Peter King

Americans must rediscover our unity


The world of politics has never been an oasis of peace and harmony. By its very nature, democracy is a clash of ideas fueled by ambition. It is not an arena for the faint of heart. As a practitioner of politics and government for more than 50 years, I’m no stranger to political intrigue and combat. But until recently, there was a degree of respect for the other side and for the system itself. There were unwritten lines that were understood and not often crossed.
Nassau County politics can be as tough as it gets, but once the debate or the campaign was over, we almost always left the fight in the arena, and make it personal. Jerry Kremer, for instance, a fellow Herald columnist, was a staunch and powerful Democrat on Long Island and in the state, but I don’t think there was ever a harsh word between us. And there were Democrats such as Mayor Ed Koch and Sen. Joe Lieberman that I worked closely with on issues such as homeland security and combating antisemitism. Of course, the classic example of adversaries fighting hard during the day and having a drink after hours was the relationship between President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill.
Today, that collegiality is almost nonexistent, even within the same party. Republicans who work with Democrats to find bipartisan solutions are labeled RINOS. Democrats who do the same are called sellouts, or worse. Kevin McCarthy forged a bipartisan agreement to keep the government open and was removed from he House speakership by his own party. A centrist Democrat like my friend Henry Cuellar, from Texas, who cooperates with Republicans on border security issues, faced a multi-million-dollar primary campaign in 2022, coordinated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “the Squad.”
Trying to make sense of my life, I’m in the process of writing my memoirs, tentatively titled “The Road to God Knows Where,” and came to the chapter on my election to Congress in 1992. Going over my records of that campaign, I was reminded of how tough, hard-fought and close it was.
My opponent was Steve Orlins, a millionaire businessman making his first run for office. I was in my third term as county comptroller. The county had a budget crisis, and Bill Clinton, heading the Democratic ticket, was running strong on Long Island. While I was better known than Orlins, that was a mixed blessing in a bad economy. Besides, Orlins had personal wealth that he used effectively against me, with a massive radio, television and direct-mail campaign. I won by just 3 percentage points.

What stands out for me in retrospect, though, is that despite the fact that Orlins and I had serious policy differences across the board, there was no hostility between us during the entire campaign. The worst he said about me was that I was a pro-life zealot who was responsible for the county’s fiscal woes, and my counter was that he was a liberal Manhattan millionaire who hadn’t voted in a number of elections, trying to buy a seat in Congress. Fair political comment on both sides. We had at least three televised debates without either of us raising our voice or pointing a finger.
Similarly, last week I appeared with former Congressman Charlie Rangel on WABC-TV’s “At Issue” to discuss how, even though Charlie and I strongly disagreed on almost every major issue, we always worked together across the aisle on issues affecting New York, and had a strong friendship for many years. The fact that there was a Sunday show dedicated to showing that there was a time when two guys from the same state could actually get along and work together for their constituents indicates how far we’ve gone in the wrong direction.
Then, two Sundays ago, Rosemary and I visited Bob Beckwith and his wife, Barbara, at their Baldwin home. Bob was the retired FDNY firefighter who stood with President Bush in the ruins of the World Trade Center on Sept. 14, 2001, in that inspiring moment when the president proclaimed, “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” It may have been an accident of history that Bush chose Beckwith, but he couldn’t have picked anyone better — self-effacing, patriotic, dedicated. And as I spoke with Bob and thought back to those days and months after 9/11 when the American people were united, I realized that we haven’t had that sense of unity since. Instead, as crises loom larger, we and our leaders grow further apart.
Let us do all we can to reverse this road toward perpetual division, and once again realize that we live in the world’s greatest nation and must work to preserve it that way.

Peter King is a former congressman, and a former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Comments? pking@