When, in that brief pillow of time between the Kennedy assassination and escalation of the war in Vietnam, a 35-year-old John Conyers first ran for Congress, he had a method of connecting with voters—“a pet theory of personality projection,” Simeon Baker wrote in a 1965 profile in Ebony magazine: “Using his good looks as bait and charm as the sticking power, [Conyers] wooed women to support him.” “Sex appeal,” oozed a photo caption in the accompanying spread, was the bachelor’s “greatest asset in winning women’s votes.”
It’s indicative of the era in which the piece was written that Ebony framed Conyers’ political support among women this way despite the fact that the few women Baker includes in the story don’t seem to agree with the depiction. “Sure, he’s good-looking,” said one female supporter, but “what converted him into a winning candidate was his ability to make people feel important.”
“He became a symbol of the new middle-class Negro,” Baker wrote. “He vowed to represent people who are caught between the VIP class of Negro life and the lower class which is dependent on relief, low-income housing, and welfare.”
That John Conyers burned out a long time ago. And this week, any hope that something of the steady glow of a pilot light remained has been extinguished. On Tuesday morning, on the friendly airwaves of a Detroit radio station, Conyers resigned in disgrace following accusations from half a dozen women alleging various forms of sexual harassment, unwanted touching, assault—and the revelation, first reported by BuzzFeed, that his office used taxpayer money to try and cover it up.
It is an ignoble and overdue end to what has been, by any measure, a momentous public life. Conyers’ service in Congress has spanned 10 presidencies and 52 years—he’s been in the House for more than one-fifth of the entire existence of the U.S. Congress. In 1964, he went to Jim Crow Mississippi during Freedom Summer and offered legal representation to black voting-rights activists; one year later, he supported the Voting Rights Act as a member of U.S. House of Representatives. He was the only congressman ever endorsed by Martin Luther King Jr., and was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Rosa Parks worked as an aide to him for 23 years. He introduced single-payer healthcare legislation long before Bernie Sanders claimed “Medicare for All” as his own. He served on the Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings, and was one of the original 20 names on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” He was the top Democrat on the committee two decades later, when a president was impeached for the first time since Reconstruction. He was still on the committee a decade after that, when the nation elected its first black president—another young black attorney whose appeal was, in no small part, his ability to make people feel like they too were part of something larger than themselves. All of this is why House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi called him an “icon” even as she was trying to nudge him into retirement.
Yet even as many black Detroiters saw Conyers as their champion against the elite and powerful few, Conyers—or, perhaps more accurately, those he surrounded himself with—sought to entrench themselves in the VIP class he once scorned. There can be no doubt that Conyers’ ordeal is of his own making—the accusations against him are serious and profoundly disturbing. But the political fallout from his surprising, bizarre nosedive off the national stage this week throws new light on the actions of those he’s depended on for decades, and whose influence has skyrocketed as old age has ravaged him. And in their slipshod attempts to build a Conyers dynasty, they’ve diminished the man who would be its patriarch.
The highlights of Conyers’ long career are, by now, somewhat familiar. But less known, at least nationally, are the lows.
There are, at age 88, natural questions about his mental state; he sometimes seemed confused in House proceedings, and even when he joined Mildred Gaddis’ morning show to resign on Tuesday, the host essentially had to remind him why he’d called in. For decades, the non compos mentis question has hung over Conyers—there was an incident in the early 1990s when he was supposedly found in the very early morning standing in the middle of Livernois Avenue in Detroit, barefoot and waving at cars. It was reportedly routine for staff members to find him in various states of undress—“his closet is in his office,” his former communications director explained to CNN—and at least one former staffer has alleged he showed up to a meeting clad only in underwear. Knowing this, there’s the inevitable question of why his inner circle wouldn’t step in as stewards. The answer, perhaps, is that they were too invested in his success.
There’s his bizarre relationship with his decades-younger wife, Monica, a roving tempest prone to Trumpian outbursts. The couple married in 1990—she’d been an intern in his office a year earlier—when the congressman was 61 and his bride was 25. From the beginning, the couple was dogged by rumors that theirs was a marriage of convenience, or that one party was simply taking advantage of the other. Initially, at least, nobody seemed sure who was taking advantage of whom.
In 2005, Monica Conyers was elected to Detroit’s city council largely on the strength of her husband’s name. Her tenure in public office was memorable for its volatility. There was the time she threatened to shoot an aide to the mayor of Detroit; the time she had to be restrained during a city council meeting after an argument broke out and she made fun of another councilmember’s need for a hearing aid; the time she petulantly addressed city council president Ken Cockrel Jr. as “Shrek,” a “Lil’ Marco”-esque jab at Cockrel’s gleaming bald pate and prominent ears; and her encore, a televised argument with an eighth-grader over whether this was or was not an appropriate way for a role model to act.
More damning were her crimes. In 2009, she pleaded guilty to federal charges that she’d accepted bribes from a wastewater-treatment contractor—making her the first Conyers forced from office. Though she’d later try, unsuccessfully, to withdraw her guilty plea, she was sentenced to three years in federal prison. After serving two, she was released into a halfway house, and in 2015, filed for divorce from the congressman, which apparently didn’t take; the couple renewed their vows in 2016.
Last week, amid a glut of reporting on the assault and harassment allegations against her husband, Monica, once a mainstay of metro Detroit’s nighttime news broadcasts, emerged from the couple’s family home in the city’s University District/Palmer Park neighborhood to ask, angrily and rhetorically, whether the reporters outside would “go and stalk white people’s houses,” or whether “you just come to the black neighborhoods and stalk our houses?”
As the public face of her embattled husband over the past few weeks, she was joined by Sam Riddle, a Detroit political consultant and huckster known throughout the metro region for his attention-grabbing stints on local news shows—and of course, for his role as a top aide to Monica Conyers, where he helped facilitate bribes that landed Conyers in prison. For years, Riddle “seemed to play the role of Clyde Barrow to Monica Conyers’ Bonnie Parker,” Pulitzer-winning journalist Charlie Le Duff wrote in his book, “Detroit: An Autopsy.” In Riddle’s own trial on the bribery charges, federal prosecutors offered a wiretapped 2007 call in which Councilwoman Conyers told Riddle, “You’d better get my loot.” Faced with prosecution in 2009, Monica said she regretted working with Riddle: “If I was smart, I would have listened to my husband, and he never would have worked for me.”
To Michigan politicos, there’s another reason why Riddle’s reemergence amid the sad coda of Conyers’ career is a flummoxing twist of events, especially given the very specific accusations the congressman has faced: In 2010, Riddle was sentenced to two years in prison after being found guilty of felonious assault and a gun crime after pulling a shotgun on his girlfriend during a domestic dispute. The mind strains to imagine a rationale for hiring a someone with such a background to act as your “family spokesperson” under any circumstance, let alone when you’re facing allegations that you’ve assaulted women.
Across Detroit, there are still a great many people who see in Conyers a man who fights for them, a lion in winter. At a hastily organized rally on Monday, a cavalcade of black Detroit’s leaders came out to voice their unwavering support for him. Rev. Wendell Anthony, the longtime head of Detroit’s chapter of the NAACP, spoke for many when he questioned why Conyers was being held to a different standard than other national politicians accused of sex crimes: “[I]f we’re going to raise this unholy and unlawful guillotine, calling for the head of John Conyers, then in fairness we must begin with the president of the United States.” “For those in the U.S. Congress to call for his resignation is shameful,” thundered Wayne County Executive Warren Evans as Riddle stood behind him. “Until we know what happened, I can’t fathom why a [Nancy] Pelosi or a [Michigan Congressman Dan] Kildee would ask for the resignation of a man who has not been given due process.”
It wasn’t all supposed to end this way. For more than a year, it was an open secret that when Conyers left office, he would be replaced by his great-nephew Ian, a sitting state senator in Detroit. In recent weeks, as the elder Conyers first voiced his intent to retire at the end of his current term, Ian’s candidacy became a surer and surer thing, culminating in the younger Conyers telling the New York Times in a Tuesday morning scoop that the congressman was going to announce his retirement and that he, Ian, was launching a congressional campaign.
The news jolted Detroit. And it led an irate Monica Conyers, the self-appointed carrier of the torch, to hatch a sloppily arranged change to the succession plan—one in which she would play a central role instead of being pushed aside.
On Tuesday, as John Conyers resigned, he stunned observers by endorsing his and Monica’s son, John Conyers III as his successor. Conyers III, a 27-year-old who has never held elected office, is no stranger to controversy and comes pre-loaded with his own political scandal. In 2010, he reported two laptops and $27,000 in concert tickets were stolen from a Cadillac Escalade he’d apparently been using for personal purposes despite the fact that its lease was registered to his father’s congressional office and was being paid with taxpayer money. Other photos online showed Conyers III, then 20, seated behind the wheel of the Cadillac while holding a bottle of Moet. More recently, NBC News reports that on Feb. 15, 2017, Conyers III was arrested in Los Angeles on suspicion of domestic violence; his girlfriend called law enforcement after he, in the words of the police report, “body slammed her on the bed and then on the floor where he pinned her down and spit on her,” before allegedly swinging a knife at her and cutting her arm.
His mother’s intervention sets up the spectacle of a free-for-all primary in which at least two members of the Conyers family seem intent to run.
In a since-deleted tweet, Ian Conyers suggested that Conyers III’s candidacy wasn’t the former congressman’s true wish, and, by name, pinned the credit/blame for the endorsement as someone else’s preference: “Monica – I spoke to my great uncle Thursday night via phone from hospital. His advice Run!”
The fight over John Conyers’ legacy will not end soon, perhaps not even in our lifetimes. But to some degree, its demise comes from the liberalism Conyers championed over more than a half-century—the belief that we can use our collective power to repair the wrongs of the past.
Conservatism has long had a posture that favors standing athwart history yelling stop, a belief in preserving the old way of doing things, standing up for tradition, living up to the nation’s past glories, working to make America great again. Liberalism isn’t so much about restoring the way things used to be as it is about overcoming history. And it’s because of this—and the forward march of progress—that what is acceptable to one generation of Democrats is no longer acceptable to another.
The present always stands in judgement of the past, and one generation’s liberal heroes become another’s problematic figures. Woodrow Wilson was a visionary idealist who sought to make the world safe for democracy—until he was remembered as a racist reactionary with Lost Cause sympathies. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the man who lifted the nation from the depths of the Great Depression, fought the powerful and moneyed, and expanded the scope of what we believed government could and should do—until the exclusion of black Americans from the New Deal and the internment of Japanese Americans became stains on his legacy.
We now find ourselves in the middle of such a reckoning, as the sins of the past catch up to the reputations of the present.
Al Franken was the progressive intellectual with a scathing wit, the left’s answer to bloviating talk radio on the right—and he’s also a man accused of forcing himself on at least seven women.
Bill Clinton was The Natural, the man from Hope who charted a course for a new type of Democrat, oversaw an economy that gained 23 million new jobs, balanced the budget and built a bridge to the 21st century—and he’s also preyed on women, with errant sexual behavior ranging from the consensual-but-inappropriate (as with the Lewinsky affair) to charges of harassment (as with Paula Jones) and accusations of rape (as with Juanita Broaddrick).
John Conyers was a civil-rights hero, a voice in the wilderness who advocated far-left positions before they were fashionable, a champion for Detroiters—especially black Detroiters—who felt and still feel locked out of the room where decisions get made.
But whatever else he was, Conyers is also the man Courtney Morse says propositioned her when she was an intern, who after his advances were rebuffed, raised the specter of Chandra Levy; the man Elissa Grubbs says groped her in a church and regularly undressed in front of female staff; the man Marion Brown says stroked her legs, propositioned her in a hotel room and “violated” her body.
And where once those abuses wouldn’t have been career-ending, today, people are starting to listen to what women are saying.
“He made people … believe in their own strength,” a Conyers campaign aide told Ebony in 1965. “He … showed them the value of sticking together.”
And that’s exactly what his accusers have done.
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