IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

McCain adviser rebuked for work with dictators

Democrats rebuke Charles Black Jr., John McCain's maestro, for past lobbying for dictators.
Image: John McCain and Charlie Black
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, speaks to advisor Charlie Black, aboard the campaign airplane in route to Washington, on Monday, April 7.Mary Altaffer / AP file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Longtime uber-lobbyist Charles R. Black Jr. is John McCain's man in Washington, a political maestro who is hoping to guide his friend, the senator from Arizona, to the presidency this November.

But for half a decade in the 1980s, Black was also Jonas Savimbi's man in the capital city. His lobbying firm received millions from the brutal Angolan guerrilla leader and took advantage of Black's contacts in Congress and the White House.

Justice Department records that Black's firm submitted under the Foreign Agents Registration Act detail frequent meetings with lawmakers and their staffs and lavish spending by Black and his partners as they attempted to ensure support for Savimbi, whose UNITA movement was fighting the Marxist Angolan government.

Then in his 30s, Black already had established himself as a pioneer of the revolving door between campaign consulting and lobbying, having been a senior adviser on President Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign before returning to K Street. And his clients, as often as not, were foreign leaders eager to burnish their reputations.

In addition to Savimbi, Black and his partners were at times registered foreign agents for a remarkable collection of U.S.-backed foreign leaders whose human rights records were sometimes harshly criticized, even as their opposition to communism was embraced by American conservatives. They included Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, Nigerian Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre, and the countries of Kenya and Equatorial Guinea, among others.

Client list under fierce attack from Dems
That client list is now the subject of a fierce attack from Democrats who are clamoring for Black, 60, to be fired as McCain's top political strategist. And the candidate's decision this month to impose a strict ban on lobbying for foreign governments by members of his staff has only intensified the scrutiny of Black's past.

McCain "portrays himself as Mr. Clean, and then he has all these lobbyists around him who are connected to a lot of not-so-clean people," said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "One of the things Obama will do is portray him as the creature of Washington, and what could be more Washington-esque than having a dictator as a client?"

The back-and-forth between lobbyists and presidential advisers is not exclusive to Republicans. Democratic candidate Barack Obama does not accept donations from lobbyists, but the senator from Illinois has lobbyists informally advising him on strategy and on policy.

Black has retired from lobbying, having left BKSH & Associates recently. But he says he has no intention of leaving the campaign and is unapologetic about a lobbying career spanning 30 years and seven presidential campaigns. He said his firms never represented foreigners "without first talking to the State Department and the White House and clearing with them that the work would be in the interest of U.S. foreign policy."

For instance, he said, the United States considered Marcos an ally when Black's firm took on work for the Philippine government, and "when the White House pulled the plug on Marcos, we resigned the account the same day." He said his firm was hired to help show Mobutu how to form political parties and conduct elections, and when Mobutu canceled the results of a parliamentary election, "we quit."

"Anyone that knows John McCain and his record understands that he's a public servant who stands on principle. Any suggestion otherwise isn't rooted in fact," said Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for the campaign. But McCain has long been seen as a fighter against just the kind of special interests that paid Black handsomely.

Lobbying career built on political work
Black formed the political consulting firm Black, Manafort and Stone in 1980 with two other Republican political advisers, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone. In 1981, the trio started a separate lobbying company by the same name. In subsequent years, the lobbying firm added Democrat Peter Kelly, and the consulting firm tapped legendary GOP adviser Lee Atwater.

The lobbying shop represented Bethlehem Steel, the Tobacco Institute and the government of the Philippines. The political consulting firm helped elect a slew of lawmakers -- including Sens. Phil Gramm, Jesse Helms, Charles McC. Mathias Jr., Arlen Specter, Paula Hawkins and David F. Durenberger -- who worked on legislation that directly impacted the firm's clients.

Black continued to give political advice to Republicans, especially at the presidential level. He volunteered as a top aide to the presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush, Robert J. Dole, Phil Gramm, George W. Bush and, most recently, McCain.

"If you're going to be a major figure in the field of lobbying, you have to have some credentials," said former congressman Bob Livingston (R-La.), whose lobbying firm, the Livingston Group, represents foreign clients. "Some are exceptional fundraisers, and some, like Charlie, are superlative political strategists."

Black's willingness to work for free as a political adviser created relationships that are the building blocks of a lobbying career. He forged bonds with politicians that were closer than the more traditional ties created when lobbyists raise money for candidates.

"The bond of going through an election with somebody is like going through a war. That bond is very powerful," said James Thurber, a lobbying expert at American University. "They are like a family. It's a very strong bond, much stronger than money."

But those bonds did not always lead to success, Black said. He acknowledged lobbying McCain in the late 1990s on behalf of Robert L. Crandall, then chairman of American Airlines. As Black recalled, he took Crandall to speak to McCain about the potential granting of landing slots at Reagan National Airport to new airlines, including America West, which was based in Phoenix, the senator's home town. Crandall was opposed to giving out new slots.

During the meeting, Black said, Crandall mentioned that McCain had a "parochial interest" in the matter, because of the home-state airline, but that he hoped the senator would listen to his viewpoint anyway. Upon the mention of parochial interest, however, McCain "stood up and politely said, 'This meeting is over,' " Black said.

"Crandall looked at me, and I said, 'Say goodbye, Bob, we're leaving,' " Black recalled.

'Savinbi chic'
Black's work on behalf of foreign dictators has been no secret in Washington. In the mid-1980s, media reports frequently mentioned his firm as the choreographer of Savimbi's visits to the United States, often providing him the trappings of a foreign leader.

Time magazine wrote in March 1986: "What the firm achieved was quickly dubbed 'Savimbi chic.' Doors swung open all over town for the guerrilla leader, who was dapperly attired in a Nehru suit and ferried about in a stretch limousine." The firm's contract with Savimbi in 1985 was for $600,000.

In late 1989, as the firm prepared for another Savimbi visit to Washington, the foreign-agent records document hundreds of thousands of dollars it spent on behalf of UNITA, including $76,491 for limousines, $13,675 for photography and $216,186 for lodging at the Grand Hotel and the Waldorf-Astoria.

In addition to introducing Savimbi to powerful politicians, Black's team booked him on "60 Minutes" and "Nightline," as part of a media campaign aimed at emphasizing to the public UNITA's desire for freedom from Angola's Marxist government.

The documents also detail the workaday life of a Washington lobbyist. Page after page lists daily phone calls and meetings between partners in Black's firm and members of Congress or the administration.

The records show, for example, that Black attended a 1986 Capitol Hill reception for Savimbi hosted by Dole, then the Senate majority leader, during a week-long visit by the Angolan leader to Washington. Two months later, on April 11, the records show the follow-up by a member of Black's staff: "Activity: sent a photograph of Sen. Dole taken with Dr. Savimbi and a note of thanks for support."

Staff writer Matthew Mosk and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.