Welch takes heat
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., sat front and center in the Hartford High School gymnasium as scores of Vermonters took turns imploring him to file articles of impeachment against President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Welch listened. He took notes. He jumped up several times to address the audience of 250. He even extended the meeting by an hour to accommodate all the speakers.
But he did not change his mind.
Welch told impeachment supporters at the beginning of the forum that he understood their message and agreed with much of it.
"Believe me, I've heard it, the nation has heard it, and the underlying issues that we're discussing are of profound importance," he said.
But two and a half hours later, Welch remained unconvinced that attempting to impeach the president would hasten the end of the Iraq war -- his self-described most pressing priority.
"Impeachment, I believe, is the wrong tactic," he reiterated.
The forum at times resembled a deliberative town meeting and at times a rowdy carnival. Its tone varied from thoughtful and respectful to confrontational and abrasive.
Hecklers repeatedly interrupted Welch when he rose to answer questions. They held signs reading, "Welch, the wizard of pause," and "Welch needs a surge in his pants." Some accused him of being a traitor, and another threw a microphone into the air -- letting it crash to the floor.
Even Welch lost his cool early in the forum when organizer Liza Earle asked him, to rousing applause, whether he would participate in an impeachment panel with Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.
"We'll talk about it," he said from his seat, but when the response elicited a chorus of boos, he took to the microphone and said his job was to represent all Vermonters -- not just those gathered in the gymnasium.
His voice rising nearly to a shout, Welch said he had met with impeachment supporters last weekend and was meeting with them again this weekend.
"I am here to listen. Let's deal with today. This is not a cardboard cutout. This is Peter Welch, your congressman. I have a responsibility to listen to you, to engage in a debate, to take seriously your concerns and I am here to do that. I am not here to play political games and talk about scheduling," he said.
After a rousing choral rendition of, "Let's impeach the president, hallelujah," -- sung by the elderly septet, The Raging Grannies -- leaders of the impeachment movement took turns laying out their case.
One of them, James Leas of South Burlington, accused Welch of reneging on campaign promises to try to end the war. He said that by supporting a bill that would temporarily continue its funding, Welch was essentially aiding and abetting the president.
"During the next few months, that money will kill several hundred American soldiers and thousands of Iraqis," he said. "To protect Bush and Cheney from investigation, Peter Welch helps keep this war going."
Despite the occasional fireworks, the majority of those who spoke addressed their congressman politely, though forcefully. They argued that impeaching the president and stopping the war were not mutually exclusive goals. They said congressional investigations were not sufficient. And they reminded him of his oath of office -- which they said obliged him to support their cause.
In one of the more lighthearted moments of the day, Euan Bear of Bakersfield asked Welch to repeat his oath of office.
"I will uphold the Constitution," he said.
"Protect and defend," she corrected him.
"Protect and defend," he repeated.
"Do you believe you are doing that now by using a non-optional provision in the Constitution that says those who violate the Constitution should be impeached?" she asked.
"The point of the question here is that Bush has committed impeachable offenses; therefore it is the duty of Congress to impeach him," Welch responded, to the loudest and most sustained applause of the day. "I hear you."
The moment, however, turned sour when Welch repeated his earlier arguments against impeachment -- only to have his voice drowned out by heckling audience members.
Not every participant spoke in favor of impeachment, though an overwhelming majority did.
Doug Tuthill of North Pomfret -- a Gulf War veteran who said he had post-traumatic stress disorder-- stood up near the end of the event and said, "Peter, I think you're doing an admirable job."
Tuthill admonished the crowd for representing itself as the voice of Vermont. He said that most Vermonters disagreed with their cause.
The forum ended without fanfare after nearly everyone who had lined up to speak had his or her turn at the microphone. Organizers said they were unsure what their next move would be, though they said they may focus their efforts on Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. They said they will also press Welch to participate in the proposed joint forum with Kucinich.
Kurt Daims of Brattleboro said after the event that he remained unsatisfied with Welch.
"It was a whole lot of baloney because he didn't answer any of our questions," Daims said. "I don't know anymore about what he's thinking than before."
Paul Heintz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.