By Betsy Rothstein - 03/16/09 05:05 PM EDT
“I hate drinking Coke at an Irish bar, but it’s noon,” the eight-term New York Republican said immediately as we sat down for lunch recently at the Irish pub in the Phoenix Park Hotel.
King, who is contemplating a run for the Senate, presents himself as an open platter, willing to allow a dissection of his eating (and drinking) habits, as well as his politics.
King typically drinks Diet Coke at home, but today — who’s looking? — it’s Coke. He takes short, quick sips, and the waiter replaces his drink only twice throughout the meal.
We’re sitting at a corner table that evidently is King’s usual spot. He’s well-known at The Dubliner, and the owner makes a point to stop by and say hello.
The congressman laments that he hasn’t been out nearly as often as when his close friend former Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) was in Congress. Fossella did not seek reelection after receiving a DUI and admitting to fathering a child with a woman who was not his wife.
King doesn’t judge. He says he speaks to Fossella often.
But not judging goes deeper than it seems.
It’s a whole Irish Catholic philosophy of not expecting too much out of life and staying humble. It’s also expecting disaster to hit.
He says his father’s favorite saying was: “The cheers of yesterday have short echoes.” A quote attributed to the late Sen. Pat Moynihan (D-N.Y.) springs to mind: “Being Irish means knowing the world is somehow going to break your heart.” And King likes this one, too: “The Irish are characterized by qualities that make one interesting rather than prosperous.”
King will declare by this summer whether he will run for the Senate against New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who was appointed to replace now-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
While Caroline Schlossberg Kennedy would have been a gift for King’s fundraising, Gillibrand is a thorn in his side. He sees the appointee as “bland,” and thinks it will be difficult for him to raise money to beat her.
“I was definitely going to run if it was Caroline Kennedy,” he said.
But Gillibrand? “She’s not as known, so it’s harder to attract attention to the race,” he said. “Caroline Kennedy was not a good candidate. I would have basked in the attention of Caroline Kennedy. It would have been working-class Irish versus elite Irish.”
King’s meal of comfort food arrives: a large plate of beef stew, steaming, with large-cut roasted potatoes and thick carrots.
Could King be mournful over what he believes would have been a certain win against Kennedy? “Oh, yeah,” he says, starting to stir the brown sauce around his plate.
“I was hoping for Caroline. I was waking up every morning, [thinking], ‘How many days until he [New York Gov. David Paterson] picks Caroline?’ It was a race I could not have lost.”
The race would have been big, he said. Even his Irish cousins who live in Australia heard about it on Australian TV.
Still, he seems excited about running against Gillibrand.
“I’m definitely looking at it very seriously and speaking at different dinners around the state,” he says between mouthfuls. So far, he says, he’s had a good reception.
King believes in being neat in politics and dining. At The Dubliner, he wipes his mouth with a white cloth dinner napkin with each forkful.
In politics, he’s willing to get in there and get dirty, but in the end he wants to win, to come out clean.
King’s typical lunch is man-of-the-people sort of fare. When not dining out, he has corned beef on rye, hot roast beef or a cheeseburger from the Cannon Carryout.
“I’m no gourmet,” he says. “To me, atmosphere is most important. [And here,] you don’t have to worry if you make a jerk out of yourself.”
Though criticism for Gillibrand does not come as swiftly or sharply as it does for Kennedy, it’s still there. “She’s not known,” he says. “She really hasn’t done much in Congress.”
He rethinks that: “She hasn’t done anything.”
In short, he believes her blandness hurts them both. “It throws a blanket over the race,” he says. “She was picked as the non-Caroline Kennedy.”
King is not on good terms with Paterson. “Paterson handled it badly by leaving her out there,” he says of Paterson’s handling of Kennedy. “He put her in the impossible position.”
While King wants to reconnect with Paterson, it isn’t evident the feeling is mutual. Paterson had planned to come to King’s home in December for dinner, but a scheduling conflict resulted in a cancellation. “I understand he is unhappy with me right now,” King says, explaining that during a local New York radio interview he called on Paterson to explain why he didn’t pick Kennedy.
During that interview, King was asked if the governor should be impeached for the way he dealt with the Senate seat. King says the governor believes his response was not a “strong enough” no.
King feels badly about the falling-out with the governor, but his scrappy brand of politics won’t allow him to acquiesce entirely. “He’s a good guy, so I feel bad about that,” King says. “I guess he’s under a lot of pressure. He’s very smart, very witty. I just don’t know how he allowed the Kennedy thing to get out of control.”
The congressman has always trodden his own path. He’s close with former Sen. Clinton and her husband, former President Clinton. When Clinton was facing House impeachment, King defied his party and defended him.
He’s criticized President Obama. “I seriously believe I will oppose some of his domestic policies,” he says. “It’s too much like a European social democracy.”
But he won’t entirely trash Obama, who won more than 60 percent of the vote in New York state in 2008. He commends him on his policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, for “standing up to the left wing of his own party.” He is struck by Obama’s self-confidence, recalling Obama’s meeting with House GOP lawmakers during discussions on the bailout.
“He seemed really smart, really at ease with himself. He’s not trying to impress anyone by how smart he is,” he said.
He seems both awed and perplexed by the new president: “I’m used to guys screaming and throwing things around,” he said. “I’ve heard Obama just gets quiet when he’s mad.”
King says his criticism of Gillibrand is not personal. “I don’t have anything personally against her at all,” he says. “My daughter met her at the White House Christmas party. They were talking about nursing accommodations.”
King’s daughter recently had a baby; Gillibrand gave birth last year.
The plate is nearly clean and the stew almost gone. King explains that beef stew takes him back to his Irish-American childhood.
His old friend Rep. Fossella didn’t care for it.
“Vito hated coming here,” King says, explaining that Fossella preferred fancy Italian to Irish meat-and-potatoes fare.
But for King, eating meals such as shepherd’s pie and beef stew are part of his fabric. “My grandfather used to say, ‘It warms your bones.’ ”