The light is dim and smoky inside the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8182 in Pompano Beach. Red, white, and blue slogans brighten the low walls and ceilings, urging patrons to "Thank a Vet" and to remember "Freedom Is Not Free."
At the far end of the small, bunker-sized room, two men in white T-shirts take a break from shooting pool to amble up to the sticky wooden bar. It's a Tuesday, not quite 4 p.m. They order Jäger bombs. One of them lights a cigarette. His friend, whose pale-brown hair is shaved militarily close to his head, counts as the barkeep pours: "Three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, 11, Mississippi." Behind him, on dual TV screens, Eddie Murphy cackles with Dan Aykroyd in the '80s classic movie Trading Places. Boredom hangs in the stagnant air.
Eventually, the door swings open, and a flood of harsh sunlight enters the room. A politician in a fitted suit and stylish blue tie appears. He wears round, wire-frame glasses, and his hair is tinged with a distinguished sprinkling of gray.
U.S. Rep. Allen West has never been to this post before. He doesn't drink or smoke or frequent bars in the middle of the day. But he is a veteran of a foreign war and has chosen this spot for a one-on-one interview.
Two years ago, West, 50, was a little-known veteran from the suburban Broward city of Plantation whose résumé included one failed congressional campaign and a 22-year Army career. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel but in 2003 faced military criminal charges for shoving an Iraqi detainee's head into a barrel during an interrogation and firing a pistol into the barrel. Army investigators found probable cause to call the incident aggravated assault, but a hearing officer dismissed the case. West was punished with a fine of $5,000 and resigned from the military the next year with an honorable discharge and full benefits.
Last November, he was swept into office by the wave of Tea Party popularity that flooded Florida and the nation. An avalanche of individual supporters and major conservative donors, such as House Speaker John Boehner's Freedom Project PAC, helped raise $6.5 million for his campaign. He comfortably beat Democratic incumbent Ron Klein with 54 percent of the vote in a swing district that covers a large eastern swath of Broward and Palm Beach counties and includes Boca Raton, Deerfield Beach, and Palm Beach Gardens.
Now, just a few months into his freshman term in the U.S. Congress, West is a national Tea Party favorite -- proudly far-right, beloved by followers, loathed by the left. The first Republican to join the Congressional Black Caucus in 14 years, he's been profiled by the New York Times and made appearances on Meet the Press and PBS NewsHour. Glenn Beck has endorsed him for president, and he's been mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate for Donald Trump.
As Barack Obama's popularity has declined, West has become a perfect foil for the president. Where Obama is pragmatic and nuanced, West is dogmatic and unwavering. Whether waging war on Islam or defending tax cuts for the wealthy, he rarely speaks in shades of gray. New Times set out to discover the man behind the sound bites.
New Times: One of the things you've talked about a lot is misconceptions of you in the media. I wondered if you could tell me what you think are the top three.
Allen West: I don't know, the fact that people were saying that I was a member of an all-white motorcycle gang, that I dealt drugs, that I ran prostitutes. Debbie Wasserman Schultz designing a protest outside my campaign headquarters saying that I'm a misogynist, that I hate women. It's the type of demagogic rhetoric that comes from people that really can't articulate the issues, and all they do is try to attack your character, which I think is reprehensible.
Any other big misconceptions?
Like I said, all you have to do is go back and look at previous articles from the Broward New Times. I think you've got a lot of those misconceptions.
During your campaign, you said, "A nation goes to war against an ideology. We are against something that is a totalitarian, theocratic, political ideology, and it is called Islam." Could you explain? Are you talking about the religion of Islam?
I'm talking about an ideology; I'm not talking about a religion. I'm talking about an ideology that, if you study the evolution of it, is totalitarian in nature. I don't think that you as a young lady have the exact same type freedoms that you have here in the United States of America... So I think that's a very antithetical ideology to who we are and our freedoms and liberties...
This is one thing that's very interesting, how the people on the left always talk about separation of church and state. When you look at the theocracies all across the Middle East, where we look at constitutions that are based upon the Qur'an, I don't think you want to see that happening in the United States of America. So it is a theocratic political construct.
But you separate it from people who are Muslims?
I never talk about Muslims. I talk about an ideology.
In your mind, how are the two separate?
I think it is very separate because I'm talking about a thought process as opposed to an individual. I'm talking about something that people believe in as opposed to an individual making a decision. I've been in the Middle East for quite some time, and I worked very well with many Muslim individuals. But I think when you look at the Islamic terrorism that we are facing, there's an ideology that propagates that. [pause] So is this going to be the basis of the interview?
No. I just have one more question about the Islam issue. You believe ordinary Muslims are separate from the ideology of Islam, so why did you tell a representative from the Council on American-Islamic Relations --
Because the Council on American-Islamic Relations is an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation trial. They have some very nefarious associations in this country that include the Muslim Brotherhood. And that is something that is well-known. The FBI has cut off all associations with CAIR, so I am not going to kowtow with an organization that has some very questionable associations.
And that's why you told the representative, "You attacked us"?
He attacked me in a way that -- I don't think it's necessary to try to have a confrontation, or whatever you want to call it, at a town hall meeting.
So you weren't talking about "You attacked us" on September 11?
I don't know what you're getting at.
When you said to him "You attacked us," were you talking about September 11?
Well, I think that when you look all through the course of history, there is an ideology that has attacked Western civilization; there's an ideology that attacked the United States of America. There are continuous attacks. I just got a report of three soldiers who just lost their lives in Afghanistan because of the Islamic terrorists there, you know, a roadside bombing.
So when you said "You attacked us," were you referring to September 11?
I was referring to that gentleman. He came up, and from what I understand, he tried to be confrontational with me. And I told him that we had to stand because we were attacked, and if he wanted to take it personally, that's up to him.
Read http://blogs.browardpalmbeach.com/pulp/2011/05/allen_west_interview_part_two.php">the full Allen West interview here.
1. NBC Nightly News reported last October on West's "dealings" with the Outlaws motorcycle gang, which became a subject of controversy during his campaign. Although reporter Lisa Myers never said West was a member of the gang, she cited an email in which West wrote to a supporter, "I was never more amazed at how members of the Outlaws guarded me during an interview."
2. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of Democrats in the House of Representatives, immediately picked up on the NBC story and published a blog saying West was "tied" to a criminal organization. The blog cited a 2009 Justice Department National "Gang Threat Assessment" report that alleges the Outlaws "produce, transport, and distribute methamphetamine and transport and distribute cocaine, marijuana and, to a lesser extent, MDMA. Outlaws members engage in various criminal activities, including arson, assault, explosives operations, extortion, fraud, homicide, intimidation, kidnapping, money laundering, prostitution."
3. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Weston) headlined a protest outside West's campaign headquarters last October. At the time, West was a contributor to Miami Mike's Wheels on the Road, a South Florida motorcycle magazine. In a Wheels issue in which West's column appeared, another columnist urged readers to "get rid of Debbie Wasserman Shitz. That yenta annoys the crap out of me with just her whinning [sic] voice. Guys, can you just imagine banging her... and she's screaming at the top of her lungs?"
Wasserman Schultz told the Sun-Sentinel that she was asking West "to condemn the 'degrading, sexist, and misogynistic' images in Wheels on the Road."
4. New Times has been writing about West for at least two years. Before this interview began, West expressed his general unhappiness with the paper's coverage, mentioning bloggers Thomas Francis and Brandon K. Thorp by name. He didn't cite any specific articles.
5. In 2008, five leaders of the Texas-based Muslim charity the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development were convicted in the largest terrorism-funding case in the country. They were accused of funneling millions of dollars to Hamas, a Palestinian political and military organization that conducts suicide bombings and attacks against Israel and has been considered a terrorist group by the U.S. government since 1995. However, since 2007, Hamas has also been the democratically elected leadership of the Palestinian territories in Gaza.
The Holy Land case was extremely controversial; the defendants argued that they were punished for providing humanitarian aid to welfare programs and Palestinian orphans.
In court documents, prosecutors listed the nonprofit Council on American-Islamic Relations as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case -- along with more than 200 other groups and individuals. But CAIR was never charged with a crime. According to its website, the group's goal is to "challenge stereotypes of Islam and Muslims," and it prides itself on promoting civil liberties and tolerance.
CAIR condemns terrorist acts, "supports political solutions to problems over the use of violence," and has specifically denied being "a front group for Hamas."
6. CAIR has specifically denied being "part of a wider conspiracy overseen by the Muslim Brotherhood." The Brotherhood is a political organization founded in Egypt that advocates Islamic law in the Arab world.
FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the New York Times "that the bureau had no 'formal relationship' with CAIR, but that the organization's officials and chapters regularly worked with F.B.I. officials on investigations and related matters."
7. At a February town hall meeting in Pompano Beach, Nezar Hamze, executive director of the South Florida chapter of CAIR, stood in line to question West. Their conversation was captured on video.
"You recently told a Marine that the terrorists that attacked the United States, the people that are attacking America, are following Islam and they are following the instruction of the Qur'an," Hamze said. "So, very simple question: Can you show me one verse in this Qur'an where it says to attack America, attack Americans, or attack innocent people?"
"Well, of course it doesn't say attack America or attack Americans," West replied. "I mean, the book was written back sometime around the Eighth or Ninth Century, so America wasn't even around."
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As Hamze tried to interject, West began rattling off a long list of alleged battles between Christians and Muslims dating back to the Seventh Century. Then, referencing 9/11, West said, "The people that flew those planes into buildings were shouting 'Allahu Akbar' ['God is great']."
"I've been on the battlefield, my friend," West concluded. "Don't try to blow sunshine up my butt." The crowd of West supporters cheered.
Hamze asked if he could respond. "You've attacked Islam -- " Hamze began.
West cut him off. "You attacked us," he said.