Thirty-four years ago this month, when the House Judiciary Committee was considering strategies for holding a lawbreaking president to account, the most determined advocate for impeachment on the committee was a relatively junior member, 45-year-old Michigan Congressman John Conyers.
On Friday, Conyers will again participate in a Judiciary Committee examination of how best to address excesses of the executive.
Again, the prospect of impeachment will be discussed.
This time, however, Conyers will not be playing the role of the young firebrand.
Rather, he will be chairing the session.
There is no small measure of historic significance in the fact that a man who the Nixon Administration placed high on its White House “enemies list” – labeling the congressman as the “black anti-Nixon spokesman” – now sits in the seat once occupied by white-haired and venerable New Jersey Congressman Peter Rodino during the heady days of the Watergate inquiry.
It is, to be sure, a different seat from the one from which Conyers first rose to identify and then tackle the high crimes and misdemeanors of a lawless administration.
As the committee chair, Conyers must balance the competing demands of House Democratic leaders who would prefer that impeachment never be mentioned with those of the millions of grassroots Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, independents and, yes, even a few Republicans who cannot understand who Congress has failed to defend the Constitution “against all enemies foreign and domestic.”
No serious observer doubts that Conyers has his heart in the right place. The only remaining member of the Judiciary Committee that went after Nixon who still serves on the committee has for the better part of a half century been the most steadfast defender of the system of checks and balances in the House.
Conyers introduced the first legislation calling for an inquiry into whether George Bush and Dick Cheney should be impeached. At his direction, the minority staff of the Judiciary Committee compiled what remains the most exhaustive detailing of the current administration’s wrongdoing. Even after Democrats retook control of the House and Speaker Nancy Pelosi took impeachment “off the table,” the committee chairman kept top staffers working on presidential accountability issues and maintained lines of communication with lawyers, scholars and organizers who have been battling the Bush-Cheney administration.