while president,” Sorrell suggests, the campaign mounted by Dennett and Bugliosi amounts to little more than “good political sound bites.” But Lawrence Velvel, dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, defends Bugliosi’s book as “a very serious work by a very serious author” and suggests that the potential “to use state murder statutes to punish presidential murder” ought not to be dismissed casually. Prominent Vermonters, including ice-cream entrepreneurs Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, have helped Dennett raise enough money to buy some television ads in the closing days of the campaign.
The refreshing thing about Dennett’s candidacy, no matter how many votes she receives and no matter what one thinks about trying a president for murder, is its reminder that campaigns can still be about ideas–big, bold, even dangerous ideas that unsettle the powerful. It is good, as well, to know that the brave little state of Vermont is still living up to Coolidge’s charge.