WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Friday morning, the day after he convened his first sensational House hearing on the question of Muslim radicalism, Peter King lumbered into his office on the third floor of the Cannon Building, hung his suit jacket on a bookcase and sat down to read the morning papers.
He plucked the New York Post from a neatly arranged stack on the right side of his desk, and considered the cover for a moment–“Jesus, Carl Kruger with a gay lover,” he said–before turning to a two-page spread on his hearing.
Mr. King smiled as he read, then picked up the phone and dialed his chief of staff, Kevin Fogarty, in the next room.
“The Post story is great, and also Rich Lowry’s column,” Mr. King said into the receiver. “He ends up by saying: ‘Democrats made King’s first hearing a circus. He nonetheless achieved an important inadvertent success: exposing his critics as hysterical fools.'”
Mr. King, who recently retook the chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee, let out a little laugh and hung up the phone.
“I like that,” he said.
The other papers were less glorious.
Staring up from Mr. King’s desk were the pained eyes of Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, whose voice had faltered during his pre-hearing testimony when he recounted the story of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a Muslim New York police cadet who died responding to the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11. In the hearing room, the photographers had swarmed the moment, and Mr. King held up one front page photo after another.
“I’m assuming it’s sincere,” Mr. King said. “Four and a half hours of hearings yesterday. The whole thing, the story: him breaking down. He’s not on the committee, I invited him as a courtesy, breaks down crying-over a person he never even met, which I accept as being real-but to make that the whole hearing? A pre-hearing statement?”
Mr. King was not entirely surprised.
“I was on Channel 9 last night and the reporter said, ‘How do you feel, you made Keith Ellison cry?'” (Outside Mr. King’s door, the phones were ringing incessantly, and a young assistant was answering the same question: “Did you watch the hearing, sir? We didn’t make anyone cry.”)
The Daily News was particularly disappointing. It quoted the mother of Mr. Hamdani, who called Mr. King’s hearing “an indictment of American Muslims.”
“I got her in the hearing room,” Mr. King explained. “[Long Island Congressman] Tim Bishop called me, said, ‘A woman in my district disagrees with the hearing, her son was killed in 9/11, can you get her in the hearing room?’ We not only got her in the hearing room, we got her in the first row. I said, ‘Of course.’ And then she’s in the Daily News attacking me today.”
Mr. King had hoped, after months of heated rhetoric, that the subject of the hearing–“The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response”–might be the crux of the story, for at least one day. He had tried to make the hearing beyond reproach, granting Mr. Ellison unlimited time to speak, inviting four Democrats who didn’t sit on the committee to participate and, in a personal triumph, biting his tongue as Democrats assailed him and his inquiry.
Instead, the papers reflected a general sense of confusion at what the hearing had proved and why exactly it was necessary.
Mr. King read the headline on the cover of The Washington Post–“Lots of drama, less substance”–and held up the front page of The New York Times: “Ellison crying. ‘[Terror] Hearing puts lawmakers in harsh light.'”
The Joe McCarthy comparisons were all there, too. A cartoon in one paper had McCarthy’s ghost standing behind Mr. King, yielding the balance of his time, and a Bill Press column wondered when Mr. King might inquire: “Are you now or have you ever been a Muslim?”
Politico wrote that after all the hype, the hearing was “something of a dud.”
“So they have me criticized for not being like Joe McCarthy,” Mr. King said. “Great stuff.”
Still, the day’s coverage was something of an improvement.
“It was mindless and inane going up to the hearing,” he said. “And now, it’s mixed.”
Mr. King said he hadn’t expected all the press attention, and cited an interview with The Observer, just after the November elections, when he first mentioned his plans, deep into a half-hour interview, on what he might do when he retook the gavel.
“If I was trying to do a McCarthy hearing, if I was trying to do any of these extravaganzas they’re talking about, I don’t think I would have buried it with a Queens mumble in the middle of a conversation with the first reporter who is talking to me after the election,” he said.
“I mean, you know, I would have said, ‘You know what I’m going to do, Reid? Goddamn it, I’m going to get these Muslims, I’m going to have this fucking hearing, I’m going to really go after them and I’m going to expose them once and for all for what they really are.’ No, I think I was talking about chemical plant security and this and that, to get the committee more focused.”
He conceded that the attention might raise his political profile, but dismissed the idea that he might use it as a platform for higher office.
“It might help for that, but I really don’t see myself doing that,” he said. “I think I’d be a great senator, I’d be a great governor, I’d be a great president, but I don’t see it happening. The country will have to look elsewhere.”
“Yesterday, I was going down the hall. O.K., the political part of me–this is great, I’m walking down the hall with like 10,000 photographers taking my picture, cameramen tripping over themselves”–he chuckled a little–“and I’m saying, ‘For what?'”
In Mr. King’s view, he was merely investigating the same threat that the administration has already acknowledged: that Al Qaeda is attempting to recruit in the Muslim American community.
“I’m confident that the solid majority of people are with me on this, just anecdotally” he said, but also cited a poll that said 52 percent favored the hearings and only 38 were against them.
And the negative coverage had done little to sour his mood.
“What are you going to do?” said Mr. King. He deadpanned: “There’s no doubt the world still loves me.”
SOME OF HIS FELLOW Republicans have tried to steer clear of the controversy.
House Speaker John Boehner replied with a terse statement to reporters’ inquiries: “Chairman King is chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.”
Staten Island Congressman Michael Grimm, whose district has a relatively large Muslim American community, took the opposite approach, issuing a 185-word statement that cited the need for cooperation in all communities, without exactly endorsing or denouncing the hearing itself.
“Honestly I got no push-back at all. None whatsoever. [Majority Leader Eric] Cantor was obviously very supportive. Anyone I bumped into was all for it,” Mr. King said. “As a political story–not as an important matter, but as a political story–Boehner could see this is a three-, four-, five-day media frenzy, which-after a set of stories today-it’s not going to be mentioned again.”
The weeks of bad press do not seem to have diminished Mr. King’s place as the influential dean of the New York delegation.
After the hearing, when he went to the House floor for a vote, the six freshmen in the New York delegation asked him to mediate a dispute about who should get the powerful Ways and Means Committee seat recently vacated by Chris Lee.
“They wanted me to make a decision, and I’m trying to get my head clear on this,” Mr. King said. (He is backing Tom Reed, who was the first to ask for his support.)
Out-of-office Republicans were especially supportive.
ay night, after the votes, Mr. King and his wife, who had come to Washington for the hearing, joined some friends for a nice dinner at the Monocle steakhouse, and then went to the Fox studio to tape an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show, where he ran into the Republican message guru Karl Rove.
“I was in the green room talking to Greta Van Susteren and I was about to leave the studio, and Karl Rove came in and started harassing me for causing pandemonium throughout the world,” Mr. King said.
“He said, ‘Ah, what are you doing? You’re disrupting the whole universe!'”
Mr. Rove told Mr. King’s wife not to believe her husband when he says the criticism doesn’t bother him.
“I was surprised I was getting that kind of sympathy from Karl Rove,” Mr. King said.
Rudy Giuliani had called twice in the days leading up to the hearing.
“He called me Tuesday night to wish me luck. And then called me on Wednesday offering to do television, radio, op-eds, whatever I want,” said Mr. King, who had awoken at 5:15 on Wednesday morning to do Good Morning America, CBS’s Early Show, The Today Show and CNN’s American Morning.
“It’s great being on television, but after a while you end up saying the same thing,” he said. “I figured having another face and, from my perspective, having a very respected face on this issue, it would mean more.”
For Democrats, meanwhile, the hearing was a chance to lace the Republican Party for its racial insensitivity, and to attack Mr. King for sending the wrong message to the Muslim world.
“The media and my opponents can’t have it both ways. They can’t blow this out of all proportion, they can’t make all the attacks they’re making, they can’t say it’s the end of the world and then blame me if people react the wrong way to the hearing,” Mr. King said. “What they’d be reacting to is not–there’s nothing yesterday that I said or the Republicans said or the witnesses said that should be offensive to anyone. If Al Qaeda wants to be offended, fine. If there is any negative consequence, it’s from the hysteria before the hearing and the way the Democrats conducted themselves.”
On a personal level, he tried not to let the hearing affect his friendships across the aisle. After the hearing, he sought out Mr. Ellison on the House floor for a cordial conversation, and chatted with another longtime friend, Harlem Democrat Charlie Rangel.
“I was sitting with Rangel and Ellison and thought, if somebody takes
a picture now, they’ll wonder what happened,” he said.
But a certain level of awkwardness persists.
Just after noon on Friday, he hustled out of his office toward the House floor for a vote. A few paces ahead of him was Georgia Congressman John Lewis, one of the champions of the civil rights movement, who ducked into an elevator, leaving Mr. King to wait for the next one.
“He just signed a letter against me,” said Mr. King, who was laboring just a little from a hairline fracture on the side of his foot that had, until recently, forced him into a walking boot.
“The worst thing about this was, people saw me and they said, ‘Oh, what happened?’ And I said, ‘I’m walking along the side of the house …'” he said. “What a stupid story to tell. They’re all expecting that I jumped on a terrorist escaping or something.”
At the crosswalk leading to the Capitol, Mr. King stood a few feet behind Mr. Lewis, who was standing alone, but the two eventually met at the elevator leading to the House floor.
“How you doing, John?” Mr. King said with his usual jocularity.
“O.K., how you doing?” Mr. Lewis replied.
As they crammed into the elevator next to Texas Republican Kevin Brady, Mr. King joked about arriving late for the votes.
“I figure if I tell them I’m with John Lewis, it’ll be O.K.,” he said. “And if I get away from Kevin Brady, I’ll be a lot better.”
“You should be so lucky,” Mr. Brady said as they walked onto the House floor.