Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, On Foot

John Nirenberg stands in downtown Brattleboro, Vt., Friday, Nov. 30, 2007. The 60-year-old Brattleboro man is gearing up to walk from Boston to Washington D.C. to urge House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to get Congress to begin debating the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
AP Photo/Toby Talbot
To many, it seemed quixotic, in a season where so much attention is showered on prospective presidents-to-be, to raise flags about a lame duck.

But John Nirenberg, who has called for hearings into the conduct of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, with the possibility of impeachment, says rescuing America's standing in the world demands it.

The 60-year-old professor from Brattleboro, Vt. argues that, with a year left in Mr. Bush's term, there is still time to investigate his conduct of the Iraq war, as well as other issues which have brought criticism against his administration - the outing of a CIA agent, the surveillance of Americans without warrants, and the abuse of detainees.

He said he shudders with anger and fear in response to actions and statements, such as a willingness to redefine what is torture and when it can be used, made by Mr. Bush and Cheney: "Anger because we have stooped so low, fear because all of what we have cherished as a nation - indeed, all of the great things about the United States that we have shown the world - are being destroyed by the current administration."

With the White House refusing to turn over documents or testimony in response to Congressional subpoenas, the only weapon in the arsenal of lawmakers seeking accountability, critics say, is impeachment. Yet even before the Democrats officially took back control of Congress and she was elevated to House Speaker in January 2007, Rep. Nancy Pelosi announced that impeachment was "off the table."

And so Nirenberg, an Air Force veteran who built a career as a social studies teacher, college professor and organizational consultant, and is a former dean of the School for International Training, decided to take action.

Although he did not consider himself an activist, Nirenberg decided to test his mettle in a way to attract attention to his cause: walking the 480 miles from Boston to Washington, D.C. His goal was to meet with Pelosi and hand-deliver petitions and letters from citizens pleading for the Speaker put impeachment back on the table, if only to shed light on the administration's behavior.

"I can't sit back any longer satisfied with my outrage," he wrote on his Web site, "It isn't enough."

Putting Rubber (Soles) To The Road

Nirenberg set out on foot on December 2, from Faneuil Hall in Boston, walking primarily along Route 1. Averaging 12 miles a day, he carried his posters reading "Save the Constitution: Impeach Bush/Cheney" through good weather and bad, being joined along the way by supporters, and often stopped to give talks.

Nirenberg blogged about his experience on the Web site, telling of the hazards of walking along a highly-traveled route - ideal for visibility but less so for comfort and personal safety. And he writes of the reactions from and connections made with people along the way, such as the father and son who approached him in Princeton, and addressed him by name. It turned out the man's brother in Japan had read of Nirenberg's trip, and the father sought him out.

What got the man interested in impeachment, Nirenberg asked?

He told Nirenberg, "There has just been too much blood spilled. Too much. Over 600,000 people have died in Iraq since we've been there."

In cities and at universities along his route, he attended rallies and vigils organized by anti-war groups, students and other activists.

Such demonstrations also attracted counter-demonstrators, who displayed signs proclaiming "Protestors strengthen the enemy and kill our troops" and "The surge is working."

"The public's reaction was fabulous. Ninety percent of those people who chose to express themselves - we're talking in terms of horn sounds on the roads, thumbs-up, a few fingers thrown in - were positive. Incredibly, people know what's going on, even without it being a major topic of concern in the press."

It may not be surprising given recent polls: In November American Research Group said that 64% of American voters believed Mr. Bush had abused his powers of office, and 34% said such actions warranted his removal from office. Seventy percent said Cheney had abused his office, with 43% calling for his removal.

But impeachment is rarely a topic of conversation when so many other issues - Iraq, recession, the subprime mortgage crisis, health care, Britney Spears - are at the forefront. The challenge for impeachment advocates like Nirenberg is to make the case that most every issue affecting Americans today can be linked to the question of whether high crimes and misdemeanors in the executive branch occurred and are provable and, if so, prosecutable.

And the hardest ones to convince are the very ones with the power to do something about it.

A Capra-Esque Journey

In the classic 1939 film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Jimmy Stewart plays a political appointee sent to the Senate to keep a seat warm and not make waves. But the Junior Senator finds himself caught in a one-man fight against corruption which ties the chamber in knots - a filibuster! - until right triumphs amidst a flood of telegrams.

But this is 2008, and life is not a Frank Capra film. At least that's what Nirenberg saw when he arrived in the capital to spread his message.