WASHINGTON – The unexpected entrance of former President Bill Clinton into a Washington book signing party for Republican Rep. Peter King recently may have raised eyebrows among some Beltway political observers.
In another time.
Truth is, the two are friends, despite King's party affiliation and Clinton's unfavored status with the GOP. King also remains unapologetic for breaking with party ranks in 1998 and voting against Clinton's impeachment in the House.
But in Washington time, that was eons ago, and Clinton's appearance at a popular Irish watering hole this month to help plug the New York congressman's new novel, Deliver Us From Evil, caused barely a tongue to wag. In fact, it is indicative of the popularity King continues to enjoy as a "blue-collar conservative" who’s not afraid to break ranks with the party on principle.
"I thought we were setting a dangerous precedent for impeaching the president for private conduct," said King, a lawyer by profession. He received tons of hate mail and was the subject of "wanted" posters across New York, but he said time has healed the animosity some voters felt against him.
"If there had been a primary right away I don't know how I would have done. But I didn't have a primary until September 2000 and a lot of things happened in between," he said.
That included a change in leadership. "Actually, what worked for me, after the impeachment, Denny Hastert became speaker of the house and he realized the importance of bringing the party together," he said.
Today, King is so far running unopposed in the primary and in the general election races for his 3rd Congressional District seat on Long Island, where he's held office since 1992.
Republican Party members contacted for this story had not a bad word to say about him and he appears well-liked by his Democratic colleagues, too.
"Peter is not partisan at all. He strives to get along with everybody," said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., a fellow Long Island delegate. "I'll be honest with you, from the time I was elected as a freshman he has been a mentor to me."
Carl Forte, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, called him "a strong Republican."
"Members have to vote their conscience and the way their districts want them to," he said of the impeachment.
Deliver Us is a sequel to King's 1999 political suspense novel Terrible Beauty, which blends the lines of fiction and fact as experienced by King's own passionate involvement in the Northern Ireland peace process. Both books reflect King's longtime friendship with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and his work securing diplomatic assistance for the movement from Washington.
"The good news is it is moving forward, going in the right direction," King said of the peace process. "The cautionary news is there are people on both sides who don't want it to work. One way to get it to work is for the U.S. to get involved as an honest broker."
Sound familiar? King agrees the decades-long struggle between the Catholic Irish against the Protestants in Northern Ireland and the British government sounds a lot like the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
"There are some similarities," he said.
King credits the team of Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Gerry Adams for brokering the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. He said Adams was "able to condition his people to a peace agreement. [Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat] has never done that, he has never told the Palestinians that they would have to accept a peace agreement."
Meanwhile, King knows the dynamics of these international disputes were altered since Sept. 11, when his own home became the battlefront for terrorists. He has supported President Bush and the majority of his policies despite backing Sen. John McCain in his primary bid against Bush in 2000.
But when it comes to labor issues, King stands with the unions, a solid constituency in his district. In 2001, the congressman voted against normal trade relations with China and against Bush's scrapping of workplace ergonomics laws implemented under Clinton.
"I'm a blue-collar conservative," he said. "That means I'm pro-union, but I'm pro-life, very strong on national defense and against federal funding of the arts. I supported Ronald Reagan and the tax cuts," he said. "I'm not a moderate at all."
Observers say this makes him pretty popular with the home base.
"He has the ability to reach out and work with people on both sides of the aisle," said Republican National Committee spokesman Dan Ronayne. "He definitely works well with others."