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Black Staffers Still Find Reasons to Celebrate

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 1998; Page D01

The only blues sung last night, as several African Americans in the front line of the Clinton administration were saluted at a private party, was from the husky holler of Oscar Brown Jr. and a vintage tape of Bessie Smith.

Thinking about the week that was, with millions of Americans caught up in the sordid details of President Clinton's relationship with a former White House intern, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman said the president's apology and message had been reaffirming. "The president's sorrow and contrition is genuine and he said to us, no matter what they do to him personally, that can't allow us to take away from the issues he was elected to carry out. I care just as much about public morality as private morality, and I consider our fight against teen unemployment and other issues to be public morality," she said, sitting down to dig into a dish of Southern delicacies.

Herman was not alone in forcefully restating her allegiance and brushing aside any notion that the president's troubles had sidetracked the administration's mission.

"The staff is not caught up in the hype around the president. We are loyal to him and what he stands for. The agenda is broader than someone's personal life," said Ben Johnson, deputy assistant to the president. "As African Americans we understand forgiveness. Just witness today at George Wallace's funeral. Who would have thought 30 years ago that there would be black people there?"

The brief respite from the unfolding events of a presidency in crisis came late last night as several hundred guests relaxed at the annual party given by Sony Music Entertainment and Toyota Motor Sales that has become the informal social launch of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation conference. The exquisite gathering over three floors of the Corcoran Gallery of Art had a "Roots and Blues Along the Mississippi" theme, with sauce-drenched quail, eye-popping shrimp, mounds of greens and even some riverboat gambling.

For the 28th year, supporters of the Congressional Black Caucus have descended on Washington to share information about the issues that are most important to the diverse national community. Rep. Eva Clayton (D-N.C), chairwoman of the CBC Foundation, likens the whole crush of 50 forums, speeches, dinners, receptions and informal clustering to gathering around "the campfire." Even those who disagree with most of the caucus's stands, such as conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, don't pass up an invitation to this event. And those who aren't yet in the political mix are eager for the entree. Michael Scott, a former broadcaster, is running for Congress from Omaha. "I hope there is an opportunity to run into people," he said. "I know a lot of business is done in the lobbies and hallways."

Yet this promises to be an unusual year, with the power of caucus members clearly on display as Congress grapples with the political scandal. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, has been vigorously sparring with the Republican leadership over the prospect of impeachment hearings and whether to release more of the president's testimony. The CBC's chairwoman, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), is also on the pivotal committee.

Though the caucus has enjoyed varying waves of influence on the country's policy, the existence of 50 African American political appointees in the administration is a direct result of the broadening minority political clout that mirrors the three decades of the group's existence.

Enjoying the break last night was Betty Currie, the president's secretary, one White House staffer who probably was known only to White House insiders eight months ago. In the past few days, say her friends, she has been under enormous pressure after being pinpointed in independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report as a key player in the contacts between the president and Monica Lewinsky. Her social strategy last night was to not speak to the press, but her colleagues were more than willing to talk about what they described as her unshakable attributes.

"She is a consummate professional. She is loyal. Anyone who thinks she did something wrong is wrong," said presidential assistant Bob J. Nash, who has worked for Clinton for 20 years. Nash says the swirl of events has only given him a kick-start to his goals.

"It has rejuvenated me to work harder. We didn't come up here to quit," he said with a quick smile. "No one told us it would be easy, but I didn't think it would be this hard."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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