Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Mary Matalin is fawning over Armstrong Williams. Matalin, host of the CNBC talk show Equal Time and former political strategist for President George Bush, introduces the black conservative talk-radio host, budding television star, public-relations executive, and syndicated columnist as a “mega-multimedia Wunderkind!”
Equal Time rapidly lapses into a syrupy, right-wing lovefest. The 35-year-old Williams sits comfortably under the hot lights, looking suave in his double-breasted blue suit. Matalin and her co-host, free-lance writer Barbara Howar, lavish him with compliments and toss softball questions.
Matalin wants to know why Williams calls himself “Meteor Man,” a nickname he borrowed from the 1993 movie about a black superhero. He flashes her a toothy, “aw shucks” grin. “I guess it’s because I go around the world spreading values,” he says, with about as much modesty as you’d expect from someone comparing himself to a superhero. Matalin and Howar coo appreciatively.
Matalin steers the conversation to some of Williams’ pet topics, allowing Meteor Man to spread a few values on Equal Time‘s viewers. He delivers a brief colloquy on black Republicans: African-Americans actually hold more conservative views than other Americans, Williams opines, but power-hungry black leaders have duped them, persuading them to swap their votes for Democratic handouts. He indicts welfare as a new plantation system. He mourns America’s obsession with race, and insists that Americans must view each other as people, not skin colors. “I don’t blame any white person alive for slavery,” he says.
Meteor Man expounds no profound philosophy. He doesn’t stray from mundane GOP ideology, sliced neatly into soundbites. But Matalin and Howar listen enraptured, and it’s easy to see why. Williams is astoundingly telegenic. He possesses a handsome, expressive face. He doesn’t speak his remarks so much as he preaches them. His voice rises and falls in a marvelous rhythm, at one moment blood-and-thunder sermon, at the next the whisper of a dear friend.
Late in the half-hour program, Williams is asked about his favorite value of all: personal responsibility. “You can’t help people by giving to them!” Meteor Man exclaims. Williams’ South Carolina accent is normally well-hidden, but his consonants thicken and his vowels elongate as he warms to the issue. “I work hard. I get out of bed in the morning and work from 4:30 a.m. until midnight….All of us have burdens, it’s true. But you just have to bear your burdens the best that you can.”
Howar nods enthusiastically at Williams’ homily, and after Equal Time ends she showers him with more praise. “That was the best answer I have ever heard,” Howar gushes. “You should get a tape of this show, pull out that answer, and play it wherever you go.”
Matalin leaps to join Howar on the Williams bandwagon. “You are a wonderful man,” Matalin effuses. The co-hosts begin matchmaking for Williams. “Who do you think would be perfect for him?” Howar asks her colleague. Matalin rattles off the names of several available young women. As Williams leaves CNBC’s 20th Street NW studio, Matalin volunteers to appear as a guest on his call-in radio show. It is a symbolic moment: The high priestess of Republican spin bestows her blessing on one of the practice’s rising stars.
Williams settles into the cab that will ferry him back to his Dupont Circle office and breaks into cheerful laughter. It was his first appearance on Equal Time and he is delighted with the kid-glove treatment. “I’m speechless,” he says. “I am floored. They were so nice.”
These days, almost everyone is fawning over the Meteor Man.
America is entering the Armstrong Williams moment. Newt Gingrich is massacring Democratic giraffes on Capitol Hill. The Christian Coalition is flexing its muscles in elections nationwide. And Williams is everywhere, gleefully riding the crest of the conservative tidal wave. A protégé of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), and a networker of unparalleled skill, Williams has emerged as the right wing’s latest media phenom. Armed with conservative clichés, 12-steppish platitudes, Bible-thumping moralism, and enough charisma for 10 men, Meteor Man is campaigning to save America’s soul, proselytize his own homespun conservative values, and, while he’s at it, secure his own fame and fortune.
“[Williams] is the most important black communicator in America,” says conservative media guru Jude Wanniski, founder of Forbes Media Critic.
Williams sits atop a one-man multimedia conglomerate: If he’s not already declaiming on a radio, television, or editorial page near you, he will be soon. His radio show—titled, with typical Williams panache, The Right Side—began airing on WOL-AM (1450), a black-owned D.C. talk station, in late 1992. Williams quickly won an audience with an on-air crusade to block gambling in the District, outspoken opposition to D.C. statehood, and frequent hymns to the colorblind society. At the beginning of this year, The Right Side rocketed into national syndication on Salem Radio Network, a Christian broadcasting company with more than 400 affiliate stations. Williams hosts the show live from 10 p.m. to midnight at WAVA-FM’s (105.1) Arlington studio.
WAVA carries The Right Side in Washington, and Salem is already beaming Williams’ inspirationals about two-parent families, celibacy, and school prayer to a dozen other major cities. Network Vice President Greg Anderson predicts that The Right Side will be carried in 75 to 100 markets by the end of 1995, placing Williams in the top tier of all radio talkmeisters in the country. “And that’s a conservative estimate,” Anderson says (no pun intended). In December 1994, U.S. News & World Report picked black conservative radio as one of 20 trends to watch in 1995. A big photo of Williams illustrated the article.
The Armstrong Williams revolution is also being televised. Switch on C-SPAN: Williams is dazzling the crowd at a GOP conference. Change channels to Geraldo: Williams is fulminating against O.J. Simpson’s race-based defense. In early January, he inaugurated his own weekly, hour-long program on National Empowerment Television (NET), the conservative cable network. It is broadcast live at 8 p.m. each Friday. A week after the first NET show, he announced another TV coup. Stephen J. Cannell Productions is hiring him to host The Armstrong Williams Show, which will air on ABC affiliates starting this fall. The talk show will run after Nightline, from midnight to 12:30 a.m. Cannell is gambling that millions of Americans will tune in to Williams’ telemorality plays and tune out David Letterman and Jay Leno.
But that’s not all. Williams is wooing the ivory-tower crowd as well as the TV nation. His collection of essays, The Conscience of a Black Conservative, will arrive in bookstores this spring. (With that title, Williams might want to earmark a cut of the royalties for Barry Goldwater, who wrote 1960’s The Conscience of a Conservative.) Williams’ editor, naturally, is the Free Press’ Adam Bellow, the conservative publishing icon who shepherded The Bell Curve to publication. Williams also pens regular columns for USA Today, the Washington Times, Forbes, the Orange County Register, and the District’s Afro-American and News Dimensions. And he serves as CEO of the Graham Williams Group, an eight-employee, Washington, D.C., PR firm.
Armstrong Williams claims to represent a silent majority—or at least plurality—of black America. According to Williams, “so-called black leaders”—his derisive term for the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, and Jesse Jackson—have betrayed or ignored millions of traditional, churchgoing African-American families. So Williams has appointed himself to speak for them.
“The Democratic party has done a wonderful job of taking people like Jesse Jackson and giving them a microphone and getting them on the editorial pages of newspapers and getting them TV shows,” he says. “Those are the only voices you hear, and they have been the only voices for so long that people believe that…this is the way all black Americans think.”
“But now we have the radio, the TV, the books, the newsletter, the columns. We have the triple decker,” Williams continues, slipping into the first-person plural. This is one of his verbal tics, a clever way of adding a patina of authority to his position.
“They have to deal with us. They have to deal with us. Because we are not going away,” vows Meteor Man.
You can’t spend more than a few minutes around Armstrong Williams without hearing the word “right.” Or rather, “Right.” As in conservative, correct, and, above all, moral. He intones “Right” like a mantra. His radio show is called The Right Side. His NET show is called The Right Side. He used to publish a newsletter called The Right Side. Whenever a fan waylays him on the street, he replies with a cheerful, “Stay on the Right Side.”
“I am not out to promote any agenda except that which I think is morally right,” he says.
Even his friends inevitably return to the word when they discuss Williams. “He is smart and he is courageous, and the seat of his courage is that he is a morally grounded person and he understands truth,” says Keith Clinkscales, president and CEO of Vibe magazine. “He has a strong vision of what he believes is right, and he stands up for it.”
We can't make City Paper without you
“Rightness” is not a complicated philosophical concept for Williams. Though he calls himself a “social critic,” no one would confuse him with black conservative academics like Shelby Steele or Thomas Sowell. He speaks aphoristically, sprinkling his radio shows and conversations with bromides that sound like they were yanked from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People—a favorite book: “You can’t be supportive, unless you are supported,” goes one Armstrongism. “In life you are as small as your controlling desire or as great as your dominant aspiration,” goes another.
And Williams’ political principles, such as they are, resemble the notes to a Dan Quayle stump speech. On welfare: “It is a cure that is worse than the disease,” or “It is a new form of slavery.” On abortion: “Any time a mother can abort her children, there is no secret why there is violence in the streets.” On the controversial “racial justice” provision deleted from the recent crime bill: “[The provision said that] before you execute someone black you have to execute someone white. That’s crazy. Do you think if your loved one has been killed, you would want a quota?”
But so what if Williams speaks more like Billy Crystal than Bill Kristol? He is a popularizer, a PR man. He is selling himself, not a new conservative ideology. Our great nation, Williams proclaims, has gone dreadfully wrong in the past generation. Materialism, immorality, race-obsession, and government-sponsored sloth have sickened us. We can find a cure in the principles he learned on his daddy’s South Carolina farm. Williams wants to be our “goal model.” If you want to think right, feel right, talk right, and live right, follow Armstrong Williams’ plan. He is reserving a place for you on the Right Side.
To the lazy, for example, Williams offers himself as the exemplar of hard work. “I have unmatched discipline,” he says. As he told the Equal Time audience—as he reminds everyone—he rises at dawn and works past midnight. But he doesn’t neglect his family; he reads the Bible; and he goes to church on Sunday.
He confronts the dissolute with his own asceticism. “I never drink, smoke, or use one word of profanity, not even the A-word,” he notes. (What is the A-word? “Asshole”? “Alamo”? I don’t dare ask.) “In fact, I did not start using the words “liar’ and “lie’ until I came to Washington.”
“I don’t need to use profanity,” he adds. “I have a pretty good vocabulary.”
To blacks (and whites) fixated on racism, Williams portrays himself as proof of the irrelevance of skin color. He’s a black man. He runs his own business. He doesn’t take a penny from the government. Sure, racism exists. But no racist ever stopped him from wooing a client or publishing a column.
“This is really going to disappoint readers. I rarely think about being black,” Williams says. “I rarely think about race. It is the farthest thing from my mind. What I think about is what I believe in and who else believes it and how we can change the world. There is no such thing as a black problem. There are no black issues!”
This Armstrong Williams Show never stops. Asked what exercise he does at the gym, he answers, “the Stairmaster for 30 minutes.” Then he adds, “At Level 10.” Asked for the phone numbers of a dozen of his friends, he rattles them off from memory. Then he brags, “It’s rare that I ever have to look up a number.” Not asked about his sex life, he discusses it anyway: “I’ve been celibate” for three years, he says. “It goes with what I was taught as a child.”
He boasts about what a good writer he is. “You know why my editors love me?” he asks rhetorically. “Because I can write my pieces in 45 minutes and they don’t have to change a word. I am an editor’s dream.” He predicts confidently that The Conscience of a Black Conservative will sell a million copies. He describes his own career as a string of successes. “I have only worked at the top. My employers have always put me in top positions.”
And, he adds, he makes such a compelling example for kids that “I am always asked to be the godfather to sons and daughters….Parents insist that their children come over and visit with me.” If he does say so himself.
But audiences, producers, and editors do love Williams. In print and on the air, he suppresses these excesses of ego, and he’s warm, funny, and lively. He greets callers to the The Right Side like old friends and, unlike most talk show hosts, actually listens to what they say.
And not surprisingly, conservatives adore his “God, family, and hard work” shtick. Armstrong Williams is an entrepreneurial, flag-waving, God-fearing spokesmodel for the American Dream—who just happens to be black. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) likes him so much that he requested that his GOP Senate colleagues appear on The Right Side whenever Williams asks them. The Christian Coalition invites Williams to address their conferences. Conservative media mavens such as Robert Novak, Cal Thomas, Malcolm Forbes Jr., and dozens of others count themselves among his fan club.
Right-wingers are choosing Williams as their flavor of the day, largely because he is their color of the day. He inoculates whites against charges of racism. If Williams—an intelligent, articulate black man—states that we should scrap affirmative action, then Bob Novak or Bob Dole can suggest the same thing. “People like me because I am saying what they want to say, but are afraid to,” Williams says.
But Meteor Man’s fans bristle at the idea that he is merely a GOP lackey. The Right Side, they insist, provides a rare kind of forum for Americans, a common ground where blacks and whites can engage in rational conversation. “His audience is the bridge between the black and white,” says Forbes Media Critic‘s Wanniski. “Armstrong is the nexus, the translator between the races.”
And right-wing whites are not his only audience. Though he enrages some blacks with his scorn for the Democratic Party, its policies, and its leaders, and though African-American callers occasionally denounce him as an Uncle Tom, an Oreo, and a traitor to his race, he seems to be building the foundation of a black constituency. Half of his radio listeners are black, he claims (since The Right Side just entered national syndication with Salem, its first local and national ratings won’t be compiled for several months). And the two black weeklies—the Afro-American and News Dimensions—ensure that thousands of black Washingtonians see his columns.
D.C. Councilmember Kevin Chavous, Williams’ friend and occasional intellectual foe, says that Williams’ support of school prayer, “Christian” values, and personal responsibility is attracting large numbers of African-Americans frustrated with old-style liberalism.
“The whole issue of spirituality and values is creating an interesting coalition between the white conservative movement and religious black families,” says Chavous. “I think Armstrong’s message resonates with a lot of traditional African-Americans.”
“What we are saying is making a difference. Oh yes! It is making a difference,” Williams boasts with his pitchman’s vehemence. “Black Americans are finally waking up. They are saying, “Armstrong, I like what you are saying.’ ”
Armstrong Williams is describing his ideal wife. “I am looking to meet a good Southern woman,” the bachelor says earnestly. “Someone who can cook. Who does not need a whole lot of attention. Who can deal with me traveling. Who can be a homemaker. Raise kids. Not want to work.
“Just dedicate her life to raising the kids and taking care of me, that is all she should want to do,” he continues. “I will be faithful. Honest. Loyal. You could not find a better husband.”
He leans forward and rests his hands on his office desk. “I want a woman who knows that I am the man of the house,” he says.
Williams’ assistant, Tangela Parks, enters the office, interrupting these musings on connubial bliss. He asks her if she thinks he’s a male chauvinist. “Yes,” she answers, after a pause. He looks puzzled, but only briefly. He quickly unleashes a little Armstrong Williams spin. “I do believe that the man has a place in society and that the woman has a place,” he says. “Let’s put it like that.”
“My mother spent her life serving my father,” he adds. For Armstrong Williams, that is the final word on marriage. The Right Side can be a strange and archaic place.
Millions of black Americans, including Jesse Jackson, Marion Barry, and Clarence Thomas, share a common background: They were poor, rural, Southern kids who were dogged by vicious racism. Williams may have grown up on a South Carolina farm during the height of the civil rights movement, but he does not share this history. He was a boy in a bubble.
Most Southern blacks lived in poverty. Armstrong Williams’ parents, James and Thelma Williams, were entrenched firmly in the middle class. Many Southern blacks sharecropped for whites or farmed tiny plots of their own. James Williams owned a thriving, 200-acre spread. Racism and Jim Crow segregation humiliated and beat down Southern blacks. Armstrong Williams and his nine brothers and sisters were insulated from these cruelties. The farm sits miles from its nearest neighbors and more than 10 miles from the town of Marion, S.C. (population 7,700).
“My dad did not want us to grow up with neighbors,” Williams says. “He felt they were so negative, so bitter about the way they were treated on those sharecropper farms. My father said, “Yes, racism exists, but I am going to shelter you from it, because if you see racism as the cause of every problem, it will consume you and burn you up and destroy you.’
“It was as if we were reared in incubators,” he adds.
So while the black leaders of the civil rights movement have sought to demolish the South of their childhoods, Williams is doing exactly the opposite. His peculiar incubation has made him conservative in the most fundamental way: He has preserved, almost untouched, the principles instilled in him by his parents. He battles to replicate his youth, to rebuild an America of strong, wise fathers, tough-love mothers, hard work, personal responsibility, and devotion to God.
“When I was growing up, we had the best government,” he says fondly. “That was my parents.”
James Williams quit school in the third grade to work as a laborer, scrimped and saved for years, and bought his own farm in 1948. His first wife, Theola, died while giving birth to her fourth child. His second wife, Thelma, gave birth to six kids. Armstrong, who was born in 1959, was her second.
James and Thelma Williams believed in work and imposed a stern regimen on their children. Armstrong Williams never rebelled against it, and today he recalls those farm days as a sublime moral education, the kind that every child deserves. He sounds almost wistful as he recalls waking at 4:30 a.m. to weed the tobacco fields and slop the pigs. In the evening, he did his homework—and kept the farm’s books. On Sunday, the family attended church. Williams made no friends at school—“My brothers were my friends”—worked tirelessly, and indulged in few pleasures. At home, his parents allowed no music but gospel.
There was another gospel in the Williams’ home besides the spirituals of Shirley Caesar: the Grand Old Party. Just as Armstrong Williams inherited his discipline from his parents, so he inherited his politics. People who meet Williams sometimes ask him incredulously how a black Southerner can belong to the party of Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, and David Duke. He always answers: “That’s easy. My family never left the party of Lincoln.”
The Williamses were one of the few black Republican families in the entire state. His parents, Williams says, supported King’s nonviolent protests, but never joined the movement themselves. They were property owners. They worried about their own 200-acre back yard. They voted with their pocketbook. “My parents always felt that when the Republicans were in the White House, their farm thrived,” he explains. “My dad felt that the Democrat was always for people who needed to be taken care of. And my dad said, “If you need to be taken care of, you never can learn to take care of yourself.’ ”
And James Williams hoped that Armstrong would make his mark in Republican politics. “Army was no good on the farm, let me tell you,” jokes his younger sister Mary Williams, using a pet nickname for her brother. But Army was a natural-born talker, and he became the vessel for his father’s unfulfilled ambitions. The elder Williams dreamed that there would be an Armstrong Williams (R-S.C.), the first black senator in the state’s history.
Armstrong left the weeding and slopping behind and enrolled at South Carolina State, a historically black college in Orangeburg. He majored in English and political science, was elected student body president two years running, and graduated in 1981, the first of the Williams brood to earn a college degree. James Williams encouraged him to move to Washington. “My father thought it was important that I come to Washington and network and make contacts,” he says. Like the dutiful son he is, he went.
His parents moved him into a Capitol Hill apartment. That trip marked his father’s first journey outside South Carolina, and Armstrong took James Williams to visit Arlington National Cemetery. “We were by the Lee Mansion,” the son recalls. “He looked back over the city and he said, “Heaven has to look this way.’ I will never forget that.”
Washington may not have been heaven, but Williams certainly prospered divinely. Following his father’s advice, he schmoozed and networked like an old pro, demonstrating an extraordinary ability to win over powerful people—especially powerful conservatives. He had interned for Sen. Thurmond in college. When he came to Washington, he charmed the socks off the former segregationist. Thurmond took him to football games between South Carolina State and Howard, and invited the young man to meet President Reagan at the White House.
“He has a very bright mind….and he is a young man of integrity and dedication,” Thurmond says today of his protégé. “I’ve tried to encourage him all that I could.”
Thurmond and Rep. Carroll Campbell (another mentor) introduced Williams to Republican strategist Lee Atwater. Atwater, in turn, helped him land a job as a legislative analyst at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Later, Williams parlayed that job into a position as the confidential assistant to Clarence Thomas, then chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
James Williams died in late 1985 from cancer. The death of his guide, disciplinarian, and best friend devastated Armstrong. He quit EEOC and headed back to the South to re-root himself.
He did not, however, stop schmoozing. Robert Brown, one of the most prominent black Republicans in the South, heard about Williams’ work at EEOC and USDA, and offered him a job at B&C Associates, a PR firm in High Point, N.C. Williams thrived under Brown’s tutelage, and he also cemented yet another connection. Stedman Graham, Oprah Winfrey’s fiance, also workedfor B&C. Graham and Williams became friends and teamed up in 1989 to found their own firm, the Graham Williams Group. A year later, Williams moved back inside the Beltway. In 1992, he bought Graham out and became the Graham Williams Group’s sole proprietor.
When he returned to Washington in 1990, Williams committed his only act of rebellion against his father’s legacy. He discarded his political ambitions. Though blessed (or, depending on your point of view, cursed) with an ideal political temperament, Williams says he loves being his own boss too much to work for anyone else, even the American people: “Once you’ve tasted freedom,” he aphorizes, “you can never go back on the plantation.”
Celebrity photos, the trophies from years of masterful networking, cover the desks and walls of Williams’ office. Here he is hugging Oprah. There he is gladhanding George Bush. Here’s Maya Angelou. There’s Coretta Scott King. Here’s Williams with Nelson Mandela. There’s Williams greeting a white-sequined Michael Jackson. (Surely not alleged child-molester Michael Jackson? “I’ve got to get rid of that one,” he says, looking chagrined. “You have to remember that photo was taken in 1984.”)
But of all the celebrities framed in his office, Williams owes the most to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, his friend, mentor, and former boss. This fact becomes obvious when Thomas calls his protégé’s office a few days before Christmas. Williams and I are chatting when the phone rings. He grabs it and says hello. An enormous grin flashes across his face. He snatches a piece of scrap paper off his desk, scribbles “Justice Thomas” on it, and hands it to me.
Williams and Thomas briefly shoot the breeze about the Dallas Cowboys and the Phoenix Suns. Then Williams unleashes an effusive paean to the justice. It is an awkward tribute, clearly offered as much for my benefit as Thomas’.
“My holiday would not be complete without talking to you,” Williams says. “What is it, 12 years that I’ve known you? Twelve years and my man is on the court!
“This is going to be a beautiful Christmas for me, and I want to tell you, you have really been a friend,” Williams continues. “You have been like a father. We have had some challenging times together, but the Lord has brought us through.”
“Some challenging times” is a euphemism for a subject that Thomas undoubtedly would prefer to avoid. Thomas survived, and perhaps even won, his cataclysmic 1991 battle with Anita Hill, but the episode—one of the oddest and most embarrassing moments in modern American history—left him humiliated and furious. (Thomas did not respond to a request for an interview.)
But if the “challenging times” scarred Thomas’ life, they made Armstrong Williams’ career. If it wasn’t for the sexual harassment fight, Williams would probably still be nothing more than the CEO of a small PR firm.
“If Justice Thomas had not gone on the Supreme Court, and if I had not stood by him, I would not be in the position I am in today,” Williams acknowledges.
Like Anita Hill, Williams traces his relationship with Thomas back to EEOC. When Williams was working for USDA, he persuaded comedian Richard Pryor to address his agency’s 1983 Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. That coup brought the Reagan administration some (rare) positive publicity in the black community and earned a write-up in the Washington Post. The article caught the eye of EEOC Chairman Thomas, one of the highest-ranking blacks in the administration.
On the lookout for talented black conservatives, Thomas invited Williams for an interview. When they met, Thomas must have seen a lot of himself in the younger man. Both were Southern, rural, religious, Republican, black men—a rare combination indeed during the Reagan years. In any case, Thomas immediately hired the 24-year-old as his confidential assistant. For almost four years, Williams worked intimately with Thomas and accompanied him on business trips. Williams also worked with Hill.
The EEOC chairman was a stern and distant boss, but his assistant quickly came to admire him. Thomas, Williams says, taught him discipline, strength, and honesty: “He told me the truth, even when it hurt.” Williams repaid his boss with friendship and loyalty. When President George Bush nominated Thomas to the Supreme Court, Williams, then head of the Graham Williams Group, stepped forward as an unofficial adviser.
Williams emerged as a critical player during the confirmation process and served as one of the chief architects of Thomas’ media strategy. While Thomas kept a low profile, Williams spoke to reporters on his old boss’s behalf. He helped engineer a glowing profile of the nominee in Jet magazine. And as soon as Hill’s sexual harassment allegations surfaced, Williams counterattacked. He publicly questioned Hill’s credibility, painting her as resentful and mentally unstable. According to Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson’s Strange Justice, Williams told the Wall Street Journal that “Sister has emotional problems.”
He also staunchly defended Thomas’ own behavior, feeding the press example after example of the EEOC chairman’s consummate professionalism. One of his favorite anecdotes concerned an issue of Penthouse that contained nude photos of former Miss America Vanessa Williams. Armstrong bought a copy. Thomas saw his assistant with the porn magazine and chewed him out. According to David Brock’s The Real Anita Hill, Williams says Thomas ordered him to chuck the Penthouse in the garbage. “How can you buy that trash and take it up to the agency and show it to people?” Thomas reportedly asked his assistant. “You’re above that. You must learn to do better….And, plus, it reflects on me and the agency.”
Like many EEOC employees who worked with both Thomas and Hill, Williams says Hill’s description of Thomas did not match his own observations of the boss.
“When two people are alone, no one can say what went on,” Williams states today. “All I can say is that I worked with Anita and I worked with the justice and there was nothing in his conduct that led me to believe that he would say something like that to her….I could not have supported him if I believed he could say something like that, and the conversations I had with him as his confidential assistant never led me to believe that he could.”
The Hill affair made Thomas a recluse, but it made Williams a talker. The justice’s protégé was incensed that black leaders almost universally opposed Thomas’ appointment, despite polls showing that most African-Americans endorsed it. America, Williams concluded, needed black commentators who would speak for the rank and file.
He began churning out editorials—many, but not all, concerning Thomas—and submitting them to USA Today, the Washington Times, and other papers. His high-profile relationship with Thomas paid huge dividends. He struck up friendships with dozens of pundits and politicians. Editors liked the sharp, angry columns and asked for more. Radio and television producers eagerly sought him out as the fresh black conservative voice. Cathy Hughes, owner of WOL, asked him to host The Right Side on her station. The Williams empire was born.
Today, Armstrong Williams’ media and PR have merged into a seamless enterprise. Promoting clients generates about half the Graham Williams Group’s revenues. Promoting himself—i.e., his radio, TV, and writing gigs—produces the other half. (Williams will not say how much the firm earns.)
Ever loyal to his mentor, Williams recently initiated a low-key campaign to burnish the justice’s image—not to mention Armstrong’s own.
“I asked [Thomas] to set up some time when I could bring people by the court to meet him and to see him as a human being,” Williams says. Thomas agreed. In December, Williams invited his friend Charles Barkley, star of the Phoenix Suns and a fellow black conservative, to lunch with Thomas on the Hill. That story was fed to the Washington Post (almost certainly by Williams), and the “Reliable Source” published a pleasant item about the meeting. The piece, which described Williams as a “pundit,” noted that Barkley “told friends [i.e., Williams] that Thomas is his political idol.”
In October, Williams invited 35 black friends to spend a morning with Thomas at the court. The group included several journalists and Democrats. The visitors quizzed the justice for more than an hour, focusing particularly on his responsibility as the court’s only African-American. “Not one person who left that meeting—and they were some of his arch critics—criticized him,” Williams says. “It was wonderful! I couldn’t have planned it better. It was amazing!”
The Post splashed a story about this gathering on the front page. The headline read: “ “I Am Not an Uncle Tom,’ Thomas Says at Meeting.” All publicity is good publicity. A framed copy of the article—odd headline and all—hangs in Williams’ office.
It’s Wednesday evening and Armstrong Williams is priming himself for another night on The Right Side. He strides into WAVA’s studio, doffs his suit jacket and takes a seat. He’s alone: Tonight’s guest, a home-schooling advocate named Bob Unger, will talk to him by phone from New York. “Bob Unger is conservative. Woo, is he conservative,” Williams says cheerily, swiveling back and forth in his chair. “He makes me look like a moderate.”
At 10 p.m., the studio engineer cues the taped introduction. It is pure Williams. The intro begins with a cheering crowd. Then a ring announcer yells: “This is The Right Side. And now, please welcome a man who has debated the best of the best on television, radio, and in print. From Washington, D.C., standing tall and weighing heavily on your conscience, the still-undefeated champion of what’s right, Armstrong Williams!”
As the introduction fades out, Williams pumps his fists. He greets Unger, virtually screaming his welcome into the microphone. For the next two hours, he and Unger don’t lower the volume at all. His guest rails against the National Education Association, “professors of miseducation,” and the Clinton administration’s scheme for a “national takeover of public schools.”
When Unger denounces the media as “propagandists,” Williams smiles wickedly at me, then eggs his guest on. “Talk that talk, Bob!” he urges. “Only on The Right Side!” The host matches Unger shout for shout. Williams indicts his usual suspects—the welfare state, affirmative action, the Congressional Black Caucus. The callers encourage Unger and Williams, praising home-schooling and pushing the talk show host to keep fighting the good fight.
As midnight approaches, Williams is exhausted. He began his workday more than 15 hours ago—“at 8:42 a.m.,” he boasts. During commercial breaks he sags back in his chair. “My bed is whispering my name,” he sighs.
But out in radioland, Williams’ fans can’t hear that he’s flagging. As soon as the microphone goes on, so does he. During the final minute, the host lavishes more loud praise on Unger. Then Williams signs off, dropping into his intimate, thanks-for-welcoming-me-to-your-living-room voice. “As always,” he croons, “the best guests are you, the listening audience.”
When the show ends, Williams quickly tapes the promo for Thursday’s Right Side (C. Boyden Gray, White House counsel to President Bush, is the guest). Then he yawns, grabs his hat and suit jacket, and heads out of the studio. He climbs into his battered Mazda 323 for the ride back to Capitol Hill. “I’ll be in bed by 12:32,” he says.
And no doubt Meteor Man will rise with the sun, ready for another 15-hour day on the Right Side.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.