With new book, radio program, Williams is making a comeback

Armstrong Williams says he has changed.

Nearly seven months after his controversial contracts with the federal government came close to destroying his career, the conservative pundit says the experience has prompted him to make adjustments in his life.

john mulcahy
Armstrong Williams, a former press secretary for Supreme Court
Justice Clarence Thomas, has a book coming out in the fall.

“I used to hold fundraisers for [Republican candidates]. That’ll never happen again,” he said.

In an interview at his Capitol Hill office last week, Williams said he will no longer play the role of cheerleader for GOP politicians. He is also committed to “a balance” in his interviews with lawmakers and regularly invites Democrats onto his radio show.

Williams, a former press secretary for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, made it clear that he is not pulling a Jim Jeffords and bolting to the other side of the aisle.

“I’m a conservative, no question. My ideals have not changed,” Williams said.

His conservative credentials will be on display when his new book, The New Racists: How Liberal Democrats Have Betrayed Minority Americans, comes out in the fall.

The 45-year-old commentator admitted he made a huge error in accepting Department of Education contracts to promote President Bush’s No Child Left Behind initiative. But a bitterness lingers about how he was treated by the media and fellow conservatives.

Before the federal-contract flap, Williams said, “I had put everything on the line, defending the right, supporting the right. … None of the conservative [groups] came to my rescue. I was alone.”

Williams admitted that he should have disclosed the existence of the Education Department contracts in his weekly column. But he notes that there was a disclaimer about federal funding in the television and radio spots that touted No Child Left Behind.

“The media didn’t care about that,” he said. “[Reporters] can opt not to write things in order to make their stories worthy of the attention they’re giving it. I was used.”

Williams said The New York Times, a newspaper reviled by some in the conservative movement, provided the fairest coverage of the scandal. He even credited the Times’ Anne Kornblut with saving his career.

“If it weren’t for The New York Times,” Williams said, “it probably would have been over for me.”

He praised his loyal staff, as well as columnist Bob Novak, for helping him ride out the storm.

“[Novak] was a constant supporter,” he said. “He was going through his own situation [on the Valerie Plame controversy], so we had a good pity party together.”

Novak, who has known Williams for 10 years, said Armstrong has learned from his mistakes.

“We all make mistakes. Armstrong made one and admitted it. He took a hit, but he’s doing well now.”

After USA Today first broke the story, on Jan. 7, Williams didn’t initially understand the gravity of the situation.

“For a while, I was in a state of shock,” he said. “Until colleagues of mine started to tell me, ‘This is a problem.’”

Democrats in Congress lambasted Williams and the Bush administration. Media experts predicted that Williams could not recover from such a fiasco, which in typical Washington hyperbole was labeled “ArmstrongGate.” Tribune Media Services told Williams it was halting distribution of his column.

To his dismay, the story lingered longer than Williams expected.

“The story had incredible legs,” he said.

And not surprisingly, Williams’s businesses suffered. “We lost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.

But in late February, Williams got some good news. WWRL in New York wanted Williams to host a three-hour show during afternoon drive time.

The Marion, S.C., native did not jump at the offer.

“I would be going on in New York, the most liberal place in America. I had to think about that. If the ratings went in the toilet, that would be the end.”

The show, which is broadcast from Williams’s Washington office, proved to be a hit as the station’s ratings doubled.

He has had many GOP lawmakers on his show, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) and Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.).

A roughly equal number of Democrats have also been interviewed, such as Reps. Charles Rangel (N.Y.), Frank Pallone (N.J.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) and Jose Serrano (N.Y.). Williams said that he will also try to interview possible 2008 presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Williams did not deny that asking Democrats to be on his show in the blue state of New York probably helps ratings. He stressed, however, that his New York experience has been enlightening.

“I’ve learned so much about the other side’s view and why they believe in what they believe. There was a time when I would have called [Democrats] unpatriotic, un-American. I realized they love America as much as I do.”

Some Democrats have noticed a change. Serrano said he was apprehensive about granting the Williams interview. But after a positive first experience, Serrano agreed to a second appearance.

Unlike other conservatives in the media, Serrano said, Williams “did not question my motives. I was able to get my point across. He was very respectful.”

Rangel, however, scoffed at the notion of a metamorphosis, saying he does not recall Williams being any different from conservative radio hosts Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity.

Pallone, who highlighted the No Child Left Behind controversy on the House floor in February, said, “When I appeared on Armstrong Williams’s show a couple of months ago to discuss the energy bill, I was surprised that he didn’t just follow the Republican National Committee daily talking points, as is customary for most conservative commentators. He questioned the need to give oil and gas companies billions of dollars in tax breaks at a time they’re witnessing record profits and was highly skeptical that the energy bill would lower gas prices. It appears Armstrong is starting to finally realize what a lot of us have known for five years — this administration is more often than not full of hot air.”

Williams, who was critical of Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) 2002 remarks about Sen. Strom Thurmond that led to his demise as majority leader, said he “will now go out of his way to give people the benefit of the doubt.”

Even though he still resents how some in Washington reacted to his acceptance of federal funding, Williams said, he is “blessed and fortunate” to have persevered.

“The beauty of America is that you can be misjudged and judged properly and Americans are willing to give you another chance if you show remorse,” he said.