Ben Carson’s résumé doesn’t read like those of your average presidential aspirant—pediatric neurosurgeon, best-selling author, motivational speaker. And to help plot his long-shot path to the White House, this unlikely candidate has turned to a man with an even more unconventional background: a magic-loving entrepreneur and celebrity lawyer named Terry Giles who made a cameo in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, defended serial killers, and for 14 years chaired the board of a controversial self-help empire created by a mercurial pop psychologist. That is, not the usual political operative.
When Carson formally announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination on Monday, he gave a shout out to Giles, his campaign chairman. “When I started this endeavor…I asked him to put together the rest of the team in order to be able to do this,” Carson said, introducing Giles to the audience. With no more political expertise than the candidate himself, the 66-year-old attorney has spent the last nine months assembling a campaign outfit from scratch, including mining Newt Gingrich’s 2012 operation for key hires.
For Giles, putting together a presidential bid is the latest venture in an eclectic career that has included stints as a car dealer, chateau baron, and magic-club owner. “I have adult ADD,” he says in an interview. But Giles is no dilettante; as a lawyer, he has been ruthless in defending his clients’ interests—a trait that may be particularly useful during what will likely be a combative GOP primary contest.
Giles’ wife has dubbed him “the fireman” for his crisis management skills, which he has put to work on behalf of a roster of embattled celebrity clients. That list includes comedian Richard Pryor, who on a cocaine-fueled summer night in 1980 literally lit himself on fire after dousing himself in Bacardi 151 and striking a match. While Pryor recovered from the third-degree burns that covered half his body, Giles took over Pryor’s business affairs, scrapped with the tabloids, and eventually arranged for the comic to fly to Washington, DC, to headline a White House celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Pryor got his moment of redemption; President Ronald Reagan got good press; and Giles hit it off with the young Department of Agriculture appointee who had organized the event, Armstrong Williams.
Like Giles, Williams has assumed a key role in Ben Carson’s brain trust. Now a talk radio host and businessman, Williams serves as Carson’s media guru, helping the first-time candidate massage his often unfiltered talking points. (Carson’s recent snafus include suggesting that prison might turn people gay and misstating the origin of Islam by several millennia). But it’s Giles’ work assembling Carson’s political team that could determine whether the doctor can turn his moment in the political spotlight into something enduring.
“He’s fiercely loyal, very imaginative,” Williams says of Giles. “Even when [Carson’s] not going up, Terry will make sure he finds a way to go up.” Carson’s choice of a political outsider to build his operation highlights the big gamble of his candidacy—that the GOP’s primary-voting and caucus-going base doesn’t want a conventional Republican politician and instead yearns for a radically different option.
Carson’s friendship with Giles dates back to 1994, when both men were inducted into the Horatio Alger Association, a national organization of business leaders that celebrates “outstanding individuals in our society who have succeeded in spite of adversity.” They ended up sitting next to each other for the weekend ceremonies, and Carson later praised Giles’ “inspiring story” in his next book.
Giles first made a name for himself as a criminal defense lawyer in the 1970s, taking on salacious cases like the “Hillside Strangler” serial killer (a rare defeat). After once getting a client cleared of rape charges, Giles held a press conference for reporters to watch the man shake hands with his accuser. But in the early 1980s, after a client he’d gotten acquitted of murder killed two people and fled to Mexico, Giles did some soul-searching. “I found the question of ‘Why is the world better because of what I do for a living?’ to be a bit troubling,” he says.
He quit criminal law and threw himself into the business world. He sold cars, ran a bank, and imported fax machines, making a tidy fortune and generally living large at his 13,500-square-foot Rancho Santa Fe castle. No investment was too far-flung. In 1994, after three bottles of wine with a Swiss aristocrat, he purchased a thousand-year-old chateau—the former home of Prince William of Sweden—that housed a five-star hotel and overlooked the Cote d’Azur in the south of France.
As he grew wealthy, Giles pursued his eccentric interests, including a passion for magic. He would occasionally invite magicians to perform at his home in period attire; one year it was King Arthur-themed. In 1986, he purchased a struggling Newport Beach club called Magicians Island. The entrance to the club itself featured a magic trick. “You walked into an elevator and the elevator dropped you down down down down down,” recalls Rory Johnston, a magician who struck up a friendship with Giles while working at the club. “I think the elevator maybe dropped six inches but it was the illusion of it.” In an upstairs room, guests could purchase seances for $250 a session. Fans would send a breeze through this room at opportune moments, and certain objects were made to levitate.
“Terry, whenever he does anything, he does it full-out Class A,” Johnston says. “If he does it, he does right, and he puts everything in his heart and his creativity into it.”
Giles continued to practice law, but he specialized in waging PR battles on behalf of clients immersed in tabloid controversies. In late 1998, this led him to the center of Monica Lewinsky scandal, when, as a favor to a friend, he paid a visit to the Portland, Oregon, home of Kathy Bleiler and her husband, Andy, who had reportedly had an affair with Lewinsky. News vans blocked the street and the family put blankets over the windows to keep out the television lights. “It looked like a movie scene that you’d have in Vietnam,” he says. The trio huddled in the attic, where, as Giles’ version of the story goes, the Bleilers revealed that Lewinsky had even mailed them documents filched from the president’s desk.
Giles says he intended only to offer the couple quick legal advice and maybe recommend a lawyer, but instead he became their lawyer and spokesman. Outside the Bleiler’s home, delivering brief remarks on the condition that the media leave the area after he was done, he told the assembled press that Lewinsky had manipulated the couple, talked constantly about sex, and had boasted to them, ”I’m going to the White House to get my presidential kneepads.”
Over the next few days, Giles went on to compare Lewinsky to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction and said that Lewinsky simply wanted men to pay attention to her: “That’s what she pined for from her dad and never got, and so as a result, if she was providing sex favors to someone and they were not giving her the attention she wanted, she was not above and beyond using her street smarts to in other ways guarantee her that attention.”
Giles has no regrets about the kneepads line; he says he was merely relaying what the Bleilers told him: “I felt like that particular quote was probably gonna get told anyway at some point, but I used it right then basically because maybe it’ll get [the press] off the yard.”
Lewinsky, though, has denied ever uttering the “kneepads” comment. And so has Bleiler. He told an interviewer in 2014 that Giles had pulled the line out of nowhere. Yet Giles and his “kneepads” quote helped brand Lewinsky as a nymphomaniac home-wrecker.*
Giles’ fierce advocacy on behalf of scandal-plagued clients eventually led him to a perch atop Landmark, a controversial self-help movement based on the teachings of the pop psychologist Werner Erhard, whose original weekend-long seminars were known as “est” (short for Erhard Seminars Training). Erhard typified a certain kind of 1980s idealism (his teachings have been featured in everything from Annie Hall to the current season of The Americans). A former used-car dealer, he believed in aggressive verbal interrogation as a means of achieving personal breakthroughs, and felt that his followers had an obligation to spread the good word about est.
In the 1980s, Giles signed on to represent ComputerLand mogul William Millard, a California billionaire who had had been ordered by a California judge to pay aggrieved investors $115 million; he was also facing a revolt among his franchisees, some of whom were concerned about Millard’s devotion to Erhard. Many of Millard’s top employees were est disciples, and he often relied on est teachings in his decision-making. At one point, one percent of all sales generated by franchises went toward an ad campaign promoting Erhard’s anti-hunger initiative.
“Some people called [est] a cult—it was really about being self-sufficient,” Giles says.
In order to defend Millard’s business practices in court, Giles also had to defend est. In the resulting settlement, Millard got his money back, but left Computerland and eventually moved to the Cayman Islands after being hit with a $118 million tab for unpaid taxes and penalties. But Erhard was impressed by Giles’ work on behalf of Millard—and his defense of his seminars. He asked Giles to help him out with his own legal issues. (Among other things, Erhard was fighting the IRS on a tax case of his own, which he eventually won.) When Erhard decided to move on from est in 1991—also, incidentally, to the Cayman Islands—he left a power vacuum at the company that staged the seminars, now known as Landmark. Giles helped a group of former Erhard employees take control of the company, and in 2000, he was appointed chairman of the board. The company thrived during Giles’ tenure, claiming more than a million total attendees and annual revenues in the high eight figures, even if it hasn’t quite shaken its reputation—a 2005 article in GQ described the Forum (as it’s now known) as “three days of scant sleep, humiliating revelations, and verbal abuse.”
Although Giles didn’t attend his first Forum until 2006, he eventually became a devotee himself. “There’s one that I call, ‘Already Always Listening,'” he says, referring to his favorite Landmark dictum. “All of us have a filter through which we hear others, and it’s already there and it’s always there. If we really want to hear what somebody else is telling us, if we really want to listen to what they’re saying, we have to drop our screen; we have to really listen—because if we don’t, we’ll filter it through what we’re already thinking.”
Giles says the training can come in handy in mediating disputes. In 2010, he used the teachings of “Already Always Listening” to quell the infighting between the children of Martin Luther King Jr., after a Georgia judge asked him to referee an intrafamily dispute over their company, King Inc., which holds the rights to the civil right’s leader’s intellectual property.
Landmark, like other Giles clients, is not afraid to play hardball. After interviewing Giles, I received an email, unsolicited, from Landmark’s director of public relations, Deborah Beroset, informing me that while Landmark was likely irrelevant to my piece, I should read an attached six-page addendum setting the record straight. The memo contained quotes from an Australian doctor affirming that “Landmark’s programs are safe and effective,” and several experts on sects and cults stating that Landmark was neither a sect nor a cult. It also included a preemptive rebuttal of the claim that Erhard was once a Scientologist (in fact, the Church of Scientology kept a file on him) and a short list of “respected publications” that Landmark (which is to say, Giles) has forced to publish corrections. Two Fed-Exed letters from the company arrived the next business day repeating the points of the email.
Giles resigned his position at the company in late December, a few months after Carson asked him to chair his campaign-in-waiting. He admits that the last few months have been overwhelming at times, as he fields 400 emails a day from people looking to join Team Carson. “I don’t know if this is other candidates putting spies into us, or reporters hiding as someone who’s interested in the campaign to find out what we’re doing,” he says. “Are these real supporters who want to play a role? You just never know.”
Now that the campaign staff is mostly in place, Carson has assigned Giles a new task. He has asked him to begin putting together a list of people who could help the doctor hit the ground running when he gets to the White House—an unusual move for an underdog candidate months before the first caucuses. Giles says he will also take over as co-chair of a pro-Carson super-PAC in September. (He has to wait 120 days before jumping from working for a candidate to running a super-PAC for that candidate, per federal elections regulations.) At the PAC, Giles will be responsible for raising enough money to keep his friend competitive against deep-pocketed competitors. For that, his connections to wealthy bigwigs—the kind of people who show up at Horatio Alger Association dinners—will come in handy. The organization is filled with big-time GOP donors, including Foster Friess, the crocodile-hunting, ISIS-stalking Wyoming investor who bankrolled former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s super-PAC in 2012.
Carson is a political novice with a thin grasp of many policy issues and a propensity for finding himself lampooned on The Daily Show. But the recent history of the Republican Party shows that a long-shot candidate can catch fire, thanks to a few lucky breaks and a wealthy benefactor—at least for a while. Newt Gingrich, whose 2012 campaign staff Giles mined for talent (Carson’s South Carolina state director, finance director, and senior adviser were all vets) won the South Carolina primary with the help of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. (Giles says he and Friess recently made plans to play golf.)
Giles speaks of the task ahead with the kind of optimism befitting an operation that brought on a motivational speaker to serve as “director of campaign culture.” Victory is possible, he says—”every journey starts with a single step.” A little magic can’t hurt, either.
This article has been revised.
Update: After this story was published, Giles contacted Mother Jones to say he “was shocked” that Andy Bleiler had denied saying the “kneepads” comment. He noted that he “would never make up or pull out of the air such a phrase” and “had no reason to report anything but the truth regarding my encounter with the Bleiler’s.” Subsequently, Andy Bleiler’s ex-wife Kathy contacted Mother Jones to note that “Monica Lewinsky said those words to me.”