What two Presidents have done the most for African-Americans? Why does the White House still employ an all-black serving staff? What is President Obama like during an interview?
Kenneth T. Walsh, a prize-winning journalist who has covered the White House since 1986, answered these questions and more last night at the Beatley Library in Alexandria. He spoke in support of his latest book, “Family of Freedom: Presidents and African Americans in the White House.”
Affable and poised, Walsh presented over two-dozen photographs. Some showed the progress made in terms of equality, others reminded of the struggles along the way. After penning the best-selling Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington received an invitation to dine with President Roosevelt. Reaction from certain Senators included words we cannot re-print here.
The first Presidents, Walsh reminded, employed slaves in the White House, and thus, their legacies will always be questioned. After Lincoln, Andrew Johnson set back progress. President Clinton connected to African-Americans in meaningful, heartfelt ways. President Bush appointing General Colin Powell as Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was a milestone.
Lincoln helped African-Americans the most. LBJ was the second President to go against the tide and fight for Civil Rights. Fearing a backlash from voters, many Presidents did not take up any specific cause. Others took a “lift all boats” approach.
Drawing on his 16 years on the beat, Walsh provided insight into life at 1600 Pennsylvania. Dining one evening, Powell decried the fact that all the servers were black. The General fired off a memo stating his desire to change the long-held practice. Unanimously, the staff replied by saying, hands off our jobs - we like working in the White House.
The author also talked about his interview with President Obama for his book. The President got down to business by saying, "I've been briefed." Walsh contrasted this with previous Presidents who chit-chatted to break the ice. On the other hand, Obama put together his words and thoughts better than any of the others.
I enjoyed the author’s presentation. The stereotype for journalists revolves around big egos. Walsh is down to earth and gave a very insightful lecture. President Obama’s election heralded in a new chapter for our country, but it took many, difficult other ones to get there. The White House always sharpens the focus.