President King?

President King?

President King?
January 28, 2014

Back in September, a report that Republican Congressman Peter King of Long Island had become the first candidate to officially throw his hat in the ring for president in 2016 set the political world abuzz. The news immediately sparked a flurry of responses from pundits and the press, nearly all of them dismissive. The National Journal pointed out that the first candidate to declare in recent history has invariably lost; the New York Daily News dug up the nugget that the last (and only) member of the House of Representatives to be elected to the nation’s highest office was James Garfield in 1880; and Newsday, King’s longtime foe, wrote off his run as “quixotic.”

The only problem with the report about King’s announcement is that it was wrong. “I have not declared,” King says unequivocally. “I just basically am taking advantage of this opportunity to see what’s happening on the ground—and if I make a decision, it will at least be another year and a half or so.” What is accurate is that King is seriously considering a bid, though he has made no decision as to whether to jump into the fray. In fact, King is painstaking about describing his presidential ambitions as speculative at the moment, in part because a more definitive declaration would require him to file papers with the federal government to form an exploratory committee—a step he is not yet prepared to take. That is not to say that King’s aspirations are purely theoretical. He began floating a trial balloon for a run in July and since then has steadily kept feeding the media’s insatiable hunger for 2016 hype by giving a host of interviews in which he has contemplated the possibility aloud. He has also visited New Hampshire four times over the past year, and intends to make his fifth foray to the key early primary state later this month, when he will give several speeches to groups that could help provide the framework for a campaign. He has not yet ventured to Iowa or South Carolina, but now that he is on the circuit, invitations to visit will doubtlessly be forthcoming. King is not deluded about his chances of victory. He is thoroughly cognizant of the candidates the press and his party have anointed as the early contenders for the Republican nomination—and that his name is not included on their short lists. Moreover, having served in Congress for 20 years, he is well aware that the road to the White House is littered with the carcasses of current and former colleagues who have sought to defy the odds and failed miserably—Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo and Newt Gingrich, to name the House GOP hopefuls just since 2008. Still, the degree to which King has thought through a potential run makes it plausible that the prospect is not just a ploy to promote himself or raise campaign cash, as several media outlets have conjectured. A friend of his, who requested not to be identified so as not to violate the congressman’s confidence, puts the odds of King trying his luck at “50-50.” Were he to go for it, his reasons would be threefold. The first and foremost would be that King is deeply disturbed by his party’s shrinking tent and gravitation toward ideological extremism—a trend that he would hope to counteract by having a national platform to repudiate it. The second is King’s passion for foreign policy and his profound concern that issues of homeland security and international affairs are not given sufficient bandwidth by the media and attention from the public, except in the immediate aftermath of terrorist attacks. The third reason is less serious, but one that also resonates with him. A devoted student of American politics, King has savored his tentative steps down the path of the greats who have gone before him in pursuit of his profession’s ultimate prize. As King puts it, “Whether you end up being a Forrest Gump or a Ronald Reagan, you still are a part of history.”

The Boxer
King is clearly tickled by the media boomlet his potential candidacy has generated.“I’m not being overly modest, but I do find it crazy that I’m even having this discussion,” says King. “I remember when I was a student at St. Francis College, I ended up going on the elevator one time with a guy who was the Republican nominee for councilman-at-large from Brooklyn. I thought it was a big deal. ‘Oh Jeez, I’m in the elevator with a guy running for office.’ Now people are asking me if I’m going to run for president.” King, who prides himself on being a blue collar Everyman, is full of anecdotes like this, which he spins with the effortless zeal of a storyteller holding court at the end of a neighborhood bar. Unlike presidential candidates who hire high-priced consultants to convene focus groups so they can determine how best to come across as the guy the average American would most want to have a beer with, King’s working class persona is not just shtick. He grew up in an Irish Catholic family in Sunnyside, Queens, the son of a lieutenant in the New York City Police Department and a homemaker. After attending parochial schools in Brooklyn and Queens, he graduated from St. Francis, where he wrote his senior thesis in defense of Jimmy Walker, the flamboyant Tammany Hall mayor who resigned amid scandal and fled to Europe with his mistress. In response to King’s paper, his advisor told him, “Four years of a Catholic education was wasted on you.” Upon completing his bachelor’s in political science, King went for a Hail Mary and applied for a law degree at the Holy Grail of Catholic universities, Notre Dame. Much to his surprise, he was accepted, making him officially the Fighting Irishman he had always been in his soul. A month after he received his J.D. in 1968, King signed up for the National Guard, 69th Infantry Regiment. He spent five months on active duty but despite serving during the height of the Vietnam War, he never saw combat, because his unit was never activated. Returning to New York after being stationed in Fort Dix in New Jersey and Fort Ord in California, King settled on Long Island, where his family had relocated shortly before he had enlisted. Initially living in Great Neck, and then moving to Seaford, King joined both towns’ local Republican clubs and promptly became a devoted foot soldier in the all-powerful Nassau County Republican Party. Over the next three decades King would demonstrate the sharpness of his political instincts, skillfully navigating the shifting tides of the party’s leadership to ascend the ranks of the most formidable GOP machine in the country. Along the way he would become a councilman in Hempstead, Nassau County comptroller and finally, in 1993, a United States congressman. With the burly build of a veteran bruiser, a shock of salt and pepper hair and a thick New Yorkese accent, King, 69, looks straight out of central casting for the part of an outer borough pugilist, but it was not until 10 years ago that he actually became a practitioner of the sweet science. Since then he has dutifully shown up at Bellmore Kickboxing on the Island at least once a week to tape on the gloves and go head-to-head with guys often half his age. While he boxes just for exercise—and occasionally for charity—the brutal hobby has taken its toll on his body. While sparring with a DEA agent, he tore his bicep from winding up and throwing “perhaps the greatest uppercut in the entire history of the world.” Instead of taking his opponent’s head off, the punch missed its mark, and King’s bicep slammed into the guy’s forearm and exploded with a sensation not unlike being shot. When King later retreated to the attending doctor in the House, the physician counseled, “Maybe instead of seeing me you should be seeing a psychologist.” That King decided on the verge of his 60th birthday to sign up to sustain regular blows to the head undercuts a dimension of his character he is inclined both by his blue collar background and his self-image to downplay: He is an intellectual, too. A voracious reader of history, who keeps a log of every book he has finished over the last 20 years, and who has an exceptional memory for dates and events, King has also written three novels—all of them thinly veiled pastiches of his own life revolving around the same protagonist: a gruff, no-nonsense congressman from Seaford named Sean Cross. While Cross is not exactly the same as King, his creator says, “He’s close enough. That’s why I tried not to make him too heroic. I didn’t have him jumping off of buildings or saving people’s lives.” Cross is a man’s man of the old school, who curses like a firefighter and never turns down a drink—the latter detail being one of the few departures from King’s own biography. Though the author is unabashed about enjoying a manhattan on occasion like Cross, he does so rarely and only in moderation. As for spewing obscenities, King admits that “in the right environment, I’ll curse. Sure I do. I don’t know if I’m a match for Bill Clinton, but I’m pretty close.” Despite the fact that King deemed his life worthy of fictionalization, he depicts himself in reality as salt of the earth. “I’m basically a conservative, quiet guy,” he insists. “I’m not rich. I don’t own stock; I’ve never owned stock in my life. I got my own home, and I’ve got an apartment in Washington that was cheaper to buy than to rent, and that’s it. No summer home, [and] I don’t take vacations or any of that stuff. But I don’t begrudge anyone that’s got billions of dollars. So long as I’m doing okay and nobody’s stealing from me, I’ve got no complaints. That whole idea of Two Americas or Two New Yorks, the rich and the poor—you know, my family is not filled with geniuses, but everybody who came over here somehow made a living for themselves, and that’s what you’re entitled to: the chance to make a living. Other than that, shut up.” King’s brand of straight-talking up-from-the-bootstraps populism, combined with his commitment to his constituents and accessibility within the district, has kept him in strong stead with voters even as the GOP’s once-iron grip on Nassau County has slackened over the years. In his 10 re-election campaigns, he has never garnered less than 55 percent of the vote, and in a recent poll of 37 Republican-held districts across the country commissioned by no less unsympathetic a source than MoveOn. org, King was the only incumbent to have an approval rating in excess of 60 percent. The longest-serving member of the state’s GOP congressional delegation, King has also benefited from his inde-pendent streak, which has enabled him to survive elections like the 2006 midterms, when voters were inclined to purge the Congress of Republicans. In King’s first term in office, he bucked his party and voted to keep the assault weapons ban in place in the wake of the aftermath of the 1993 Long Island Rail Road shooting. He was also one of the few Republican members of Congress to support America’s intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo. And most famously, King infuriated his colleagues by being one of only four Republican members of the House to vote against all four articles of impeachment brought against President Bill Clinton, an attempt he considered so spurious and such a “terrible precedent” that he even offered secret counsel to the beleaguered president as to how he might sway some GOP members to support him. King’s brash persona and propensity for iconoclasm often provokes a comparison with one of the juggernauts in the probable field for the 2016 Republican nomination for president: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Indeed, when King’s candidacy is discussed with any seriousness, it is Christie’s outsize presence that generally leads the chattering classes to conclude that a King campaign is a nonstarter. King respects Christie, whom he calls “a tough guy”—high praise in the congressman’s book. They worked closely together after Superstorm Sandy, using their megaphones as the two highest-ranking Republicans in the region to rip into the members of their party in Congress who opposed relief aid for New York and New Jersey. They have also had “a few arguments,” particularly on the NYPD extending its operations into the Garden State, though King is quick to offer the qualification: “When I say argument, I have no problem with that. That’s part of me; that’s sort of the way we all grew up: You fight one day and you work the next day.” Although King acknowledges that he and Christie come from “the same wing of the party,” he is deliberate in making the case that they are not interchangeable, particularly on foreign policy, an area in which King is a noted expert and Christie has yet to demonstrate his chops. Several commentators have predicted that if Christie enters the race as expected, King would shrink from taking him on, but the congressman seems only too happy to duke it out with Christie in the national arena if the occasion arises. Asked whether a Christie candidacy would nullify his own aspirations, King lays it on thick: “You should ask Chris Christie if me being in the race disqualifies him.”

Party Crasher

As much as King might enjoy exchanging blows with Christie on the campaign trail, he would take far more pleasure in pummeling some of the other early favorites for the Republican nomination, particularly U.S. Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. To King, Cruz and Paul are the latest— and perhaps most galling—incarnations of the fanatical far right faction of his party, with whom he has been brawling since his earliest days in Congress. Despite his reverence for Ronald Reagan and devoutly held pro-life beliefs, King has often found himself an outlier in his conference, as a New Yorker who grew up in the melting pot of the city. He recalls how when Next Gingrich was sworn in as Speaker of the House in 1995, Gingrich made a conciliatory speech urging members on both sides of the aisle to spend more time with one another, and for members of different races and ethnicities to invite each other into their homes. “The guy in front of me said, ‘Hey, Newt, now you’re going too far,’ and people down the aisle laughed at that,” King recounts, visibly appalled at the memory. “I’m not the great liberal, but I don’t think anyone in New York would be shocked if you invite a black guy over to your house. In fact, when Newt said it, it almost went by me until this guy, who was somewhat respected, made the wise remark, which maybe I would have heard in high school 50 years ago, but here you are in Congress.” Today the element of his party that King views as intolerant, and intractably wedded to ideology at the cost of what he believes to be the core values of the GOP, is no less potent. He first locked horns with Cruz, Paul, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and their like-minded “acolytes” in January over their refusal to vote for Sandy aid—an action that enraged King and led him to boycott the New York State Republican Party’s annual dinner, at which Cruz was the keynote speaker. Then came the government shutdown in October. While most other Republicans who opposed the shutdown refrained from publicly criticizing their colleagues on the same side of the aisle, King lay the blame squarely at his own party’s feet. He derided the shutdown as a “disaster” and accused Cruz, the movement’s muse, of being a “false prophet” leading the country into “the Valley of Death.” “It was a fraudulent policy from beginning to end, and nobody was saying it,” King seethes. “I said that Ted Cruz was a fraud when it was obvious to the world. Talk about the emperor having no clothes! There it was!” King pegs gerrymandered districts, which insulate incumbents from having to answer to anyone but their base, and the hyperpartisan media, which allows extremists on both sides of the political spectrum to “live in a parallel universe,” as existential threats to the future of his party. “There’s a danger that we could become, in some ways, stronger than ever within a limited base,” King explains. “We could end up having in the Congress 198 seats that we couldn’t lose no matter what; we could end up having 46 percent of the vote that we could never lose no matter what, but not go beyond that.” While he thinks that the often lauded example of President Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s willingness to put aside their differences for the common good has been romanticized, he nonetheless bemoans what he sees as a steep decline in pragmatism and compromise in Congress. “There’s very little debate,” says King. “I’ll give you an example—on gun regulation, it’s never even [been] brought up in the Republican Conference since last year’s shooting in Connecticut, it’s never even [been] brought up to discuss. It would never be considered if we should consider a half of one percent tax increase if the Democrats would be willing to give us a trillion dollars in entitlement reform, and I’m sure among most Democrats they wouldn’t bring up the idea of entitlement reform—President Obama may, and I think when people become presi-dent they look at it differently—but as far as Congress itself, I don’t think people in either party are willing to consider what they consider a third rail.” King continues, “To me, what’s the beauty of democracy is that it is a clash, but it’s a clash that at the end of the day you resolve it. You don’t just keep shutting down the government, or punting it off for six months. So I think that we have to show that we are a party that has very strong beliefs, very strong values, but we know the importance of negotiating and getting the best deal that we can.” If King runs for president, his campaign would only amplify this message. “I think that someone with my views and somebody who can show leadership should be president,” King says, explaining why he is exploring a run. “We can’t turn the party over to Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.” King’s willingness to train his fire on these rising stars of the GOP and his gift for unleashing headline-ready sound bites has made him a popular guest on television news shows and—perhaps to his ultimate political detriment as a national candidate in an increasingly right-leaning party—garnered him plaudits from both moderate Republicans and Democrats. In July, when the “King for President” trial balloon first went up, he appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joealong with President Obama’s campaign guru David Axelrod, who jokingly offered King a backhanded endorsement: “I think of the Republican Party today like a family, but the family is like the Borgias, so if he can tame this family he should be President of the United States.”

Candidate King
If King does decide to climb into the ring and square off for the presidency, he would be able to cast off a reputation he has developed for flirting with higher office only to stay put when push comes to shove. In 2000 and 2004 there was noise that King might run for U.S. Senate, though he maintains that it was only in 2009, when it seemed like then Gov. David Paterson was going to appoint Caroline Kennedy to the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton, that he seriously considered a run. The difference that year was money. From his 1986 campaign for New York attorney general, the only time King actually sought statewide office—he was trounced by the incumbent, Robert Abrams, as expected—King says he learned that a candidate needed tens of millions of dollars to make a credible statewide run for office. Had a celebrity of Kennedy’s notoriety wound up the appointee, the national attention her opponent would have received would have opened the floodgates to adequately fund a serious challenge. Once Paterson went with Kirsten Gillibrand, however, the profile of a potential 2010 matchup plunged precipitously, and there was no longer the enthusiasm necessary to raise enough money for a Republican to have the resources to overcome the daunting voter registration advantage GOP candidates are up against statewide. While fundraising will be an even greater stumbling block if King runs for the highest office in the land, he is of the mind that the focus on the presidential race is so great that the campaign cash he would need would come if his candidacy got any traction. If he were to get to that point—a big “if”—as a flamethrower himself, King knows he instantly would find himself in his opponents’ crosshairs. King contends he is ready to counter any blows, and he is quick to rattle off chapter and verse as to what the likely lines of attack again him will be. He is sure he will be hit on his long involvement with the Irish Republican Army and his key role in brokering peace in Northern Ireland. Over the years, he has been labeled a “collaborator” with the IRA and “an apologist for terrorism”— accusations King vehemently disputes. “Some guy in a debate [will charge], ‘How can you say you’re going to lead the war against terrorism when you were the leading supporter of terrorism in the world yourself?’ or something like that,” predicts King. King says his retort will be to cite the strong statements former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Clinton released to The Washington Post in King’s defense when these allegations came up in 2011—though calling Bill Clinton as a character witness in a Republican primary debate is probably not the best way to silence criticism. (Another line of attack King does not volunteer is what could be construed as his history of colluding with Democrats and betraying his own party.) He also anticipates being slammed for his decades of fidelity to the GOP machine on Long Island, which has suffered a host of scandals during the course of his career in office, and “everything that ever happened in Nassau County politics.” While King denies ever being involved in any corruption, in regard to the charge that he’s a “party hack,” he smiles and responds: “I’m guilty.” As for his personal life, he jests that “unfortunately” there is nothing interesting enough to be grist for opposition research. During King’s 2006 re-election campaign against former Nassau County legislator David Mejias, Newsday wrote multiple stories raising questions about King’s children’s business dealings. The prospect of his family being dragged through the muck makes King’s wife reluctant about his running for president. Among the articles’ allegations were that his daughter, Erin, was a lobbyist, a charge King dismisses as demonstrably false; and that his son, Sean, a vice president with former U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato’s consulting group, Park Strategies, was, in King’s words, “like the son of [Jack] Abramoff,” even though according to the congressman his son is “the most honest guy in the world.” Despite the past attacks, King says that both of his children are supportive of him seeking the presidency, though his son, who is also a foreign policy buff, would prefer his father continue his work in Congress. Lastly, though the charge would not likely be leveled against King until the general election campaign, the congressman would almost certainly face accusations of being an Islamophobe from his Democratic opponent, for the series of controversial hearings on Muslim radicalization in America that King called in 2011 as chair of the House Homeland Security Committee. The one Democrat who might not unleash an all-out offensive against King is none other than Hillary Clinton. King believes “it would be very hard to get personal” in the remote scenario of a Clinton-King matchup. “After me defending Bill Clinton it would be hard for me to say now ‘The Clintons are no good,’” acknowledges King. “That would be me undoing what I did, and considering I’ve had a close relationship with him, she’d probably have a hard time going after me personally.” While that remains to be seen (far off in the future), there has already been an exchange between the potential rivals on the subject. “I was down in the White House back in September,” recounts King, “[and] as I come walking out … who’s standing there, but Hillary Clinton. She’d just gotten some award, and she was coming in to meet with, I guess, the National Security Council, and also with Obama on Syria. … I said, ‘Hillary!’ and she said, ‘Mr. President.’ So there you go.”
Morgan Pehme