by Ambrose Clancy
Long Island Business News
December 18, 2009
It had started quietly in the Washington office of Rep. Peter King, but now at 10 a.m., a week after Thanksgiving, the volume was approaching a roar.
“It’s the full Ginsburg,” said Kevin Fogarty, King’s chief-of-staff, happily scanning requests from almost a dozen media outlets that had to talk to his boss – immediately, if not sooner – about the White House party crashers.
Translation from Capitol-speak: The full Ginsburg occurs when the Washington media pack seeks out a single person who sprints to accept. The term comes from William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer, who swooned before every notepad and embraced every camera that pointed his way.
The gate-crashing story was growing whiskers after more than 10 days on the news cycle, but King had found a way to spruce it up and make it sexy. And in the process, put the Obama White House on the run.
Full volume, throttle, or Ginsburg – take your pick – is exactly the way the nine-term Seaford Republican likes to live. It’s why he’s the only Long Island representative with a national reputation, one of the few members of the House who has international visibility, due to his loud, decades-spanning voice supporting the Nationalist side of The Troubles in Ireland.
King’s refueling of the gate-crash saga was textbook, something he does in his sleep these days. As the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee investigating the incident, King had the choice of picking only one witness, and masterfully chose Desiree Rodgers, the White House social secretary.
He let everyone know he wanted to question her under oath and ask her why there were no White House staffers checking lists with the Secret Service when Tareq and Michaele Saliah swanned past everyone for their troublesome photo op.
The White House responded that it wouldn’t be necessary for Rodgers to come to the Hill, and King pounced, wondering publicly what the White House was hiding.
Seven newspapers from across the country joined several digital news outlets, plus CBS and ABC, all banging on his door for quotes and face time.
“En fuego,” said Fogarty, King’s top aide for 12 years, as he carried the requests into the congressman’s high-ceilinged office.
On his own
For a man who thrives on tumult, King is a model of personal stability. His staff is small by congressional standards and has been with him a decade or more, which some say is the sign of a good boss. He and his wife, Rosemary, have lived in the same Seaford house for 40 years, raising two children along the way.
Sitting behind a massive desk with a view of the Capitol dome floating in a rainy sky, King was reading e-mail correspondence from the Saliahs “proving” they had actually been invited to the state dinner.
“Hey, here, you gotta read this from the wackos,” he said in the fast, pavement-hard tones of his native Queens, tossing the printout across the desk.
King, who at 65 keeps in remarkably good shape by boxing regularly, had started out a week ago by throwing a few mild jabs at the White House over staffers’ handling of the affair.
“Now they’re stonewalling,” he said, moving from behind the desk, pleasantly surprised at how effortlessly he was wrong-footing and throwing off balance an inexperienced White House.
Tempest in a teapot? No way, King said.
“You’re talking about the security of the president, and the Secret Service shouldn’t take all the heat,” he said.
He walked quickly down the marble halls of the Cannon House Office Building, heading for a meeting of the Republican House caucus. Asked if the Republican leadership was directing him on the issue, he shook his big head.
“I haven’t heard a word from them,” he said, as minority leader John Boehner, his permanent tan almost orange under TV lights, strolled past with a nod.
“We live in silos down here,” King said. “They see the Democrats playing defense, and so they’re saying, ‘Let him go.’”
House Republican leaders have learned that giving King free rein may actually be the only way to deal with him.
He is, after all, the man who said the GOP’s romance with Christian evangelicals was turning the party into “barefoot hillbillies who go to revival meetings.”
Roy Blunt, former Republican House whip and now running for a Missouri Senate seat, stepped out of blast furnace lights in the Cannon rotunda to talk about King after shooting a “Holiday Message to the Troops.”
Had he ever had to whip the man from New York’s third district? Blunt smiled diplomatically. “I like Pete,” he said.
“I met his sister one time, and told her, ‘Your brother is smart and courageous. But that courageous part is the most difficult part for me.’”
Blunt was gone before he could answer if it was courageous to label Newt Gingrich “road kill on the highway of American politics,” a classic Kingism.
Al D’Amato, King’s political rabbi when the young man was making his bones in the Nassau Republican machine, once tried to act as peacemaker between Gingrich and King. During a sit-down at the Washington pub The Dubliner, D’Amato straightened Gingrich out: “Look Newt, Pete’s a guy who might shoot you in the front, but he’ll never stab you in the back.”
True, but up-front King has often strayed from the GOP reservation. He was one of only four Republicans to vote against Bill Clinton’s impeachment, in part because of Clinton’s commitment to bringing peace to Northern Ireland. The other part: King’s disgust at the hunger for gossip he said has consumed American politics and society.
It’s the same reason he isn’t baying for Rep. Charles Rangel’s blood, unlike almost all of his GOP colleagues, as the powerful House Democrat scrambles against ethics charges.
“Jesus had 12 apostles,” King said. “One betrayed him, one denied him and one doubted him. That’s three out of 12. And these guys were the cream of the crop. Come on, stop being so sanctimonious.”
He unfailingly supports labor unions, pure heresy for conservative Republicans. He castigated President Bush about paltry homeland security resources for New York and crossed Bush again by supporting Democrats who were demanding that the administration drop a Dubai company’s control of six American ports.
He was one of the few Republican House members who voted with Democrats to curb corporate off-shore tax havens, a bill introduced by Rep. Richard Neal, a classic Massachusetts liberal Democrat.
Neal used the word “courage” again when asked about King, adding he has known and liked him for more than a decade.
But isn’t “likeable” what politicians do?
“Oh, no,” Neal laughed. “You’d be surprised.”
Being independent brings admirers, but it has cost King a chance at a Senate seat. In 1999, he was ready to run against Hillary Clinton when Rudy Giuliani dropped out of the race. He thought he could win because his support of Hillary’s husband took away the “vast right-wing conspiracy” she could hang on a Republican challenger. He had name recognition and was pro-union in a blue state.
But Gov. George Pataki, head of the New York GOP, knew he couldn’t control King and tabbed Rick Lazio to take on Hillary. She blew him out.
Since then King has flirted with running for governor or taking on U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, but thought better of both ideas. A friend and adviser told him that turning a Senate seat in New York from blue to red was not just quixotic, but crazy.
The adviser wanted him to run for governor, noting that in tough economic times even liberal states will elect a Republican. Take, for example, William Weld’s tenure in Massachusetts.
“But Peter would have to raise $40 million and face the inevitability of Andrew Cuomo,” the friend said. “It was too much.”
Picking a fight
The week after Thanksgiving, King moved through the basement halls of Cannon on his way to a vote, the crowded tunnels resembling New York City’s subway system, with low ceilings, gray light and rushing crowds of young aides briefing representatives on the run, all the while scrolling through messages on their BlackBerrys.
What had put extra bounce in his already quick step was the White House swinging wildly again and missing. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, reacting to constant lobs from reporters, said the reason Desiree Rodgers wouldn’t testify was government’s fabled separation of powers.
“I’ve called Clinton White House staff up here and they’ve testified,” King said dismissively. “That isn’t going to work.”
King has always found a survivor’s instinct in being a moving target. If it’s not just the boxer’s skill, then perhaps it’s a practiced way of ducking the contradictions.
He’ll tell you what a mediocre student he was, proud to be a “dese ‘n’ dems” guy, but he holds a degree from a prestigious law school and easily quotes Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the Victorian writer and politician Lord Thomas Macaulay. King himself is the author of three well-written and executed novels.
A loud and frequent critic of British torture and internment of Irish Republicans when few Americans were, he also wholeheartedly supported the Bush administration’s policy of detention without trial for suspected terrorists and so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Where contradiction ends, controversy takes over.
Michael Jackson’s corpse was barely cold when King trashed him, labeling the entertainer a pervert and a child molester during a video shot in front of an American Legion Hall.
He’s also infuriated Muslim-Americans by saying 85 percent of the nation’s mosques are led by extremists.
Ibrahim Hooper, communications director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, gave a derisive laugh when King’s name was mentioned.
“We regard Congressman King as the nation’s leading Muslim basher,” Hooper said. “He’s been an individual who has been most noteworthy in promoting hostility towards the American Muslim community.”
King has at least one Muslim defender. Golam Mehraj, a Bangladeshi Muslim living here, is a director of Bangladeshi Associations Overseas, with a constituency in Queens and Nassau.
“Peter King is a man who believes that all religions are against violence and killing, but believes we should fight the small minority that promotes global terrorism,” Mehraj said.
But then, terror is real to King. On Sept. 11 he watched the Pentagon burn from the roof of his Washington apartment house. More than 150 people from his district died at New York’s Ground Zero.
He comes from a place where a good fight is always welcomed, Sunnyside, a mostly Irish neighborhood by the Queensboro Bridge, the son of a policeman and a homemaker, the grandson of immigrants from Inisbofin, an island off the coast of Galway where life was grim and bleak and poor.
“Nothing romantic about it,” he said.
Those roots have made King a streetwise, corner-of the-mouth Irishman, the kind who says with a shrug of the shoulders that he’s seen it all and finds most of it amusing, while never forgetting there are things worth fighting for. Smart and not just wised up, he knows if you have a chip, you might as well wear it on your shoulder.
The first in his family to attend college, Peter studied history at St. Francis in Brooklyn, a small school educating the sons of the Irish and Italian working class. While going to college full time he also worked full time, loading and unloading trains in the vast yards on Manhattan’s west side, working every shift in every kind of weather. Question why he supports unions and he’ll let you know he owes them for supporting him as a young man.
The first great jump in King’s life was going to Notre Dame law school.
Had he ever traveled before?
“I think I went to the Bronx once,” he deadpanned.
Tom Curtin, a lawyer from Morristown, N.J., remembered meeting the kid from Queens on their first day in South Bend.
“That accent,” Curtin said. “I couldn’t understand a word he was saying – and I’m from New Jersey.”
Curtin saw the politician in King even then, when the young New Yorker became chairman of the school speaker’s bureau, bringing in lawyers from around the country.
“We always suspected it was really a way for Pete to get himself good summer jobs,” Curtin said with affection.
At Notre Dame, King met and fell in love with Rosemary Wiedl, a girl from Atlanta – friends thought they must have communicated by sign language – and they moved to Nassau County to start life together.
He became a foot soldier in one of the last great political machines, Nassau’s GOP powerhouse, serving on the Hempstead Town Board, as county attorney and then rising to comptroller in 1981.
The only election he lost was when he challenged incumbent Democrat Robert Abrams for state attorney general in 1986.
In 1992, King took on a millionaire Democrat for Congress and squeaked by, winning by four percentage points. He’s never faced a serious challenge since, making New York’s Third District one of the safest Republican seats in the country.
But that could change. If Democrats control the state Senate after the 2010 election, the threat is real that King could be gerrymandered out with the new census figures.
It would be a dangerous game, however, with two liberal Democrats, Carolyn McCarthy and Steve Israel, on his borders. Cut into either of their districts and it could cost them votes.
At a recent Saturday morning meeting of fire chiefs at the Jericho firehouse, state Sen. Carl Marcellino said Democrats would be stupid to go after King. But that won’t stop them, he added.
“They’ll target Pete,” Marcellino said, as King circulated easily among the chiefs.
Asked earlier, King had said he didn’t care if he was redistricted.
“I’ll win anywhere,” he said.
Making it look easy
Back in Washington, a Cuban-American technician from CBS was setting up equipment in King’s office while chatting with the congressman about boxing. King noted that the legendary Cuban Olympic champion, Teófilo Stevenson, was an unusual Cuban heavyweight since he didn’t just rely on punching power but could box with the best of them.
The technician was so absorbed by the conversation that he stopped working at one point and sat down to talk.
The brawl between the White House and King was still hot, with the administration unable to get past the issue. Reporters were looking for a response to King’s charge that previous administrations allowed staffers to testify on the Hill when serious issues were at stake.
Robert Gibbs countered by saying, “I don’t think even Peter King would have the audacity to put the Saliahs in the same trifecta as Watergate, 9/11 and some financial deals.”
Bad move. King’s immediate response: “The only audacity I had was ‘the audacity of hope’ that the White House would be honest. Unfortunately, they are more interested in covering up and stonewalling.”
Later, taking questions from CBS’s Elizabeth Hartfield, King spoke forcefully about the need for the White House to take ownership of the security breach. After five minutes, she thanked King and asked if there was anything he wanted to add.
“That was all off the record,” he said earnestly, pausing, then finally smiling to reveal the joke.
Walking down the hall, Hartfield was asked how the interview had gone.
“Wow, he’s fantastic, a total sound-bite machine,” she said.
“He makes it easy.”