Magazine article American Visions


Magazine article American Visions


Article excerpt

Nothing adequately prepares you for the call from the president of the United States asking you to serve as his top adviser on matters affecting minorities and as their advocate within his administration. Nothing, not even earlier White House service.

When President Gerald Ford called me in early November 1975, there was no time to map strategy or study the roles played by my immediate predecessors, Robert J. Brown and Stanley S. Scott, the first two "commissioned" black special assistants to the president in the history of the United States.

I barely had time to remind myself that as White House director of media relations, I was experienced in handling the heat surrounding the president. A year earlier I had fielded questions for an hour after addressing the Radio, Television, News Directors Association at their annual convention. It was September 1974--and only a few days earlier, the new president had pardoned his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon. For an hour I was asked a single question again and again: Why did President Ford pardon Nixon? Only once before in my life had I heard a single question asked in so many different ways, and that was when I drove over my mother's favorite plant while learning to drive.

Now it was a year later, and I suddenly held two White House positions: special assistant to the president and director of media relations. The long days ran into long weeks and they, in turn, ran together. Making government work for all the people took a great deal of time and effort, but the long hours held great rewards.

During a visit to Tuskegee, Ala., Mayor Johnny Ford took me on a tour of his city, pointing out the various completed projects that had been aided by my office. Driving past a modern housing unit and seeing an elderly black woman sitting on the porch of her home--probably the best housing she ever knew in her life--was an unalloyed joy.

Being an advocate meant doing battle daily. At the Defense Department, for example, this meant opening more and higher positions to qualified minorities and women, and rapid response to grievances. When President Ford took office, there had never been a black four-star general in this nation's history. But General Daniel L. "Chappie" james, a decorated combat pilot with 179 missions in two of America's wars, soon became the first four-star African-American general--and then was named commanding general of the North American Air Defense Command, a critical component of the nation's security. The door to the top had been opened, though I never foresaw how soon Colin Powell would walk through it!

Pushing for the presence of minorities in meaningful positions throughout the executive branch was a primary concern. At the White House we were fortunate in having some of the most talented African Americans in positions of great influence. Thaddeus Garrett, a veteran of Capitol Hill, served as domestic affairs advisor to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Richard Parsons, a brilliant young attorney, served as deputy counsel to the vice president and as associate counsel to the Domestic Council. (Parsons went on to become chairman and CEO of Dime Bancorp of New York and, as of February 1995, president of Time Warner. …

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