In the early fall, things looked good for Ben Carson's presidential campaign. Very, very good. Then, December produced a month full of downward slides, tumbles and resignations. By the start of this year, Carson's best-known unofficial adviser, Armstrong Williams, was predicting a marked resurgence.
Instead, as the Iowa caucuses loom next week, Williams has apparently become the latest casualty of a campaign in free fall. At a breakfast with reporters on Wednesday, Carson even used words like "dysfunction" and "not the epitome of truth" to describe Williams. Both men now insist Williams was never really a big part the campaign -- despite his regularly arranging interviews with the candidate and setting up events.
Now, odds are that a strong majority of people who just read the preceding sentences had one of three thoughts: "Who the heck is Armstrong Williams?" "What was Williams's real connection to the campaign?" Or, "Why is the usually mild-manned, almost serene Carson talking that way about someone supposed to be his friend?"
There's good reason for all three questions. And they all boil down to the thoroughly unique political entity that is Armstrong Williams.
Williams, 55, has the résumé of a modern man of many interconnected trades. He is the self-described longtime friend, business manager and unofficial top adviser to Carson. Williams is a Republican political operative, columnist and media figure with some surprising mentors, clients and allies. He's the author of books with titles hinting at the strong dose of Republican psychological guidance found inside. There's Williams's "Beyond Blame," and then there's also the book Williams co-authored with 1996 and 2000 GOP presidential candidate and publisher Steve Forbes called, "Letters to a Young Victim: Hope and Healing in America's Inner Cities."
Williams is also the one-time business partner to longtime Oprah Winfrey boyfriend Stedman Graham, a philanthropist and dealmaker. His brother, a conservative Democrat, is a state senator in South Carolina. His cousin was the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the South Carolina Democratic legislator who was killed last year in a mass shooting in a Charleston church and eulogized by President Obama.
He also is the man former Carson campaign manager Barry Bennett told the Associated Press that "no one wants … anywhere near the Oval Office."
Still, until Wednesday, it seemed that Williams was an unquestionably unusual figure operating in the sideline section of national politics. He also appeared to be one of the most influential voices in the ear of one of the men changing what it means to run for the White House.
In fact, Williams is connected to so many people deemed worthy of headlines, security details and Wikipedia entries, you could exhaust a highlighter trying to pick them all out in the text above and below.
Williams's political work has often put him in the vicinity of more than a few, shall we say, interesting events. And little over a decade ago those habits and qualities helped bring Williams close to total reputation ruin. But since then, he's experienced one of those only-in-America kind of comebacks. These days, he's both credited and blamed for the current state of Carson's campaign. And apparently, Carson himself now isn't happy.
You see, Williams's is a name and a singular personality the American voter probably should know.
First, a little disclosure is necessary. I met Williams in the late 1990s when I was working my first job on a syndicated public affairs show produced in Washington. Williams was a regular who supplied a conservative point of view. The things I remember most about Williams: He was always friendly and told me and several other people, more than once, that his family had been Republican since Abraham Lincoln was in the White House.
When I contacted Williams for this post, he didn't remember me, so it wasn't long before he mentioned his family's extended GOP affiliation, again. Only this time, he added that the party's ideas about business, opportunity, individual responsibility and government hew closest to his own. In the places he differs, Williams said, he is willing to work inside the party for change.
It seems Williams has felt that way since he was a student at South Carolina State University, a historically black school about two hours drive southwest of his hometown, Marion, S.C. During the late 1970s and early ’80s, Williams interned with Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), rather than go home during the summer and work on his family's farm.
And let's not be coy here: The late senator was an interesting choice for a young black American interested in politics. Thurmond still holds the record for the nation's longest-ever continuous filibuster: He spoke for more than 24 hours in an effort to stymie a 1957 civil rights bill. However, in the 1940s, Thurmond also covered college costs for his secret, half-black daughter when she was a student at South Carolina State and visited her there on several occasions. To Thurmond, both were somehow reasonable and right. And Williams still describes Thurmond as a mentor.
After college, Williams would put in stints as a paid Capitol Hill staffer, including in Thurmond's office, and two years at the Department of Agriculture. Then, Williams joined the staff at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). There, he was an aide to now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
Yes, Williams knew both Thomas and Anita Hill.
Hill is, of course, the attorney and now-academic who was summoned to testify before a Senate committee considering Thomas's 1991 nomination to the Supreme Court after information she shared with the FBI about Thomas was leaked to the press. The questions put to Hill by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee, which included Thurmond, required her to respond in unforgettable, still-shocking detail.
And, as far as Williams can recall, it was the hearings that first brought him in contact with Carson.
Williams says Carson reached out to him after seeing "what was happening to Clarence Thomas." Like Thomas, Carson had graduated from Yale University and grown up in the kind of setting that makes college graduation from any school, but certainly an Ivy, statistically unlikely. And according to Williams, Carson viewed what he was seeing in the news like a Shakespearean tragedy. That's how Williams remembers it.
Williams was, and still is, completely on Team Thomas, testifying during the Senate confirmation hearings and serving as a chief Thomas defender in public. It was Williams who told the news media that Hill was a "sister" with emotional challenges.
(A few years later, Williams settled a sexual-harassment suit brought against him by a former employee.)
But after the Hill hearings, Williams started juggling a lot more work. He and Graham had been running a crisis communications shop for a couple of years. That made Williams part of the ranks of the many, many D.C.-area public relations professionals whose precise jobs are pretty hard to categorize. They just never seem to stop working on something vaguely to very political. Consider these the highlights.
In 1995, when Republicans took control of Congress, a reporter witnessed Williams break into song -- the first few bars of "Happy Days Are Here Again" -- during a gathering for the new members of Congress and conservative radio show hosts. Williams, by then a radio show host, was still a television commentator and a PR wizard whose client roster happened to include those to his political left, such as Coretta Scott King and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Then, when a California jury acquitted O.J. Simpson in 1995, Williams became a piece of the story. That's because he, a black man, described the verdict as a "wrong" and said it would not "right what's wrong with the LAPD or America." This was the verdict about which many a story claimed that America's collective and copious feelings broke uniformly along racial lines. Williams was pretty much Exhibit A in the case against that idea.
That same year, Williams became the basis of a character on the short-lived "704 Hauser," the last sitcom Norman Lear attempted to spin off from "All In The Family." Williams inspired "Thurgood," the conservative teenage son of a black, Democratic Party-inclined couple that bought and moved into Archie Bunker's old house. And, by the way, Williams told reporters at the time that he was in constant contact with Lear, a well-known liberal.
But, make no mistake, Williams remained in solid conservative standing. In 2003, when the GOP decided to let it be known that it planned to make measurable progress in hiring black staff members, fielding black candidates and attending to issues of concern to black voters, Williams hosted the meeting where the plans were discussed. Later, he was described as the "organizer" of the whole initiative. The next year, President George W. Bush appointed Williams to the President's Commission on White House Fellows.
In between all of the above, Williams had become a regular or frequent contributor to a number of political shows. He began recording weekly political commentaries aired on stations around the country and a syndicated newspaper columnist whose work appeared in at least 50 newspapers.
Williams, it seemed, was everywhere.
But in early 2005, news broke that Williams had been paid $240,000 to promote Bush's No Child Left Behind education law. In exchange for the money, Williams was to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio segments which aired on shows that Williams hosted and to encourage other black journalists to support the law. He was to do it all without disclosing the payment.
Once the arrangement became public, Williams seemed to be nowhere at all.
His column was suspended and then dropped. His relationships with several TV shows and his weekly commentary segment aired on Sinclair Broadcasting stations went the same way too. Only a radio show and a few friends -- most of them only in private -- remained in touch, including Carson and Sinclair chief and frequent Republican donor David Smith. Williams said that, other than this select few, almost all of his Republican contacts and friends deserted him during this time.
In paying Williams, the Bush administration violated a law then-in-place law barring covert propaganda inside the United States, according to a 2005 General Accounting Office report. Reporters found that at least one other commentator, Maggie Gallagher, and a woman who described herself as a journalist but was actually a public relations company owner, Karen Ryan, had struck similar deals with the Bush administration. A number of television stations were later exposed for airing video news releases produced by the Bush administration and designed to look like ordinary television news reports. And by 2006, evidence emerged that at least 10 journalists had accepted government payments to write stories that opposed or critiqued Cuba's Fidel Castro -- labeled and packaged as straight, objectively reported, factual news.
But it was Williams's name that became what the New York Times called a "metaphor for government efforts to pay off journalists."
Today, Williams does not deny the details above. It was, Williams told The Fix, a mistake. It was wrong and not something he would ever do again. He considers himself lucky to have only been forced to pay the government $34,000 in connection with the whole situation. That wasn't a fine; it was what the government called the return of an overpayment.
By then, Williams had been the sole owner of his PR/crisis communications business for a decade. But, things soon got so bad that Williams had to make payroll out of his personal savings.
Then in 2008, the New York Times got in touch. A reporter wanted to write a story about Williams's life in the post-propaganda-scandal years. Then other people started calling. Williams' client roster rebounded. The offers to come on TV shows to talk about this event or explain the Republican perspective on that started coming in. Williams's job list included a segment on the syndicated Russ Parr morning show sometimes called "Ask A Republican" (the program reaches millions of predominately black listeners), a column now syndicated in 200 newspapers, a nightly radio show that airs daily on Sirius XM satellite radio and a weekly television show called "The Right Side with Armstrong Williams." "The Right Side," airs on all of Sinclair's more than 150 television stations nationwide.
Then there's his public affairs and commentary show that airs in Europe and his still-operating public relations and crisis management firm. Fans of the not-long-ago-departed adult cartoon show "The Boondocks" also know that an amalgam of Williams and black conservative radio host Larry Elder inspired series creator Aaron McGruder to create the character "Armstrong Elder."
If you aren't worn out just reading that, know this: There is more.
Williams is now the largest black television station owner in the United States. Let us put that another way to be clear: There are 12 stations in the entire country owned by women or someone who is not white. Williams holds seven of them.
And while this may not endear him to some conservatives who grimace at most direct discussion of race, employment and opportunity, Williams was quick to mention that the vast majority of the people who work at his stations or for his production company are black. He's not just a business owner, but a person contributing to the economic health of several black households.
Enough said, right? Well, maybe not.
The arrangement that made it possible for Williams to buy the first two stations also helped Sinclair to comply with the letter of an FCC law prohibiting the same company from operating more than one station in the same broadcast market. Sinclair guaranteed the loans that covered the majority of Williams's purchase costs. Then the Sinclair station and the Williams-owned stations shared sales and news staffs and certain facilities. Williams insists that deals like his are what make minority ownership of television stations and the employment opportunities he has provided possible. The deal that first made him a station owner gave Williams the confidence and know-how to later buy and operate five more stations outright, he said.
Sinclair officials told the Wall Street Journal that the deals were essential to an affordable expansion plan and efforts to remain competitive and cost-effective in the Internet age. For his part, Smith told the paper that he was comfortable walking up to the edge of lines drawn by the FCC.
But a number of organizations, including the National Association of Black Journalists, have said that arrangements like Williams's with Sinclair reduce both employment opportunities (the actual count of reporting and sales jobs in a given city) and the number of broadcast avenues through which important information can be shared or truths exposed.
As my discussion with Williams turned to this topic, he reminded me that he's an entrepreneur and -- first and foremost -- a capitalist.
According to Williams, if he had not owned his own business, known how to save and sustain the company and ultimately build it, he might have been ruined by the things that happened in 2005. His business acumen and his values are also the things that have nurtured a now more than 20-year friendship with Carson, Williams said.
Over the years, Williams has vacationed with the Carson family and employed all three Carson sons. Williams said in early January that he and Carson have come to trust each other deeply. In fact, if you look at what Williams said after he bought the first of his television stations, it reads a lot like Carson's blend of bootstraps politics and proselytizing.
This is such a reflective day for me, because I understand that there is a lack of what would be considered to be minority ownership in America. I cannot ignore the history of Americans who happen to be black in this country.
This deal goes to show what we can achieve if we work hard, we get a good education, we dedicate ourselves to a life of professionalism and excellence and maintaining good relationships, and you get a break. Sinclair Broadcast Group gave us a break.
More recently, Williams conceded that he talks to and sometimes for his friend -- who happens to be running for the White House -- a fair bit. Okay, a lot. He's a political person. Always has been and always will be, he said. But he still insists that his role is unofficial and that he wants to step back.
Williams said at the breakfast Wednesday that while he, like all humans, sometimes makes errors, he remains loyal to Carson and Carson's political aims.
Williams also told The Fix, in recent weeks -- before Carson's Wednesday comments -- that he wants no part of anything that might put him in contact with the federal election or communications commissions. He is just Carson's business manager and friend, Williams said.
But the full story is a little more complicated.
It was Williams's production company that created an hour-long documentary about Carson's life, called “A Breath of Fresh Air: A New Prescription for America." The November 2014 documentary touched off speculation that Carson would run for president, The Washington Post reported early last year.
The documentary ran on 50 Sinclair stations situated in major television markets (usually big cities) because Williams also bought the airtime necessary to run the documentary commercial-free (think paid programming). Williams said he took the financial hit and made no money off the documentary to avoid any suggestion that he or Carson had a business or political relationship with ad buyers.
Still Williams says, since Carson was at the time an undeclared candidate, this was nothing more than a favor to a friend. It just happens to be the type of in-kind goodwill he can provide as a production company owner with connections to Sinclair, Williams said.
By May, Carson had declared himself a candidate for the White House. And the rest is a thoroughly Williams-esque story.