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Photo by Jack GouldAt a casual glance, Congress members Cynthia McKinney and Dana Rohrabacher have nothing in common. McKinney is a 47-year-old liberal, black Democrat from rural Georgia. She wears her hair in cornrows, enjoys hip-hop and talks about the federal government's neglect of the underclass. Rohrabacher, 55, is a conservative, pale-skinned Republican from coastal Huntington Beach. He barely has hair, sings folk music and seeks additional tax breaks for the rich.
As improbable as it might seem, however, McKinney and Rohrabacher are pals. They trade sweet words (she says he's enthusiastic; he says she's a "principled" liberal), and—occasionally, surprisingly—share political agendas. In 1997, for example, they angered U.S. weapons manufacturers by advocating higher bureaucratic hurdles for foreign weapons sales to nations with lousy human rights records. Two years later, they joined to sponsor legislation that forgave massive third-world debt to the U.S.
But in a political world dominated by pro-Israel influence, the pair's most intriguing bond is their close ties to Arab-American leaders, their outspoken support of pro-Arab causes in the Middle East, and their similar reactions to the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Towers. Rohrabacher and McKinney have each:
•Accepted generous campaign contributions from Arab-American leaders, some of whom have made pro-terrorist statements or have ties to groups investigated by the FBI counterterrorism units.
•Placed significant responsibility for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on White House negligence. (McKinney blasted President George W. Bush, and Rohrabacher slammed former President Bill Clinton, who had been out of office for eight months when the hijackings occurred.)
•Demanded congressional investigations into why federal-intelligence agencies failed to detect the terrorist plot.
•Blamed the U.S. for fostering an international environment that allowed anti-American sentiment and Osama bin Laden to rise in the Middle East. (McKinney speculated that Bush is driven primarily by a desire to aid oil companies hoping to build a major pipeline in Afghanistan; Rohrabacher hasn't sugarcoated his belief that the U.S. had acted "immorally or amorally" in the Middle East and that "sometimes it comes back to haunt you.")
Despite their nearly identical moves on Capitol Hill, something strange and inequitable happened on the way to the printing presses. McKinney received controversial national media coverage, encountered vicious ridicule by right-wing radio hosts such as Sean Hannity, and found herself pegged publicly as a "nut" and "traitor." Conservatives even launched an anti-McKinney website and organized fund-raising for her Democratic primary opponent.
But the media circus that featured McKinney as a clown somehow never considered Rohrabacher. Despite having closer personal ties to Arab interests than McKinney, the congressman was either ignored (by the national press corps), hilariously showcased as a foreign-policy expert (by the notoriously partisan Orange County Register) or hailed as a "hero" (on conservative websites).
Nothing better demonstrates the disparity in treatment than the fiasco over campaign funding. Both McKinney and Rohrabacher have taken numerous, generous contributions from Arab-American leaders, Arab political-action committees and their lobbyists. A review of Federal Election Commission documents shows, for example, that:
•Rohrabacher has taken $1,000 and McKinney $700 from Abdulwahab Alkebsi, a longtime Islamic Institute official who has protested raids on U.S. organizations the FBI says may have terrorist connections.
•Both accepted $4,000 from the Arab American Leadership PAC.
•Both accepted money from employees of a Georgia company investigated by the FBI for its possible terrorist ties to Middle East terrorists.
•Both accepted money from Abdurahman Alamoudi, who at an October 2000 rally at the White House, said, "We are supporters of Hamas," a group known for suicide bombings against Israeli citizens.
In response, the mainstream media published dozens of inflammatory stories about McKinney's Arab connections. Here's a just a sampling:
•A June 22 Atlanta Journal & Constitution headline: "Arab-American Dollars Shore Up McKinney."
•An Aug. 13 Washington Post headline: "Questions Raised About Donors to Georgia Lawmaker's Campaign."
•An Aug. 15 Washington Times headline: "Arab Cash Haunts a Race in Georgia."
•The Associated Press wasn't about to let the Moonie-owned paper have all the fun. The next day, the AP added this erroneous doozy for already-frightened white Georgia voters: "[Nation of Islam Minister Louis] Farrakhan Said to be Planning Rally" for McKinney.
•On Aug. 19, on the verge of the Georgia primaries, Brit Hume of Fox News ominously reported to his national audience, "Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney's campaign has come under fire for taking contributions from several of the alleged terrorist organizations."
Two days later—thanks in large part to the media—the five-term representative lost her race to a political novice. A week after the election, the Augusta (GA) Chronicle wrote, "Things are a little better in the world today. Cynthia McKinney was defeated."
The political world has been inexplicably kinder to Rohrabacher. Is it that he slammed a politically acceptable target, Clinton, while McKinney had the audacity to question George W. Bush, whom we're all supposed to revere during wartime? Is the problem that McKinney is an outspoken, assertive black woman? Or does the press corps automatically dismiss Orange County politicians as fringe and thus unworthy of such inspection?
Whatever the answer, Rohrabacher is likely sailing to his eighth, two-year stint in Congress without media scrutiny. Neither of the three local daily newspapers—the Los Angeles Times, the Long Beach Press Telegram nor Register—have written a word about Rohrabacher's Arab connections. They've ignored that five months before the terrorist attack, Muslim leaders celebrated Rohrabacher's allegiance at a quiet "meet the congressman" party at the Westin South Coast Plaza. There, he delighted his audience by once again blaming the U.S. for Middle East tensions. "The U.S. accepts a rubber-stamp policy on whatever Israel wants," he said. "This does not serve the cause for peace." But most important, the local media has so far ignored, as the Weekly reported on Sept. 6, that Rohrabacher had been conducting dangerous, unauthorized secret negotiations with the Taliban pre-Sept. 11.
Gerrie Schipske, the congressman's Democratic opponent, can't explain the journalistic phenomenon that destroyed McKinney but ignores Rohrabacher. Said Schipske, "This is a scary time for our democracy."