In a few precincts of American politics, voters still applaud the utterly futile gesture of defiance, the confrontational rhetoric that pleases only true believers, the fist shaken in the face of an opponent who neither notices nor cares. Apparently, such empty gestures — signs of impotence, really — have come to be seen as "speaking truth to power."
That helps to explain the remaining, if faltering, appeal of U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), whose supporters are nothing if not naïve. They have turned Theodore Roosevelt's maxim — "Speak softly and carry a big stick" — upside down.
McKinney speaks loudly but has accomplished little in her 12 years in Congress. That's because her outrageous rhetoric and loopy antics distance her not only from the Republican majority, but even from many of her Democratic colleagues. She has few allies.
That number grew yet smaller after her most recent controversy, a very public imbroglio prompted by a March skirmish with a Capitol police officer. He says he didn't recognize her; she was wearing a new hairstyle but was without the lapel pin usually worn by members of Congress. When he stopped her, the officer said, she slugged him with her cellphone. She denounced him for alleged racial profiling and "the inappropriate touching and stopping of me — a female, black congresswoman."
While the regrettable episode further endeared her to that dwindling population which sees such incidents as proof of her cojones, it reminded many colleagues — and constituents — that she is a public official who tends more toward cheap theatrics than common sense. It's no wonder she finds herself struggling to retain her 4th District seat, consigned to an Aug. 8 runoff with former DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson.
Elected as the first black congresswoman from Georgia in 1992, the so-called year of the woman, she started out well enough. She picked her battles wisely, attended to the needs of her district and took up a long-neglected cause or two, including working-class Georgians who had been exploited by the kaolin industry.
But she frittered away her promise, recklessly playing the race card and picking fights not only with opponents but also with those who should have been allies. In 1997, when she was challenged by John Mitnick, a Jewish Republican, she allowed her father, a spokesman for her campaign, to engage in blatant anti-Semitism. In 2000, her Web site posted her inflammatory analysis of Al Gore as having a low "Negro tolerance level."
But it was in the aftermath of the terrorist atrocities of Sept. 11 that she gained national prominence with reckless and paranoid pronouncements. She suggested that President Bush had known in advance about the Sept. 11 attacks but did nothing to stop them so his friends could profit from the ensuing war. That proved too much for her constituents, who dumped her for Denise Majette, a former judge. McKinney won the seat back two years ago, after Majette chose not to seek re-election but to try for the U.S. Senate, instead. In the July 18 Democratic primary, she couldn't rouse enough support to win 50 percent outright against two opponents — a poor showing indeed for any incumbent. While political observers believe most whites will support her black opponent in the run-off, a lot of her middle-class black constituents are tired of her, too.
McKinney still has her supporters. Last week, former U.N. Ambassador Andy Young (who ought to know better) endorsed her. A week earlier, a McKinney fan sent an e-mail broadside protesting my criticism of the congresswoman: "You guys [are] against someone who is vocal against injustice in all forms everywhere! You all have been co-opted by the stinking system."
But what changes to the "stinking system" has McKinney wrought? She doesn't have the prestige or power to pass a resolution in support of sweetened ice tea.
By contrast, her colleague, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who represents Georgia's 5th District, has the moral authority to get things done. He, too, is a vocal critic of the invasion of Iraq. He, too, has frequently disagreed with the policies of President Bush. He, too, is a Democrat — a member of the minority party. But when Lewis threw his determined efforts behind extension of the Voting Rights Act, it passed.
It's the difference between infamy and influence.
• Cynthia Tucker is the editorial page editor. Her column appears Sundays and Wednesdays in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.