Pete McCloskey earned a permanent place in American history when, in 1973, he became the first Republican member of Congress to call for Richard Nixon’s impeachment and for US withdrawal from Vietnam. As a highly decorated veteran of the Korean War, McCloskey’s criticisms of Washington’s errors in Vietnam carried special weight; today, he sees those errors being repeated in Iraq. He recently met with young marines from his old company, Company C, which, according to McCloskey, has lost one-quarter of its men since the Iraq War began. “Every one of these guys told me the same thing,” he says: “There’s no way we’re winning the hearts and minds of these people, when we’re pulling them out of bed in the middle of the night and killing family members.”
The Iraq War is one of the reasons McCloskey, now 78, has come out of retirement to run again for Congress. In a primary election this June, he will face Richard Pombo, a seven-term incumbent from California and close ally of former House majority leader Tom DeLay, who had to step down after being indicted for campaign finance violations. Although Iraq will surely figure in the race–McCloskey, like Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha, favors pulling US troops out within a year–McCloskey says the main reason he decided to challenge Pombo is that Pombo personifies the pay-to-play corruption, ideological fanaticism and anti-environmentalism that have taken over the Republican Party. “Tom DeLay wouldn’t deal with any lobbying firm that didn’t employ Republicans and contribute to Republican candidates,” says McCloskey, “and Pombo was one of his top lieutenants.”
McCloskey points out that Pombo voted to change House ethics rules to shield DeLay from investigation. He further charges that Pombo received $54,500 in contributions from Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist who pleaded guilty to bribery in January, and his law firm, and says Pombo sponsored a bill giving Congress the power to overrule the Supreme Court on matters of constitutional law. Finally, Pombo, chair of the House Resources Committee, sponsored a revision of the Endangered Species Act that McCloskey, who helped write the law in the 1970s, says would “gut the act.” Pombo’s revision, which passed the House last fall and awaits Senate action this spring, has enraged environmental groups. Defenders of Wildlife calls Pombo a “villain” on Capitol Hill and, with the Sierra Club, has pledged to unseat him this year. “To get the full flavor of this sombitch,” McCloskey says, “look at how his bill puts a five-year moratorium on [the Endangered Species Act’s] regulation of pesticides. The bald eagle nearly disappeared because of DDT. Now it’s recovering because we regulated DDT. Who makes pesticides? Monsanto.” McCloskey claims that a foundation financed by Monsanto and the Japanese Whaling Association illegally gave Pombo $23,000 of travel money to attend the International Whaling Conference.
What’s more, Pombo’s revision of the Endangered Species Act would in essence require the government to overpay landowners to obey the law. If the government prohibited a landowner from, say, building a shopping mall because it would endanger a plant or animal species, the government would have to pay the landowner compensation equal to the projected profits on the project. The result would be an open-ended giveaway that would bankrupt the Fish and Wildlife Service and render the act unenforceable, which, says McCloskey, “is exactly what Pombo wants.”
Wayne Johnson, an adviser to Pombo, says McCloskey “doesn’t understand the bill” and that his other accusations are “just not true.” Pombo received only $7,000 from Abramoff, which he later donated to charity, Johnson says, and all of his travel was legal.
Insiders say McCloskey doesn’t stand a chance against Pombo. But so far the old marine is two for two at slaying ethically compromised Republican dragons: besides Nixon, McCloskey torpedoed Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign by revealing that the Christian leader had lied about his military record–Robertson actually never faced combat; he served as the company liquor officer after his father, a senator, pulled strings to keep him away from the front lines. Against Pombo, McCloskey promises “a gutsy, grassroots campaign” to counter an expected 4-to-1 funding disparity. “If enough people go to petemccloskey.com to make a donation or volunteer, and if the truth about Pombo gets out to people in the district, we can win,” he says. “Somebody has to stand up to this guy.”