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Thomas Frank: Charlie Black's Cronies

Roundup: Media's Take




[Mr. Frank is the author of What's the Matter with Kansas.]

Doing some research in the Library of Congress recently, an associate of mine came across a curious artifact of the Young Americans for Freedom, the high-spirited conservative group of the Vietnam era.

It is a songbook prepared for YAF's 1971 convention, and in its mimeographed pages you will find a lyric poking fun at "Adlai [Stevenson] the bald-headed Com-Symp," and another moaning that, in the State Department, "everyone's a Commie slave." All good clean fun, surely. Turn a few pages, though, and you will find that the righteous ones also lifted their young voices to warble "Cara al Sol," the humor-free anthem of Spanish fascism.

Many YAFers later rose to positions of great political influence. From direct mailers to congressmen to campaign managers, the group put its stamp on our era in no small way.

This year's most prominent YAF graduate is Charlie Black, who was an officer of the group in the period when it sang fascist hymns and who now serves as a senior adviser to Republican John McCain. Last week, Mr. Black triggered a media storm by musing publicly on how a terrorist attack would improve Mr. McCain's chances to win the presidential election in November.

Mr. Black is a difficult man to pin down. The articles he wrote for the YAF's magazine back in 1972 are anodyne stuff, unremarkable apart from his youthful passion to "take on liberalism everywhere it rules...."

But he's also kept some questionable company over the years. In 1975 he founded, with the help of fellow YAFer Terry Dolan, the National Conservative Political Action Committee, which would contrive so brilliantly to poison the political atmosphere over the next decade. NCPAC's method was to raise money through terrifying direct-mail solicitations – "the shriller you are, the better it is to raise money," Mr. Dolan said – and then to spend it on terrifying TV commercials assailing this or that liberal politician. In 1980 the group helped defeat four Democratic senators, making it an overnight sensation and an omen of the money-driven, all-negative political future.

NCPAC's calling card was slime. It constantly attacked members of Congress for votes they hadn't cast and positions they hadn't taken – "there have been a few mistakes made in terms of research," was all Mr. Black would admit – and the group's main accomplishment was dodging the campaign-finance laws of the day....
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