While I truly appreciated every moment of my 28 years in Congress, I’ve found that a real benefit of being retired is that I have more time to think about where I’ve been and how I got there. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still keeping myself busy in a number of areas, including writing for the Heralds. But there’s no longer the constant rush to be somewhere or get something done.
It took me at least a month or so to realize that when I woke up in the morning, I could go back to sleep if I wanted to. I didn’t have to catch a plane to Washington or be in my district office in Massapequa Park for an early-morning constituent meeting.
Some friends suggested early on that I write about my experiences in Congress and what I witnessed — the historic, the exhilarating and the tragic. I gave it some thought, but decided to let my brain settle for a while before trying to make sense of what I had seen and whom I had met. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that in order to understand where I had been, I had to look back on how I got there, and how those earlier experiences influenced how I approached and dealt with the challenges I faced and the people I encountered.
Mine is no rags-to-riches tale. But it was an improbable journey that took me from the blue-collar, working-class neighborhoods of Sunnyside and St. Albans, Queens, to the halls of Congress and Oval Office meetings at the White House. From loading freight cars at the Railway Express Terminal on Manhattan’s West Side to flying on Air Force One with three presidents. From grammar school classrooms crammed with 70 kids to Notre Dame Law School.
I went from working in a law firm on Vesey Street, in Lower Manhattan, across the street from where the World Trade Center twin towers were being built, to being at ground zero with President Bush days after the Sept. 11 attacks, as those still-smoldering towers lay in ruins, a burial site for almost 3,000 innocent people. From traversing the minefields of Nassau County and New York politics to dealing with world statesmen and dictators. From listening to my Irish immigrant grandmother describe the Irish struggle against British rule, in which her brother was imprisoned, to working with President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought that 800-year struggle to an end. From being an altar boy in Queens to leading the American congressional delegation to the installation of Pope Benedict in Vatican City.
Early last year, I decided it was time to start writing. Attempting to describe the improbability of this journey that took me so far from where I began, and was neither planned nor predetermined, prompted me to title my proposed memoir “The Road to God Knows Where,” from the Irish rebel song “On the One Road.”
Now I’m about 60,000 words into it. Ironically, considering Israel’s current war for survival, the chapter I’m just completing focuses on being in Jerusalem as part of a congressional delegation in August 1993, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin informed us that Israel had reached a historic agreement with Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which led weeks later to Rabin’s famous handshake with Arafat on the White House lawn, orchestrated by Clinton, creating the mood and belief that peace was inevitable. Unfortunately, of course, the chapter will conclude with Rabin’s tragic assassination just two years later.
As I write more, the easier the words seem to flow. To make real progress, though, I’ll have to block out time for concentrated writing instead of just writing spasmodically when time allows. I also want to make sure that I do justice not only to the events I’ve lived through and witnessed, but, more important, the people who have been such an important part of my journey. Not just the world leaders, but also those close to me. My mother, father, brother and sister. My wife, Rosemary, our son, Sean, our daughter, Erin, and our two grandchildren. Also, the close friends who urged me to write and continue to encourage me.
As to where this will lead? Only God knows where.
Peter King is a former congressman, and a former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Comments? pking@ liherald.com.