Khalid al-Mansour and his ‘terrible, horrible, not good, very bad’ luck with dear friends and reporters

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The Vernon Jarrett syndicated column of Nov. 6, 1979, that appeared in the St. Petersburg Evening Independent. It originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 2. This image was pieced together from screen shots of the St. Petersburg Independent page available for viewing in the Google Newspaper Archive. Jarrett was the father-in-law of Valerie Jarrett, President Obama's closest adviser.

There have been lots of interesting responses to last week’s column about Dr. Khalid al-Mansour, but none more interesting than the response of al-Mansour himself.

I accidentally put al-Mansour back in the national spotlight with my column about a 1979 article by Chicago Tribune writer Vernon Jarrett that stated unequivocally that al-Mansour was trying at that time to put together a massive aid program to benefit minority colleges and students with money from Arab countries.

Just two days after my column appeared, al-Mansour was doing damage control — telling Buzzfeed.com that he had never talked to OPEC Secretary General Rene Ortiz about setting up the $200 million fund, as Jarrett had reported — and that indeed he had never even talked to Jarrett about the topic.

That, of course, would make Jarrett either a liar or a charlatan, which considering his distinguished 50-year career in journalism, including long stints at both the Chicago Tribune and the Sun-Times, seems highly unlikely, but one of the time-honored rules of good journalism is that you have to tell both sides of the story, so I want to make sure that Khalid al-Mansour’s story gets told to my readers.

In case you didn’t read last week’s column, I need to take a moment here to explain that Jarrett’s 1979 column would not have any particular importance except that 30 years later, al-Mansour was in the middle of a national controversy when it was claimed that he had solicited money and recommendations to help put the young Barack Obama through Harvard Law School in the 1980s.

This claim was made in March 2008 during the heated New York primary battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton. Octogenarian lawyer and longtime New York power broker Percy Sutton had reported matter-of-factly during a local New York City telecast that al-Mansour had asked for his help in the 1980s when he was trying to get Obama into law school.

This had the potential to be an important development in the 2008 presidential campaign because Khalid al-Mansour had a long history as an anti-Semitic black nationalist, a mentor of the radical Black Panther party, and an adviser of the Saudi prince who blamed Israel for the 9/11 attacks. He was certainly no one that a presidential candidate wanted to be affiliated with, and as soon as the story went public on the Internet in August 2008, the Obama campaign called it a lie.

At first, al-Mansour was a bit more circumspect, saying he didn’t want to contradict Sutton because he was “a dear friend.” But then he stuck a knife in the back of his dear friend by telling Politico reporter Ben Smith that “the scenario as it related to me did not happen” — in other words, Sutton was either venal or senile.

Like I said, that was all back in 2008, and the story quickly vanished because Ben Smith also found a “spokesman for Sutton’s family” — Kevin Wardally — who put out a press release saying that “Mr. Sutton, now 86 years of age, misspoke.” The only problems with that statement were that the family spokesman didn’t know that Sutton was actually 88, and the family later said they didn’t know the reputed family spokesman at all.

Since Sutton had appeared entirely lucid, and had supplied numerous details in the TV interview that clearly could only be relevant to Khalid al-Mansour and Barack Obama, it stretched credulity to believe that he was talking about some other president of the Harvard Law Review than Obama or some other “principal adviser to one of the world’s richest men,” as he referred to al-Mansour.

Since I had grown up in New York and was a long-time admirer of Sutton (don’t forget I used to be a liberal!) I had been intrigued by this story for some time. Recently, I did some detective work online and came up with the 1979 article by Vernon Jarrett which seemed to provide context for Percy Sutton’s comments about al-Mansour in 2008.

In particular, Jarrett quoted al-Mansour as saying definitively that he was putting together an aid program from Arab states and OPEC to fund minority businesses, colleges and students in the United States as a way “to cultivate stronger ties to America’s blacks” by the “rich Arab kingdoms.” Jarrett then speculated that the Arabs might stand to benefit from a quid-pro-quo relationship with American blacks who would be more likely to support a Palestinian homeland if they knew they had “influential supporters in foreign lands.”

Since the 1979 article by Jarrett was made public last week, there has been considerable effort to tout its importance as giving circumstantial support to Percy Sutton’s 2008 story. It is also noteworthy that Vernon Jarrett later became the father-in-law of White House adviser and Obama family friend Valerie Jarrett; moreover the elder Jarrett had a longtime relationship with Frank Marshall Davis, the former Chicago journalist and lifelong communist who had moved to Hawaii where he became a close personal friend of Obama’s family and a father figure for Barack.

So, although there was nothing definitive to tie the 1979 column about al-Mansour to the 2008 campaign story told by Percy Sutton about how al-Mansour had put his considerable clout behind Barack Obama when he needed to enter Harvard Law School in 1988, it was at least highly suggestive.

Too suggestive, apparently, for al-Mansour, who once again turned to reporter Ben Smith to get his side of the story out. These days, Ben Smith has moved on from Politico to become editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed.com, a kind of gossipy tabloid-style website, and he is now apparently too important to contact sources himself. Although his byline appears on the Sept. 24 story about my column from last week, it was his reporter Rosie Gray who actually talked to al-Mansour. But what she found out was definitely interesting.

First of all, he told Gray that the story reported by Jarrett was “definitely not true... It’s not true, it’s not accurate.” He also said he had never heard of Jarrett’s column before last week and had “no idea what the motivation of Mr. Jarrett was.”

Also, despite a 2008 admission that he had talked to President Obama about staying clear of the campaign then, in the new Buzzfeed story al-Mansour is quoted as saying he doesn’t even know Barack Obama.

Moreover, al-Mansour told Buzzfeed he would not speculate about why Percy Sutton, who died in 2009 (not last year, as Ben Smith’s article claims) would have made up a story about how he had helped Obama get into Harvard Law School: “Mr. Sutton’s dead, I would have no idea. I can’t ask him,” Buzzfeed reported.

I don’t have any idea why Percy Sutton would have made up such a story either. Nor, for the life of me, can I think of any reason why Vernon Jarrett would have made up a phone interview with Khalid al-Mansour in 1979.

On the other hand, I can think of a perfectly good reason why Khalid al-Mansour would deny both their stories, and throw these two distinguished black community leaders under the bus. As Deep Throat told reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the movie about their Watergate investigation, “Follow the money.”

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