Representative Peter King Discusses Presidential Campaign Politics, Gay Marriage and "The Passion of the Christ."

By:  Pete King
Date: March 7, 2004
Location: Unknown


News Forum

March 7, 2004 Sunday

HEADLINE: Representative Peter King discusses presidential campaign politics, gay marriage and "The Passion of the Christ"

ANCHORS: GABE PRESSMAN

BODY:
Senator JOHN KERRY (Democratic Presidential Candidate): Tonight the message could not be clearer all across our country: Change is coming to America.

GABE PRESSMAN, host:

In the wake of Senator John Kerry's overwhelming victory in the race for the Democratic nomination for president, an eight-month-long struggle between Kerry and President Bush has begun. It's expected to be intense and angry, on issues ranging from the state of the economy and jobs to the president's proposal for amending the Constitution to ban gay marriages. The war in Iraq and the battle to defeat terrorism will certainly be part of the prolonged national debate, too. Kerry wasted no time in attacking President Bush.

Sen. KERRY: ...that no young American in uniform will ever be held hostage to America's dependence on oil in the Middle East.

PRESSMAN: The Republicans have already begun to assail Kerry on security issues.

Representative PETER KING (Long Island): He's voted against virtually every weapons system that is being utilized in the theater of operations in Iraq today.

PRESSMAN: Long Island Congressman Peter King is a strong defender of the Bush administration. His constituents see him as a moderate. What will the Republican strategy be in their fight against the Democrats? How much money will be spent?

Announcer: From Studio 6B in Rockefeller Center, this is a presentation from News Channel 4, Gabe Pressman's NEWS FORUM. Now your host, senior correspondent Gabe Pressman.

PRESSMAN: And good morning, Congressman King.

Rep. KING: Good to be here, Gabe.

PRESSMAN: Welcome. Now th-now that the Democrats have virtually chosen John Kerry as their nominee for president, the Republicans-your party-and President Bush have started to retaliate by releasing a flood of commercials. They-they tout the president's leadership skills, his inspirational qualities. But some families of people who were lost in 9/11 have protested the commercials as taking advantage of their grief. Do you think they're right?

Rep. KING: No, I don't. But listen, I certainly respect their feelings. I mean, obviously, unless you've lost someone on September 11th, it's hard to put yourself in their shoes. Having said that, I've had any number of families call me. For instance, you know, people in my own neighborhood. Firefighter Kenny Haskell-he lost two brothers, both firefighters, who were killed. I spoke to him when the commercial come out. He was very offended, for instance, by the Daily News headline. He was saying that he and all the other firefighters he's spoken to who have lost relatives thought it was a very tasteful commercial, a very dignified commercial.

PRESSMAN: What was the headline in question? I-I forgot.

Rep. KING: Oh, it was families-family furor over 9/11...

PRESSMAN: Oh, I see.

Rep. KING: ...commercial, and he thought it was a cheap shot. And I've spoken to other relatives, but I-listen, I can understand why people might feel that way. But again, the large number I've spoken to, certainly from the firefighter community, believe that the commercial was very-done very tastefully. It commends the honor of the firemen and w-and some with great dignity. And I-to me, the president would be remiss if he didn't make some allusion to September 11th. But again, we're talking about three or four seconds of an entire commercial. So I-I think it's very appropriate.

PRESSMAN: Did they check with the families about using a-a body?

Rep. KING: I don't know exactly who they spoke to, but I know that the firefighters I spoke to thought that that was showing the resolve of the Fire Department. That was really one of the lasting memories of September 11th, was the firefighters not leaving until every f-every deceased firefighter who could be was removed. So they thought it was done in very-you know, again with great dignity and I think it was, too. And I think that it's also misleading when we read, for instance, that Firefighters Union is opposed to President Bush. We're talking about a national union which was opposed to President Bush two years ago and endorsed John Kerry probably almost a year ago. Certainly, New York City firefighters I've spoken-I'm sure-listen, I'm sure there's some who might disagree, but a large majority I've spoken to think that it was the right thing to do, it is the right thing to do, and it's part of the public record.

PRESSMAN: Let's look at one of those commercials, Congressman King, and...

(Excerpt from commercial)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm George W. Bush, and I approved this message.

Announcer: The last few years have tested America in many ways. Some challenges we've seen before, and some were like no others. But America rose to the challenge. What sees us through tough times? Freedom, faith, families and sacrifice. President Bush, steady leadership in times of change.

(End of excerpt)

PRESSMAN: What do you see there?

Rep. KING: I see the strength of America, I see the resolve of America. I think the reference to September 11th there is part of the strength of America. In fact, the language, as I recall, said, 'America coming back or American people.' The president isn't claiming the credit for himself, and this is, I think, a-the defining moment of his administration was the attack on September 11th and America's response to it, not just President Bush's response but America's response. And I-I just think that it's very appropriate to put it in, and a lot of the issues in this campaign are going to revolve around September 11th. For instance, the Patriot Act, the war against terrorism around the world, whether or not Iraq should be part of that. I mean, it all relates to September 11th. I think the president had an obligation to bring it up, and he brought it up in a very tasteful, dignified and commendable way.

PRESSMAN: One of the widows, Kristen Breitweiser, said, 'These are very highly structured circumstances. President Bush is willing to give one hour, which is roughly two seconds per life lost, to a commission that's investigating what the government knew before 9/11 an-and these are very important people, Cheney and Bush,' she says, 'and to explain why all the warnings and all the precursors did nothing to prevent the attack.' So she's kind of attacking the commercials occurring at the very time that the administration is balking and spending too much time with the commission.

Rep. KING: Yeah, I've actually met Kristen Breitweiser, and she's obviously a very dedicated woman. She feels very strongly about this issue. But this administration has complied enormously with the September 11th Commission, turning over millions of pages of documents. The president is going to appear before the chairman and the co-chairman of the commission, as is Vice President Cheney, and it really is a questioning of separation of powers, there's a question of how h-how detailed the president's public testimony should be. Should there be public testimony? And in the past, as you know, presidents don't testify in public. That's a tradition which I think is-is-is actually appropriate, but...

PRESSMAN: The separation of power content...

Rep. KING: Separation of powers. And also, we're talking about the most sensitive intelligence reports that a president has received. Now he is going to testify before Tom Kean, who is the chairman of the commission; I believe Lee Hamilton, who is the leading Democrat on the commission. So he will appear before them. He will speak with them, and I-I think that that is the correct balance the president is giving here. So I think he is cooperative. If I use co-I know he is cooperating, and I know the administration has turned over just reams of documents, and I can understand some of the families having a frustration that everything isn't turned over right away in the way they would like it. But on the other hand, we have to be very careful not to compromise sources, not to come out with something or divulge something which, beyond the individual fact that's given, could also be divulging who the source was, how we found it, what we know. So I think the president is striking the appropriate balance as commander in chief.

PRESSMAN: The Kerry campaign has said now that using the World Trade Center imagery is astonishing and that it amounts to revisionist history. Do you agree with that?

Rep. KING: No, I don't. I think that John Kerry has taken a cheap shot there. I think that considering all that's gone on over the past two and a half years since September 11th, how that is defining our politics, it's defining our diplomacy, it's defining our foreign policy, I think the president would be remiss in not raising September 11th, but he's doing it in a very understated way, a very dignified way, and I think it's entirely appropriate.

PRESSMAN: Do you think it's appropriate to u-make political capital out of the death of 3,000 people?

Rep. KING: It's not political capital. What it's doing, it's defining the terms of a campaign, and he's saying that, 'Listen, as a country today, we can't ever forget what happened on September 11th,' and as we decide where we're going go for the next four years-and these are going to be decisions of life and death-we have to realize what the driving force is behind the president's policy, and then Senator Kerry is also free to criticize what mistake he thinks the president may have made or what should be done differently, but I-I-I don't think we can ignore September 11th. And commercials well-done, tastefully done, to me, raise very legitimate issues. Just as when we talk about poverty, we show footage of people who are poor. When we talk about poor housing, we show, you know, tenements, we show slums. And I think that if we're talking about a tremendous disaster which occurred in this country, showing three or four seconds or two seconds in the commercial, reminding people of what happened and showing what the president has done and has tried to do, to me, is very appropriate and very fitting.

PRESSMAN: What about the question of taste? Is it tasteless to show the carnage where 3,000 people perished?

Rep. KING: No. Because, first of all, we're not showing anything particularly happening. We're showing the remnants, the-the shell of the structure on September 11th, and we're also showing the firefighters removing a body, and that was the strength. I think-we saw this almost every night on the evening news, and that inspired Americans. That, to me, is an inspirational scene, just like the flag at Iwo Jima was inspirational. That was the firefighters standing there, staying there till the very end, doing what had to be done, and to me, that-that-that is honoring the memory of those. In no way is it using it or distorting it.

PRESSMAN: Now in your book, "Vale of Tears," you've stirred up-stirred up a major controversy with Muslims in Long Island and throughout the country. I'd like to go to that after this message.

Rep. KING: Sure.

(Announcements)

PRESSMAN: And we're back here with Peter King, congressman from Long Island.

Congressman, in your novel, "Vale of Tears"-and I assume the veil is the valley of the World Trade Center and the destruction there, and it's a novel, and you talk about a fictitious future attack by sleeper cells of Muslim fundamentalisms on major port facilities in Lower Manhattan, etc. You also say in the book-and you have said it publicly outside of the book-that you believe that 85 percent of the mosques are involved in-or the leaders of those mosques are involved in terrorist activities. You've re-you've received a little criticism for that.

Rep. KING: Yeah, I have. The book, "Vale of Tears," i-is a novel, and in a way, it was my way of coming to terms with what happened on September 11th. So the book alternates between describing the events of September 11th in a novel form but also going forward to talk about future terrorist attacks on New York, o-and I do believe that there is a threat from sleeper cells in this country, and I have been critical of the Muslim leadership in this country, especially in New York, for not speaking out more forcefully in denouncing al-Qaida and also in not encouraging the people in their communities to cooperate. And a number of police officials have told me that there is not the cooperation that you would hope for and expect.

But specifically, we've had Muslim leaders, for instance, on Long Island, more than a month after September 11th, saying that Mohammed Atta was not one of the hijackers, he was alive and well. His passport was stolen. There's a worldwide Zionist network that the media should be examining and exploring. And that type of irresponsible rhetoric was not denounced by anyone among the Muslim leadership. So I think the overwhelming majority of Muslims are good, patriotic Americans, but when a-when they have their leaders telling them that, in effect, there's a government conspiracy blaming this on Muslims and Arabs-excuse me-that Mohammed Atta, who was obviously one of the hijackers is still alive, look to this world-a Zionist conspiracy, that, to me, is such terrible, irresponsible rhetoric, and to go unrebuked by other Muslim leaders to me is disgraceful. So anyway, I-and as far as the 85 percent, that is based upon my research. Also, you've had Muslim leaders...

PRESSMAN: Eighty-five percent of the mosques in the United States have extremist leadership, according to Peter King. Is that correct?

Rep. KING: Yeah. I...

PRESSMAN: And...

Rep. KING: That-that is based on my research. Also, specifically, there are Muslim leaders, incl-there's a sheik Kobbony, who's head of the Supreme Islamic Council of America-he was speaking at a State Department briefing several years ago, and he said more than 80 percent of the mosques in the country are controlled by extremists and Muslims had to face up to this, that you had extreme elements come in and work themselves into mosques and take over. Now 90 percent of the people in the mosques or more may be very good Americans, but if extremist leaders have taken over, and I use the example of the mosque in Westbury, which is right outside my district on Long Island, where you had the leading spokesman for the mosque saying that there's a world Zionist network, that the hijackers were not the hijackers, that is was not Muslims or Arabs who carried out those attack...

PRESSMAN: They're really Israelis and Jews in disguise.

Rep. KING: Well, that's the implication he's saying when he says the mean-this couldn't be Muslims or Arabs that did this. It must be enemies of Muslims and Arabs. Why don't you examine the world Zionist conspiracy? What else is he saying?

PRESSMAN: Senator Jon Corzine and Representative Bill Pascrell of-both Democrats from New Jersey...

Rep. KING: Right.

PRESSMAN: ...have denounced you. Pascrell says "that kind of vitriolic talk"-I'm quoting-"might make it more difficult for the FBI to get cooperation."

Rep. KING: Well...

PRESSMAN: Is there any truth to that?

Rep. KING: ...no, there's not-there's no truth at all. And actually, Bill Pascrell's a friend of mine; I wish he hadn't said that. I'm-I don't see any need to be politically correct here; the stakes are too high. When you have leaders in the Muslim community not providing responsible leadership, when I have police officia-Webster police official telling me that except for the one investigation up in Lackawanna that for the most part the Muslim community is not coming forward and cooperating, I think as an elected official I have the obligation to speak out. I also have the obligation to speak out when people who purport to be responsible leaders in the community are coming out with this terrible rhetoric. I mean, Trent Lott made one statement about Strom Thurmond-what he did 50 years ago on Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday...

PRESSMAN: Right.

Rep. KING: ...and Trent Lott was driven out of office.

PRESSMAN: Well, Muslim leaders in your own district have denounced you. Also, in Washington a fellow named Ibrahim Hoo-Hooper, a spokesman for the Center for Arab-Islamic Relations...

Rep. KING: Right.

PRESSMAN: ...says, 'It's a very dangerous statement. We're more concerned that he's trying to market his book on the back of American Muslims.' How about that charge?

Rep. KING: That's totally untrue, and you mentioned the Muslims on Long Island who are attacking me. That's the very mosque I'm talking about. That's the one where their interfaith director, Ghazi Khankan, who is the leading spokesman for the mosque, was making these remarks about Mohammed Atta and others. Dr. Kahn, who sent in the-who's also a spokesman for them, he said nothing when Ghazi Khankan was making these statements, and I just find that really irresponsible. It's a dereliction of duty on their part.

My own relationship-I was very close to that mosque. I-I received a plaque from that mosque for the work I've done on behalf of-of Muslims. I had young people from that mosque interned in my office. I've gone to weddings of the officials-of the daughters of officials in that mosque, so I had a very close relationship. After September 11th, I was on television defending Muslim Americans. It was only in the weeks and months afterwards when I saw the statements emanating from Muslim leaders, including the national leadership of CARE, including state leaders that...

PRESSMAN: So what are you suggesting? Are you suggesting that the-that the Mus-Muslim leadership abdicate or what?

Rep. KING: I'm saying that the Muslim leaders have to be more responsible, and if not, they should-there should be new leadership. Obviously, you can't have-to me when we're under attack, when our country has been attacked like never before and in the immediate vicinity of that mosque we have funerals and memorial services going on for hundreds of Long Islanders back in the fall of 2001 and you have a spokesman talking about a Zionist conspiracy or a Zionist network, when you have him saying that it was not the Arabs and Muslims who did it, that's disgraceful.

PRESSMAN: Are you-are you saying that they're promoting anti-Semitism, the leaders of the American Muslim community?

Rep. KING: I'm saying that the leaders I'm talking about are irresponsible and that certainly leads to anti-Semitism. What-I mean, what-what do world Zionists have to do with the attack on the World Trade Center? So, yes, that certainly promotes anti-Semitism; it creates a straw man; it diverts attention and how could you expect-if you're an average Muslim and you're in a mosque, why wouldn't you cooperate with the FBI if you're being told that Mohamad Atta's passport was stolen and that suggestion that Zionists blew up the World Trade Center and Arabs are being blamed for it, or Muslims are being blamed. Of course, it's irresponsible.

PRESSMAN: We've got another big question in New York right now: gay marriages. The attorney general of New York state, Eliot Spitzer, says gay marriages are illegal though he sympathizes with the idea. Isn't that-he's saying that the president wants a constitutional amendment...

Rep. KING: Right.

PRESSMAN: ...to ban gay marriages. Isn't that like u-using a Howitzer to kill a cockroach? I mean, what the heck do you need a consti-that's-that's pretty tough-tough stuff, a constitutional amendment.

Rep. KING: Yeah, I have in the past been reluctant to support constitutional amendments. Here's why I would-I would consider supporting a constitutional amendment on gay marriage is I think marriage is a basic component of our society. How it's defined to me is an issue that should be decided by local and state officials. My preference would be-first, I would oppose gay marriage. If the state endorsed it, so be it. But I think each state should have the right to do it. The co-concern I have is with the constitution of the full faith and credit clause which would right now seem to say that if a marriage-if a gay marriage-let's say four judges in Massachusetts say that gay marriage is legal, then a marriage in Massachusetts has to be recognized by every other state in the country.

I think it's more important to have a debate go on in each state, in each locale, and I think it's even better for the gay community to do it that way rather than have four judges in one state impose gay marriages, which then become binding on the whole country. If instead you have a debate throughout the country, then I think people will come to more of an understanding of what gay marriage is and isn't. I would support civil unions, but not gay marriage. The reason for a constitutional amendment is if we have to do it is I would prefer one which allows the states to decide what they can do or how they want to do it.

PRESSMAN: But in a sense, you'd have to have an amendment to super-to toprode-superimpose that on the existing constitutional honoring of full faith and credit.

Rep. KING: Yeah, you have to make an amendment on that, exactly, and that's-but I-I think it is something that if-as a last stand should be done to not allow, again, this to be imposed on states. Now we did pass a Defense of Marriage Act several years ago which Bill Clinton endorsed and signed; I think 86 out of a hundred senators supported it, which said that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

PRESSMAN: Yeah, but what about the civil rights of-of gay-gay couples and gay people?

Rep. KING: Yeah. I-I don't believe that the-it's-first of all, I don't-I don't believe there is a civil right guaranteeing a marriage to everyone. I think that the state has the right to determine what a marriage is, that it's between a man and a woman. If a state decides not to, I think they should have that prerogative also, but that shouldn't be imposed on other states. I think the whole idea of what a civil right is is also something that should be debated. But I don't think that 200 years of tradition-I don't see a bias in saying that a marriage should be between a man and a woman-that to me is a legitimate question of civil order and civil structure.

PRESSMAN: You would support the president in-you-you would work for a gay amendment that is an anti-gay marriage amendment to be passed in the United States.

Rep. KING: If-if-if that becomes necessary, yes, I would. What I'm suggesting to the leaders in Congress is, and we go very slowly on this, though, to see what happens in the states.

PRESSMAN: Let's talk about another burning issue, the Mel Gibson movie, after this.

(Announcements)

PRESSMAN: Here again with Congressman Peter King.

Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," depicting the last 12 hours of Jesus' life. It's stirred bitter controversy already. There's a split among Christians and certainly there are Jewish leaders who think that it's-it can stir anti-Semitism. What's your reaction? I know you haven't seen it yet, nor have I.

Rep. KING: ...(Unintelligible). Right. Two reactions. One, I-I do think that the opponents of the movie overreacted. I think that there are legitimate concerns that a movie like this could stir anti-Semitism. On the other hand, I-I don't think that it has to be anticipated it's gonna definitely happen. I don't know if Mel Gibson's motives should be questioned. I think the-the warning should have been put there saying, you know, see the movie but don't carry this forward to attacks on Jews or anything else. And I know there has-certainly in Europe there's been histories of this in the past where passion plays have been used as an excuse to attack Jews.

PRESSMAN: Especially in mid-the Middle Ages.

Rep. KING: Yeah. Going back. But also if I could just say on that, I-I think times have changed a lot. Like for instance, I-I-I've been reading a lot lately and people seem to think that until the Vatican Council Catholics were told that, you know, the Jews killed Christ and we should take-I mean, I grew up in the most Irish Catholic neighborhoods. I went to the Catholic schools where every time we looked the wrong way it was a mortal sin, so I heard all those. I never heard Jews being blamed for the-you know, the killing of Christ. I mean, we-there were all sorts of ethnic remarks made about Jews, Italians, Poles, Irish...

PRESSMAN: Right.

Rep. KING: ...blacks. But I think that's more...

PRESSMAN: Occasionally in the Bronx the Jewish kids were-were-were-were yelled at as Christ killers. I-I heard that when I was a kid.

Rep. KING: ...OK, 'cause I grew up in Queens. Well, I guess we knew-we were more sophisticated in Queens.

PRESSMAN: I think you probably were a generation later.

Rep. KING: That could be, yes. But having said that, I don't want to undermine-diminish the threat of anti-Semitism.

PRESSMAN: What about the-what about the question as to whether he has correctly emphasized Christ's teachings?

Rep. KING: Yeah, I think he's trying to describe the passion, death of Christ. I-I think that the real essence of Christianity, though, is love thy neighbor and to reach out and to realize that you have obligations beyond yourself and maybe a sequel could show that. To me, obviously, the suffering of Christ and the fact that he gave his life for the sins of mankind is very...

PRESSMAN: Yeah.

Rep. KING: ...significant. But also, to me the real lessons of Christianity-and not to get into a theological debate, but to me the real lessons of the New Testament is the idea of loving your neighbor and reaching out.

PRESSMAN: You don't consider Mel Gibson a great theologian.

Rep. KING: No, I think he's a good actor. He means well and he's probably-probably as scholarly as I am. But no, I-not-everyone's a theologian though.

PRESSMAN: Yeah. We've got a-just a little time left and I know you want to-time to put in a plug.

Rep. KING: Yeah.

PRESSMAN: You had a cataract operation on Friday, and you're feeling pretty good.

Rep. KING: Yeah. Yeah, I wasn't even supposed to be here this morning. I found about it two months ago. I had severe cataracts.

PRESSMAN: Yeah. Right.

Rep. KING: I was actually losing my vision. I figured I was going to go blind 'cause my grandmother had had this and she went blind. Went to this Dr. Berke in Lynbrook-he operated on my left eye last month, my right eye yesterday and now I have 20/20 vision and you look better than you ever did, so this is really-you-you're-different glasses. I'm-I'm a new guy. I'm going to leave politics. I'm going to go to Hollywood and maybe I'll star in one of Mel Gibson's movies. But you look great, Gabe. Even better without the glasses than you did with.

PRESSMAN: Well, I'm very happy you got in your plug for your doctor. This is Gabe Pressman wishing you all a good day. Thank you, Congressman King, for joining us this morning.

Rep. KING: Thank you, Gabe.

PRESSMAN: Good day.

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