When James George Abourezk walked away from the U.S. Senate seven years ago, he did so decrying the time it took to get anything done in Congress and the time such public service took away from his family.
But the 54-year-old former South Dakota lawmaker, the son of a Lebanese peddler, is now just as caught up in the Arab and Arab American causes he once championed in the Senate, particularly now that the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee he founded and leads has been the apparent target of two bombing incidents and a fire here.
"We've finally gotten somebody's attention," said Abourezk, who met with FBI Director William H. Webster yesterday to discuss the three incidents. "The worst part is that it took terrible tragedies to do it."
Abourezk, ADC's unsalaried national chairman, said yesterday he would like to devote more time to his law practice, his chief source of income. "But this Arab American thing keeps interfering."
The Oct. 11 bombing of ADC's Santa Ana, Calif., office fatally injured the group's West Coast director, and two police officers were injured while detonating a bomb that had been placed outside the organization's Boston office.
Both incidents and what the D.C. Fire Department has termed a "very suspicious" fire at 1731 Connecticut Ave. NW in the building that houses the ADC's national headquarters have made Abourezk, other ADC activists and their families more cautious. One ADC staff member was reluctant to disclose where the former senator lives, though Abourezk said he is a Northwest Washington resident.
"Let's just say that physically we've hunkered down, but politically we're as active as ever," he said.
There was a time, however, and only a dozen years ago, when what he now calls "racism against people of Arab descent" was the furthest thing from his mind.
Having grown up on an Indian reservation in South Dakota, Abourezk, a Democrat, served one term in the House and went to the Senate in 1973 espousing Indian rights and consumer protection. Then, in his first year as a senator, he toured the Middle East and went to his parents' village in Lebanon.
He said he saw the craters made by Israeli warplanes, met with Arab leaders and "all of a sudden" confronted his ethnic background.
By 1977, in a controversial address to a group of Democratic officials in Denver, he was attacking the influence of the "Israeli lobby" in Washington and complaining that people were afraid to criticize its influence for fear of being called anti-Semitic.
"I gave an oath to support the United States, but I am not willing to swear my allegiance to Israel or any other foreign government," he said then.
His announcement in early 1977 that he would not run again for the Senate made it easier for him to speak out like this, according to friends and family. But critics have said he would have had a tough time getting reelected.
Some colleagues in Congress have said Abourezk was "one-dimensional" and did not fully understand the complexities of Mideast politics.
Abourezk, who was divorced after leaving the Senate and has since remarried, practices law at Abourezk, Sobol & Trister. Though he once represented the Iranian government and several other Mid- eastern clients, he describes his practice as general legal work.
"I represent some Indian tribes, but I'm not a registered lobbyist, and I don't represent any foreign nations," he said.
The law practice and ADC, which he founded in 1980, keep him so busy, according to Barbara Shahin, the group's deputy executive director, that "the Senate probably seems like it was a vacation . . . . There are 60 or 65 chapters, and they all want him to come speak to them."
Away from the Senate, Abourezk, who has three grown children from his first marriage, a stepchild from his second and eight grandchildren, said he has a "greater choice of what I want to do. And I've been trying my best to practice law."