John Conyers made the right choice. Faced with a grueling inquiry by the House Ethics Committee that would surely have damaged his legacy and perhaps destroyed his remaining health, the Detroit Democrat heeded the urgings of his own party’s leadership and Tuesday retired immediately from Congress.
In doing so, the old civil rights warrior avoided a fight he couldn’t have won.
The volume of complaints against him from former staffers who claimed the congressman sexually harassed them over the course of several years was too great. His accusers were too credible. And his personal history made the case against him too easy to believe.
A decade ago, Conyers was hauled before the ethics committee to face allegations that he misused his office staff by forcing them to do his personal errands, including baby-sitting and chauffeuring his children. He got off with a slap on the wrist.
Conyers’ behavior didn’t change. But the times have.
There was no way Congress, in a year when sexual harassment in the workplace has become the dominant national issue, would have allowed him to again walk away unscathed.
This had nothing to do with race, as his supporters contended in rising to his defense at a Detroit rally Tuesday. Men of all races and all backgrounds are being held to account in this massive pushback against sexual harassment. Even the most powerful — particularly the most powerful — are having to pay the consequences for their misdeeds.
Conyers was not railroaded out of Congress, any more than Harvey Weinstein was unfairly dumped by Hollywood or the late Roger Ailes was kicked out of Fox News. Like the other men who have fallen, Conyers earned his fate.
But unlike those others, who were gone as soon as they were accused, Conyers actually had a shot at due process, given his special status as an elected official. The ethics committee would have investigated the allegations, weighed the evidence and allowed him to answer his accusers.
But at age 88 and in frail mental and physical health, the process may well have killed him. And in the end, his colleagues would have handed him his hat.
What Congress member would risk casting a vote to hold Conyers harmless, when every day men are toppling from the top echelons of private industry for accusations of similar behavior? Even Congress isn’t aloof from the zero-tolerance mood of the people.
Conyers faced at a minimum censure by his colleagues, and quite possibly expulsion.
That would be no way to end a remarkable 53-year career.
It is understandable that many Detroiters are distressed or angry by what happened to Conyers.
They sent him to Congress at a time when African-Americans had little political power in this country, and he gave them a strong voice, helping lead every major battle of the civil rights era. He is understandably one of their heroes.
History will now record that this civil rights icon retired by his own choice, and was not censured or ousted by his colleagues. Given the despicable allegations against him, some may see that outcome as too lenient.
But it was the best result for Congress, and for John Conyers, a member who for a very long time served his people well and honorably. But he clung to the power and perks of office for far too long — long enough for his sins to catch up with him.