Pete McCloskey, supporter of Palestinian rights, taught me more than one great lesson

A week before he died, I reminded the former congressman of what a hero he had always been to those of us who still wanted to believe that there were elected officials who could be principled, non-partisan fighters for justice

Then Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, left, admires the bumper sticker on the car of Congressman Pete McCloskey as the congressman looks on, in San Jose, California, on September 25, 1980. Mr McCloskey died on May 8 at the age of 96. AP
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Former US Congressman Pete McCloskey died this month at the age of 96. By any definition of the word, Pete was a hero. He was courageous and selfless on the battlefield, fearless and principled in elective office, an advocate for justice and equity, and, in all instances, a truth-teller even when he paid a price for speaking out.

Pete entered the national consciousness in 1967, when following the death of the incumbent representative, he won a special election to Congress. There were two aspects about that contest that attracted attention. Pete’s main opponent was the former film star Shirley Temple Black. Not only was she “America’s darling” but she was endorsed by fellow actor Ronald Reagan, a rising star in California politics. Also compelling was the fact that Pete was a highly decorated marine colonel, who was running as a vocal critic of the Vietnam War.

Pete won that election and did so in his next seven re-election contests. His victory, the first by a Republican opponent of the war, sent shockwaves through Congress, sending the message to his colleagues and future candidates that an election could be won by opposing the war in Vietnam.

Once in Congress, Pete continued to challenge both his party and the nation. As a recipient of two of the highest awards the military gives for valour and two Purple Hearts, Pete knew the horrors of combat and was compelled to oppose a war that had already taken too many lives and could never be won. He opposed Richard Nixon’s continuation of the conflict and after the 1972 election – when it was revealed that the then president ordered covert operatives to break into his Democratic opponent’s headquarters and then tried to cover up this crime – Pete became the first Republican in Congress to call on Mr Nixon to resign from office.

I first met Pete a few years later in the mid-1970s and in that first meeting he taught me a lesson I never forgot. I had started the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and was looking for members of Congress to support cases of Palestinian victims of rights abuse. Knowing that he was a courageous advocate, I went to see him. Being young and intense, I sat down across from him and immediately began pressing my case.

Pete became the first Republican in Congress to call on Nixon to resign

At one point, Pete cracked a joke, but too intent on pressing forward, I continued. He stopped and asked what I thought of what he had said. I responded that what I was saying was serious and continued. He stopped me again and said: “I’ll tell you what’s serious. I have supporters in my district who’ve been friends of mine for years, and who would be upset if they even knew I was meeting with you to discuss Palestinian rights. You don’t know me, yet want me to take a stance on something that would offend them. Why don’t you think that over, get a sense of humour, and come back and see me?”

I was stunned and left. After reflecting on what he had said, I never approached another elected official the same way. I learnt that it was important to build relationships, to get to know people you want to influence and let them know you. It was the way my father succeeded in his grocery store. His customers liked and trusted him. In politics, I needed to do the same.

In any case, eventually I went back to see Pete. He not only endorsed the case I was presenting but also became a strong supporter of Palestinian rights and our campaign.

During his time in Congress, Pete was a champion for women’s rights, the environment (as author of the Endangered Species Act and co-founder of Earth Day), and of course, Palestinian rights.

In 1980, he travelled to Beirut with fellow representatives Nick Rahall, Mary Rose Oakar, and Merv Dymally to meet Yasser Arafat, challenging the US “no talk policy” with the PLO. And as Israeli bombs were falling on Beirut in 1982, they returned again to meet Mr Arafat. It was at that meeting that Pete got Mr Arafat’s signature on a statement that the PLO “accepts all United Nations resolutions relevant to the Palestine questions".

After visiting other Arab countries on that same visit, Pete made the following statement to press: "In every Arab heart there is the inexorable conviction” [that the Israeli invasion would not be happening] "without the consent and indeed the approval of the United States … We pay the price for that hatred growing in a substantial part of the world."

After leaving Congress, Pete’s activism on behalf of justice continued. In the late 1980s, he and former Congressman Paul Findley founded the Council for the National Interest in an effort to change America’s Middle East policy to align with America’s interests. He also provided legal support to the survivors of the USS Liberty, the naval vessel targeted and sunk by Israeli bombs during the 1967 war. And in 1993, he filed a lawsuit against the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group based in the US, on behalf of a group of pro-Palestinian and anti-apartheid activists charging the ADL with violating California’s constitutional right to privacy by illegally obtaining and using the activists’ personal information to defame or silence them.

A week before he passed away, I had the chance to speak to him. I reminded him of the lessons he taught me and what a hero he had always been to those of us who still wanted to believe that there were elected officials who could be principled, non-partisan fighters for justice. He made me tear up when he replied how he had also been inspired by my life’s work.

He may be gone, but the lessons he taught will live on. You can be principled and personable. In politics, like business, relationships matter. And if you fight for what you believe in, not only will you feel good about yourself, but at the end of the day, it will be known that yours was a life well lived. That was Pete McCloskey.

Published: May 21, 2024, 4:00 AM