By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
A top adviser to Sen. John McCain said that a terrorist attack in the United States would be a political benefit to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, a comment that was immediately disputed by the candidate and denounced by his Democratic rival.
Charles R. Black Jr., one of McCain's most senior political advisers, said in an interview with Fortune magazine that a fresh terrorist attack "certainly would be a big advantage to him." He also said that the December assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, while "unfortunate," helped McCain win the Republican primary by focusing attention on national security.
"His knowledge and ability to talk about it reemphasized that this is the guy who's ready to be Commander-in-Chief. And it helped us," Black told the magazine in its upcoming issue.
The comment reinjected the fear of terrorism into the campaign as both candidates had been shifting their conversation to the economy and $4-per-gallon gasoline. It also vividly recalled the 2004 contest between President Bush and Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry, in which Republicans repeatedly questioned Kerry's ability to protect the country from terrorists.
The comments also returned the political spotlight to McCain's advisers and, in particular, to Black, who has drawn criticism for his long lobbying career and his representation of controversial foreign governments. McCain has been criticized for surrounding himself with top advisers who were lobbyists.
Black earlier this year severed ties to the lobbying firm he founded. Records show that his firm had represented the Pakistan People's Party, which Bhutto led until her death.
Asked about the comments by reporters while campaigning in California, McCain said: "I cannot imagine why he would say it. It's not true. I've worked tirelessly since 9/11 to prevent another attack on the United States of America. My record is very clear."
He added: "I cannot imagine it, and so if he said that -- and I don't know the context -- I strenuously disagree."
In a strongly worded statement issued yesterday afternoon, the campaign of presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama called Black's comments a "complete disgrace."
"The fact that John McCain's top adviser says that a terrorist attack on American soil would be a 'big advantage' for their political campaign is a complete disgrace, and is exactly the kind of politics that needs to change," spokesman Bill Burton said. "Barack Obama will turn the page on these failed policies and this cynical and divisive brand of politics so that we can unite this nation around a common purpose to finish the fight against al-Qaeda."
In the Fortune article, Black is described as arguing that McCain's experience in national security would help him in the race. But Black and the campaign appeared to quickly understand yesterday that he had gone too far in suggesting that a politician would benefit from the devastation of terrorism.
Traveling with McCain, Black faced reporters in California to acknowledge his mistake. "I deeply regret the comments. They were inappropriate," he said. "I recognize that John McCain has devoted his entire adult life to protecting his country and placing its security before every other consideration."
The campaign issued an almost identical statement within an hour.
A longtime political adviser, Black has been a fixture in Republican circles for years, moving seamlessly between political consulting and lobbying. He was a top aide to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and he closely advised the current president during his campaigns.
He has emerged as McCain's leading political adviser and, until recently, the most visible public face of the campaign on television. When McCain announced a no-lobbyist policy, however, Democrats immediately took aim at Black's long career, especially his representation of foreign governments in the United States.
Black and his lobbying partners were at times registered foreign agents for a collection of U.S.-backed foreign leaders whose human rights records were sometimes harshly criticized, even as American conservatives embraced their opposition to communism. They included Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Nigerian Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre, and the countries of Kenya and Equatorial Guinea, among others.
Black is not the first political figure to be tripped up by a conversation about the political realities of another terrorist strike.
In August, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said that an attack would benefit Republicans, drawing similar rebukes for appearing to be seeking political advantage from a possible disaster. She said her experience made her the stronger candidate in that situation.
"It's a horrible prospect to ask yourself, 'What if? What if?' " Clinton said. "But, if certain things happen between now and the election, particularly with respect to terrorism, that will automatically give the Republicans an advantage again, no matter how badly they have mishandled it, no matter how much more dangerous they have made the world."
Staff writer Karl Vick and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.