Oh, Brother!

So what did Armstrong Williams do with all that money?

It was ten years ago this week that the right-wing pundit (and current advisor to would-be presidential candidate Ben Carson) was outed as a recipient of $241,000 in filthy lucre from George W. Bush’s Department of Education to shill for the No Child Left Behind Act. Here’s a question: what do you call someone who offers pleasure for payment?

As then-Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz noted:

In taking the money, funneled through the Ketchum Inc. public relations firm, Williams produced and aired a commercial on his syndicated television and radio shows featuring Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige, touted Bush’s education policy, and urged other programs to interview Paige. He did not disclose the contract when talking about the law during cable television appearances or writing about it in his newspaper column.

Congressional Democrats immediately accused the administration of trying to bribe journalists. Williams’s newspaper syndicate, Tribune Media Services, yesterday canceled his column. And one television network dropped his program pending an investigation.

Williams, one of the most prominent black conservatives in the media, said he understands “why some people think it’s unethical.” Asked if people would be justified in thinking he sold his opinions to the government for cash, he said: “It’s fair for someone to make that assessment.”

I first heard of Williams in the mid-1990s; along with Thomas Sowell, Walter E. Williams and Ken Hamblin, Williams forcefully contended in his columns and media appearances that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was a better representative for African-Americans than Jesse Jackson. In article after article, Williams asserted that blacks should embrace current opportunities instead of lamenting the days when opportunities were systematically denied to them—and that they should rely on themselves, not government, to get ahead in contemporary American society.

Of course, Williams crushed his credibility when it came to the latter issue, agreeing to take part in a redistribution of wealth from the taxpayer’s wallets to his checking account–all to promote No Child Left Behind in what appeared to be an ill-conceived effort to attract more black votes to the Republicans in the 2004 campaign. (The late Steve Gilliard gave Williams a well-deserved smackdown:

Of course it’s totally unethical and illegal, but hey, he’s already sold his soul to massa, why not sell it some more. Massa George wanted him to do somethin’ so he did it. And got paid well for it…[T]his ought to expose the character of the [African-American] conservative. They have no soul and no morals. They can be bought by their white overlords because they aspire to their status, but think themselves unworthy to be treated as the same. Now, I’ll freely admit both Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have used their position to gain personally. But this kind of craven greed is a feature of the [African-American] conservative. He shuffles and bucks along for his master, losing his soul and dignity in the process.

He has no ethics to begin with, [preferring to be] the show horse for a bunch of people who think he’s lesser than them. So why wouldn’t he use his position to enrich himself and hide his illegal arrangement with his white masters. He’s already sold his dignity and self-respect. Why not sell his reputation as well. Williams is already an embarrassment to black people. This just furthers the shame he brings.

Of course, Williams wasn’t the only one who benefited from the Bush Administration’s peculiar economic policies: three weeks later, the Washington Post revealed that vile gay-bashing syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher had received over $40,000 from the Bush Administration to promote (straight) marriage. The words of Paul Glastris from a decade ago were prophetic with regard to the “ethics” of today’s online wingnut media:

What’s striking about this emerging payola scandal is the aggressive cluelessness of the participants towards basic standards of journalistic decency. Remember how Armstrong Williams claimed never to have considered that it might be wrong to take a quarter million dollars of government money to promote the administration’s education policies as an “independent” opinion journalist and not, at the very least, disclose the fact? Gallagher betrayed the same indifference when confronted by Kurtz. “Did I violate journalistic ethics by not disclosing it?…I don’t know. You tell me.”

This is an attitude you’re seeing a lot of today in Washington. The ascendant class of conservative pundit-operatives looks upon old strictures of behavior with a kind of incomprehension, even contempt…In his famous essay “Defining Deviancy Down,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote that “over the past generation…the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can “afford to recognize” and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the “normal” level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.” Moynihan was writing about behavioral standards among the broad middle-class and the poor. Something similar, I think, is happening at the highest levels of public life in Washington.

Today, Gallagher is writing nonsense for National Review Online, while Williams is hoping that Carson’s potential presidential bid actually goes somewhere. Good luck with that. Whatever Gallagher did with her money, she surely didn’t spend it on a decent haircut. As for Williams, I can’t help wondering if he bought his uncle some CDs by the Tom Tom Club…

UPDATE: Of course, there’s another prominent right-wing columnist with little credibility these days.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.