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It was after midnight and people were still walking in line and braving a stiff wind to pay their final respects to President George Herbert Walker Bush, whose flag-draped casket rested inside the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
Even though I didn’t have an assignment, I felt compelled as a journalist to be out in the elements to cover the final tribute to the 41st President of the United States, who I first wrote about as a reporter for the Washington Afro American.
I felt fortunate that I had a Congressional press credential that allowed me to walk around thousands who waited for hours to walk past President Bush’s casket that rested on the same cataflague used for President Abraham Lincoln’s casket after his assassination in 1865.
The African-American delegates who attended the 1988 Republican National Convention talked a lot about Lincoln during that confab that nominated Bush, who went onto beat former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.
The convention would mark the start of White House more diverse than the Ronald Reagan years, and at the Afro we wanted to report the affairs of the White House, given the FBI sting against former Mayor Marion Barry and the fact that the District budget was in the hands of Congress.
African-Americans working in Bush’s executive branch and those advising him, people like General Colin Powell, Louis Sullivan, Connie Newman, Judy Smith, Kristin Clark Taylor, and Condoleezza Rice, were conduits between the president and Black America, and after eight years of Reagan the word was that Bush was a kindler and gentler man.
As a reporter, I got a White House press pass that I used to cover the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon. Anytime African-Americans came to the White House or were in the news, we covered it. We wrote about the confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas, and Nelson Mandela‘s visit to D.C. after his release from a South African jail in 1990. I got to get a question in as Mandela left the White House.
From 1988 to 1992, the Bush White House was bigger than race, class, and political party. In addition to well known faces, Bush became a friend to African-American White House staffers like Stewart Stevens, who was responsible for cleaning all of the glass in the White House, from the windows to the chandeliers.
“President Bush loved to play horseshoes and he loved playing horse shoes with the staff,” says Stevens, who retired after serving presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton.
During this period, civil rights veterans like Coretta Scott King, NAACP President Benjamin Hooks, and many other black icons frequently visited the White House. Being a journalist felt like an honor as well as a duty.
I thought about those years this week as I watched the funeral on television and talked to lawmakers on Capitol Hill like Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, from Bush’s adopted hometown of Houston. “Dad could relate to people from all walks of life,” President George W. Bush said as he eulogized his father at the National Cathedral in Washington before he took his father back to Texas for burial. “Dad taught us that public service is noble and necessary.”
In death, President Bush reminded me that journalism is far bigger than quotes and extends much farther than one particular racial group. For indeed Washington D.C. is the capital for people of many nations.