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Only in America

Why the GOP loves Don King.

(Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

For most people, one Don King is more than enough. But for the 100 or so Republican donors who have gathered for lunch at Madame Tussauds wax museum in Times Square on the penultimate day of the GOP convention, there evidently is no such thing as too much Don King. So, as the famously flamboyant boxing promoter—wearing a black suit festooned with Bush campaign buttons and grasping two tiny American flags; his hair, as always, defying the laws of gravity—perches at a lectern at the front of the museum’s banquet room, a wax figure of King—outfitted in a snazzy tux and clutching a giant cigar; its gravity-defying hair just so—stands to his right. The wax Don King, of course, is mute. The real Don King, of course, is not.

“Why do I love George Walker Bush?” King asks in the same bombastic yet mellifluent tone he uses when he’s holding court before a prizefight. “Let me count the ways.” King, like so many others singing the president’s praises this week, cites Bush’s resolve in the war on terrorism and the fact that “he says what he means, and he means what he says.” But King is not here to pay tribute to Bush in the normal fashion; he has a more unusual explanation for why he, as an African American, loves the president. And, as is King’s wont, he spells it out in superlatives: On matters of race, King tells the almost all-white crowd at Madame Tussauds, “George Walker Bush exemplifies a new day in Republican thought and attitude.”

King cites Bush’s religiosity as an African American trait, marveling, “I’ve heard George Walker Bush say that we are all God’s children. I thought I was in the black Baptist church!” He touts No Child Left Behind as a sign of progress, reminding his audience that, during the time of slavery, “It was punishable by death for a white person to teach a black person how to read or write.” And he praises the symbolism of having African Americans like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, as well as Rod Paige and Alphonso Jackson, serving in high-level posts in the Bush administration, exclaiming, “George Walker Bush had the daring, the bold audacity, to put them shiftless, worthless, no-account blacks at the head of state!”

Then King, who fancies himself a history buff (his speech this day features digressions on the Boston Tea Party, the abolitionist movement in Illinois, and the rise and fall of the Free Soil Party), tries to put Bush and his efforts on behalf of African Americans into perspective. “If you compare George Walker Bush to what we’ve done come from, from the tough road we’ve done come from,” he says, “from the Bilbos, the Talmadges, the Maddoxes, ... the Jesse Helms’, the Strom Thurmonds, ... and the Governor George Wallaces, who said ‘segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever’”—King pauses for dramatic effect—”George Walker Bush is like Mother Teresa!” It is an odd selling point—Vote for Bush: He Never Threatened a Black Man With an Ax Handle—but the Republican donors don’t seem to mind. When King’s speech is over, they rush to get his autograph and have their pictures taken with him. “God bless you, Mister King,” says one matronly white woman with blonde frosted hair and a syrupy Southern accent. “I’m so glad you’re George Bush’s promoter!”

Indeed, King is more than Bush’s promoter; he’s the president’s highest-profile African American surrogate in the 2004 campaign. Earlier this year, King—along with Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Ed Gillespie and a handful of black Republican elected officials—headlined the RNC’s African American Economic Empowerment Tour, which courted black voters in Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, New York, and Philadelphia. And, at the Republican convention last month, King seemed to be everywhere—attending donor breakfasts and lunches and late-night delegate parties one moment; giving interviews to Fox, CNN, and talk-radio hosts the next—always chanting, over and over, “George Walker Bush! Four more years!” Now, as the election nears, King plans to stump for the president at black churches across the country. “I’m going to campaign like never before!” he pledges.

And, if that weren’t enough, he’s giving the Republicans cash, too. Although King showered $250,000 on the Democrats’ efforts to take back the House of Representatives in 2000, the promoter has recently started steering the bulk of his campaign contributions to the GOP. Last October, he donated $2,000 to the Bush-Cheney campaign and $17,500 to the RNC; and, in January, he gave the RNC another $25,000. King has also pledged to raise in excess of $500,000 for the Republicans in this election cycle.

King’s boosterism on behalf of Bush and the GOP has, for the most part, been greeted with eye rolls and chuckles. (And there is something admittedly hilarious about listening to King shout, “[I]n Ed Gillespie you can hear the word of Jesus cry, ‘I’ve been anointed to deal with the problems of the poor!’”) But the strange-bedfellow relationship between King and the GOP is no laughing matter. For one, by publicly embracing someone like King—whose personal and business practices make his good friend Al Sharpton look like a choirboy—the Republicans have revealed the inept, desperate, and morally bankrupt nature of their approach to racial politics. What’s more, the relationship raises serious questions about what King is getting from the GOP in return for his rhetorical and financial support. Because, as King himself once said in response to a question about why he didn’t donate the proceeds from one of his prizefights to charity, “Ain’t nobody does anything for nothin’.”

Although George W. Bush received only about 9 percent of the black vote in 2000, Gillespie has said that increasing that share is a “top, top priority” for the GOP, and some Republicans say they hope to win 25 percent of the African American vote in this campaign. As evidence of their seriousness about increasing their share of the black vote, Republicans point to King’s role in the Bush campaign. “Don King is a great promoter,” says RNC spokesperson Tara Wall, “and we believe that he’s able to carry the Republican Party’s message to the African American community.”

But there are reasons why King—despite a long history of providing financial support to politicians—was hardly ever called upon, prior to this election, to offer his rhetorical skills on the campaign trail. Most basically, King isn’t a terribly effective political spokesperson. His logorrheic speaking style—part Jesse Jackson, part P.T. Barnum— obviously works when talking up a fighter; but King’s verbal gymnastics are so over the top and convoluted that, when he’s promoting a politician, he only makes that politician seem ridiculous. To wit: “George Walker Bush for four more years will give us giant strides in upward mobility and the direction of our great nation that will enable us to sit down at the table of brotherhood and sup together, as King would say, Jew and gentile, Italian, everyone that comes from every race, color, community, and religion.” Certainly King’s support for Bush hasn’t helped so far: According to a CBS/Black Entertainment Television poll in July, only 10 percent of black registered voters supported the president.

Then there’s the not-so-small matter of King’s past. In 1967, King, then a 35-year-old numbers runner in Cleveland, Ohio, was convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison for stomping to death a man who owed him $600 on a bet. (It wasn’t the first time King killed someone: Twelve years earlier he had shot a man to death; prosecutors ruled the killing “justifiable homicide” since the victim had tried to rob one of King’s gambling houses.) After getting out of prison in 1971, King supposedly went straight, becoming a boxing promoter and quickly rising to the top of his profession. But boxing is a notoriously sleazy business, and King has spent much of his business career in court. In 1984, he was indicted by Rudolph Giuliani, then a U.S. attorney, on 23 counts of filing false income-tax returns and tax evasion. And, in 1994, he was indicted again—this time on nine counts of insurance fraud for allegedly bilking Lloyd’s of London. King beat both charges, but he hasn’t fared as well in some of the more than 100 lawsuits he’s faced from boxers, managers, and fellow promoters who claim he’s cheated them, paying out an estimated $25 million in settlements over the past three decades.

For a candidate and a political party that have attacked an anti-Bush group for hiring felons to canvass voters, and have gone out of their way to distance themselves from supporters tainted by scandal—former Bush friend and contributor Ken Lay is persona non grata in the GOP thanks to the Enron scandal and a federal indictment—you’d think Bush and his fellow Republicans would be wary of getting too close to someone with such a checkered past. But, with Republicans so desperate for a prominent African American supporter, they’re apparently willing to look the other way in King’s case. “He hasn’t been convicted of anything,” says the RNC’s Wall when asked about King’s business practices. As for his manslaughter conviction, Wall is philosophical. “He served his debt to society,” she says. “We believe in redemption.”

But, if the Republicans’ motives for cozying up to King are clear, what are King’s reasons for supporting Bush? King claims he’s in the GOP camp because he believes in the president—”He’s the man with the plan,” King says—but others, particularly those who have dealt with King in the boxing world, suspect ulterior motives. “The one word that describes Don King best is ‘opportunist,’” says Pat English, an attorney for Main Events, the boxing promoters. “He’s always acted consistently in his own self-interest. I don’t see why that would be any different in this case.”

Indeed, King has a history of strategic political giving. In the early ‘80s, after realizing the FBI was investigating him for tax evasion, King began lobbying Ohio’s Republican Governor James Rhodes for a pardon of his manslaughter conviction. A pardon would mean that, if King were convicted of any charges stemming from the current investigation, he wouldn’t have a felony on his record to be held against him in the sentencing. In addition to lining up support from a number of Cleveland politicos and civic leaders, King, according to Jack Newfield’s investigative biography, The Life and Crimes of Don King, made several campaign donations to Rhodes. And, in January 1983, Rhodes—who had only six days left in office—did indeed pardon King. After the pardon, King hired Rhodes’s son as a consultant.

So what does King want from Bush and the Republicans these days? The most popular theory revolves around pending legislation that would try to clean up professional boxing by creating a national commission to oversee the sport, which is currently regulated only at the state level. The brainchild of Arizona Senator John McCain, the national boxing commission would establish uniform national standards for the sport. As such, it would have a severe impact on King’s business practices. It would entrust the ranking of fighters to an independent panel of boxing writers and experts instead of leaving them to the hodgepodge of independent boxing associations, which have proved susceptible to alleged blandishments and bribes from King and other promoters over the years. It would stop unfair and coercive contracts of the type that King has used to secure the promotion rights for fighters in perpetuity. Most importantly, it would be the sole licensing body for the business—meaning that, if King ran afoul of any rules, the commission could revoke his right to promote fights in the United States; as it stands now, if King’s license is revoked in one state, he can simply take his business to another.

Which is why King, while saying he supports regulatory reform, has vehemently opposed McCain’s legislation. Last year, he wrote a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee—which was holding hearings on the bill—stating his concern “that a federal agency might affect the entrepreneurial spirit of boxing.” And, in recent years, King has made numerous campaign contributions to Nevada Democratic Senator Harry Reid—including a $50,000 donation to Reid’s political action committee in 1999—who worked to block the bill. (Reid has said that he only talked once to King about the boxing bill, but people on Capitol Hill, including McCain, have charged that, in opposing the bill, Reid was acting on behalf of King and other promoters.) Earlier this year, however, McCain and Reid cut a deal, and the bill passed the Senate. It’s now sitting in the House, where some boxing observers believe King hopes his new Republican friends will kill it. “I’m sure that Mister King, who’s well-known for his philanthropy, has only engaged in the political process for altruistic reasons, but I also know of his opposition to the boxing bill,” says McCain, “which we’re having some difficulties with in the House.” King, for his part, says he has never mentioned the boxing bill to Gillespie or Bush. “It’s another contentious, negative casting of aspersions for anybody that do good,” he insists.

There’s also speculation that King’s support for Bush could have something to do with his efforts to sell a piece of property he owns in Florida. In 1999, King and his wife bought a jai alai arena and the 54 acres it sits on in Palm Beach County for $6.25 million with the hopes of turning it into a world-class boxing venue. But King’s big plans never came to fruition, and now he’s trying to sell the property for $30 million—possibly as the site of a new stadium for the Florida Marlins baseball team. And, since such a stadium would almost certainly require public financing, some speculate that King has supported Bush as a way to curry favor with—or at least gain access to—his brother Jeb, who is Florida’s governor. “There’s a lot of talk that this is about getting Jeb Bush to approve a deal to build a baseball stadium on that land,” says King’s biographer, Newfield. “It would be just like King: He’s brilliant, and he’s always thinking six moves ahead.” Indeed, when he ran into Governor Bush at a fund-raiser for the president in Palm Beach in January, King tried to sell him on the stadium deal right there. “On two occasions, he said, ‘I will support it if it’s done right,’” King told The Palm Beach Post. “This is great news.”

Finally, there’s the possibility that, as someone who lives under the constant threat of federal investigation, King views his high-profile support of President Bush as a talisman of sorts. “I think he’s supporting Bush because it helps for him to have a good relationship with the president and therefore, he hopes, the Justice Department,” says Thomas Hauser, the boxing writer and lawyer who, in the early ‘90s, represented Joseph Maffia—King’s former chief financial officer and a key government witness in the insurance-fraud case against King. “Maybe Don’s supporting George Bush because he thinks that Bush is fighting a brilliant war on terror, and he agrees with the president that no child should be left behind, and on down the line. I’m not inclined to think so.”

“What they can’t conceive, know, imbibe, or digest is maybe this brother ain’t doing nothing wrong.” It’s after King’s speech at Madame Tussauds, and all the Republican donors have left the banquet hall. But, even with a crowd of just one, King is still performing as he answers my questions about the theories his critics offer to explain his support for Bush. Still, King is in a forgiving spirit. He magnanimously excuses his two old foes McCain and Giuliani—whom he’d watched speak at the convention two nights earlier from Gillespie’s box—for condemning him as a scourge on boxing (in McCain’s case) and trying to put him in prison (in Giuliani’s). The two men, King tells me, are simply victims of “the consumption of negative publicity” that has resulted from the campaign of “condemnation, vilification, character assassination” he has endured for being an example of “black success.” He still has “love and respect,” he assures me, for their “human spirit.”

Indeed, as King talks for more than an hour, it seems he has love and respect for everyone—even the Democrats. King, who pointedly calls himself a “Republicrat,” tells me that, while he may be in the Republican camp at the moment, he has nothing against the other party. There’s Al Sharpton, for instance. “I love Sharpton!” he exclaims. “It’s great for us: Can you imagine two street urchins from the ghetto? Al Sharpton over there with Kerry if Kerry should win, Don King over there with George Walker Bush. We’ve got a voice on either side of the aisle!” And then there’s Kerry himself. “I love Senator John Kerry,” King insists. “He’s another veteran, fought for my country, gave me the right to have free speech and be able to say what I’m saying.”

All of King’s love and respect, in fact, brings to mind one of the most famous stories about the boxing promoter—one he often tells about himself. In 1973, King, who was just then starting in the boxing business, attended a fight in Jamaica between the heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and George Foreman, the challenger. King had come to Jamaica at Frazier’s invitation, but, in the days before the fight, away from Frazier’s view, he also managed to befriend Foreman. On the night of the fight, King arrived at the arena with Frazier in the champion’s limousine, which had its own police motorcade. When the fight started, he was sitting ringside near Frazier’s corner. But, as King recounted years later to The New York Times, “[T]he first round, George hit Frazier with a devastating punch that sent Joe leaping into the air. Every time he’d strike Frazier, I’d move closer to the end of the row, toward George’s corner. By the time the fight ended, a second-round TKO, I was on George’s corner. When the fight was stopped, I’m into the ring, saying to George, ‘I told you.’ And George said, ‘Come with me.’ He took me to his room. Same thing. Motorcycle cops. Sirens blasting.” The point of this story, according to King? “I came with the champion and left with the champion.” It’s a story that King’s political allies would do well to keep in mind.