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McCain Adviser's Work As Lobbyist Criticized

Charles Black, John McCain's top political strategist, is now retired from a 30-year career as a lobbyist.
Charles Black, John McCain's top political strategist, is now retired from a 30-year career as a lobbyist. (Karin Cooper - AP)
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The lobbying shop represented Bethlehem Steel, the Tobacco Institute and the government of the Philippines. The political consulting firm helped elect a slew of lawmakers -- including Sens. Phil Gramm, Jesse Helms, Charles McC. Mathias Jr., Arlen Specter, Paula Hawkins and David F. Durenberger -- who worked on legislation that directly impacted the firm's clients.

Black continued to give political advice to Republicans, especially at the presidential level. He volunteered as a top aide to the presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush, Robert J. Dole, Phil Gramm, George W. Bush and, most recently, McCain.

"If you're going to be a major figure in the field of lobbying, you have to have some credentials," said former congressman Bob Livingston (R-La.), whose lobbying firm, the Livingston Group, represents foreign clients. "Some are exceptional fundraisers, and some, like Charlie, are superlative political strategists."

Black's willingness to work for free as a political adviser created relationships that are the building blocks of a lobbying career. He forged bonds with politicians that were closer than the more traditional ties created when lobbyists raise money for candidates.

"The bond of going through an election with somebody is like going through a war. That bond is very powerful," said James Thurber, a lobbying expert at American University. "They are like a family. It's a very strong bond, much stronger than money."

But those bonds did not always lead to success, Black said. He acknowledged lobbying McCain in the late 1990s on behalf of Robert L. Crandall, then chairman of American Airlines. As Black recalled, he took Crandall to speak to McCain about the potential granting of landing slots at Reagan National Airport to new airlines, including America West, which was based in Phoenix, the senator's home town. Crandall was opposed to giving out new slots.

During the meeting, Black said, Crandall mentioned that McCain had a "parochial interest" in the matter, because of the home-state airline, but that he hoped the senator would listen to his viewpoint anyway. Upon the mention of parochial interest, however, McCain "stood up and politely said, 'This meeting is over,' " Black said.

"Crandall looked at me, and I said, 'Say goodbye, Bob, we're leaving,' " Black recalled.

Black's work on behalf of foreign dictators has been no secret in Washington. In the mid-1980s, media reports frequently mentioned his firm as the choreographer of Savimbi's visits to the United States, often providing him the trappings of a foreign leader.

Time magazine wrote in March 1986: "What the firm achieved was quickly dubbed 'Savimbi chic.' Doors swung open all over town for the guerrilla leader, who was dapperly attired in a Nehru suit and ferried about in a stretch limousine." The firm's contract with Savimbi in 1985 was for $600,000.

In late 1989, as the firm prepared for another Savimbi visit to Washington, the foreign-agent records document hundreds of thousands of dollars it spent on behalf of UNITA, including $76,491 for limousines, $13,675 for photography and $216,186 for lodging at the Grand Hotel and the Waldorf-Astoria.

In addition to introducing Savimbi to powerful politicians, Black's team booked him on "60 Minutes" and "Nightline," as part of a media campaign aimed at emphasizing to the public UNITA's desire for freedom from Angola's Marxist government.

The documents also detail the workaday life of a Washington lobbyist. Page after page lists daily phone calls and meetings between partners in Black's firm and members of Congress or the administration.

The records show, for example, that Black attended a 1986 Capitol Hill reception for Savimbi hosted by Dole, then the Senate majority leader, during a week-long visit by the Angolan leader to Washington. Two months later, on April 11, the records show the follow-up by a member of Black's staff: "Activity: sent a photograph of Sen. Dole taken with Dr. Savimbi and a note of thanks for support."

Staff writer Matthew Mosk and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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