The following is an excerpt from The People v. Bush: One Lawyer’s Campaign to Bring the President to Justice and the National Grassroots Movement She Encounters Along the Way by Charlotte Dennett. It has been adapted for the Web.
Everyone cheered. That’s what Bob Kiss remembers most about inauguration day 2009, when he stood in a crowd beneath the helicopter usually known as Marine One and watched it lift off, carrying George W. Bush away from the White House—for the last time—and heading for Texas. For Kiss, the Progressive mayor of Burlington, Vermont, the moment was sheer bliss. Listening to him recall it days later I was reminded of how I felt while watching the same event on TV: “Sayonara, Mr. President!” I blurted out, leaping from my living room couch. “See you in court!”
Did I really say that? The president, “in court”? For a split second, I was startled by my own words. There you go again, I thought to myself. What next?
Like Kiss, I am a Progressive—in a state known for its progressive ways and tenacious political behavior. We are a small state that takes on big issues. And sometimes we surprise ourselves in the process.
The last time I surprised myself was on September 18, 2008, before a roomful of snapping cameras and TV lights in downtown Burlington. On that day, I announced both my candidacy for attorney general in Vermont and my pledge, if elected, to prosecute George W. Bush for murder—in Vermont.
It was a scary and exhilarating moment. Scary because I had never run for political office before, let alone for the highest law-enforcement position in the state. Even scarier because I had decided to include in my platform the prosecution of the former president of the United States for the ultimate crime, a crime that could actually put him behind bars. But it was also exhilarating because sitting next to me was one of the best legal minds in the country: Vincent Bugliosi, the former prosecutor from Los Angeles made famous for his successful prosecution of the Manson family for the seven Tate-LaBianca murders. People also knew of him as the coauthor of Helter Skelter, the biggest-selling true-crime book in publishing history. I had come to know him by reading his latest book, The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder.
Even as a relative newcomer to electoral politics, and even as a Vermonter who knew there was widespread antipathy in my state toward George W. Bush, I figured this particular campaign issue was going to be a hard sell. But with Vince Bugliosi at my side, helping me grapple with some huge legal issues (I don’t think anyone had ever previously suggested prosecuting the president of the United States for murder), I felt confident enough to give it a try. And I’m glad I did it, because it became a transformational experience, not only for me, but for the extraordinary handful of individuals who bravely came to Vermont to join me and a small circle of friends in this campaign.
We are now all members of the accountability movement, a growing nationwide phenomenon that takes as its basic underlying premise the belief that no one, not even the president of the United States, is above the law.
From the very beginning, our campaign took on a life of its own. People appeared out of nowhere to join it. Others I never dreamed of meeting came to support me. The press came calling. All of a sudden, I was leading The Little Campaign That Could.
It all began in late August, 2008, when the Progressive Party leadership, knowing that I was a lawyer, asked me to be their candidate for state attorney general. The party, which is arguably the most viable third party in the United States,1 had successfully elected six members to the Vermont legislature. But in order to maintain its major-party status in Vermont, it needed at least one of its candidates to gain over 5 percent of the vote in a statewide race. Although we had only two months before election day, five of us agreed to run for top slots—lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor, and attorney general. We all agreed to be write-in candidates during the September 11 primary, and it was left to us as to whether we wanted to “stand” or actually “run” for the position after the primary. After all, it was already pretty late in the game, with the November 4 election only two months away.
I was busy at the time, with many things on my plate, so I only tentatively agreed to run. Still, I started to bone up on the position of attorney general, realizing that the incumbent, a Democrat, headed up a public agency that is actually the largest law firm in the state, with a staff of eighty lawyers in both its criminal and civil divisions. In short, to be an effective candidate, I realized I would have to speak intelligently—and with a vision—on many of the major issues confronting Vermonters, including the environment, consumer fraud, employment discrimination, and, of course, serious criminal behavior, including sex crimes—at the time a hot issue in Vermont because a young woman had been brutally murdered by her uncle, a known sex offender.
Then, a week later, a friend put Bugliosi’s The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder in my hands, knowing that it would appeal to me both as a lawyer and as a former journalist in the Middle East. Bugliosi wanted someone to prosecute Bush for sending American soldiers to Iraq under false pretenses. The deaths of four thousand American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians weighed heavily on him. Prosecuting the president should be done, he argued, not just to bring about justice, but also as an act of deterrence, so that future presidents would think twice about committing heinous crimes while in office.
As I began to read the book, one passage particularly struck me. One way to bring Bush to justice, Bugliosi wrote, was to have a state attorney general prosecute the former president—should one wish to take up the cause. There were many things that had led me to consider running for Vermont’s top law seat, but this was the clincher.
Before I knew it, the legendary Vincent Bugliosi was flying east for a conference on prosecuting war criminals, and on September 12 I was meeting him for the first time. By September 15, I agreed to take up the prosecution issue, but only if he would agree to be my legal counsel during the campaign, and my special prosecutor should I win. There were two reasons to appoint a special prosecutor: in cases where there was a possible conflict of interest, or (as applied to my situation) if the attorney general simply needed another lawyer to do the case. The attorney general position is largely administrative, so asking for help was not unusual. In my case, I needed assurances from Bugliosi that he would lead the criminal investigation of George Bush’s war-related crimes, bring the indictment, and conduct the prosecution, should I be elected attorney general. He agreed, and by September 18 my race was official.