Lyndon Johnson was pacing in his inner offices, ready to call the key senators to inform them of his appointment of Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But the president couldn't find Louis Martin, the adviser who had nutured the appointment of the first black justice, and he would not start the formalities without him. While Johnson barked, the White House switchboard searched, and finally Martin was found - on the golf course.
Martin says it isn't so, the golf course part, claiming residence at his Democratic National Committee office. Yet the story circulates among his good friends as proof of Martin's influence, friendship and selfassurance with the powers of Washington.
And Martin himself chortles at the fragment of his legend, a laugh that pumps heartily from his hefty frame. He just misses slapping his knee.
"The godfather of black politics" is what think-tank president Eddie Williams calls Martin, a phrase echoed by other Marhin proteges. In the 1960s, Martin, by trade a newspaper publisher, was the vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a confidant of presidents John F. Kennedy and Johnson and the behind-the-scenes kingpin of black politics.
He had a large hand in bringing to Washington Patricia Roberts Harris, now secretary of HUD; Clifford Alexander, now secretary of the Army; Andrew Brimmer, the first black on the Federal Reserve Board; then assistant Secretary of Labor George L.P. Weaver; then ambassador Carl Rowan, and others now in the leadership structure, such as University of the District of Columbia President Lisle Carter and National Urban Coalition head M. Carl Holman.
Now he's back. Last month, after much public discussion of the need for a senior black adviser on his staff, President Jimmy Carter appointed Martin, 65, as the special assistant for minority affairs. "Yes, I'm a pinch hitter," says Martin, handily, answering a constantly ringing telephone.
Martin returns to the inner circle at a time when the president's stock is sagging among his minority constituencies - and when the White House staff has lost nine blacks in the last few months.The highest-ranking black had been Martha (Bunny) Mitchell, who had emerged as the minority liaison but had been critized by the black leadership for her political inexperience and inability to deliver.
The White House infighting, and Gary, Ind., Mayor Richard Hatcher's refusal to take the job are discussed quickly by Martin. On to business: Why did he take the job, what can he do?
"President Carter asked me about those years with Kennedy and Johnson, asked me how they worked and I said it was a personal relationship. He said, "Well do the same.' But I'm not making a career of this," says Martin, a chuckle again casting doubt on his words. "The times are different, the government is different and," pauses - his Savannah-tinged speech slowing for the first time - "the people are so different." 'You Handle It, Louie'
The kingpin, a gray glen plaid, his black-rimmed bifocals planted on a fleshy face, elongated by a sweep of slick, graying black hair, sits on the political operator doesn't share secrets.
"Often may problem, my challenge were all those cats around the president who were trying to get in the way," says Martin. "Kennedy and Johnson were their own men, believed in fairness. But often the guys around were afraid. That's who you fought."
Well how about the people around this president?
"I haven't run into anybody uncooperative yet. But, at first they all look at you sort of crossways but I am getting responses," says Martin.
From the dozens of people who worked with him, the most frequent description of Martin is "a pro," the second, savvy.
"He's wise. He knows the jungle of politics better than most," says Jack Valenti, one of Lyndon Johnson's men and now president of the Motion Picture Association. "Johnson would be fussing and Louie would get a half-grin on his face, would say, 'Okay, here's the situation,' and the president would settle down. Then he would say, 'Okay, you handle it, Louie.' That was a phrase we heard frequently."
Clifford Alexander remembers the same rapport and expectations. "After the 1964 election, the president, Louie and I were alone. He asked us what percentage of the black vote did he get. We said 96 percent. He turned to Louie and said. 'What happened to the other 4 percent?"
Similar expectations abound this time, even more because Martin has built his reputation. He is financially secure - "Louie's never been hungry," says one - and isn't awed by titles, just finds the folks behind them interesting.
Says Eddie Williams, another protege who is now president of the Joint Center for Political Studies, "In many ways Louie's career is behind him, so he has nothing to lose, no one to fear. Money and power are not his goals and his ego doesn't need to be fulfilled. He has walked those corridors before." 'What's Cooking, Horse?'
Here's how he works. As publisher of The Michigan Chronicle, one of the most respected black newspapers, Martin was an ally of civil rights and labor. Gloster Current, once head of the NAACP's Detroit branch, remembers, "Loiie would call on a Monday and say, What's cooking, horse'? I would say, 'Things are a little dull.' And he would answer, 'Let's cook up something.' Then I would fire off a telegram about the housing projects, hiring in the auto plants and he would publish it."
When Holman, of the Urban Coalition, first came to Washington to work with the Civil Rights Commission, Martin's was a constant voice on the phone. "He would say, 'I don't mean to meddle in your business but let's see your travel schedule. You're going to Kansas City. Here are a few names. Call this guy and say, "I don't have time to see you but just wanted to know how you are doing." Then the guy feels someone back in Washington cares,'" describes Holman.
The Martin sign-off: "Thanks, You're a great American." Newspaper Work
Martin was born in Shelbyville, Tenn., but grew up in Savannah, Ga., living in the house his Cuban-born father, a physician, had built. As a youngster, a mild skin rash confined him indoors, gave him a lasting shyness and turned his attention to newspaper.
The financial pages mesmerzied him. Then he heard a sage around Savannah say, "Some white folks are crazy but they all can count," and Martin translated that dictum into dollars and votes.
During his college summers of 1930 to 1934, Martin did some newspaper work for The Atlanta Journal, which was owned by his future father-in-law, and one summer he worked as a bodyguard for a cruise ship's silver room. After finishing the University of Michigan, he went to Cuba for a closed. On Feb. 18, 1936, he started as years study but the universities were a cub reporter for The Chicago Defender.
Within six months he had been appointed editor of The Michigan Chronicle was a shoestring operation, a slim salary, he went back to Savannah and married the other publisher's daughter. He and Gertrude Martin, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Ohio State University, now have five daughters, the youngest being 21 years old.
Like many black newspapers, The Chronicle was a shoestrong operation, partial to sensationalism but covering black events at a teiw m erhnhhteo t black events at a time when the other media ignored them. Martins wife did the bookkeeping and some editing and remembers as an exceptional extravagance his trip to Canada to cover nationalist Marcus Garvey.
In 1936, when Martin was 23 years old, Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for president and Charles Diggs Sr. for the Michigan state senate. He supported them both editorially and their philosophies shaped his own political views. "FDR had a vision of America. I became a New Dealer for life," says Martin. "What I learned from Diggs was that although he was a comfortable businessman, he also helped the little people. Good services make good politicans, that was what I learned."
In time, Martin took those lessons to the national arena, stepping into presidential politics as a publicist in the 1944 campaign. But he kept coming back to newspapers.
"The thrill of change, that was the most important part of those years," says Martin, punching a right fist into the open left palm. "You saw the blacks upgraded from the foundry into the plants, to iron polisher, then into the offices in the union. I made some mistakes. Once a real racist guy, a baseball player, was running for office and we fought him tooth and nail. He won, and I met an old lady on the street who said, 'I voted for that man you kept talking about.' I learned then never to call the name of the opponent, just name the one you are for." A Critical Move
In October 1960, John Kennedy was running a tight race with Richard Nixon, and Martin Luther King Jr. was in a Georgia state prison on a traffic violation.
Sargent Shriver suggested a sympathy call to King's wife. "Everyone was against that. But we believed that a call would be an indication of Kennedy's soul," recalls Shriver, now an attorney in Washington. Shriver worked on the candidate and dispatched Louis Martin, whom Shriver had recruited for the campaign, to covert Robert Kennedy to the plan.
"What was important was that Louie and King's home phone number. When Jack decided, we made the call right there," said Shriver. "The staff shellacked us, but when we got off the plane in New York that was The Daily News headline," and, history proved, one of the critical moves of the campaign.
Just as important as his little black book, Martin had printed 1 1/2 million leaflets describing the call and distributed them to black churches the Sunday before the election.
In the Kennedy years, Martin was in and out of the White House, though he accepted a post at the DNC. One of his "great disappointments" was inaction in civil rights legislation in the early 1960s, but he turned his energy to black visibility in the federal structure and at official social events. On the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, he planned a reception for 800 black politicians, entertainers and civic leaders, the largest number of blacks ever to gather at the White House. 'Someone to Complain to'
He operated, too, during those years, as a liaison for those far away from the pulse of power. "When we needed someone to complain to about the lack of Justice Deparment observers at a trial," remembers John Lewis, then an outsider in the ranks of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, "the next day someone would be there." 'It Was Ingenious'
The summer of 1966, the year after Watts, the memories of looting and a city burning lingered everywhere. Especially at the White House, where the staff debated if President Johnson should go to the White House Conference on Civil Rights.
No one had an answer, Johnson had suggested the meeting himself but now picketing and serious trouble was anticipated. A few days before the conference, Martin called the deans of two black women's colleges and enlisted the most attractive coeds as ushers.
"They wore long dresses and white gloves. It was ingenious. Louie said now those guys wouldn't make a fuss," remembers Harry Mcpherson, a legal counsel to Johnson. "That was the last thing I would have thought of, having pretty girls to give a highclass tone. But that was the kind of finesse Louie had, plus an understanding of how people behave."
In 1967 when King announced his opposition to the Vietnam war, Johnson was furious. Martin acted as a go between. Yet his loyalty to the president didn't stop him from suggesting King, whom he called "a pillar of strength," for an award from a black group that same year. At the ceremony, Martin sat on the dias.
After the 1968 election, when his role was minimized by infighting in the Democratic leadership, Martin returned to Chicago, where he became president and editorial director of Sengstacke Publications. Earlier this year, he retired, sold his stocks, and returned to Washington to work for Sen. Adlai Stevenson (D-Ill.). "As great as my need was for a mature staff member, the White House need was greater," says Sen. Stevenson. "All I can say is what took them so long to get Louie?" 'A Restless ENergy'
Martin is restless. You notice the quick, bounding steps of his walk. The brevity of the hard handshake. His posture as he sits, perched, ready to spring.
For years golf and long walks at the family home in Eau Claire, Wis., have been his favorite relaxations. "He has a restless energy. When we are in the country, he likes to walk around the lake," says his wife.
Nothing is better, Martin says, than sitting in his yellow-fabric wing chair and reading a political biography. Recently it's been Churchill and Kenyatta.
"The two books I reread are DuBois' 'Souls of Black Folk,' and Frederick Douglass' autobiography," says Martin. "Douglass sustains me. His rationale for speaking out, his philosophy of economics. The theory that any man who can tell another man what to do, then one is the master, the other's slave. When he was criticized by the abolitionists for starting a black newspaper, he said. "The guy who is being tortured is the one who should cry out." Martin sounds smug. 'I Like My Batting Average'
The then and now. The game plan has turned 180 degrees. In the 1960s, tearing down the legal barriers of segregation and building the framework of an integrated society was the priority.
"The Civil Rights Bill, the Voting Rights Act. Those were enormous hurdles," says Martin, the weariness of those battles surfacing momentarily. "Now we have to see how the civil rights engine functions. One of the concerns of this job is civil rights implementation, monitoring what we have done."
So far, "I like my batting average." Only one loss, but a symbolic one, the visa for Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith. "I told Brzezenski that I didn't want the fallout of violence of blacks and whites in Southern Africa to effect any trouble here."
But he doesn't dwell on the losses, and when prompted, quickly switches to an account of good rapport."I really like Hamilton Jordan. He's sort of unorthodox, but if I start cussing, and he starts cussing, we seem to understand one another."