Conyers' hard choice

Dec 5, 2007 at 12:00 am

"My best friends are my biggest problem," he told me, out of the blue, as we leaned up against a wine bar at the Hyatt Regency in Dearborn Saturday night. He wanted to talk about the possibility of impeaching the president.

Impeachment is something a lot of people talk about, but this guy's a little different. For one thing, he knows a lot more about it than anyone on the planet.

For another, he has the power, if anyone does, to do it. Nor can anyone launch a legal effort to impeach George W. Bush or Richard Cheney without his say-so. I was talking, of course, to Congressman John Conyers.

Make that, U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Conyers, now one of the most powerful men in Washington. He knows, more than most people, how deeply lawless President Bush is. He knows he deserves impeachment, and knows that Cheney does, probably even more so.

As a man who loves the Constitution, Conyers deeply loathes both these men, who have violated civil liberties and waged unjust war and sanctioned torture. He would be very happy, pleased and satisfied to see them gone.

Yet he knows that trying to impeach Smirky and Snarly now would be a very bad idea. It would be an effort doomed to failure, and one he knows he needs to resist, for a number of compelling reasons.

"There aren't the votes there, period," said Conyers, who was in Dearborn for the American Civil Liberties Union's annual dinner. "You need 218 in the House to impeach and 67 in the Senate to convict, and 218 and 67 just aren't there," he said, peering over his glasses.

"But beyond that — do you know what a boost that would give Bush if we tried and failed to convict him? He would have an outpouring of sympathy for him, we'd be discredited, and it might help elect one of his clones.

"Nothing is more important than stopping that from happening."

I was impressed by his reasoning and the vast knowledge behind it. This is something he clearly thinks about — a lot. Incidentally, from time to time rumors surface that the 78-year-old Conyers isn't completely there.

Frankly, there are times when he does give that impression, whether deliberately or otherwise. But what I can tell you is that the man I talked with Saturday night was shrewd, savvy and fully engaged.

Conyers knows how the system works, and he knows exactly what he's talking about. He knows where the bodies were buried, how they died, and who the usual suspects are and whether they were in fact involved. Half a century ago, he worked on the line at an auto factory.

Today, he knows how the power lines flow in Washington. And he knows better than anyone ever has, when, how and under what circumstances you can get impeachment done. John Conyers is the only man in history to have served on two subcommittees that looked into — and recommended — impeaching two presidents, Richard Nixon (Conyers voted yes) and Bill Clinton (he voted no).

Then in January, Conyers at last became the big enchilada — chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, one of Congress's most powerful.

Now, he had something like real power, 42 years after he arrived in Washington for the first time, in an era when a black congressman was a novelty and segregation was far from completely gone.

The world clearly changed when Democrats took Congress back a year ago, but not as much as some wished. "My best friends are my biggest problem," Conyers told me again. "They say, 'John, you got to go for it,'" showing how they'd grab him by the lapels. "'John, you got to impeach him!'"

I wondered if he was thinking of his wife, Monica Conyers, now a Detroit city councilwoman. She sponsored a resolution last May that passed the council unanimously, calling for the impeachment of both Bush and Cheney.

Just imagine — the man Monica lives with is the one man who can make that happen, and he isn't going for it. (That must have made for some interesting dinner table conversation.) He told me he's had to patiently explain to some of his oldest friends why he just can't push impeachment. For one reason, "there isn't enough time." Impeachment and conviction would take well over a year if they had the votes, which they don't. Bush is gone in barely over a year.

But beyond that, he noted that, "Nobody [in Congress] would be able to do anything else while they were doing impeachment," he told me.

Nobody would be able to work on stopping the war, or any of the dozens of other matters that need immediate attention. What's more, nobody would be paying attention to the issues the presidential candidates are trying to raise.

Sometimes they urge him to just impeach Cheney. "Yeah, and so what would happen if we succeeded?" Bush might appoint Rudy Giuliani vice president and give him a big edge for the election. Do you want that?

"Listen." he told me. "The most important thing is that we don't elect another Republican. That is the most important issue. I am supporting Obama, but any of the Democrats would be better than any Republican.

"Because if they elect another one of them, the Constitution is just going to be in tatters. Think of what that will mean for civil liberties. Think of wiretapping and the Supreme Court. Think of everything that would mean."

Yes, he's crazy like a fox, all right. What was it they used to say back during the darkest days of the civil rights movement? Keep your eyes on the prize. Conyers, who led the fight to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a federal holiday, knows about patience and keeping your eyes on the prize.

So is it worth it, being chairman of the House Judiciary Committee? His eyes lit up with amusement and mild amazement at the question.

"Are you kidding? To have the power to set the agenda and call hearings, to have the power to protect the Constitution? Forty-two years. I have been waiting and preparing for this for 42 years." He didn't say it, but I could tell part of him thought: African-Americans have been waiting since 1865.

Yes, he said with a very sly grin. Yes. "It's worth it, Lessenberry." As perilous a time as it may be, as awful the rogues are who currently occupy the castle, Chairman John Conyers is having the time of his life.

Destroying the village in order to save it: Meanwhile, in what passes for "mainstream" Democratic Party activity, Michigan's decision to break the rules and hold a Jan.15 primary caused the national party to take all of Michigan's national convention delegates away, as predicted here.

Even before that, all the candidates said they wouldn't campaign here and most took their names off the ballot. Debbie Dingell, who pushed hard for the early primary, despite plenty of warnings, said, "This is about principle."

State officials said they were sure the national party didn't really mean to enforce the rules and would give our delegates back some day. Sure they will, sweetheart. By the way, these are supposed to be the good guys.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]