WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s not often that a campaign operative points to a movie star setting himself on fire as a genesis for political engagement. But Houston-based attorney Terry Giles — now the top man on retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson's nascent presidential bid — can claim just that.
While freebasing cocaine in 1980, comedian Richard Pryor doused himself with liquor, set himself on fire and ran down his suburban Los Angeles street. The superstar comedian — obviously in need of medical attention — was also in legal trouble.
Giles became Pryor's attorney. And he helped orchestrate the effort to rehabilitate the comedian's image — including working with the Reagan administration to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday.
“The Richard Pryor thing was my first connection to Washington,” Giles said in an interview with The Texas Tribune.
Three decades later, with Carson as his front man, Giles is taking his first stab at electoral politics.
Both Carson and Giles are political iconoclasts. Unlike the governors and senators lining up to run in 2016, Carson is a world-famous surgeon and author who caught notice in GOP politics when he delivered the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast address. He will be in Austin on Thursday, speaking to a gathering of the Texas Hospital Association.
Giles, meanwhile, is not your born-and-bred political operative; he's the man behind the scenes who litigated — and sometimes mitigated — some of the most sensationally nasty celebrity and political dramas of the last several decades.
The two men met in 1994, when both won the Horatio Alger Award, which honors community leadership.
“Ben and I just kind of bonded at that gathering and became good friends over the years,” Giles said.
Giles, a native of St. Louis, was educated in California, where he built a criminal law practice in the 1970s. He “represented relatively infamous people,” including one of the Hillside Stranglers, who were a pair of Los Angeles-based serial killers.
After switching to civil law and business in the early 1980s, Giles' clients got even more fascinating. He represented Howard Marshall III, the son of a wealthy, elderly Texan who had married the late Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith, in an inheritance fight. He represented a school teacher who professed to an affair with a young Monica Lewinsky. He represented victims of abuse at the hands of priests in the Catholic Church. And he was the trustee of Kenneth Lay’s assets amid the Enron collapse.
Atlanta attorney John D. Steel even selected Giles to settle ongoing legal squabbles among the children of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I can tell you in my experience, Terry handles and manages very difficult situations in extraordinary manners that achieve results that I’m not sure others could achieve,” Steel said.
But Giles traces his political roots back to Pryor.
At his professional peak, Pryor’s profanity so terrified NBC executives that they didn't want him booked on Saturday Night Live. In private, Giles says Pryor was “a very kind, very gentle, very, very shy person” who was averse to foul language.
After the fire incident, Giles helped Pryor navigate the legal system, and helped broker an agreement that involved community service. But Pryor’s notoriety presented unique challenges: “What are you gonna do," Giles said, "have Richard Pryor run around and pick up paper on the freeway?”
Around that same time, a young African-American staffer in the Reagan administration named Armstrong Williams was tasked with making a push for a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Williams felt that Pryor, the country’s most famous black person at the time, would be the right one to make the push, so he reached out to Giles.
“It was devastating his career,” Williams said of the freebasing incident. “And at the same time, President Reagan was having his own challenges attracting high-profile blacks to come to high-profile events in Washington.”
Giles accompanied his client to Washington, and the Reagans hosted Pryor at the White House. When Pryor delivered a Black History Month speech at the Department of Agriculture, the comic broke down in tears four times; The Washington Post headline the next day was “The Jester Weeps.”
The connection would eventually come full circle: Years later, Giles handles Carson's political operation while Armstrong works for Carson's business arm.
If the Pryor case laid the foundation for Giles' political life, the Anna Nicole Smith case set up Giles’ personal life. He fell in love with his rival, Smith’s legal counsel Kalli O’Malley.
“She was on the Anna Nicole team,” he said. “We didn’t date or anything, obviously, until after the trial, but at least for me, there was an immediate attraction.”
He moved to Houston to marry her.
Now Giles and his wife are looking for a home in Washington, D.C., in preparation for Carson’s presidential campaign.
Giles expects Carson to officially announce his candidacy by May 1. The organization Giles envisions is a radical departure from the traditional campaign structure.
"I have no doubt that he will be able to quickly learn and navigate the many land mines in the political arena," Carson wrote in an email. "We are extremely fortunate to have him working alongside us in this endeavor to move America in the right direction."
Early on, Giles said, he studied organization charts from past campaigns. Eventually, he shucked the entire model.
“Seventy-five percent of the team will come out of private industry. Twenty-five percent will be seasoned political pros,” he said. “We’re not going to waste a lot of money on the typical political consultants.”
Giles declined to name any of his hires, but he said they'll be able to roll into action the moment Carson announces his run.
He did offer one hint. He said Carson's “director of campaign culture” — a person tasked with maintaining integrity inside of the operation — would be “a Texan, one of the best motivational speakers in the world.”