Many of us in the Democratic rank and file remain strongly committed to the belief that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney should be impeached. That’s certainly the unanimous view of the regulars at The Last Chance Democracy Café. But in today’s episode, as we continue our long road trip to Washington, DC, Winston forces us to confront the unhappy reality that — barring dramatic new disclosures of wrongdoing — the odds are very good that neither Bush nor Cheney will ever actually be impeached.
No, that isn’t what’s right, but it’s probably what’s true. And who said being part of the reality based community is always going to be fun?
But does that necessarily have to mean that there will be no justice at all for the crimes of the Bush years?
The Last Chance Democracy Cafe
Episode 69: Justice-2009:
Because justice delayed is better than no justice at all
by Steven C. Day
We were following a two-lane highway across Central Indiana, a patchwork of flat farmland and thick woodlands — a pleasant monotony broken up occasionally by a small town or city. I-70 into Indianapolis would have been faster, but we were holding fast to our decision to use Blue Highways, instead of expressways, as much as possible. A summer rainstorm had stalked us all the way across the Hoosier State, and looked likely to continue into Ohio: nothing violent, just on-again, off-again showers, barely enough to clean away the remains of the insects periodically performing kamikaze dives into the windshield.
Still at least nine full hours from Washington, DC, we were determined to get there before bedtime.
It had been unusually quiet in the van for the last few hours. After three days on the road, I suppose we were all talked out. But there was also something else at play. Horace, usually our de facto group leader, had barely spoken a word all day.
I’d noticed the trend the day before as we plowed across Southern Illinois. About the time we finished the happy silliness of our progressive fictional account of Colin Powell’s kidnapping of Dick Cheney — something Horace had thoroughly enjoyed — he’d grown quieter. He mostly kept to himself that evening over dinner at “Chicken Big,” the self-proclaimed “Greatest Chicken Restaurant Anywhere in the Milky Way and the Eastern Third of Andromeda.” By this morning he had clammed up almost completely. We would later learn why, but that’s the story for our next episode.
Back on this one, we had just crossed into Henry County, Indiana, not far from the Ohio border, when Winston said something from the back of the van. I couldn’t make out the words, although I could tell he wasn’t happy.
“Sorry, Winston,” I shouted back from the front seat where I was driving — Zach, our young college friend, was riding shotgun next to me. “With all the road noise and the rain we can’t hear you very well up here.”
“I heard him fine,” said Zach.
I laughed. “Okay, those of us with middle aged ears can’t hear you.”
Normally I’d have expected Winston to say something smart alecky, but this time he just repeated himself in a strikingly glum voice.
He said, “They’re not going to impeach Bush and Cheney, you know.”
Zach sounded surprised. “After everything they’ve done, surely they deserve to be . . .”
“Sorry, but the fact they deserve it . . . and God knows they do, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”
“I suppose you’re right,” grumbled Tom, who was sitting in the middle row next to Horace. “From the standpoint of practical politics . . .”
“I understand the fucking politics,” Winston cut him off testily. I don’t think he was angry at Tom — not yet, anyway — just pissed off in general. “But to be perfectly honest with you,” he continued, “I’m getting sick and tired of hearing the Democrats in Congress whining about political reality as an excuse for not doing a damn thing.” His voice was getting louder. “God damn it! Sometimes you just have to do what’s right!”
I called back to him in as lighthearted a voice as I could fake, “For God’s sake, Winston, lighten up. We have nine hours ahead of us. Are you trying to make the van overheat?”
Winston agreed to try.
As we passed over an old-fashioned stone bridge, I noticed that the old style Ford Taurus we’d been following for the last few miles had a Kerry-Edwards bumper sticker. That was something we’d noticed repeatedly since leaving the Denver airport: even in red states, like here in Indiana, we saw a lot more old Kerry-Edwards bumper stickers than Bush-Cheney ones. It was as though the people who’d voted for Bush were trying to destroy the evidence.
But then, who could blame them?
Zach, sounding discouraged, asked Winston, “So you really think impeachment is out of the question?”
Winston sighed loudly “I think we have to face facts. We’re supposed to be the reality based community, remember? And the sorry reality is that impeachment isn’t likely to happen. Should it happen? Hell yes . . . but it isn’t going to. Hell, even if the Democrats had the balls to try . . . which they don’t, there’s not one chance in a million they could ever get enough Republican votes to convict Bush and Cheney in the Senate.”
Zach, sounding even more depressed, said, “So I guess that means they’re just going to get away with everything they’ve done.”
Tom agreed, “All the lying about Iraq, politicizing the Justice Department, sanctioning torture, unconstitutional power grabs, flushing billions of dollars down the toilet through corruption during the so-called reconstruction of Iraq and New Orleans . . . all of it. They just get to walk away clean.”
Then Winston said something I wasn’t expecting. In a firm no-nonsense voice he declared, “No, that’s wrong. I understand why you’re upset . . . hell, I am, too . . . but you’re wrong. There is another way . . . a way aside from impeachment that justice . . . of a sort anyway, can still be made to happen.”
After a brief pause while we all let Winston’s words soak in, Tom asked dubiously, “Are you talking about criminal prosecutions?”
“It’ll never happen. Even with Gonzales gone the Bush politicos will never allow a real investigation into administration wrongdoing to happen. There’s no chance . . .”
Winston cut him off, “Don’t be so sure . . . I actually wouldn’t be that surprised if there are a few prosecutions even while Bush is in office. You shouldn’t sell the career lawyers at Justice short. But I do agree that there won’t be the kind of wide-ranging investigation that’s needed. The hacks with the political appointments would never allow that to happen.”
The rain had suddenly picked up and was starting to hinder my view of the road. I searched the dashboard in vain for the switch to turn up the wipers. I couldn’t find it anywhere. “Fucking rental van,” I muttered.
“I think it’s here,” said Zach, pointing to the end of the turn signal. He was right.
“Maybe you should get your glasses checked, Steve,” he said with a small grin.
I just glared at him.
“What are you saying, Winston?” I hollered to the back of the van. “Are you talking about bringing charges against people in the Bush Administration after he leaves office?”
Winston said something I couldn’t hear again. “What was that?” I yelled back.
“He said, yes,” advised Zach politely. “Maybe you should also see someone about a hearing aid, Steve.”
There were snickers from all three rows in the van.
I glared at Zach again.
Struggling to reclaim my dignity, I yelled back at Winston, “I never practiced criminal law, so I don’t know. But what about the statute of limitations?”
“I think the federal statute of limitations is five years for non-capital cases. So at least a lot of the crimes these bastards have committed should still be subject to prosecution in January of 2009. For example, all of Gonzales’s recent lying to Congress will still be fair game, assuming nothing has been done about it before then.”
“I don’t know,” said Tom, sounding down in the dumps. “That sounds like a pretty lame plan to me. It means allowing Bush and Cheney to stay in office for another 18 months despite everything . . .”
In case you ever find yourself in a conversation with Winston, let me make a small suggestion: it’s best not to call his ideas lame.
“What the hell are you talking about!” he tore into Tom. “We’re letting him stay in office?! Who the fuck put us in charge! I hate what’s happening as much as you do! Hell, if I had it in my power don’t you think I’d walk right up to the White House and personally throw the bastards into the street after everything . . .”
“I know you would . . .”
“. . . they’ve done?! But I don’t have the power . . . and you don’t have the power . . .”
“. . . so barring some sort of blockbuster disclosure . . . something we don’t know about yet . . . something that’s bad enough to get the general public to demand impeachment, it isn’t going to happen! It just isn’t! We can wish for it as hard as we want, but we still won’t find impeachment nicely wrapped under our tree come Christmas morning! Now, should we still argue in favor of impeachment?! Sure, I’ve got no problem with that! The bastards certainly deserve it! But you don’t bet the farm on a wish and a prayer! Not on something this important!”
“Calm down. Winston,” I said in a voice that probably came across a bit more condescending than I intended, “Tom wasn’t trying to suggest . . .”
Winston cut me off, his voice in full fury. “Don’t you tell me what to do, you son of a . . .” But then he stopped cold, causing the van to become uncomfortably quiet.
We’d been down this road before at The Last Chance Democracy Café, of course. Powerfully held convictions can easily lead to anger, even fury. And that’s okay. It goes with the territory. What’s important is not forgetting who your friends are. And I think that was what Winston was reminding himself of right then as the van chugged quietly across rural America.
We had just crossed into Ohio, and acting like nothing was out of the ordinary, I gave everyone the good news. We were one step closer to our destination. I didn’t mention that we still had a good eight hours to go. Why spoil the moment?
And then Winston spoke again, his voice uncharacteristically subdued. “Okay, I’m sorry about losing my temper, Tom . . . Steve.”
“No problem, friend,” someone in the van said. It really didn’t matter who.
“The thing is . . . as you all know, I spent most of my professional life as a district court judge. Although I’m not usually one to talk this way, it’s something I’m immensely proud of, something . . .”
“We’re proud of you too, old man,” I said.
“Thanks. But the thing is . . . I guess you could say that in a small way I’ve dedicated my entire life to the rule of law. One of the things about practicing law, whether as a lawyer or a judge, is that a lot of the time you see people at their very worst. It can be really ugly sometimes. I’m sure you experienced that too, Steve, right?”
I told him that, yes, I had, of course, experienced my share of ugliness in the practice of law: people at their very worst, violent, vindictive, dishonest and small.
Winston continued, “So you have to take a step back sometimes . . . remind yourself of the majesty of it all . . . To remind yourself that the sovereignty of the rule of law in America is one of the greatest achievements in the history of human liberty. That without it, liberty and freedom simply couldn’t exist.”
“That’s true, of course,” said Tom.
“I can’t tell you how painful it’s been for me over the last six and a half years watching Bush and his bunch of hacks pissing all over that beautiful thing . . . and even worse, watching them get away with it, again and again. Time after time they’ve treated the Constitution of the United States as though it was just so much toilet paper. They’ve spied on Americans without legal authority, made tolerance of torture part of the law of the land, ignored any law they found inconvenient, repeatedly lied to Congress. Congress impeached Bill Clinton for lying about sex, for Christ’s sake, but after everything Bush has done nothing’s happened to him. Not a damn thing. He’s never been made to pay any price at all. It’s a travesty.”
“But isn’t that why we need to keep pushing for impeachment,” said Zach earnestly.
“Sure, push for it . . . that’s fine. I’m all for it. But at the end of the day there has to be some real price paid for this, not just talk. If they can simply get away with everything they’ve done, the rule of law will lose its meaning. It will have been shown up as a paper tiger to be tossed aside by those in power anytime it proves inconvenient. We just can’t let that happen. So if impeachment is impossible . . . rightly or wrongly, then we have to find another way to validate the rule of law. And this is the only way I can see we’ll have a fighting chance of getting that done.”
I noticed that Zach was shaking his head.
“What’s on your mind,” I asked him.
He shook his head again. “I don’t know . . . I was just thinking that Winston’s idea depends completely on the Democrats winning in 2008. What if one of the Republicans wins? Then there’ll never be any sort of accounting for Bush’s crimes. Or what if he just pardons everybody on his way out of office?”
Winston, who despite having almost 25 years on me, clearly had the better ears, had heard every word Zach said. He told him, “Those are legitimate concerns . . . I won’t say otherwise, but to be honest with you neither of those things are what really scare me. I think a Democrat probably will win next time, or at least I can’t bear to think otherwise. I also think it’s unlikely that Bush will grant blanket pardons to everyone in his administration, including himself and Cheney. He’ll probably pardon Libby . . . and maybe a few of the others who are actively in trouble, but to pardon people who aren’t even charged with a crime would just look too bad. He’s just too cocky to do something like that.”
Zach agreed that made sense.
“No, what scares me more than any of that is the very real possibility that a new Democratic Administration will decide not to go after the crimes of the Bush era. The pressure to do just that will be overwhelming.”
“I agree,” said Tom. “I can almost hear the pundits now, bellyaching about how it’s time to look ahead and to heal the nation’s wounds, not to engage in a witch-hunt against the last administration.”
“Exactly. And that’s why we need to start raising a ruckus about this now . . . while the Democratic candidates still need us. Justice in 2009, we need to demand it.”
I offered a caution. “I don’t know, Winston. If we were to start demanding that our candidates commit up front that a new Democratic Administration will prosecute former Bush officials, won’t we be as guilty of politicizing the Justice Department as they . . .”
He cut me off immediately. I think it was important to him that no one think that this was what he was advocating. “You’re right, of course,” he said, “we can’t do that . . . or at least we shouldn’t do that. But there’s nothing wrong with pushing Democratic presidential candidates to commit that if elected they will support the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into the abuses that have occurred within our government . . . assuming, of course, the Attorney General concludes there’s cause to do so. This is particularly important in cases, like the US attorney scandal, where the Bush Administration has been stonewalling congressional investigations. No one . . . not even the President of the United States, should be able to run out the clock on justice.”
Zach sighed again, “But isn’t that really what’s going to happen anyway? Whatever investigations come later . . . Let’s see, how should I say this? I mean, even if some people end up getting charged with crimes later, they will still have successfully run out the clock on their time in office?”
“You’re right and that sucks. And if the opportunity to do better comes along, I’m all for it. But we may have to settle for the justice we can get.”
“What’s that old saying about justice delayed?” said Zach.
Tom responded, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
“And that’s true enough,” said Winston. “But I’ll also tell you that justice delayed is a hell of a lot better than no justice at all.”
* * *
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 27 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright 2007, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001
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