One step at a time

Many Capitol Hill aides keep diaries of their time spent working in Congress, but few actually do anything with them. Bertie Bowman, who clerks for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has called Washington his home for more than 40 years, and now he has something to say about it in his newly published autobiography, Step by Step: A Memoir of Hope, Friendship, Perseverance and Living the American Dream.

The memoir hits bookshelves today, followed by a book signing at The Trover Shop on Capitol Hill on May 22 at 12:30 p.m.

When Bowman talks about running away from South Carolina at 13 and leaving 14 siblings on the family farm to go “to the promised land,” it’s hard to not hear strains of another black man, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and his “yes we can” philosophy. But ask about politics, party affiliation and Obama being on the committee he manages and this is what Bowman says:

“My name is Bertie Bowman and I’m the hearing coordinator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”

Of the 21 senators who serve on the committee, there must be some Bowman prefers over others; there must be some who are high-maintenance about their briefs, coffee or tea. But he’ll never tell. He smiles and declares proudly, “The senators, they treat me like a king, meaning I have no problem with nobody — and what more can I ask for? Black, white, colored. If you’re my friend, you’re my friend.”

Bowman has a big, warm personality and a voluminous, bellowing laugh — all of which are detectable in a two-minute phone conversation before meeting in person.

To find him requires barging through a wooden door on the third floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building that reads “Authorized Personnel Only.” Inside is the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There sits Bowman, tucked away in a corner behind a desk.

Out he comes, hand outstretched. He has snow-white hair, a large frame and dark, smiling eyes. Bowman, 77, having just arrived from a hearing, is decked out in a professional dark suit and checked tie.

“It never gets old,” he says of coming to work on the Hill each day.

Though he won’t discuss race-related issues in heated, stark terms, the black aide who openly befriended a diverse group of senators such as Burnet Maybank (D-S.C.), Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) does allude to them. “I’ve survived all the obstacles that were in my path. They’re not in my path anymore.

“I survived the basement,” he says, referring to early Capitol jobs as a janitor and cook. “Look at where I am. If that don’t make you feel good, nothing will.”

Along the way he befriended Bill Clinton, who in 1966 was a student at Georgetown and a messenger for the Foreign Relations Committee. “I got on him one time,” Bowman recalled. “He was clipping out the sports page. I said, ‘Man, you’re supposed to be clipping out stuff for foreign policy.’ I thought he was going to go far in life, but we didn’t discuss president, only congressman.”

Another favorite memory involves what staffers referred to as Sen. Thurmond’s “pee bag.” During a filibuster, when the senator would speak out against the Civil Rights Act, aides like Bowman were responsible for the bucket by Thurmond’s desk, so the senator wouldn’t have to leave the chamber for any personal needs.  

Over the years, friends criticized Bowman for befriending such senators. He explains it away, saying they did not fight for his race, but they came through for him personally, such as the time Thurmond, with a single phone call, got him into Howard University after the school had said his grades weren’t up to par. “They had their agenda, I had mine,” he says, explaining that his was getting off the farm, where he worked from dawn to dusk, feeding the cows, mules, goats and hogs and picking the boll weevils out of cotton.

Before he fled Summerton, S.C., in 1944, Bowman heard a stump speech by Maybank. “If any of y’all ever come to Washington, come see me,” Maybank told a crowd.

Bowman trusted the senator’s words. He caught up with him after the crowd dispersed and asked, “If I come to Washington, can I come by and see you too?”

“Certainly, my boy,’” the senator replied.

Once in Washington, Bowman headed straight for Maybank’s office. The senator got him a job sweeping the Capitol steps and personally paid him $2 a week.

For two weeks, Bowman slept on a bench in Union Station and washed up in the public restroom before work.

This was followed by a brief period sleeping in a broom closet in the Capitol on towels he laid on the floor.

After his boss discovered him there, he helped find his cousin, who lived in a boarding house on Capitol Hill. The landlady let Bowman live there; he paid her his entire weekly salary for rent.

The lack of cash made Bowman nervous and so he volunteered in the Senate kitchen, washing pots and pans and sweeping up to earn extra money.

From 13 to 18, Bowman did not see his parents. His landlady, who came to be a motherly figure, eventually insisted on writing his mother to say he was safe.

Bowman knew his departure had to be kept secret because his strict father never would have allowed it; another brother had tried to go to Florida, and his father had brought him home. Though Bowman had told a younger brother, Rufus, he didn’t give him the logistics and swore him to secrecy.

“We all dream about someday,” Bowman says. “My dream was to get away from that farm and go to the promised land and a better life.”

But looking back, he doesn’t know how he took the risk.

“It’s hard for me to even believe I was thinking of leaving that farm,” he says. “It never dawned on me that I was going to worry them, my parents. If I thought it through, I may never have taken off.”

Was it worth it?

“Oh, I think I’ve been very successful,” he says. “I’m living the American dream now.”

Looking to the camera snapping pictures of him, Bowman adds, “He’s taking my picture now.”