You don’t have to be that much of an old-timer to remember that August night 20 years ago this summer when President Bill Clinton addressed the nation and admitted that he had engaged in behavior with Monica Lewinsky that was “not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong.”
Congressman David Bonior, then the House minority whip, had just loaded up his Chrysler van back in Macomb County and was starting to drive back to Washington when his primitive, clunky car phone rang. A labor leader told him the news, and also that at least one top member of the House Democratic leadership was suggesting they abandon the President.
Bonior, the second most powerful Democrat in Congress, wasn’t Clinton’s biggest fan. Indeed, he had lost the position of majority whip in 1994 when, because of the President’s political blunders, Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years.
But as he later told me, he knew that failing to support the President would lead to turmoil and massive Democratic losses in that fall’s elections. He also felt that while Clinton’s misbehavior showed terrible judgment, it certainly wasn’t grounds for impeachment.
So, while his wife Judy drove for 10 hours, Bonior wrestled with his primitive mobile phone and eventually reached about 70 members, heard them vent, and in the end, firmed up most of their support. It wasn’t public at the time, but the congressman who used to call himself the “East Side kid” may well have saved Clinton’s presidency.
In the end, Democrats actually gained seats in the midterm elections, and Republicans never came close to having Clinton removed. That story, and lots of others, are in Bonior’s new book Whip: Leading the Progressive Battle During the Rise of the Right, published by City Point Press. Bonior, a trim and vigorous 72, was back in Michigan this week to promote his book.
Typically, he’s donating whatever profits the book makes to a charity, the Mikva Challenge, which encourages high school kids and teachers to become involved in the political process. The author, who grew up in Detroit and Hamtramck before his family moved to Macomb, has found politics in recent years frustrating, but has no intention of giving up.
His time in elected office ended prematurely 15 years ago. Michigan lost a seat in Congress after the 2000 census. Bonior, who had held a tough swing seat for a quarter century, found his district carved into fragments.
By that point, he told me, he was tired of constantly having to raise a million dollars a year in campaign funds just to keep his job. So he came back to Michigan and ran for governor. But it was Jennifer Granholm’s year.
Ironically, four years before, Bonior had intervened to persuade labor she would be an acceptable candidate for attorney general. Today, after a time as a professor and labor organizer, he helps his son run a restaurant in Washington. Though he’s been disappointed by both allies and enemies, Bonior has a remarkable talent for not being bitter.
“When you think about it, a lot of life rests upon 'showing up,' and, if you will forgive me, 'hanging in there,'" he concludes. I thought his book was fascinating, and I’m not convinced his time of service to his fellow citizens is really done.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.