- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

There are two distinct eras in the recent life of Armstrong Williams, separated by a stark, bright line that could have been written in blood.

Or indelible ink, anyway.

There is “Part 1: The Lofty Years,” which found the conservative commentator soaring at 30,000 feet, buoyed by friendly airwaves and an adoring public for well over a decade. He anchored a TV show with a guest roster that included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. He did radio. He wrote a syndicated column, he was a White House fellow, a presidential appointee, a legislative aide and a public relations consultant.

A civil investigation of his journalism practices three years ago sent the feisty entrepreneur plummeting to Earth, with a chorus of noise from a critical press.

Welcome to “Part 2: The Redemption.”

Armstrong Williams is back.

He’s rested, refreshed. He’s got wisdom, insight and gratitude, not to mention new radio and TV shows, a syndicated column, a new book and myriad projects plumbing the highs and lows of conservative thought. And he is quite capable of making a joyful noise as well as a mea culpa.

“I have changed,” Mr. Williams says. “I never thought I’d have a chance to come back and get it right. I made bad judgments. I paid a price. I lost so much. But I never lost my dignity and sense of self-worth, or my ability to work, to discipline myself.”

There’s no melodrama or bitterness in his talk, only eager optimism and hearty humor.

“I never saw myself as a bad person. It’s not how you fall, it’s how you build your way back,” he says.

His voice can rise up like a pastor on Sunday morning, though.

“Life brings on a challenge, and it’s how you rise up to it that makes the man. I could never be what I am without these challenges, whether it’s some crisis while I’m on the air, or a relative taken ill - or No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Williams declares.

If heaven had a big fat buzzer of doom, it would sound right now, just as the speaker uttered those four final words.

No Child Left Behind.

Uh-oh.

Also known as “NCLB,” alias the Bush administration education policy that ultimately snared Armstrong Williams in woe on Jan. 7, 2005, when USA Today broke some piquant news.

“Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same,” the paper said.

“The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind, required commentator Armstrong Williams ‘to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts,’ and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.”

Things went downhill from there.

Mr. William’s syndication deal with Tribune Media Services was terminated. Then-White House spokesman Scott McClellan claimed he was not privy to any details. The Department of Education frowned on the project. An investigation by the Government Accountability Office followed, officials eventually ruling that the arrangement violated a ban on “covert propaganda” at public expense. The Justice Department also examined the case under the False Claims Act, and the Federal Communication Commission issued its own citation.

It took 19 months to straighten out, during which time Mr. Williams publicly apologized, took shrill criticism from the news media - and dug into his wallet. On Oct. 22, 2007, he agreed with the Justice Department to pay back $34,000 of the fees he’d received.

“Even when I die, ‘No Child left Behind’ is going to be in my obit,” Mr. Williams sighs. Then he chuckles.

Still, he was dismayed to discover that seemingly close relationships with acquaintances and institutions were flimsy.

“I lost 80 percent of my clients. You fall from grace, you cope. You face it with humility and courage, you go through incredible self-examination and come to terms with the consequences of bad choices,” he says.

“But you know? I never lost faith in man, and my Creator. I knew I had to create another harvest season, so I worked, and I continued to work. That whole time. I realized that this wasn’t the end, this was the beginning. Success is not a destination. It is a continued journey,” he adds.

“When people see you’re trying to get better, they want to support you. That’s how it works. But my problems were so public, just blazed across the media. I think people expected to see me in an orange jumpsuit, doing the perp walk. Nothing I’ve ever done has given me so much publicity. But you can’t let that define you,” Mr. Williams adds.

His experience gave him empathy for others who were subject to public humiliation; he mentions Bill Clinton and Scooter Libby, moves on quickly, then vows he can’t pass judgment on anyone anymore.

Armstrong Williams emerged last fall with business acumen intact, deals in the works. On June 23, The “Armstrong Williams Show” debuted on AM talk radio in Washington and three other cities five days a week, and on XM Radio at night.

On Saturday, “The Right Side With Armstrong Williams” aired for the first time on cable stations in a dozen cities. A new column and blog have appeared at Townhall.com - written by a man who describes himself as “an entrepreneur and third generation Republican.”

He has little patience for news organizations that dwell on bad news or scandal. He does not weigh in much on the presidential election, other than to call it historic, exciting.

“The Old Guard versus the new guard, with Democrats wanting that trifecta. And maybe the Republicans can pull off a Dewey-Truman,” Mr. Williams says.

Meanwhile, he’s enjoying a “renaissance,” and as he speaks, he seems ready to rise on a steady course, visions of new audiences out there on the horizon.

“Our radio show has been on the air almost a month, and we haven’t gotten one single negative call. Not one. I have to manage what I have, appreciate what I have, respect what I have. I must obey the laws of advertising and sponsorship, and understand the FCC,” Mr. Williams says. “The rest will take care of itself. It is what it is.”

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