Jim McDermott's wake-up call

A court says he owes more than $1 million in a phone-eavesdropping case, and it turns out an agent of Saddam Hussein paid for his infamous 2002 trip to Baghdad. The Seattle congressman-for-life has lost his way and should be chastened by those recent events. But it's not too late for a talented politician to right himself.
Crosscut archive image.

U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle.

A court says he owes more than $1 million in a phone-eavesdropping case, and it turns out an agent of Saddam Hussein paid for his infamous 2002 trip to Baghdad. The Seattle congressman-for-life has lost his way and should be chastened by those recent events. But it's not too late for a talented politician to right himself.

Previous donors to U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott's campaign or legal-defense funds have received an appeal for immediate money to help pay $1,111,388 in legal fees and interest that a federal judge has ordered the Seattle Democrat to pay Republican Rep. John Boehner of Ohio. (Boehner says the money, when received, will be used to support Republican candidates.)

The same communication contained an unrelated, capital-letters dire warning that McDermott feared President Bush was about to wage war against Iran.

McDermott's legal-defense and campaign committees, together, have $996,871 on hand, he says. The campaign money, by law, can be used to pay the legal penalty, although it will leave McDermott's campaign treasury balance at zero entering the 2008 electoral season. The sum immediately needed, as of last Friday, April 4, was $143,717.

For those half-dozen Seattleites still unaware of Boehner v. McDermott: It involved Boehner's suit against McDermott after McDermott distributed to media illegally obtained tapes of Boehner telephone conversations. Boehner initially offered to settle the case for a $10,000 payment to charity and public apology by McDermott. But McDermott opted to take his chances in court. Now he also must find money to pay his own attorneys.

McDermott has portrayed himself as somehow defending First Amendment rights in the Boehner matter. This is nuts. McDermott is the one who carelessly abridged those rights by obtaining and illegally distributing Boehner's phone conversations.

The Boehner matter follows directly on Seattle media investigations of when and under what circumstances McDermott learned that his 2002 trip to Baghdad was financed by a Saddam Hussein agent in Michigan. McDermott and two colleagues joined a number of other international and U.S. "useful idiots" and outright Saddam sympathizers who made visits to Baghdad during that period to underscore Saddam's propaganda point that United Nations oil/food sanctions were hurting Iraqi children. (The oil money in question was not paying for food, in any case, but was being stolen by Saddam and Co.)

Just as he characterizes his actions against Boehner as First Amendment actions of principle, McDermott describes his Baghdad trip as a similarly principled, to head off the Iraq war. Many members of Congress in both chambers voted against the eventual war resolution, but only McDermott and his two companions were willing to serve as props for Saddam photo opportunities in 2002.

If this was all we knew about McDermott, we could conclude that he was either a knave, a fool, or both. But there is more to him than that, and there is a reason his constituents have reelected him over many terms and why he remains unchallenged by a Democratic opponent in his one-party 7th congressional district.

I have known McDermott since 1980, when, as a state senator, he was the Democratic candidate for governor. I saw a lot of him at the time and regarded him as a savvy and gutsy politician. I had come back home to Seattle for a three-year sabbatical from Washington, D.C., and helped start that year a Kennedy for President campaign in the state. The cautious path for McDermott, as a statewide candidate, would have been to stand apart from Kennedy's challenge to incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter. But he took a stand he thought was necessary and supported Kennedy – and lost the governorship. When in 1988 he won his congressional seat, I made sure that Kennedy attended his first capital reception at the Democratic Club on Capitol Hill.

McDermott is personally charming and has a winning gallows humor. He is not a product of the Northwest granola political school but grew up in Mayor Daley's ward-politics Chicago. He is a real pol. Yet he took an un-pol-like career path out of college and became an M.D. and then a psychiatrist, serving for a time as the Naval Medical Corps' chief psychiatrist at Long Beach Naval Station during the Vietnam War. He also has been a Foreign Service medical officer, providing psychiatric services to Foreign Service, AID, and Peace Corps personnel in sub-Saharan Africa. In the Congress, McDermott is associated with health care and HIV/AIDS issues.

Despite his Chicago upbringing, McDermott is not much for constituent service. People and organizations in his district mainly turn to Sens. Patty Murray or Maria Cantwell, or even Rep. Norm Dicks of Belfair, for the kinds of help that most constituents seek from their own congressman. McDermott is known among his colleagues as a junketer. He has not used his congressional seniority to build a power base in the House – in contrast, for instance, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also from a safe-seat district (San Francisco), who came to Congress during the same period as McDermott.

But his Seattle constituents seem not to mind. He and they are generally on the same ideological wavelength. Even the Boehner and Baghdad fiascos are unlikely to shake their support of him.

I live in the district and no doubt will vote again this fall for McDermott, unless he suddenly decides to quit the game. I will not send a penny, though, to help pay his highly deserved fine in the Boehner case.

One would hope that the $1 million-plus penalty will gain McDermott's attention and that he comes to recognize that his Baghdad junket was wholly inappropriate. A Jim McDermott fully paying attention and on his game could have far more impact on national, state, and local issues than he presently does.

McDermott is a talented political natural who has fallen into a slack, safe-seat mode. Now he has gotten two big jolts in a matter of days. Most immediately, he will be hustling the needed money to pay off Boehner. After that, though, should come some reflection, especially if he wants to stay in his job.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.