All of us have voices in our heads, whispering insanities. Rep. Cynthia McKinney's problem is that she lets hers speak. She's the Christopher Walken character in Annie Hall, except when she's tempted to swerve into a car's oncoming headlights, she actually does it.
After all, she's not the first liberal to spin the fantasy that President Bush had advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, which McKinney insinuated last month during a radio interview with a Berkeley, Calif., station. The New Yorker's drama critic John Lahr admitted in Slate to a similar notion. And McKinney's colleague, Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., told the Washington Post that "a number of people say it."
But McKinney, a Georgia Democrat, appears to be the first to take it seriously. After confessing his suspicion, Lahr attributed it to "paranoia." Watt hastily followed up his comment by saying, "I can't say that it would be a widely held view." McKinney, weeks after her statement, would say only, "A complete investigation might reveal" that "President Bush or members of his administration have personally profited from the attacks of 9-11."
It's not the first time McKinney's mouth has gotten her in trouble. In her 10 years in Congress, hardly a year has gone by when she didn't make news for an outlandish accusation or a wild conspiracy theory (ideally, as in this case, a combination of both). During a nasty 1996 congressional campaign with racial tension on both sides, she called supporters of her Republican opponent "holdovers from the Civil War days" and "a ragtag group of neo-Confederates." Never mind that her opponent was Jewish. And during the 2000 presidential campaign, she wrote that "Gore's Negro tolerance level has never been too high. I've never known him to have more than one black person around him at any given time." Never mind that Gore's campaign manager was black. (McKinney is not a particularly partisan finger-pointer—there are enough delusions for both sides.)
Around every corner, McKinney sees a secret cabal plotting her demise. After the majority-black district that first elected her to Congress was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutionally gerrymandered, she lashed out at the court as racist. She compared the verdict to Dred Scott, the decision that declared slaves were nothing more than chattel, and Plessy v. Ferguson, which legitimized separate-but-equal American apartheid. (Never mind that she was re-elected in a white majority district two years later.) During her next election, she declared that Georgia's kaolin industry engineered the case that eliminated her district, as payback for her fights against the industry in Congress. (Kaolin is a white clay that is used in a number of products, including porcelain.) And last fall, she tried to solicit money for black Americans from a Saudi prince who said U.S. policy in the Middle East was partly to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks, then she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, "Why such a negative reaction to my letter? I believe that when it comes to major foreign policy issues, many prefer to have black people seen and not heard." (To which the National Review's Jonah Goldberg retorted that "she needs to explain why I keep finding these quotes in my morning paper by Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell.")
But being the Girl Who Cried Racism means that people will also roll their eyes at the legitimate slights that the first black Congresswoman from Georgia has faced. In August 1993, during her first term in office, a Capitol Hill police officer tried to prevent her from bypassing a metal detector, as members of Congress are allowed to do. For years afterward, The Hill reports, the Capitol Police pinned a picture of McKinney to an office wall, warning officers to learn her face because she refuses to wear her member's pin. (And because officers are innately suspicious of a black woman with braided hair and gold shoes.) Five years later, she blasted White House security after guards thought her 23-year-old white aide was the congresswoman.
Incidents like these ground her wilder scenarios in a reality with which many of her constituents are familiar. As McKinney put it in a 1996 interview with the Progressive, "African Americans have always known that a little bit of paranoia was healthy for us." Like most conspiracy-mongers, McKinney taps that paranoia to weave facts into a web of fiction.
She knows that a portion of her constituency is receptive to the allegations she makes, and she deliberately plays on their fears. Her comments aren't flippant ad-libs. The Oliver Stone-style plot she relayed to Berkeley's radio listeners was part of a prepared statement, "Thoughts on Our War Against Terrorism," that McKinney later published in the left-wing newsletter Counterpunch. (Click here to hear her read it on the March 25 edition of KPFA's Flashpoints. Her statement begins at the 30-minute mark.) What many people see as outrageous demagoguery, others see as courageous truth-telling.
And by disseminating her more fanciful messages in obscure media outlets, McKinney insulates herself somewhat from the chunk of her constituents who would be outraged by her antics. She backs down slightly when the mainstream media come calling. After her comments about Gore's "Negro tolerance level" were posted on her House Web site, she disclaimed them and canceled four scheduled interviews with the Associated Press to discuss the incident. She employed a similar strategy in '96 when her father repeatedly called her opponent a "racist Jew." (When asked about his comments by the New York Times, he replied, "He is a racist Jew, that's what he is, isn't he?") After ignoring his comments for a week, she distanced herself from them and "fired" him from her campaign, though he had no formal role.
Despite her controversial reputation, McKinney hasn't had a close race in her five congressional elections, winning with at least 58 percent of the vote each time. This year she faces a primary opponent, Denise Majette, who says she will exploit her 9/11 comments. But if history is any guide, Majette will discover that voters don't elect McKinney in spite of her mouth. They elect her because of it.