Peter King is working the back room of the Lindenhurst Diner on East Montauk Highway in Long Island, shaking hands and cracking jokes. In his blue polo and FDNY windbreaker, the 66-year-old congressman blends in well with the dozens of retired New York City firefighters who get together about once a month to catch up and relive old times. “They’re my base,” King says, downplaying the higher-income North Shore part of his district. “So if they’re mad about something, rather than pay $20,000 for a poll …”
After the omelettes and coffee, the men stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and they remain standing for a reading of names of recently deceased American soldiers. Then King steps forward—tall, with a large face and meaty hands and wide, slumping shoulders. In his low Queens mumble, King reports on the condition of Bill Thomas, an old FDNY friend who’s been ill: “I went to see him, and he must be doing well, because he’s bitching and complaining more than ever.” The men laugh. Next, King thanks his friends for their help on Election Day. November worked out well for him: The Republican takeover of the House elevated King to the chairmanship of the House Committee on Homeland Security—giving him the added distinction of being the only New York–area congressman with a leadership position in the new order. Before he finishes, King coyly references the firestorm he’s about to create in Washington. “I’ll be getting some shots,” he says. “There’s some incoming coming my way. I hope you can help me with that.”
On Thursday, March 10, King will preside over the first in a series of special House Homeland Security Committee hearings focusing on what he sees as the rising domestic terror threat posed by radicalized American Muslims and, more provocatively, the lack of cooperation among the U.S. Islamic community to help prevent future attacks at home. The hearings are expected to be as controversial as anything the new Republican Congress has done—though, in this case, King is proceeding with little or no support from other party leaders. King says his goal is to protect us from a growing danger we’ve grown blind to and are afraid to look at out of political correctness. His opponents say that by singling out Muslims, King is promoting anti-Islam hatred and could actually trigger a domestic terror attack. King sees himself as a brave voice seeking the truth. Others are less generous. To them, he is a Joe McCarthy for the age of terrorism.
On the wall behind King’s desk in his office in Massapequa Park—a large room made smaller by the World Trade Center, Mets, and Brooklyn Dodgers memorabilia covering practically every surface—is a color photograph of a little boy, the congressman’s grandson, standing next to Barack Obama. The boy does not look happy. The picture was taken last spring at the annual White House picnic and Easter-egg roll. “We were waiting on the line to get a picture taken with the president, and it’s sort of a long haul for kids,” King says with a crooked grin. “And as the president is about five feet away, my granddaughter kicks my grandson in the face. So in the picture, the president is telling him not to be mad at his sister. He wouldn’t even acknowledge Obama, he was so mad.”
King has long been viewed as one of the more bi-partisan Republican forces in Washington—a conservative with whom liberals can find common ground. The son of working-class Irish Republicans from Sunnyside, Queens (his father was a storied instructor at the police academy who trained Ray Kelly and voted for Eisenhower and Nixon), the roots of his conservatism are more class-based than ideological. “In New York, conservatives believe in original sin and that no one’s perfect,” he says. “We don’t pass judgment on too many people.” King spent his summers during law school interning at Richard Nixon’s law firm alongside Rudy Giuliani (Giuliani was a liberal then, King notes wryly), then moved to Seaford, Long Island, and climbed the ladder of the Nassau County Republican organization, where his mentor was Al D’Amato. (King’s son, Sean, now works for D’Amato’s lobbying firm, Park Strategies.) Elected to Congress in 1992, King was an early supporter of the Iraq War and has opposed efforts to close Guantánamo and repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But he has also rallied to the defense of labor unions and slammed offshore tax havens for the rich. He has defied Tom DeLay and Newt Gingrich. And he’s even enjoyed a warm friendship with Bill Clinton. He was one of just two Republicans to show early support for Clinton’s military intervention in Bosnia, and he famously opposed Clinton’s impeachment. (Perhaps in return, King says that both Bill and Hillary have gone out of their way to support him, to the point of not supporting his Democratic opponents when he runs for reelection.) In his spare time, King has written three novels, all lightly dramatized treatments of subjects close to his heart, including the Troubles in Northern Ireland. His prose style is plain and no-nonsense, which is how he views himself as well.