New York’s Irish King

Last week, when the news broke that Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) had been offered the ambassadorship to Ireland in the Obama administration but had turned it down five months ago, a friend e-mailed his wife a picture of the ambassador’s residence in Dublin. Rosemary King and her husband — the grandson of Irish immigrants who helped President Clinton broker the Irish peace agreement — were all too familiar with the mansion, located in Phoenix Park in the heart of the city. They have had the chance to savor its elegance firsthand on three visits there during some of the more than 30 trips King has taken to Ireland. King counts “hundreds” of cousins living there and his daughter’s in-laws live steps from the residence today — the idea of living there was something right out of a dream.

The offer, which came from incoming White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel the Friday before inauguration, took King completely off guard. While preparing for what he thought would be a Senate race against Caroline Kennedy, according to sources close to King, he suddenly delved into an “intense” few days to consider the offer, which divided his family. Ultimately, said one associate, King decided he wanted to be near his young grandchildren, and knew that foreign policy differences with Obama could pose challenges in the job.

“It was a tremendous honor, and considering my involvement with Ireland it was a very emotional time,” King said in an interview. He confessed to asking himself, “Who am I to be turning down the position to be ambassador to Ireland?”

When Obama came to the Capitol, King thanked him personally, telling him the offer was a great honor he would never forget. Soon afterward, King received a handwritten note from Obama saying it was too bad they couldn’t work out what they were planning. King framed it and displayed it, despite not being able to tell anyone about this job offer of a lifetime.

King kept his secret, even during St. Patrick’s Day, until it broke in the press last week. And though half of his heart may belong to Ireland, he said he has no regrets. “I really haven’t looked back at all,” King said, adding that Ireland will have a great ambassador from the United States. “Dan Rooney will do a great job; he has a lot of experience with Ireland. He is the real deal.”

King’s commitment to his district was intensified by the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 — many people in his district were killed, and as the ranking member and former chairman of the Homeland Security Committee he has found solace and fulfillment applying his energy and emotion to homeland security issues.

Even after seeing former Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) become Transportation secretary, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) become ambassador to China and former Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.) become Army secretary, King doesn’t think his offer was part of a cynical plan to poach moderates and Northeastern Republicans from the GOP.

“I don’t think I was offered the job to get me out. If I had decided to take it I would have had to factor that in. But in my state of denial I think about the fact that I was offered the job,” King said. “He is the president of the United States; who am I to be questioning his motives?”

King disagrees with much of Obama’s domestic agenda, though he said he supports the president’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been pleased with some — though not all — of his decisions regarding homeland security.

Personally, King said, he finds Obama “a first-class guy.” He added, “I think we hurt ourselves when we try to demonize him.”

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.