Armstrong Williams sat in his Capitol Hill office with a pistol on his hip and a plan for buying Washington City Paper on his desk.
Why he’d need either is anybody’s guess. But Williams has always been a bit of an enigma.
Over the years, his roles have included: protege of former segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond; Clarence Thomas’s most vocal defender; a conservative black pundit whom many called a “rising star,” while he himself preferred “Meteor Man”; a scandal-plagued newspaper columnist; the subject of sexual harassment lawsuits; a successful television station owner; and, recently, Ben Carson’s most trusted adviser and business manager.
And yet, if he decides to go through with purchasing City Paper — a once-thriving, now-struggling alternative weekly with a history of progressive politics and avant-garde arts coverage — it might just be Williams’s unlikeliest move yet. Not that he sees it that way.
“Watch this,” Williams said grabbing the landline. “Nancie, what percentage of people disagree with me here?”
“100 percent,” Nancie Dorsey, Williams’s chief of staff, said on the other end, laughing through the speaker. “They’re liberal.”
“You see?” Williams said. “I don’t care about ideology. I just like to surround myself with the best.”
Which is why, he claims, he wants to own City Paper — it was once, he says, “the best” — and why he says he has no intention of inflicting his worldview upon its pages.
“You can’t have an agenda,” he said. “You’ll just lose your audience.”
Williams is a small man with endless energy. His head is always freshly shaved, he keeps trim with early morning visits to the gym, and when he’s not glowering at a political opponent he’s flashing a broad, toothy grin. He speaks without a filter — something that made him a go-to for reporters for much of the 2016 campaign — which gives the impression that he always means what he says. Even if that’s not always the case.
He volunteers that he’s 55, though public records suggest he is 58. “Either one works,” Williams says graciously, noting that at various times in his life it has been convenient to appear older or younger than he actually is. (Carson once said of his close friend that he’s “not necessarily the epitome of truth . . . He doesn’t speak all things that are correct.”)
And so, despite his professed desire to leave the alt-weekly mostly alone, news of Williams’s interest — first reported by Mother Jones — has rattled City Paper employees past and present. A number of current staffers have discussed the possibility of quitting.
Some particular causes for concern: Williams was once called out for taking consultancy payments from the George W. Bush Department of Education while writing editorials promoting its policies. In recent years he has battled with the press on behalf of Carson’s presidential campaign, been accused of sexual misconduct by a young man, and watched election returns with President Trump.
“It seems to me like it would be a real culture clash,” says Michael Schaffer, a former City Paper editor who is now the editor of Washingtonian magazine. “The core of the City Paper’s identity has always been an in-your-face opposition and desire to stick it to the powerful. Does anyone know why he wants to buy it anyway?”
A quick tour through Williams’s office reveals a man who tends to collect without rhyme or reason. He’s got a life-size cutout of Barack Obama and one of John McCain wearing a Draft Ben Carson T-shirt. There’s what appears to be a perpetual-motion toy spinning on his back wall, a bejeweled knife hanging by his door, and a large model of a Coast Guard ship patrolling his bookshelf. And the gun he has holstered?
“It’s a Remington,” he said. “One of the best guns you can own. Like I said, I always want the best.”
And now Williams has City Papers scattered across his desk as he decides to pull the trigger on yet another collector’s item.
And if he does? Will D.C.’s alternative paper go the way of LA Weekly, which was bought last month by a group of investors who then slashed the staff to the nub? Will it become a vehicle for his ideological views, as some press critics worry might happen to the newly sold Time magazine if the Koch brothers increase their minority owner status?
“My goal,” Williams said in his interview with The Post, “is to make the City Paper so good people will be saying, ‘Are you sure Armstrong Williams is the owner of this paper?’ That would be a success.”
It took a major sexual harassment scandal — someone else’s — to put Armstrong Williams on the map.
After growing up on a family farm, he went to South Carolina State University and then climbed the ranks with help from a network of prominent conservatives — a job with Thurmond, then one at the USDA secured with the help of GOP strategist Lee Atwater, and finally his position under Clarence Thomas at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
It was during Thomas’s contentious Supreme Court nomination process in 1991 that Williams made a name for himself, working both publicly and behind the scenes to defend his friend against Anita Hill’s claims that he sexually harassed her in the workplace. (Williams infamously said of her, to the Wall Street Journal, “Sister has emotional problems.”)
To this day, Williams maintains his friend did nothing wrong. Talk of pubic hair or Long Dong Silver may well have happened, but as he sees it, that kind of banter can arise between two consenting adults.
“That’s,” he said, “where this all started”: a national conversation about sexual harassment that is only really coming to a head today. It also shot Williams into the conservative stratosphere, earning him gigs on radio, television and op-ed pages. And that, in turn, caught the attention of none other than Washington City Paper.
The first major profile of Williams graced its cover in 1995 with the headline: Mr. Righteous.
“They really launched me here,” Williams said.
Williams has tried and failed to get his hands on at least two print properties recently, making efforts to buy both the Hill newspaper and Essence magazine. Then a friend told him City Paper was for sale, and could be acquired cheaply.
“It was heartwarming to be in a position to buy a paper that has always treated me fairly,” he said. “I’ve been on the cover of more City Papers than you can imagine.”
The actual number of cover stories written about Williams is two.
And the second one was an in-depth look at a sexual harassment lawsuit levied against Williams, in which a former employee of his claimed, among other things, that “at least once a week, the Defendant Williams would grab Plaintiff’s buttocks or penis when Plaintiff was least expecting it.”
Williams settled that case out of court, but last year another man accused him of similar behavior. Charlton Woodyard, a former employee of a Jos. A. Bank men’s clothing store filed suit claiming Williams grabbed him by the penis through his pants and said, “you got small feet, small hands . . . and an oversized weapon. How does that work? How is that possible?”
Williams admits he said these things but claims they were taken out of context — that it was all just talk between two consenting adults. (He also claims nothing sexual ever happened between them; this case, too, was settled out of court). To him, it felt like the situation his old friend Justice Thomas went through.
But Williams says he recognizes that “the world has changed.”
“My mentor, Strom Thurmond, grabbed a senator in an elevator,” he said. “If he and those guys were around today, there would be nothing but sexual harassment claims. That’s what they would do, they would grab them, they would laugh about it, it was no big deal. I’ve been in the office with Sen. Thurmond when he would put his arm around a woman and squeeze her. I seen it firsthand! I seen it from my man! He laughed, the girl laughed, I chuckled!”
Because his character was forged in the Thomas hearings, and because he’s been accused himself, Williams said he now feels empathy for the slew of prominent men who have lost jobs and reputations over claims of sexual misconduct. He condemns such behavior, he said, but that doesn’t mean he can’t forgive. Consider his thoughts on the Roy Moore candidacy for Senate.
“To me there is no statute of limitations on abusing kids, exploiting kids, raping,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s 30 years ago, there is no statute of limitations. It’s just morally bankrupt.”
And yet, if he were an Alabama voter, he might still pull the lever for him.
“I could,” he said. “Why? Because it was 30 years ago and the mentality was different.”
For more than 30 years, Washington City Paper has been a destination for arts coverage, withering profiles of local officials, and investigative reports on the city’s finances. For most of that time, it was a cash cow, raking in advertising dollars from local businesses, a go-to place for apartment and concert listings. But the alternative weekly industry took a hit in the age of Craigslist. The Village Voice in New York no longer has a print edition. The Boston Phoenix closed in 2013. And in 2008 the then-owner of City Paper filed for bankruptcy, putting the paper in a hole it’s been trying to claw its way out of ever since.
Today, City Paper is owned by a Nashville company called SouthComm, which has said it would like to sell by the end of the year. If not, the company may shut the paper down entirely.
Williams won’t disclose the asking price but says the money is not an issue. In recent years, initially with the help of Sinclair Broadcasting Network, Williams has become the owner of more television stations — seven — than any other black person in the country.
He would be partnering with Steve Kalifa, an obscure local businessman who runs something called Bethesda Healthcare Advisors. When reached by phone to elaborate on what he does for a living, Kalifa said, “Give me a week and I can answer that.”
Williams said he’s not looking to make money as an alt-weekly owner. “There are much better ways to make money.” Instead, it’s about collecting something that was once great and trying to make it great again.
His plans include a possible change to glossy print, an increased focus on celebrities, distribution to places like Philadelphia and New York, and more human-interest stories — he specifically suggested some soft-focus takes on prominent Trumpites, such as Hope Hicks’s hobbies or Stephen K. Bannon’s charitable works.
He says he wants City Paper to be what it once was but obviously has plans to change it entirely. For years the essence of the paper has been relentlessly local and often confrontational. What are the odds this could work?
“The vanity mogul always catches the rake in the face,” said Jack Shafer, a City Paper editor in the 1980s and ’90s, now a media critic for Politico. “They always think they are smarter than the guy before them.”
He added that “historically, sainthood has not been a requirement for newspaper ownership” and that he’d “like to see a couple of issues” before judging Williams’s performance.
But let’s, for a moment, take Williams at his word that he doesn’t want to turn the paper into a vessel for his worldview. What then could he possibly want with a newspaper that loses money?
“He was somebody who clearly wanted influence, who wanted to be seen as important,” said David Plotz, who in 1995 wrote City Paper cover story on Williams and is now the head of the online magazine Atlas Obscura. “He wants to be recognized. He wants to be name-dropped. He wants to be in the public eye.”
“Do I think if he buys it, it will survive him?” Plotz continued. “I doubt it.”
But then again, will it survive if he doesn’t?