John Nirenberg would walk 500 miles. And it sounds like he would walk 500 more. But unlike the persistent pop tune by The Proclaimers, he refuses to be the man who falls down at Nancy Pelosi’s door.
Nirenberg, a hearty New York City native and current resident of Brattelboro, Vermont, intends to be standing when he reaches Washington, D.C. around January 10, at the conclusion of a scheduled 40-day walk that began in Boston on December 1. This fall, the 60-year-old professor of organizational behavior and Air Force veteran decided to traverse Route 1 on foot to implore House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to begin impeachment proceedings against President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
“It was about a whole collection of issues around the Constitution and the behavior of this administration,” explains Nirenberg, who finds that his sense of outrage and jogging background help him complete 15 miles per day. “Especially the torture issue, the spying, and an illegal war. All of this, at some point, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I decided that I needed to do something different.”
In order to channel his frustration, Nirenberg founded the non-profit organization, March in My Name, where his trek can be followed on the Web site, www.marchinmyname.org
He hopes also that by collecting photos, testimonials and petition signatures, he can show Speaker Pelosi that popular support exists for her, at the very least, to allow the House Judiciary Committee to open a hearing into the behavior of the Bush administration.
Since she assumed office after the mid-term elections in 2006, Speaker Pelosi has continued to insist that the impeachment option is “off the table.” Her position disappoints people like Nirenberg who had anticipated a more aggressive outcome from the Democratic majority in Congress. For example, they note with suspicion the change in House Committee Chairman John Conyers, an acknowledged proponent of executive accountability who appeared possibly bullish on impeachment in early 2006. Now in his new role, he cites a lack of votes and refers to the disruptive potential of the process.
“The Speaker is certainly aware of the frustration a lot of Americans feel about the conduct of this war,” said Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesperson. “But she believes that impeachment would be a distraction to the priorities of this Congress.” He declined to speculate whether the Speaker would meet with Nirenberg, who sent a certified letter recently to request an appointment.
Impeachment advocates, on the other hand, ask what could be more important for Congress to undertake than an investigation into the possibility that “high crimes and misdemeanors” have been committed in violation of the Constitution. They argue that uncensored abuses of executive power and subversion of the rule of law would hold dramatic consequences for the remainder of the Bush administration, and the future of the presidency.
Nearly 80 such supporters gathered at an evening rally for Nirenberg at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in late December, when he arrived after beginning his day’ journey in Harlem that morning.
“This problem is not solved by the next election,” declared speaker Liz Holtzman, who served on the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 during the impeachment hearings on the activities of President Richard Nixon. “Because what is the message? It’s like saying, ‘This murderer, he’s going to die. Why do we have to go through the trouble of bringing him to justice?’”
Duty to future generations aside, immediate concerns about the election next year likely calculate into the decision of House leaders not to pursue impeachment. Democrats may fear that Republicans in the minority would attempt to portray them as obstructionist and politicized, which is precisely how Democrats painted Republicans when they proceeded with the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 on the grounds of perjury and obstruction of justice pertaining to the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Paula Jones lawsuit.
However, three Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee remain vocal in favor of the impeachment of Vice President Cheney. On November 7, the House voted to send a resolution concerning his impeachment to the committee. Last week, Representatives Tammy Baldwin, Luis Gutierrez, and Robert Wexler published an online op-ed calling for hearings to begin. Since December 14, more than 100,000 people have signed on to www.WexlerWantsHearings.com to tell Congress to proceed.
Nirenberg urges reluctant members of the House to stiffen their spines, and embrace an impeachment impulse that he feels is widespread.
“They have to believe that they may actually be hurt by inaction,” he observes. “That’s my mission – to help them have the courage to understand that holding on to their 11 percent approval rating, or whatever it is, is not a strategy that is going to work. They may lose the White House.”
In fact, a USA Today/Gallup Poll of 1,011 U.S. adults conducted via telephone from December 14-16 found that 30 percent of respondents approved of Congressional job performance. The findings verge on historic lows.
Nirenberg may walk well-worn liberal territory in the exactly 485 miles between Boston and Washington, D.C., but the former college dean still insists that, “The numbers are ridiculous. When people choose to let me know how they feel, whether it’s the thumbs down or finger, or thumbs up and a horn, it’s probably 95 to 5 in favor. It’s unbelievable.”
And so Nirenberg will walk to relay that message to Speaker Pelosi, in the hope that she and her colleagues will act. “Without doing something,” he says, “this Congress is telling history, ‘We changed the Constitution.’”