cover story

Congressman Steve King’s Greatest Hits


Western Iowa’s provocative pol trades zingers for national ink


By Douglas Burns


Western Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King is a master at finding or manufacturing controversy, issuing provocative statements, and reveling in the national media attention that follows.

Most recently, King, who hails from the tiny town of Kiron near Denison, hit pay dirt with his take on the pilot who crashed a plane into the Austin, Texas, building that housed an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) branch. King expressed empathy for the pilot’s views on taxes and argued that the fatal episode would not have occurred had the nation embraced King’s idea for a flat tax and scuttling of the IRS.

This is but one installment in the The Book Of King, an ever-expanding collection of often incendiary and generally artful political barbs. He’s a prodigious producer of these outrages which are by equal measure eagerly swallowed by his wide-eyed supporters and gobbled by the mainstream media and ideologically fueled Web sites. The undeniable result: national profile.

King’s provocations, he admitted in a Downtown Sioux City Rotary Club meeting a few years ago, covered by Bret Hayworth of The Sioux City Journal, are carefully contrived for maximum effect.

According to King, he plans everything he says. It’s weighed ahead of time, never off the cuff and designed to stir discussion of key issues. “What kind of a nation are we if we can’t have open dialogue?” King asserted.

The disarming, if not disingenuous plea, for “dialogue,” coming from a man not known for his civility is another sign of King’s style.

One on one, King can be quite personable, even with critical journalists or liberal Democrats.

The founder of a construction company, he knows the ways of rural Iowa and how to connect with a crowd. He got himself elected as a state senator in Kiron before winning the Fifth Congressional District seat in 2002 in something of an upset in the primary in this decidedly Republican territory over former House Speaker Brent Siegrist who had the advantage of a larger geographical base in Council Bluffs.

But with his conservative base seemingly locked in, King is eschewing the traditional path of conservative Iowa Republicans like Chuck Grassley and Terry Branstad, who rose in popularity as they migrated from the right-wing toward the political center. In 2008, King opted not to run against Sen. Tom Harkin, the liberal incumbent, and after much rumbling of a run for Terrace Hill this year, King opted to stay in the friendly confines of Iowa’s Fifth Congressional District, where ultra-conservative reaches like Sioux County give him a plump political cushion.

“Fine,” say detractors in other parts of the state. “You can have him.”

That sentiment may fly through this election cycle, but once the Census is taken and congressional redistricting occurs, Iowa is likely to lose a seat by 2012, moving from five to four. Will a western Iowa district creep closer to I-35, creating something of a Hawkeye State version of Kansas’ “Big First,” a congressional district that includes 69 Kansas counties and covers nearly 6,000 square miles? Or will the district lines configure in Iowa differently, perhaps dividing some of King’s base?

The question for King is whether his catalog of outrage can sell outside of his reliable conservative base in western Iowa.

You be the judge. The following is a list of Steve King’s Top 20 Greatest Hits:

1. He idolizes Joe McCarthy
In the fall of 2005, King referred to widely disgraced red-baiter Sen. Joseph McCarthy as a “hero for America” and continues to defend the statement.

Joseph McCarthy is the political leader who cried wolf in the 1950s and nearly cost us the Cold War. He’s the inspiration for much of the movie “The Manchurian Candidate” for heaven’s sake.

Most Americans see footage of the McCarthy hearings or remember the era and shudder at the thought of what the censured senator represented.

Not King. He sees a role model, a political jukebox hero.

“It’s extraordinarily bad judgment or he’s historically illiterate,” Art Neu, a Carroll attorney and former Republican lieutenant governor, said of King’s 50-year retroactive McCarthy endorsement.

2. King justifies Austin, Texas, attack:
Last month, King reportedly said that he could “empathize” with the right-wing death pilot, Joe Stack, who flew his plane into a building in Austin, Texas, killing an IRS employee, according to the Web site Talking Points memo.

Later, in a talk a little closer to home, with The Omaha World-Herald, King said he could “understand” Stack’s frustrations.

“What Steve King said is extremely close to an apology for murder,” Mark Potok, the intelligence project director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, told me in a phone interview. Potok’s group tracks hate groups in the United States.

ThinkProgress has King’s thoughts on the matter on video. Here’s part of the exchange:

ThinkProgress: “Do you think this attack, this terrorist attack, was motivated at all by a lot of the anti-tax rhetoric that’s popular in America right now?”

King: “I think if we’d abolished the IRS back when I first advocated it, he wouldn’t have a target for his airplane. And I’m still for abolishing the IRS. I’ve been for it for 30 years and I’m for a national sales tax. [...] It’s sad the incident in Texas happened, but by the same token, it’s an agency that is unnecessary, and when the day comes when that is over and we abolish the IRS, it’s going to be a happy day for America.”

3. King likens illegal immigrants to animals
In July of 2006 King went to the House floor to display the model of a wall the Kiron Republican said he personally designed for the U.S. border with Mexico and likened illegal border crossers to the farm animals.

“We need to do a few other things on top of that wall, and one of them being to put a little bit of wire on top here to provide a disincentive for people to climb over the top or put a ladder there.” King said in displaying his design. “We could also electrify this wire with the kind of current that would not kill somebody, but it would be a discouragement for them to be fooling around with it. We do that with livestock all the time.”

4. The Viagra outrage
According to Roll Call — and sources in King’s office who asked not to be quoted when contacted by me in 2005 — the congressman sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter that year in which he asked other U.S. representatives to oppose any Medicare funding for impotence drugs. Roll Call did land an interview with Iowa’s 5th District Republican congressman.

“Is it the government’s business to provide those funds and resources so that old men can have sex when they want?” King is quoted as saying in Roll Call. “We’ve gotten along just fine without the government subsidizing people’s sex lives. This kind of growth in government was never envisioned by our Founding Fathers.”

Of course, the life expectancy in 1776 was only 35.

King, who may be more interested in human sexuality than Alfred Kinsey, apparently has thought a good deal about old people having sex — on Viagra and Cialis and Levitra and Love Potion No. 9, or whatever else is being advertised from coin toss to conclusion of every sporting event in America.

5. Terrorists will be ‘dancing in the streets’
In an interview in Spencer, before the 2008 presidential election, King said, “I’ll just say this, that when you think about the optics of a Barack Obama potentially getting elected president of the United States — and I mean, what does this look like to the rest of the world? What does it look like to the world of Islam? And I will tell you that, if he is elected president, then the ... the radical Islamists, the ... the al-Qaida and the radical Islamists and their supporters will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on Sept. 11.”

6. King compares homosexuals to unicorns and leprechauns
In a Dec. 12, 2003, news release about Sioux City Judge Jeffrey Neary’s decision to grant two lesbians a divorce King said the following: “Unless I am mistaken it was in Vermont, not Iowa, that Howard ‘The Coward’ Dean slyly signed midnight legislation making same sex unions legal. Unicorns, leprechauns, gay marriages in Iowa — these are all things you will never find because they just don’t exist. But perhaps Judge Neary would grant divorces to unicorns and leprechauns, too.’”

7. King earns endorsement — for President of the United States — from right-wing hate-peddler Ann Coulter.
A columnist for Human Events Online, a national conservative publication, says celebrity right-winger Ann Coulter in the fall of 2006 recommended that the Republican Party consider King as its presidential nominee in 2008.

“Coulter supports a fence on our southern border and recommended the Republican Party consider Rep. Steve King from Iowa for the presidency in 2008,” Michael J. McCormack wrote after hearing Coulter speak at a Christian Coalition of Georgia event.

8. The ‘Big, powerful, angry, black man’ remark
Because of his concerns about the impact of war protests in America, King went to get a first-hand view of the anti-war demonstrations and speeches in Washington, D.C. just after the war in Iraq started in 2003.

The congressman spent about 90 minutes among war protesters around the Washington Monument and other places in the nation’s capital.

“I had two staff people there with cameras taking pictures of signs and people,” King told me in a phone interview at the time.

One episode stood out to King, and he described it to me during that interview.

“I saw a big, powerful angry black man come up to the flag, the flags that were held along the streets by the ‘Support Our Troops’ people, and he was just screaming, ‘Burn that racist flag! Burn that racist flag!’” King said.

9. King says Iraq is safer than Washington, D.C.
In the summer of 2006, on the floor of the U.S. House, King says it’s more perilous for civilians in Washington, D.C., than Iraq. He made the argument at least twice.

“Well, by now, I have a feel for the rhythm of this place called Washington, D.C., and my wife lives here with me,” King said. “I can tell you, she is in far greater risk being a civilian in Washington, D.C., than the average civilian in Iraq.” (In fact, an estimated 21,000 civilians died violent deaths in Iraq in 2006. That same year there were 169 homicides in the nation’s capital.)

10. The ‘Hussein’ fuss
King took issue with the fact that President Barack Obama used his middle name, Hussein, in Obama’s presidential swearing-in ceremony in January 2009.

Obama correctly observed the use was procedural (former President Bush was introduced that day as George Walker Bush).

11. King makes fun of an old lady
In 2006, King suggested that iconic journalist Helen Thomas, then 85 years old, was ugly in a joke about radical Islam’s belief that martyrs will be rewarded with virgins in the afterlife.

“There probably are not 72 virgins in the hell he (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) is at,” King said at the Iowa GOP State Convention. “And if there are, they probably all look like Helen Thomas.”

In a rare display of civility, King apologized.

12. King endorses backseat baby-making
How should Iowa deal with the worker shortage in towns that have relied on Hispanic workers, legal and illegal, since the 1980s?

Make more Iowa babies, King told the Greater Des Moines Partnership, according to Jane Norman of The Des Moines Register. “What about the ‘grow your own’ plan?” King said.

When former Republican Lt. Gov. Art Neu asked King to elaborate, King singled out Singapore’s plan to increase pregnancies which he said included the injunction, “put newspapers in your car (windows) to get more privacy,” Added King, “I remember those things when I read them. They kind of stand out in my mind.”

13. Congressman claims John Kerry would have lost World War II
In summer of 2004, King issued a statement about the just-dedicated World War II memorial in Washington, saying, “Can you imagine if John Kerry had been president during WWII? We’d all be speaking Japanese and German right now!”

14. King defends “hazing” at Abu Ghraib
“The dismembered and charred corpses of American contractors dangling over the Euphrates River in comparison to the abuse committed by a few soldiers at Abu Ghraib are like the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer compared to those of Heidi Fleiss,” King said in a statement. “What amounts to hazing is not even in the same ballpark as mass murder.”

15. King as a king
Visiting Iraq, King could not resist opportunity to sit in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palace thrones. King later sent the photo to the media prompting some to wonder if he hopes to become a power-mad dictator. If western Iowans, often feeling like the red-headed stepchild of the Hawkeye State, ever secede, would King be content with the governor’s chair of a new state or would he want a throne — for real?

16. The ‘totalitarian’ threat
Warming up a crowd in Sioux City for GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin in the fall of 2008, King said Republicans are not going far enough to paint Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama as the purveyor of a socialist agenda.

King suggested Obama actually could be classified as even more extreme than a socialist. King also said his party is the only one with a legitimate claim on representing freedom as Americans know it.

“When you take a lurch to the left, you end up in a totalitarian dictatorship,” King said. “There is no freedom to the left. It’s always to our side of the aisle.”

17. ‘White guilt?’
Last year, King opposed a bill recognizing the African American slaves who built the U.S. Capitol.

18. The North American Union conspiracy
At his next town hall meeting, King may very well tell us that he woke up in a hotel room in New Orleans in a bathtub full of ice, missing a kidney, victim of an organized ring of organ thieves.

The odds that King will buy into the greatest urban legend of all time greatly increased in August of 2008 when he told constituents that he was connecting the dots on another popular conspiracy theory: the creation of a North American Union, a border-blurring confederation of the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The North American Union theory takes various forms depending on who’s doing the talking or blogging. Some incarnations involve a “superhighway” linking the nations, others a common currency often called the “amero.”

Rather than dismiss the idea the St. Louis Post Dispatch calls an “urban legend” — as Republicans like U.S. Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri have done — King gives it credibility by saying he can see a case for the plan appearing, dot by dot.

“My own view is that if you look at all of the signals that are there, look at the evidence that exists and all the dots, and you connect the dots, you can draw that picture,” King said at the town hall meeting at Cronk’s Cafe Restaurant & Lounge in Denison.

19. King spends time researching Obama’s birth
“I spent my time before the inauguration to look into that because I thought it was the time to do so,” King told me in a recent interview.

He added, “I came to the conclusion that it’s improbable that Obama was not born in Hawaii as he says. I just don’t understand why he wouldn’t ask under Hawaiian law that the certificate of live birth, the real legitimate birth certificate, be released to the public. I’ve seen the one that they put out. It doesn’t look exactly like some of the others they’ve used to compare it. So I just wish the subject weren’t there. I think he could have avoided the subject if he would have just simply laid his birth certificate out. I don’t know what his motive for not doing that would be unless it would be something that is embarrassing, that he doesn’t want us to know, and, otherwise, I think he would have let us know.”

20. King wants Congress to tell us Christmas matters
In a Louisville, Ky., restaurant last May, on the even of the Kentucky Derby, I had the chance to chat with U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat from that city.

Only a few minutes into our conversation, Yarmuth recalled the resolution King introduced that recognized the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith.

The Louisville congressman viewed such a measure as ridiculous (who needs Congress to tell us that Christmas is important, right?) and voted “present” — for which he took some heat, he said.

Incidentally, Yarmuth noted wryly, King never bothered to vote for his own resolution. CV


Caption: king on throne: Visiting Iraq, Congressman Steve King could not resist posing for this photo in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. King’s office sent the photo to the media. Special to Cityview


Caption: king with abortion crowd: U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has conservative credentials that are undeniable. He’s a steadfast opponent of abortion and has used this position to help build a muscular political organization. Courtesy of The Carroll Daily Times Herald


Caption: king on phone: Congressman Steve King, the author of brash statements and architect of hard-hitting political maneuvers, is known for being approachable and disarming in one-on-one conversations with constituents. These grass roots political skills have served King well in rural Iowa. Courtesy of The Carroll Daily Times Herald


Round Kick Gym

Best of Des Moines 2011

Fall Relish

Coupon Guide