THE INCOMING REPRESENTATIVE FROM GEORGIA'S 4th congressional district is the outspoken Cynthia McKinney. She is a Democrat, she is 49 years old, and she has held the job before. She held it for a decade, in fact, from 1992, when she became the first black woman elected to Congress from Georgia, to 2002--when, she says, the "hostile corporate media," allied with Republicans, "repeated falsehoods" about her, "distorted" her positions, and drove her from "my seat."
That is McKinney's explanation for her 2002 primary defeat, and she is sticking to it. But there are other explanations. Her father, Georgia state legislator Billy McKinney, shared his version with an Atlanta television reporter on August 19, 2002, the night before she lost. The reporter had asked Billy McKinney about his daughter's use of a years-old, moth-balled endorsement from former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young. Such endorsements were worthless, the elder McKinney replied, because "Jews have bought everybody. Jews." In case the reporter didn't understand, he spelled the word: "J-E-W-S." (A few weeks later, in a runoff against a political neophyte, Billy McKinney became a former Georgia state legislator.)
The actual reason why Cynthia McKinney left Congress in 2002 was that, for once, she couldn't outrun her mouth. She had walked along the cutting edge of progressive politics for years--appearing with Louis Farrakhan, calling globalization a "cruel hoax," advocating for Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe--but then, in a March 25, 2002, interview on KPFA Pacifica radio, she suddenly fell off.
"We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11," McKinney said that day. "What did this administration know and when did it know it, about the events of September 11? Who else knew, and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered? What do they have to hide?" McKinney thought she knew the answer. "What is undeniable," she explained, "is that corporations close to the administration have directly benefited from the increased defense spending arising from the aftermath of September 11th."
It was all downhill from there. On April 12, 2002, a synopsis of the interview appeared in the Washington Post. Democrats began distancing themselves from McKinney. She released a statement admitting she was "not aware of any evidence" proving "President Bush or members of his administration have personally profited from the attacks of 9/11," but "a complete investigation might reveal that to be the case." Then again, it might not. For that matter, McKinney might have had no idea what she was talking about.
Appearing in print just months after the September 11 attacks, McKinney's charges couldn't be excused. Nor could her list of campaign donors, which included both terrorist sympathizers like Abdurahman Alamoudi, the former executive director of the American Muslim Council, and apparent actual terrorists like former college professor Sami Al-Arian. Nor could her October 12, 2001, letter to Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal, in which she rebuked New York mayor Rudy Giuliani for returning the prince's post-9/11 "gift" of $10 million and urged bin Talal to donate the funds to "charities outside the mayor's control," especially those that dealt with "poor blacks who sleep on the street in the shadows of our nation's Capitol." Giuliani had returned the Saudi's money because it came with the implicit condition that America "address some of the issues that led to such a criminal [9/11] attack," among them "its policies in the Middle East," where "our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of Israelis while the world turns the other cheek." To Giuliani, such a statement made excuses for terrorism. This wasn't a problem for McKinney.
And why should it have been? Her bent for conspiracy theories and racebaiting had never cost her politically. When she said in 1996 that "we need to get the government out of the drug business," she was not talking about a possible prescription drug benefit. Whether it was the time she told USA Today that "My impression of modern-day black Republicans is they have to pass a litmus test in which all black blood is extracted," or the time she accused Al Gore of having a low "Negro tolerance level," she emerged unscathed from the ensuing kerfuffles. Facing a tough race in 1996, McKinney said Georgia Republicans like her opponent John Mitnick were "neo-Confederates" remaindered from "Civil War days." Amazingly, McKinney ignored the fact that Mitnick was Jewish.
Her father did not. Over and over again, Billy McKinney called Mitnick a "racist Jew." As Slate's Chris Suellentrop noticed, when the New York Times asked Billy McKinney to elaborate on his comments, he simply repeated that Mitnick "is a racist Jew, that's what he is, isn't he?" The controversy over Billy McKinney's comments lasted weeks. Disgraced, he resigned from his daughter's campaign. That year, Cynthia McKinney won 58 percent of the vote.
In 2002, though, thanks to McKinney's interview with Pacifica radio, the tiny streams of anti-McKinney criticism that had been collecting in pools for years turned into a flood. The September 11 attacks were vibrant and terrifying memories when McKinney accused the president of profiting from them. Remember, too, that when McKinney accused the president of being a calculating war profiteer, his approval rating was over 75 percent.
But times change. Two years later, McKinney is still her old self, while the world has become a lot more accommodating to loony theories about President Bush. Apparently her own district is no exception. The 4th District this year was an open seat; Denise Majette, who defeated McKinney in 2002, decided to run for the Senate instead, but McKinney still faced five opponents in last summer's Democratic primary and dispatched them all without a runoff. And while she avoided making any controversial statements, and politely deflected criticism of things she had said in the past, her conspiracism and racialism were still there beneath the surface.
Occasionally they would bubble up. McKinney is defensive about the Pacifica interview, and there are links on her campaign website to two articles by the left-wing BBC journalist Greg Palast that attempt to absolve her of conspiracy-mongering. One of these articles is entitled "The Screwing of Cynthia McKinney." The other is entitled "Re-lynching Cynthia McKinney." Palast writes that McKinney has never actually said President Bush had foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks. Which is true. She hasn't. She's just implied it repeatedly.
What's striking about McKinney's website is that, even as it attempts to "debunk" a variety of "misinformation" about her, it also takes great pains to claim vindication for that same misinformation. There is a link, for example, to "Exposed: The Carlyle Group," a 48-minute documentary that purports to reveal "the depth of corruption and deceit within the highest ranks of our government." There is a link to an article in the South DeKalb County CrossRoads News entitled "Where is Cynthia McKinney During 9/11 Hearings?" in which the author describes being "enraged" that McKinney was not included in the public hearings of the 9/11 Commission, since she "was the only elected official who had the guts" to "bring President Bush's war profiting scheme to the light."
A few links more, and you wind up at McKinney's speech "Democracy Is Under Attack--Let's take it Back." The speech is a sort of lodestone for McKinniacs. It is a rambling series of remarks delivered at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem in July 2003. It is an angry speech. "I can't be calm when I drive through sections of Atlanta that look more like Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, than America," McKinney explains. Yet the speech is notable mainly for the way in which it references McKinney's conspiracy theorist guru, a man named Michael Ruppert.
Michael Ruppert is a former LAPD detective who is best known for his theories on CIA drug trafficking. Those theories--namely, that the CIA was behind the crack cocaine epidemic in America's inner cities--briefly made headlines in mainstream newspapers in 1996, and Ruppert is hoping for a sequel. Since 9/11, he has toured the country discussing how the Bush administration, Enron, Israeli intelligence, the Pakistani ISI, the Saudis, and Osama bin Laden were behind the terrorist attacks. Ruppert's theories are lucrative. Chip Berlet, who studies conspiracism as a senior analyst at Public Research Associates, a progressive group, told me that Ruppert speaks regularly to sold-out crowds.
"As you may know, I'm involved with Mike Ruppert of From the Wilderness," McKinney says in her "Democracy Is Under Attack" speech. From the Wilderness is the title of Ruppert's newsletter and website. McKinney probably got the idea that the USS Abraham Lincoln was "really in San Diego harbor" when Bush landed on it in May 2003 from Ruppert. So, too, her idea that Bush and his friends stood to profit from the 9/11 attacks, which she expands upon in another manifesto, the March 2002 "Thoughts on Our War Against Terrorism":
Former President Bush sits on the board of the Carlyle Group. The Los Angeles Times reports that on a single day last month, Carlyle earned $237 million selling shares in United Defense Industries, the Army's fifth-largest contractor. The stock offering was well timed: Carlyle officials say they decided to take the company public only after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Such ideas figure prominently in The Truth and Lies of 9/11, a videotaped lecture that Ruppert delivered at Portland State University on November 28, 2001. The lecture is 135 minutes long. It feels much longer. In it, Ruppert talks about the CIA, the Bush administration, the Carlyle Group, UNOCAL oil pipelines in Afghanistan, the Mossad, and--go figure--orange juice. The bottom line is that the Bush administration knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance and allowed them to happen for profit. Also, the "world financial system" is on the brink of "collapse."
In its apocalyptic overtones, in its internationalist plot, in its view that apparent enemies are secretly collaborating, Ruppert's The Truth and Lies of 9/11 is a textbook conspiracy theory. It is also a vehicle for Cynthia McKinney. She utters the penultimate line, and it's a doozy. "The American people," she says, "might have a criminal syndicate running their government."
"It's a sinkhole," said Chip Berlet, when I first asked him about these conspiracy theories. He sounded a note of regret about McKinney. "A lot of McKinney's complaints about the government are standard progressive fare."
But which ones? Her conspiracy theories, or her hard-left politics? In truth, the line between the two is increasingly difficult to discern. I bought my copy of The Truth and Lies of 9/11 last June, at the "Take Back America" conference for progressive and Democratic activists in Washington, D.C. In a ballroom nearby, in earshot of the bookstand where Ruppert's video was being sold, Hillary Clinton and George Soros delivered keynote speeches. A few weeks after the conference, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which glibly hints at possible government foreknowledge of the terrorist attacks, was screened for the Senate Democratic caucus at the Uptown Theater in Washington. The film received a standing ovation.
Maybe all of this helps explain why Cynthia McKinney got her seat back. Maybe when McKinney shared her disturbing theories about President Bush in 2002, she was not so much falling off the edge of progressive politics as anticipating it. And she shows no signs of slowing down. "I will probably get in trouble for what I've said to you tonight," McKinney told her audience at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in 2003. "But it won't be the first time I get in trouble for telling the truth. And I'll continue to tell the truth. As I have said before, I won't sit down and I won't shut up." Too bad.