A person identifying himself as boxing legend Muhammad Ali has made hundreds of phone calls to politicians and journalists, asking for help on three projects, one potentially worth millions to Ali, according to a newspaper report.
Ali, in a face-to-face interview, told The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution he did not make the phone calls, and had no idea who did, the newspaper reported in Sunday editions. "Why would a Black Muslim mess with politicians?" Ali said. "I don't care."Many of the "Ali" calls to journalists were arranged by his attorney, Richard M. Hirschfeld of Charlottesville, Va., the newspaper said. It quoted business associates of Ali and Hirschfeld as saying the lawyer does a convincing impersonation of the former heavyweight champion.
The newspaper said its attorneys sent a list of questions to Hirschfeld, inluding one asking whether he had ever impersonated Ali's voice to a third party.
Hirschfeld, in a letter, did not answer the questions, but instead said that Ali denied making statements the newspaper attributed to him, including the statement denying that he knew anything about the phone calls, the paper said.
The newspaper reported that "the Ali voice" this year has called at least six U.S. senators, two administrative assistants, 10 press secretaries, nine journalists, 14 senatorial aides, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., counsel to President Reagan.
In calls to the powerful in Washington, "the Ali voice" pushed these three projects, the newspaper reported:
-An assistant attorney general's job for University of Virginia law professor Stephen Saltzburg, a friend and occasional legal associate of Hirschfeld.
-A Justice Department investigation of a federal prosecutor in Norfolk, Va., who had completed a case against a former Hirschfeld business associate and was investigating Hirschfeld.
-A bill in Congress saying Ali could sue again on a lawsuit he had lost, seeking $50 million in damages from his wrongful conviction in his 1967 draft evasion case. Hirschfeld was an attorney in that lawsuit. The first draft of that legislation, which failed last September, was written by Saltzburg at Hirschfeld's request, according to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who proposed the legislation.
In phone calls to senators and journalists, "the phone Ali" was "witty, articulate and intelligent," showing knowledge and political savvy on subjects as diverse as foreign policy, fair housing and the Democratic Party's Dixiecrat uprising of 1948, the newspaper reported.
But Ali, 46, twice has been diagnosed as suffering from brain damage from his 27 years in the ring. In many public appearances in recent years, he has spoken hesitatingly, often in a slurred whisper.
Ali, accompanied by Hirschfeld, has made a number of personal appearances in Washington this year, visiting the offices of five senators who had spoken with "the Ali telephone imposter," the newspaper reported. During these visits, Ali shook hands, signed autographs and made small talk, mostly in whispered phrases.
The newspaper noted media coverage of Ali this year - including a June 9 page-one story in The Washington Post, based on "a rare telephone interview," detailing his stands on politicians from Strom Thurmond and Jesse Jackson to Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Atlanta story also quoted several Ali associates as doubting that the former champ could expound at length on the issues of the day.
"Ali is a simple man," said his former fight doctor, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco.
"If you accept him as naive, it doesn't take anything for unscrupulous people to talk their way into him, to use him as a front and use his name. ... Politics? Foreign policy? He knows about foreign policy?"
After reading a political interview ostensibly given by Ali, Ali intimate Lloyd Wells said, "Ali is not capable of that kind of political rhetoric. ... I bet my life there's no way Ali sat down and uttered that rhetoric."