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My debut: A heart-stopping press conference (An Excerpt from The People v. Bush)

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.

I began my press conference with a simple announcement:

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Charlotte Dennett, and I’m running for attorney general on the Progressive Party ticket. I have with me a special guest, legendary prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, who has flown here to show his support for my endeavor. I will appoint him as my special prosecutor if elected, and we shall seek an indictment of George W. Bush in Vermont after he leaves office.

We both knew that the odds were against us. It would have been hard enough to prosecute George W. Bush in an American courtroom for authorizing torture at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, or allowing unlawful wiretapping. But here we were, announcing that we were going to prosecute George W. Bush for murder, for the deaths of Vermont soldiers who had been led into the war in Iraq based on deliberate lies. We pressed our case, knowing there would be objections: Bush had never (some would say, never dared) set foot in Vermont; as commander in chief, he had the consent of Congress to send the troops off to war; he personally didn’t intend to kill these brave Vermonters.

We were prepared for all these reasons and more. Bugliosi, both at my press conference and in numerous interviews, had made it very clear that he would never, “never in a million years,” propose the prosecution of George W. Bush for murder if he hadn’t assembled the best evidence and sound legal grounds to convict him. But we soon discovered that our biggest hurdle was to convince Vermonters that George W. Bush should be viewed just like the rest of us citizens once he left office—in other words, that he would lose his immunity to prosecution for crimes he committed while in office. Vermonters, indeed all Americans, were comfortable with the notion that a sitting president could be subjected to impeachment for violating the rule of law. But the mere thought that a president-turned-private-citizen could be subjected to the rule of law through criminal proceedings was a novel idea. Eventually, however, that idea would also enter the public discourse, shepherded in by the degree of premeditated lawlessness during eight years of the Bush administration, beginning with months of planning—long before 9/11—to get us involved in a war on false pretenses.

It seemed that never before had a sitting president showed such pervasive contempt for the separation of powers embedded in the Constitution. When I took my place behind a microphone at the September 18 press conference, I was confident that the majority of Vermonters believed as I did, that George W. Bush had come perilously close to destroying the one thing all Americans, regardless of political persuasion, hold dear: our democracy.

“We are living in a culture of lawlessness and fear,” I said, as I tried to ignore the glare of the cameras. “Lawlessness by the very powerful; fear because the powerless don’t know what to do about it. As a result, we no longer have accountability in this nation. I believe someone has to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough. The crimes of the Bush administration must not go unpunished.’ ”

I motioned toward Bugliosi sitting next to me. He was looking deadly serious, his chin cupped in his hand, his face registering no emotion other than grave concern. “I can think of no better person to serve as special prosecutor,” I said, noting his record of 105 out of 106 successful felony jury convictions and 21 murder convictions without a loss. “And I can think of no better state to do this—a state that has the highest per-capita loss of soldiers in the war in Iraq, a state where 36 towns voted during their town meetings to impeach President Bush.” Vermonters felt frustrated, I added, that impeachment efforts went nowhere. “Now there is another avenue for us.”

Then I turned the microphone over to Bugliosi, a man I had met only a couple of weeks earlier but who, in that brief time span, had convinced me that every word he uttered came from a deep well of conviction—a profound love of country and an equally profound sense of outrage and injustice over what had occurred over the last eight years under the Bush administration.

“No man, not even the president of the United States, is above the law,” he began, his voice emphatic and clear. It was a statement he would make over and over again, knowing that the American people had trouble wrapping their heads around this seemingly paradoxical concept of a vulnerable commander in chief. But what he said next shocked me for its boldness.

“Yet, for whatever reason, this bedrock of American legal principles, which is so essential to American democracy and to who we are as a people, has been ignored by this nation’s establishment.” He paused, then went on. “An establishment that has in effect decided that George W. Bush should not be held accountable for his monumental crime of taking this nation to war in Iraq under false pretenses.”

What? I knew Bugliosi was not one for mincing words. In his earlier book, The Betrayal of America, he had called the conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court the “Felonious Five” for effectively stealing the 2000 elections and appointing George W. Bush president. And even though I have a soft spot in my heart for anyone who “irritates the establishment,” here he was firing a direct salvo, at the opening of my campaign, at those unseen “powers that be” in a way rarely heard in American civil discourse.

“But even the very powerful,” he added, his voice rising in emotion, “cannot abort the wheels of justice.” If they could, “the America of our Founding Fathers would cease to be and we would be a totalitarian state.”

That’s all it took: one simple sentence that really defined the situation we were in then, and are in now. The Associated Press, to my surprise, actually repeated Bugliosi’s criticism of the nation’s establishment. I couldn’t help but picture in my mind’s eye some unknown “establishment figures” in a huddle over how to respond to my candidacy. And when I say establishment, I mean Democrats as well as Republicans. After all, the incumbent attorney general in Vermont was a Democrat.

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