Imagine being a 13-year-old boy on your own in Washington, D. C. in 1944. You are black, from a poor farming community in South Carolina, and ran away to find a better life, heeding a comment from a white Southern Senator who passed through your town: “If you ever get up to Washington, D. C., drop by and see me.” That simple sentence was the invitation Bertie Bowman took to heart when he slipped out of the bed he shared with three brothers, put a change of clothes in a flour sack, pinned some meager savings to his shirt, and began his adventure.
Bertie’s journey took him from hard-scrabble farm fields to the hallowed halls of the Capitol where, by combining the hard work he learned from his father with a willingness to seek out unique opportunities in a pre-civil rights era, he ended up mentoring a future president. Once in Washington, Bertie took literally Senator Maybank’s invitation and stopped by his office. Impressed by the young boy standing before him, Maybank sent Bertie to see the janitorial staff, who put him to work sweeping the Capitol steps for two dollars a week. Senator Maybank probably never imagined that Bertie would end up as the hearing coordinator for the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee and confidante to many in power, including a young Bill Clinton who was his intern as a college student.
Bertie’s story is revealed in a new memoir, “Step by Step,” which was published in May by Ballentine Books. I first met Bertie when I was the receptionist for Senator Wayne Morse (D-Oregon), and Bertie was a committee messenger. All his deliveries came across my desk, so we got to be good friends, and have remained so every since. Bertie always kept a little spiral notebook like a diary, and often joked about writing a book. He had a foot in two worlds – what he calls the Senate’s “downstairs” workers, and the elected officials who made headlines every day. His ability to traverse those two very different societies, and provide insights into both, makes for a fascinating read.
Bertie came to Washington with a child’s naiveté, and he manages to find some good in nearly everyone he mentions in the book. But he also is a keen observer of the human condition, and what makes people tick. So it was not at all unusual that he engenders respect and admiration from such disparate people as Senators William Fulbright, Richard Lugar, and Strom Thurmond, as well as Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, and all the “downstairs” workers he saw every day.
“Step by Step” is a fascinating and enjoyable memoir of a man who, against improbable odds, achieved the American dream and made many friends along the way. It also is the story of a Capitol that has seen dramatic changes in the course of one lifetime, told frankly with hope and perseverance, not bitterness. If you like Washington history, and want to be inspired anew by our Nation’s Capitol, read “Step by Step.” I think you will enjoy it, as I did.