REP. JOHN CONYERS knows what it's like to have a Monica in the workplace. Ten years ago, the Detroit congressman began a relationship with a 23-year-old aide named Monica Ann Esters. In June 1990, Conyers, then 61, married Esters, who was eight months pregnant. Though his office is relatively small, Conyers had managed to keep the affair secret, and when reporters called his other aides seeking comment on the marriage, no one on his staff admitted to knowing anything about it. We were out of the loop, they said.
There are differences, of course. For one thing, Conyers made an honest woman out of his Monica. (Although not before enduring a degree of public humiliation: Conyers's new wife, more than one person pointed out, was born the year he was first elected to Congress.) In the years since, Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has said little about his courtship of his former employee, though recently he has had quite a bit to say about another, more famous office romance.
Two weeks ago a press release crossed my desk announcing that Conyers planned to convene a panel of "experts on the law, the media and politics" to discuss the impeachment inquiry. Sounds worth covering, I thought, and I called Conyers's office for more information. The woman who answered the phone seemed strangely enthusiastic to hear from me. "Wonderful," she said at the end of our brief conversation. "Let me give you a fax number so you can send your bio." My bio? "Yes, we like to have biographical statements from all the panelists. That way we can introduce you correctly."
I didn't argue, and within an hour, a fax arrived. "Congressman Conyers is delighted that you have accepted his invitation to participate as a panelist," it began. A week later I found myself on the 13th floor of a municipal building in downtown Detroit wearing a name tag and meeting my fellow panelists: a couple of ACLU lawyers, several oppression-studies professors from Midwestern universities, former White House counsel Abner Mikva, and NOW president Patricia Ireland. It didn't take long to figure out why I'd been invited. "I guess you're the token," Ireland said as we took our seats.
True to the night's theme ("The Clinton Impeachment Inquiry: Smokescreen for the Do-Nothing 105th Congress"), Conyers began by attacking Republicans for using impeachment as a smokescreen to hide the fact they haven't done anything recently. A number of other panelists followed with statements making the same point, some more theatrically than others. Mikva noted that Republicans are bad and Clinton is good. Patrick Keenan, a professor at the University of Detroit, began by declaring himself "irate" and proceeded to become even more so. Within a short time, Keenan was imploring the audience to "rise up." "I don't want to be ashamed to be an American any longer!" he shouted.
After an hour of this, I was beginning to feel light-headed. By the time a retired law professor and self-described poet named Harold Norris rose to begin his harangue, I knew I couldn't take much more. Norris's points were simple enough -- the Clinton investigation is a witch hunt, and anyone who thinks it isn't is evil -- but unfortunately he kept forgetting that he'd made them. So he made them again. And again. Desperate, I waited for him to pause for breath, then began applauding: Thank you, Professor Norris.
Norris looked up, confused, but only momentarily. He shuffled his notes and began again -- as always, from the beginning. ("This is a low point in American constitutional history. This is a defamation of our rule of law . . . ") Patricia Ireland leaned over, grinning. "You can't be mean to old people," she said in a stage whisper. "It's always a losing proposition." I know, I said, but you don't understand. He was rude to me at the reception. He's a pretty nasty old guy. "As nasty as [Republican representative] Linda Smith?" she asked.
Ireland is never far from her talking points, and since I was sitting next to her, I got to read them. "Don't defend B.C.," she had written at the top of a piece of hotel stationery. "What he did Indefensible." The Republican Congress, she had reminded herself in large ballpoint letters, is "Extremely Partisan."
Not surprisingly, Ireland's subsequent remarks ("I am not here to defend Bill Clinton; what he did was indefensible") sounded a lot like her notes, which read a lot like most of her speeches. Which, in this setting, made her sound a lot like a moderate.
Ireland, in fact, was one of the few people in the room to suggest that Clinton might have done something wrong. Perjury? Obstruction? "Low misdemeanors, if they are anything at all," scoffed Abner Mikva. "If there's going to be any impeachment," said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, head of the NAACP's Detroit office and a recent guest at the White House prayer breakfast, "it ought to start with the Supreme Court." The Supreme Court? That's right, said Anthony. Turns out there are hardly any minority clerks. And that's both a high crime and a misdemeanor.
The mostly black crowd hooted approval at Anthony's remarks, as it did when he explained that a nation as racist as America -- a country that imprisons black men solely because they are black -- has no right to cast judgment on a president as committed to black causes as Bill Clinton, a president who "has spent more time in the nation of Africa than all the presidents heretofore put together." On the other hand, Anthony implied, maybe there's a connection. Maybe they're going after Clinton because he stands up for black folks. Maybe it's payback.
Maybe? No maybes about it, thundered former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett. "I am saturated with the consciousness of being African American," Jarrett explained, and "much of this is a rightwing conspiracy." In other words, a white conspiracy. A white racist conspiracy.
"Amen!" cheered the crowd. "That's right!"
At about this point, a pounding sound echoed through the PA system. Conyers's two sons, ages two and eight, had crawled into his lap and were playing with the microphone. The panel was still taking questions from the audience, but it seemed a good time to leave. A couple of other panelists got the same idea, and we headed out. William Miller, a good-natured law professor who teaches at Michigan, offered me a ride to the airport. A sexual-harassment expert from the University of Wisconsin joined us, and as we walked to Miller's minivan the two academics mulled over the symbolic meaning of the Lewinsky scandal. ("In a sense, they've turned him into a woman," the harassment expert said, "sexualized him so they can negate his leadership. It's very problematic.")
I'd talked to Miller earlier in the night and pegged him as a conventional liberal, smarter than most, and witty, but socially progressive and distrustful of the Right -- a garden-variety Clinton voter. That's how he'd seemed then. He seemed a lot different after three hours of pro-Clinton reeducation.
Actually, Miller explained once we got on the highway, "I can't stand the guy." Miller is something of an expert on dislike (his study of repugnance, The Anatomy of Disgust, was published last year), and he has an enormous and precise vocabulary for describing distaste. On the topic of Clinton, it failed him. The idea of voting for Clinton, Miller said, "makes me feel like I'm going to throw up."
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.