By Jonathan Tilove
October 3, 2006
c. Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ For a 77-year-old congressman coasting to a 22nd term, John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., generates a lot of heat.
It was Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, who issued major reports suggesting President Bush committed impeachable offenses in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and that Bush partisans may have stolen the 2004 presidential election in Ohio. In the process, Conyers became a hero to the left.
He is, in the words of Gore Vidal, “one of the most useful _ currently the most useful _ member of the House of Representatives.”
But he is also the scourge who conservatives warn will assume the Judiciary Committee chairmanship if Democrats regain control of the House this fall _ plunging the nation into a rabbit hole of Michael Moore conspiracy theories and retro 1960s rabble-rousing.
As writer Joe Klein put it in Time magazine, “The ugly truth is that Conyers is a twofer: in addition to being foolishly incendiary, he is an African-American of a certain age and ideology, easily stereotyped by Republicans.”
Courtly and intellectual, Conyers speaks in a measured meter and even tone. His mellifluous voice fairly whispers, “don’t be afraid, what I’m saying shouldn’t scare you to death,” says his longtime friend and ally Marcus Raskin of the Institute for Policy Studies. “He’s a cannon, but he’s not loose.”
At an age when some dodder, Conyers bops. He’s a ubiquitous presence for liberal causes, becoming the prime mover behind renewed efforts to create a movement for universal national health care.
In cyberspace, where the activist left passes much of its time, Conyers (http://conyersblog.us/) is “easily the most prolific blogger in Congress,” according to National Journal. Conyers himself, in the introduction to his report on Bush, thanks the blogosphere for doing more than “the so-called `mainstream media,”’ to call attention to “the abuses of the Bush administration.”
He is, says Wellesley College political scientist Wilbur Rich, a master of symbolic politics.
For more than 20 years, Rosa Parks worked for Conyers in his Detroit office. Four days after Martin Luther King’s assassination he filed legislation to create a King holiday, and pressed the issue for 15 years until President Reagan signed it into law.
Every year since 1989, Conyers has filed a bill to create a commission to consider reparations for slavery, an idea that many view as fringe but which resonates powerfully in black political and intellectual circles.
At a reparations forum at the annual Congressional Black Caucus legislative conference in September, the congressman said that he wasn’t pushing his bill right now because he wouldn’t want President Bush to be able to name members of the study commission. He said he would redouble his efforts after Bush leaves office, adding dryly, “by whatever means he finishes up his second term.”
Despite a reporter’s repeated requests, Conyers’ staff did not make him available for an interview on his future prospects.
First elected to Congress in 1964, Conyers is the most senior member of the House after John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat for whom he once worked.
“Congressman John Conyers Jr., a young and militant Negro Democrat from Detroit, is out to be become the black spokesman in Congress,” Saul Friedman wrote in The New Republic in 1967.
Still, the writer added, if Conyers is “a committed liberal when he can be, he is a smart pragmatist when he must be.”
The year Friedman penned his piece, Conyers was the only black member to serve on the special House panel that disciplined Adam Clayton Powell Jr. _ Conyers’ childhood hero – for ethical lapses. (When rioters in Detroit that summer attacked Conyers as he appealed for calm, Powell said he was rooting for the rioters.)
In 1989, Conyers led the impeachment and removal of Alcee L. Hastings, a black federal judge, for corruption. Hastings was subsequently elected to Congress and would likely chair the Intelligence Committee in a Democratic House.
Conyers is the only person to serve on the Judiciary Committee when it considered the impeachments of both Richard Nixon (he made Nixon’s “enemies list”) and Bill Clinton (whose impeachment he called an attempted coup).
Chairing Judiciary would make Conyers one of Capitol Hill’s top dogs. “He sees this as history, as a great moment,” Raskin says.
But Conyers says he would not, as chairman, try to ram impeachment of President Bush through the committee. Instead, he would support creation of a select panel, evenly divided by party, to determine if there were any impeachable offenses and forward the findings to Judiciary.
Ultimately, Conyers’ reputation rests with Bush. If history crowns Bush a hero, Conyers will be the nettlesome gadfly. But if Bush is found wanting, Conyers may emerge a profile in prescience who almost single-handedly created the official contemporaneous public record of what went wrong.
“To take away the excuse that we didn’t know,” Conyers told Harper’s Editor Lewis H. Lapham in January, explaining why he issued his report, “The Constitution in Crisis; The Downing Street Minutes and Deception, Manipulation, Torture, Retribution, and Cover-ups in the Iraq War.” (It was later updated to add “illegal domestic surveillance.”) That report persuaded Lapham to write a cover story advocating impeachment in the March Harper’s, the best-selling in Harper’s history.
Likewise, Conyers’ investigation into the 2004 election _ which pegged Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, the Bush-Cheney campaign chair in Ohio, as the primary culprit in suppressing Democratic votes _ inspired Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to write a piece in the June Rolling Stone making much the same case.
While the Columbia Journalism Review characterized the Conyers report on the 2004 vote as “measured but blistering,” Carlo LoParo, a campaign spokesman for Blackwell, who is running for governor of Ohio, dismissed it as “a poorly researched partisan document; every aspect of its contents had already been thoroughly debunked by all of Ohio‘s major newspapers.”
As to the prospect of Conyers chairing the Judiciary Committee, LoParo couldn’t stop laughing.
But Republican former U.S. Rep. Bob Barr, Conyers’ political opposite on the Judiciary Committee that impeached Clinton, sees it otherwise.
“I think he has a keen sense of the role,” says Barr, who believes a chairman can be both ideologically passionate and fair. Conyers “would be very much in the mode of (former Republican Judiciary Chairman) Henry Hyde, obviously of a more liberal variety.”