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Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) Rep. John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. (AP Photo)

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  • Conyers a Player Once Again

    By Michael Powell
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, October 13, 1998; Page D01

    He's on a constitutional roll. Padding about his office, tugging at his suspenders, referencing Alexander Hamilton here, James Madison there, rehearsing his arguments against this "insane" plan to impeach a president.

    It's a natural groove for Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.). He's the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. The only man left who sat in judgment of Richard Nixon. A Black Caucus elder.

    Then just like that . . . Conyers is talking jazz, leaving the intricacies of impeachment behind for the mysteries of John Coltrane.

    Conyers floats a hazy smile. "You listen to 'Trane and you wonder what that cat had in mind."

    A buzzer sounds in his office: Time to vote.

    Conyers riffles through a sea of papers on his desk. Under a coffee-stained impeachment brief he finds it: a portable CD player. Put on the earphones, he instructs a reporter. He pushes the on button, and Coltrane fills the ears, blowing a gusty storm of notes and syncopation.

    And just like that Conyers disappears.

    The Jazz Man is back. After 33 years in the House and countless windmills tilted at, the 69-year-old congressman from Detroit again is a player in a national melodrama. Now with a gray-flecked mustache and hair slicked back, he came to prominence as sponsor of several of the nation's most lasting civil rights laws in the 1960s. His has been a peripatetic liberalism ever since, championing Haiti, challenging President Clinton on the Branch Davidian disaster and the Iraq food embargo, and repeatedly investigating police brutality.

    "My first campaign slogan was 'Jobs, Justice and Peace,' " Conyers says. "And I've been at it ever since, with widely varying degrees of success."

    As that implies, it's been a few years since he walked center stage. Now he's walking into Democratic leadership meetings, wheedling compromises out of colleagues and playing talking head in the 24-hour-a-day media spin cycle. Less than a day after l'Affaire Lewinsky broke in January, he leaped to the defense of the president and has not let up. Day after day he took to the floor of the House to excoriate independent counsel Kenneth Starr as an anti-Democratic creature of the political right. Last week he played an instrumental role in crafting a compromise alternative to the Republican plan for an open-ended impeachment inquiry that failed to pass but persuaded many wavering Democrats to vote with the party. Veteran House players take appreciative measure of this nine-month riff.

    Conyers steps onto a "Members Only" elevator and finds Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), a nine-term member with a white mane and an accent tinged with traces of his native Budapest.

    Lantos nods slightly. "We are very proud of you, old friend. It's a good fight."

    Conyers smiles, the cool cat. "This is my 15 minutes of fame." He glances at his watch. "I have about six minutes left."

    And yet.

    Conyers can leave other House colleagues and leaders ever so slightly nervous. There is, especially for the centrist New Democrats, a sense of Conyers disinterred, pulled from the shadows of another decade.

    He is a liberal adrift in conservative times, a worldly man who can convey the sense -- discomfiting to politicians -- that their game is important but perhaps not all. He plays in a 435-member band, but his beat is rarely linear.

    "You've got Henry Hyde, the Republican chairman, and he's right out of Central Casting with the shock of white hair," says an aide to a Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee. "Whereas John is more difficult to follow, he's not our best foot forward. Our PR could be better."

    There is, in that complaint, a generational difference played out in the argot of the media age. The junior Judiciary Democrats are a loquacious and hyper-ambitious lot, rarely content to let few words take the place of the many. For them, a television microphone is a homing beacon.

    "The committee's natural state is chaos," says a colleague. "There are a lot of lawyers with big egos, and there are limits to which you can control them."

    Conyers, by contrast, carries himself like a courtly reproach from an older generation. At a recent news conference near the Capitol, Conyers, 5 feet 9 and immaculately dressed, leads off. He is carefully, emphatically laying out the Democratic plan for an expedited impeachment process.

    Reporters clamor at the close, and 14 television cameras roll. "Wait a moment, wait just a moment," Conyers insists. "Order, order shall be maintained." It has little effect. A reporter interrupts, asks about the president's future. Conyers declines "to indulge in the predictive mode."

    His fellow Democrats bob in place behind him. Given a chance in the next few minutes, Reps. Rick Boucher (Va.), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), Robert C. Scott (Va.) and Maxine Waters (Calif.) soak up the face time, make predictions and play statesman or partisan as their varying fortunes dictate. They are anchored by Jerrold Nadler, a New York congressman of considerable heft, who camps before the microphones as a Charles Barkley beneath the basketball backboards, all but immovable.

    Yet Conyers, a Korean War combat veteran who projects the understated jauntiness of a man who's seen a lot worse, keeps his hand in. A tabloid type wants to know -- demands to know! -- how much time members put in reading thousands of fine-print Lewinsky documents.

    Conyers waves him off. So the reporter yells: "Are you afraid to answer that question, congressman?"

    Conyers pauses just a beat.

    "Yes," he says in that c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y enunciated cadence of his, "I'm desperately afraid of responding."

    "One of the most effective spokesmen for America's 22,000,000 black people . . . John Conyers Jr. is regarded by some observers as a possible successor to Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. " -- Current Biography, 1970

    The expectations were so great as to be suffocating. In those movement days, to claim the role of black congressman was to carry the weight of a people not yet free.

    Conyers came to it carefully. The son of a black union organizer, he had labored with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. By the early 1960s he was a private lawyer in Detroit, just beginning to make his way nicely in the world.

    Still, it seemed so lacking in moment.

    "As a lawyer, I didn't like the people who could afford me," Conyers says. "And I wanted to represent those who couldn't. So I began this Don Quixote-like trek."

    He won his congressional seat on the north side of Detroit by a sliver-thin 128-vote margin. He arrived in Washington in 1965, an aggressively handsome man eager to make his mark. Conyers was the first black on the Judiciary Committee, and his white colleagues advised him that the civil rights revolution was over.

    Within three years, Conyers had sponsored and helped pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act. He was among the first members of Congress to oppose the war in Vietnam, and reached out to activists everywhere, even put civil rights heroine Rosa Parks on his payroll to help her stave off impoverishment.

    But he was not, in the classic sense, a radical.

    Congress ever offers two paths to power. There is a leadership track gilded with much glad-handing. And there's the committee chairmanship track, requiring years of accumulated seniority.

    Conyers, like Charles Rangel of New York and many older African American representatives, hewed to the latter path. Their calculation reflected a racial Realpolitik. Three decades ago, black congressmen knew that the overwhelmingly white House membership would never elect them to the leadership.

    "I was the eighth-ranked member of the Judiciary Committee when I started, and it took me 20 years to get to number one," Conyers says. "That committee didn't go in for a lot of floating around."

    When Conyers was a young congressman, he took part in the unanimous vote to censure his House colleague and childhood idol, Adam Clayton Powell of New York, for ethical missteps. Conyers spoke of his pain before the full House in 1969.

    "When I was a little boy in Michigan, Adam Clayton Powell was the first and only black hero I ever had," Conyers said. "He'd come to Detroit and we would have a celebration. . . . But now, no hero placed so high . . . ever should have feet of clay."

    History cranked back Round 2 decades later. In 1988, Conyers examined the case Alcee L. Hastings, the black federal judge who was accused of taking a bribe. He expected to take up the cudgel against the Republican Justice Department. Instead he became convinced of Hastings's guilt.

    So he leveled another painful j'accuse. "We did not," he said in voting for impeachment, "wage that civil rights struggle merely to replace one form of judicial corruption for another."

    It was a shining moment. And there were others: In 1993 he held hearings into the disastrous federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex. When Attorney General Janet Reno offered to resign, a show-stopping move that was more rhetorical than real, Conyers suggested that resignation might be a very good idea.

    But somewhere in all those years, between passing landmark procurement reform, pushing to make jazz the national music (Conyers plays a blond-wood jazz bass, which he keeps in his office), battling Republican administrations and driving New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani slightly batty with an investigation of police brutality, Conyers fell into the trap of many longtime committee chairmen. He never lost his moral vision, but he became a captive of his idiosyncrasies.

    Bored, he launched a poorly organized campaign for mayor of Detroit in 1993, and was all but decapitated; he got 3 percent of the vote. The next year House Speaker Newt Gingrich's revolution wiped out Conyers's committee chairmanships and threatened years of liberal achievements.

    For a time, Conyers gloried on the ramparts. In 1995 he and the Judiciary Committee Democrats engaged in legislative guerrilla warfare, trying to thwart efforts to enact Gingrich's Contract With America. Taken on their own ideological terms, Conyers and his mates hoisted several Republican heads on their pikes.

    But the election of 1996 came as another shock. Yes, Clinton won reelection, but the Democrats failed to retake the House. There would be no counterrevolution.

    Conyers drifted. He worked with the Library of Congress on a jazz series, visited his old friend Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti. He didn't return colleagues' phone calls. He was hopping from cloud to cloud, to the point of legislative vertigo.

    "He was suffering from double-minority fatigue," says a colleague. "It was hard to for him to see the relevance of a lot of this stuff anymore."

    It was the kind of rhetorical joust that's supposed to be beyond Conyers, a televised match in August on "Meet the Press" between the seven-decade-old hepcat and the ever-outraged czar of virtue William Bennett. Their subject, of course, was The Intern &and the President. And the expectation of the political pros was that Bennett would make chowder of Conyers.

    But Conyers stepped in swinging:

    Conyers: "The Starr report hasn't even come in yet. But you've made the judgments. You've written a book. . . . I mean, for goodness' sakes, aren't you doing quite well off this scandal?"

    Bennett: This is -- I'm doing very well in my life."

    Conyers: "Thank you."

    Bennett: "And very well talking about -- happily -- talking about -- "

    Conyers: "Thank you."

    Bennett: " -- virtues most of the time."

    Conyers: "Well, write about Reagan, Bush and Gingrich sometime."

    Bennett: " . . . I've spoken very critically of those people at appropriate times."

    Conyers: "Oh, I didn't see any books on it."

    And so it went. Poking, prodding, Conyers had his foe backpedaling for the better part of half an hour. A couple of dozen such bouts with his ideological foes have left Conyers quite invigorated.

    "I'm a workaholic, I'm in here at 7:30 a.m. and leave late at night," he says, pacing back and forth in his office, pausing just briefly to consider a sodden plate of half-eaten pancakes on his desk.

    He takes pains to emphasize that he is not a reflexive Clinton defender. It's about principles, not errant behavior. He often opposes the administration, he says.

    "Okay, we should whip him and flog him in the square, we should fine him and rebuke him and do this and that and the other thing. But we are not the morality police. This is not an impeachable offense."

    Aides don't hide the fact that Conyers harbors a surpassing affection for the president, and a no less abiding distaste for special prosecutor Starr. It's got Conyers plotting strategy with more relish than he's shown in at least a decade. Last week he let Rep. Rick Boucher, an owlish politically centrist Virginian, push the Democratic alternative, the better to bring some more moderate Democrats on board.

    "We're not an easy group to lead," says Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), who is carnivorous in his taste for the television camera. "Conyers is our titular leader, and there's nothing more titular than that. But he's melded us into a group."

    That said, Conyers's style remains distinctly his own. The day before the impeachment vote, the Democrats hold a big unity caucus. Conyers is nowhere to be seen.

    He's back in his office, working the phone. He's seen some polls this morning that suggest this whole impeachment fandango might backfire on the Republicans, and that the Democrats just might emerge from the cloud of blue smoke with their majority again.

    And that means regaining his chairmanship. And a chance to tilt at a few more windmills before he's done.

    Now he's pacing the halls on his way to an afternoon vote. "I have not given up for one day, not one day, the hope that we might take the House. To be out there on the campaign trail, 'We the people,' it's our chance, our hope. How many days are left?"

    He considers the calendar. "Twenty-eight days. Wow."

    He rides the elevator to the basement, waits for the subterranean shuttle car to the Capitol. He spots a doubting Dem, Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas. He places his hands on the congressman's shoulders. "Doggett, are you with me? Can we talk?"

    Doggett appears a bit startled. "Su-sure John. Give me a call."

    Conyers is gone. Now he's slipping his arms around Rep. Howard L. Berman's neck, a fellow Judiciary Democrat from California, asking about the status of the impeachment compromise.

    "That's what we do, right? Howard? Make compromises to make a bad deal a little better."

    It is Conyers's own jazz riff, this be-bopping Democrat in the white collar, powder-blue shirt and navy blue suspenders, cutting a swath on his way to the vote. Looking for one more chance to get all those notes into play.

    "When it's your turn to solo, where you put your fingers is strictly up to your interpretation," he says. "You're always thinking in the back of your mind: Can I do it? . . . That's when it begins to fly."

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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