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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Is The Top Democratic Gun Ready For War?

By Romesh Ratnesar

Time cover

(TIME, September 28) -- As a brash backbencher on the House Judiciary Committee in the early 1970s, Michigan Representative John Conyers was enough of an irritant to the Nixon White House to earn 13th place on the Administration's original enemies list. "Coming on fast. Emerging as a leading black anti-Nixon spokesman," presidential counsel John Dean noted next to Conyers' name. In May 1972, Conyers introduced a resolution on the House floor demanding that Nixon be removed from office for his conduct of the Vietnam War. The measure went nowhere, but Conyers kept at it for the next two years, and when the Judiciary Committee finally voted in favor of impeaching Nixon, Conyers relished his vindication. "Impeachment is difficult, and it is painful," Conyers said at the time, "but the courage to do what must be done is the price of remaining free."

Democrats need Conyers to find courage of a different kind this time around. The Judiciary Committee's only veteran of the Nixon wars, the 69-year-old is the committee's ranking Democrat and will spearhead the party's defense against the Republican campaign for impeachment. The natty, unflaggingly liberal Conyers meets one requirement for a bulwark: he openly loathes Kenneth Starr; recently he called the prosecutor one of "the enemies of the nation." Conyers' potential value to the White House extends further. As dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, he could help marshal critical black support for Clinton in the House. But many Democrats fret that Conyers is too erratic and garrulous for the task--and that once hearings begin, he will be overwhelmed by committee chairman Henry Hyde. "Hyde is so smart, so fast on his feet," says a Democratic congressional staff member, "that Conyers is no match for him."

Over the course of his 34-year career, Conyers has distinguished himself mostly as a truculent ideologue. Among his causes have been a guaranteed annual income for the poor and reparations for descendants of slaves. "A fox knows many, many things, while a hedgehog knows only one larger truth," says a House Democrat, paraphrasing the ancient Greek poet Archilochus. "John Conyers has been a hedgehog."

Not surprisingly, he has worked his way to the top of the Judiciary Committee, which traditionally attracts the more zealous members of both parties. It is a good showcase for Conyers, whose longevity and political skills are respected by other committee Democrats. In the utterly partisan fight likely to erupt over impeachment, a Democratic aide says, "Conyers will give Hyde fits. He'll say what everybody else is thinking, which is that the Republicans are railroading the President out of office."

But still there are those failings. Conyers is prone to meandering soliloquies and absentmindedness. His management style ranges from capricious to offhand. Democratic staff members have lately complained that during preparations for the Starr report, they were unable to find Conyers at scheduled meeting times. His waywardness so concerned minority leader Richard Gephardt that he handpicked Washington lawyer Abbe Lowell to be the Democrats' lead counsel on the Judiciary Committee, with the intent to wield influence over the proceedings through Lowell.

It was no surprise that sharp-tongued Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank, not Conyers, stood toe to toe with Hyde last Friday to lambaste Republicans' decision to release Clinton's videotaped grand-jury testimony. Conyers had wandered off before returning to the microphones to offer something about Watergate. Still, no one doubts that Conyers will say his piece once impeachment hearings begin. That prospect hardly cheers the President's supporters. But given the determined way Republicans are running the committee, even the most dynamic Democrat wouldn't be able to stop the impeachment onslaught. Of course, that's not exactly cheering news for Clinton defenders either.

--Reported by John F. Dickerson and Douglas Waller/Washington


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Cover Date: September 28, 1998

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