Vincent Bugliosi, the legendary Los Angeles prosecutor and true crime writer (best known for Helter Skelter), died of cancer on June 8th at the age of 80, leaving behind some unfinished business. While most obituaries focused on his fame for putting the Manson gang behind bars for life, I choose to remember him as a true gentleman who later in life became an intrepid warrior against a powerful sitting president, passionately insisting that George W. Bush should be held accountable for taking our country to war on a lie.
I first met Vince in September 2008 to explore whether his legal theories in his book, The Prosecution of George W Bush for Murder, held up...and whether (because he was retired) I should take up his cause, run for attorney general in Vermont, and appoint him as my Special Prosecutor for what he hoped would be the trial of the century. He had sent his book to all 50 Attorneys General in the country and none had stepped up to the plate. So on that September day, at a conference at the Massachusetts School of Law on prosecuting war criminals, I approached him. He was elegantly dressed in a three piece suit surrounded by autograph seekers, but seemed unpretentious. Following introductions, we agreed to have lunch. He politely pulled out my chair as I took my seat and for reasons I now understand, that simple gesture stuck in my mind. I'm pretty sure he hadn't calculated that the lawyer who would try to help him prosecute Bush was a woman in rural Vermont, a mere candidate for Attorney General (not a sitting AG), and a lawyer who's experience was in civil litigation and not criminal prosecution. But if he was disappointed, he never let on. He was impressed that citizens of Brattleboro, Vt had voted to arrest Bush if he came to the state. And he was happy, he said, that I shared his belief that President Bush should be legally punished for sending tens of thousands of young servicemen and women to their deaths knowing full well that his pretext for war in Iraq - -those elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction -- was a complete sham.
I was struck, during our initial conversation, by his passion for accountability - in retrospect, a rare commodity in today's world. On September 18th, as he sat next to me and participated in a press conference in Burlington, Vermont announcing my candidacy for attorney general, he was direct to the point of astonishing. "No man, not even the President of the United States, is above the law," he began, "yet, for whatever reason, this bedrock of American legal principles, which is so essential to American democracy, has been ignored by this nation's establishment. 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."
I recall thinking: Is this really happening? Vince Bugliosi taking on this nation's establishment - at a press conference?
"But even the very powerful," he added, his voice rising in emotion, "cannot abort the wheels of justice." If they could, he added, "The America of our Founding Fathers would cease to be and we would be a totalitarian state."
Prescient words. Today, the word "oligarchy" has become part of our political discourse. So, unfortunately, has the name Bush. In the US, the two go together
Vince was appalled to learn that during the weeks leading up to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush's CIA stated in a classified report that Iraq leader Saddam Hussein was not an imminent threat to national security. But the President told the American people the very opposite. In an electrifying appearance before the House Judiciary Committee in July 2008, he testified: "It gets worse. On October 4th, (2002) the Bush administration [he was not allowed to single out the President by name] put out an unclassified summary version of the CIA's classified report to give to Congress...[where] the conclusion of US intelligence that Saddam Hussein was not an imminent threat was COMPLETELY DELETED"!
His voice rising, he continued: "So Congress and the American people never saw any of this...With the safety and lives of millions of human beings [at stake].. and with Congress about to vote in one week on whether it should authorize George Bush to go to war in Iraq, what could possibly be worse..and more criminal, than the Bush administration deliberately keeping this all-important conclusion from Congress and the American people?...Whether Republican or Democratic, all Americans should be absolutely outraged over what the Bush administration has done. How dare they do what they did! HOW DARE THEY?"
The room erupted in applause. Rep. John Conyers banged his gavel but allowed Bugliosi to finish. "If we want," Vince continued, "this nation to become the great nation it once was, widely respected around the world, we can hardly do this if we don't take the first step of bringing those responsible for the war in Iraq to justice."
His message resonated around the country. He repeated it at every opportunity during our campaign. He told me there were several things that motivated him to write his book about prosecuting Bush. One was Bush's cavalier attitude toward the war, which was well documented by the press. "He was just one happy fella, " Vince said with noticeable irritation "at the same time American soldiers were being blown to pieces by roadside bombs." It was in fact clear to Vince that Bush, unlike other presidents, actually wanted to go to war. But what bothered him most was that the president had sent young soldiers to their death while lying to them.
Thanks to Vince's participation, our campaign attracted attention from all over the country. Still, with less than two months before election and my running on a third party ticket, we lost . But it was a profound experience getting to know Vince and arguing the legal strategies needed to prosecute a President once he left the White House. When I suggested that I write a book about the experience and the lessons we learned, he encouraged me.
Vince told me that his own book on prosecuting Bush got more positive response than any other he had written. I am certain that his many loyal fans have not forgotten his message, and I am hopeful that we'll be hearing from them during this new presidential campaign season. I highly recommend his new CD/ documentary, "The Prosecution of an American President" (FirstRunFeatures.com) which took a lot of work and could not be more timely, now that 750 more troops have been ordered back to Iraq to try and clean up the mess that Bush started. Accountability at the highest level is needed, and it is needed now more than ever.
Charlotte Dennett is a Vermont attorney and author. Her latest book, The People v Bush (Chelsea Green, 2010) is now available at email@example.com.