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[Washington Babylon]

McCain’s “Courtly Southerner”


Old Spy magazine story on Charles Black not nearly as admiring as New York Times profile

A few days ago the New York Times ran a generally flattering profile of Charles Black, one of the top aides to Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign. Reported over lunch at Morton’s near Washington’s K Street corridor, the Times story called Black “a courtly Southerner” and “an unflappable spinner, responding in the heat or silliness of a campaign with the well-modulated tone of a man who cannot believe that not everyone would see his position as the only reasonable one.”

I’ve no doubt that Black is a delightful lunchtime companion and probably pets the dog at home too, but–like a number of McCain’s closest aides–he’s got quite a few skeletons in the closet. The Times noted several of these but devoted very little time to Black’s darker days, especially his work over the years as a foreign lobbyist.

An indispensable read about Black’s past–sadly not available online–was a wonderful 1992 piece by Art Levine published in Spy magazine, titled “Publicists of the Damned.” (Levine’s piece was a huge inspiration when I went undercover last year to write about foreign lobbyists.) Back then Black was the lead partner at the lobbying firm called Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly. His colleagues included Paul Manafort, now the business partner of Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign chairman, and the notorious Republican operative Roger Stone.

Spy reviewed the operations of a number of top beltway lobbying firms and ranked Black, Manafort as the “sleaziest” of the firms it surveyed, giving it a “blood-on-the-hands” rating of four. That was a full bloody hand more than the rating accorded to lobbyist Edward van Kloberg, whose clients included Saddam Hussein and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania.

Black, Manafort’s own clients at the time included Mobuto Sese Seko of Zaire, one of the most kleptocratic rulers of all time, Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, also known for stealing a few billion dollars, and the murderous Angolan rebels known as UNITA. “The well-compensated flacks at Black, Manafort stand at the pinnacle of organizational apologism,” Spy noted. “Name a corrupt despot, and Black Manafort will name the account.”

The magazine also said that Black, Manafort’s “involvement in the Bush and Reagan presidential campaigns allowed it to promise–and sometimes deliver–special, executive-level rewards to its egregious clients.” Which somehow seems relevant to 2008 as Black, who currently has numerous corporate clients, was recently reported to have been making business phone calls from McCain’s campaign bus.

As to Black, Manfort’s work in the 1980s for UNITA, Spy cited a former government official who believed that the firm’s “hawkish congressional lobbying for more military aid” delayed the process that had led to a cease-fire. “Black, Manafort played an important part in keeping the Angola war going,” the official told the magazine, which concluded: “So the war lasted another two years and claimed a few thousand lives! So what? What counts to a Washington lobbyist is the ability to deliver a tangible victory and spruce up his client’s image.”

A “courtly Southerner,” or an influence peddler and apologist for despots? Perhaps both, but one suspects Spy came closer to the mark a quarter-century back than the New York Times did a few days ago.

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