There was a poignant, emotional scene during the wee hours of election night. Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), after conceding defeat to Gov. Bob Graham (D), stopped at a somber "victory" party to thank those who had worked longest and hardest in her campaign.
One by one, Hawkins tearfully embraced her staff members, uttering a kind word to each. Finally, she reached Charles R. Black, her chief political consultant and campaign architect, and his fiance, Judy Wiedemier, a lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute.
"How did your other clients do?" Hawkins asked.
"They all lost," Black replied.
Hawkins hugged Black in a long embrace, then looked up at him. "Oh, Charlie," she said. "What are you and I going to do for work?"
None of Black's clients came even close to winning Nov. 4. Former Tennessee governor Winfield Dunn lost a comeback bid by 8 percent; former Vermont governor Richard Snelling failed to unseat Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) by an embarrassing 29 percent; Hawkins lost by 10 percent.
But in this, the age of the permanent campaign, Black, one of the Republican Party's premier political tacticians, won't be short of work. "Everyone knows '86 wasn't a good year for Republicans," explained one GOP consultant. "Nobody blames Charlie for what happened to his candidates."
Today, just one month after his worst Election Day as a consultant, Black is to assume leadership of the presidential exploratory committee of Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).
Black will become Kemp's chief political consultant and the chief executive officer of the exploratory committee. "He is the boss, the preeminent political figure who will direct not only the exploratory committee, but the Kemp presidential campaign," said John Buckley, Kemp's press secretary.
The post will be the culmination of almost two decades in the political trenches for Black, 39. He has held secondary positions in Ronald Reagan's three presidential campaigns and directed a host of House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns. But never before has he held the top spot in a presidential campaign.
"It's a great opportunity. You look at heading a presidential campaign as the top job in your profession. If you can elect a president, you can change history," Black said. "It's the biggest challenge to anyone in our business."
The requisite political photographs line his office walls -- Reagan, Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.), Hawkins and a host of other Republican officeholders -- all former Black clients. "To Charlie Black, a man of ideas," says the inscription on Reagan's photo. "To my good friend and soldier of fortune," says the one from Hawkins.
Politics has made Black a rich and influential figure during the Reagan presidency. The political consulting company he founded in 1980 with two other young political operatives, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, has expanded into a lobbying firm and ad placement agency that employs 49 people. Partners in the firm earned $ 450,000 each last year, according to one report that Black asserts was exaggerated.
He is a tall, slender, soft-spoken southerner, conservative in philosophy, manner and dress. This day, like almost every other day, he wears a white shirt and nondescript dark suit and tie. His dark brown hair is close-cropped. On the street, he could easily be mistaken for a prosperous small town banker or lawyer.
Black's roots are in the right wing of his party. He has been deeply involved in politics and business with some of his party's most controversial groups, campaigns and personalities. Yet Black, unlike some of his clients and business partners, has made surprisingly few enemies along the way.
One business partner, Stone, who will also have a key role in the Kemp campaign as a "senior consultant," has been a lighting rod for criticism. In a cover story last December, The New Republic magazine called Stone "The State-of-the-Art Washington Sleazeball." Another partner, Manafort, came under fire earlier this year for representing former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. The flamboyant rhetoric of another partner, Lee Atwater, has made him one of the most quoted political operatives in Washington.
Black, by contrast, is relatively colorless. "It's not the nature of my personality to attract a lot of attention," he said. "My job is to help my clients get publicity and present their cases and not get publicity for myself."
The irony is that few people in American politics have been associated with as many controversial campaigns or groups. A native of Wilmington, N.C., Black has been a key player in each of Helms' campaigns and worked several years on the North Carolina Republican's Senate staff.
He once was executive director of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student group, and was founding chairman of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, one of the New Right's most controversial groups. He was part of the management team led by John Sears that Reagan fired after the 1980 New Hampshire primary, and he accepts responsibility for a decision that had Reagan all but ignore the Iowa precinct caucuses -- a move that almost cost Reagan the GOP nomination. Yet Black, four years later, was accepted back into the Reagan fold as a senior consultant.
Black is a firm believer in the kind of hard-hitting negative television advertising that became NCPAC's trademark in the late 1970s and rose to a vicious art form in Helms' 1984 reelection campaign. "I don't see any evidence that negative advertising doesn't work," he said the night of Hawkins' defeat.
Black campaigns are typically rough-and-tumble affairs. He says he feels most comfortable with underdog candidates. His candidates play tough, sometimes bending the truth to their political advantage.
In one of the cornerstone TV ads of Hawkins' campaign this fall, the senator claimed, "I visited China twice to stop the deadly drug Quaaludes from coming here." News reports later revealed that Hawkins didn't know China was exporting methaqualone, the key ingredient in Quaaludes, during her first trip to that country in 1981, and Chinese leaders had already taken steps to halt such exports by the time of her second visit.
Black is a master media manipulator, or "spin doctor," as it is called in the political trade. He seems able to put a "spin" on almost any event, no matter how unfavorable, to cast his client in a favorable light. Moments after a debate in which Democrat Graham appeared to devastate Hawkins with a steady, workmanlike performance, Black declared that Hawkins, who had appeared shrill and rambling, had won. He told Hawkins to tell reporters she felt "like Joan of Arc going against a robot." The highly quotable remark appeared in almost every news account of the event, and obscured Graham's major victory in the debate.
The Kemp presidential campaign comes at an opportune time for Black. With the Democrats taking control of the Senate, his GOP contracts will become less valuable. Black said there will be a shift in lobbying activity at his firm to his Democratic partners -- Peter Kelly, former finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and James Healey Jr., a former aide to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.).
Black said he considers Bush the "strong front-runner" for the 1988 GOP nomination, and contends that only Kemp and Senate Majority Leader Dole are "strongly positioned to give him a challenge."
Black worked with Dole in 1976 when the Kansas Republican was President Gerald R. Ford's running mate, and has maintained close ties. He decided to go with Kemp because "Jack has been a pioneer in advancing conservative ideas," Black said. "He provided a lot of the ideas for the Reagan revolution and I think he is the best candidate to take the party into the future."
Political consultant, lobbyist and partner in Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly; age 39. Heads presidential campaign of Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.). Former executive director, Young Americans for Freedom, and political director, Republican National Committee. Founding chairman of National Conservative Political Action Committee. Past clients include Sens. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.), David Durenberger (R-Minn.) and Phil Gramm (R-Tex.). Graduate of the University of Florida and American University Law School.