"I Am Not Alone"

It was a rare moment of talk-show unanimity. On the set of the Fox News Washington bureau, host Tony Snow, fellow guest Linda Chavez (a conservative pundit), and I were slamming Armstrong Williams, a right-wing columnist and talk show host. USA Today had reported – as you probably know – that Williams had been paid nearly a quarter of a million dollars by the Bush administration to promote its No Child Left Behind education bill. And Williams, who supported the legislation in his column and as a cable news talking head, had not bothered to inform his audiences or the folks who book him at CNN, Fox, and MSNBC that he was a shill on the Bush payroll.

Snow was shaking his head at Williams' indiscretion, and Chavez was upset and joked that she had received bupkis from the White House. Prior to going on air, she had complained that ArmstrongGate had caused some people to assume that she and other conservative commentators were also riding this gravy train. Since the story broke on Friday, she said, several people had asked her how much she had received from the Bush administration. She was pissed at Williams for conduct that was raising questions about the whole cadre of right-wing pundits. During our non-debate on Williams, I noted that it was a waste of taxpayer money to pay Williams for supporting the Bush administration, which he seemed quite willing to do for free. And I wondered aloud how this contract had come to be.

After our segment finished, Chavez and I headed to the green room, and there he was: Armstrong Williams. He was waiting to go on air to defend himself. I've known him a long time; we've often sparred, in friendly fashion, on these shouting-head shows. I shook my head and said, "Armstrong, Armstrong, Armstrong ..." He was quick with his main talking point: "It was bad judgment, Dave. Bad judgment." His phone rang. He answered it, said hello, and then told the person on the other end, "It was bad judgment. You know, just bad judgment." I was reminded that in addition to being a pundit, Williams, a leading African-American conservative and Clarence Thomas protege, is a PR specialist with his own firm. Not too long ago, Michael Jackson called him for advice. Now he had himself for a client, and, heeding conventional crisis-management strategy, he was practicing strict message discipline: bad judgment, bad judgment, bad judgment.

As we chatted, Chavez politely expressed her anger at Williams. This scandal, she noted, would provide ammunition to those who dismiss minority conservatives as race sellouts who have been bought off by the Republicans. (She is Mexican-American.) Williams absorbed her point, acting contrite.

I asked if Williams had yet been conducted by the inspector general at the Education Department, the agency that had awarded the contract that supplied him $241,000 for promoting the NCLB measure within the African-American community. Rep.George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the education committee, and other House Democrats had already called for an investigation. Why should the IG contact me? Williams replied, noting he had been merely a subcontractor. Any thorough investigation, I remarked, would include questioning the subcontractor. He scratched his head. "Funny," he said. "I thought this [contract] was a blessing at the time."

And then Williams violated a PR rule: he got off-point. "This happens all the time," he told me. "There are others." Really? I said. Other conservative commentators accept money from the Bush administration? I asked Williams for names. "I'm not going to defend myself that way," he said. The issue right now, he explained, was his own mistake. Well, I said, what if I call you up in a few weeks, after this blows over, and then ask you? No, he said.

Does Williams really know something about other right-wing pundits? Or was he only trying to minimize his own screw-up with a momentary embrace of a trumped-up everybody-does-it defense? I could not tell. But if the IG at the Department of Education or any other official questions Williams, I suggest he or she ask what Williams meant by this comment. And if Williams is really sorry for this act of "bad judgment" and for besmirching the profession of right-wing punditry, shouldn't he do what he can to guarantee that those who watch pundits on the cable news networks and read political columnists receive conservative views that are independent and untainted by payoffs from the Bush administration or other political outfits?

Armstrong, please, help us all protect the independence of the conservative commentariat. If you are not alone, tell us who else has yielded to bad judgment.

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