Walter Fauntroy, sitting in his office last week with tuna salad, potato chips and an indefatigable telephone, says everyone looks at him and sees six reference points: a black, a southern Baptist preacher, a politician, a politician without a vote, an athlete and a singer. "Many of those are inferiority references for a lot of people . . . there was a time when I thought to be a politician was to have a status in society. Of late, the reference for politicians is dishonesty, compromise and distrust," said Fauntroy.
"So I guess the image I like is that he can't vote but he does his job; he sings -- he sings well, but he does his job; he plays baseball, but he does his job; he's a minister who preaches and he sincerely preaches, but he does his job; he's a black, but he does his job."
For three days last week, ending early yesterday morning with a hot, bumping disco, about 2,000 people celebrated Walter Fauntroy's 10 years as the District's only representative on Capitol Hill. Most clearly, the receptions, the prayer breakfast and the dinner were rituals of respect. There was very little debate over whether he does his job, but more a long shout to his survival. The man of the long hours, always ready with a private quip, a public sonorous laugh and a pious "praise be," was surrounded by lavish superlatives. And the reminders of those personality keystones. He sang twice; he brought up his karate record; he sought answers in the Gospel.
At Saturday's dinner at the dais was the quintessential odd couple -- Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), once a symbol of the southern intransigence Fauntroy fought, and Petey Greene, the ex-convict who has parlayed his street knowledge into a role as critic and counsel for the city establishment. They battled for the best tributes. Fauntroy howled and glowered. Among the silk cocktail dresses and the three-piece suits at the Shoreham Hotel, there were those who attended simply because Fauntroy was there, others because of his key role on the House Banking Committee and his chairmanship of the Congressional Black Caucus. And others remembered favors he did. Some recalled old friendships, as did John Hechinger, who explained Fauntroy's tutoring on black lingo. Some were there simply because the gathering was an event with good food, good names and accessible cameras. Dolores Franklin, a dentistry administrator, had just returned from 12 years of work and study at Harvard and New York universities. "He had been a guest speaker at McKinley when I was a student," said Franklin, who coordinated the work of the hostesses for the weekend. "When I left, his name was important, and when I came back it was."
Earlier, in his office, Fauntroy talked about leadership and his ministry of reconciliation. "It's a commitment to the courage of convictions. When black power said hate whitey and destroy the honkies, I could not separate my beliefs to go along with that. I wasn't being righteous, I was just being honest with myself," he said.
When Sen. Thurmond took the mike, he said, "Some of you might be surprised I am here," and the audience started applauding. Andrew Young waved his hand for the applause to stop. Thurmond went right on. He talked about how he and Fauntroy didn't sing "We Shall Overcome" and "Dixie" in the same key. He bemoaned his exclusion from Fauntroy's "black brain trust," which was again applauded, and told several musty jokes, including one about how congressmen could get in the news. He ended with a poem, "Do not walk in front of me, because I might not be able to follow." That was, again, applauded.
More than an hour later -- after speeches by Joseph Lowery, president of the SCLC; Andrew Young; Benjamin Hooks, president of the Naacp; Stephen Danzansky, co-chair of the event; Mayor Marion Barry; Tom Owen, another co-chair; Guy Draper, organizer of the tribute; former congressman John Buchanan and Rep. Henry Reuss (D-Wis.) -- Petey Greene got his turn. "It had to take someone to get me here on a Friday night. My car got a boot on it. I have missed two broads. I missed the Sugar Ray Leonard fight. This is something on a Friday night." Fauntroy and Ossie Davis, the emcee, whispered loudly that it was Saturday. "Well, that just shows you how long we have been here," quipped Greene.
Even without a vote on the floor of the House, Fauntroy has a record to judge. He worked diligently for the passage of the home rule charter, which gave the District limited self-government. He is credited for his work on the D.C. voting rights amendment, but then is criticized for the slow pace of its national ratification. He angered his Jewish constituency by his conversations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Fauntroy named former California representative Don Edwards as someone whose techniques he admires. "His is not a strident, rhetorical, intense type of advocacy but a patient and understanding approach. I don't always have that sort of patience," said Fauntroy. On the Palestinian issue, he said, "No matter what the climate of the times must be, I must stand true to that understanding based in Paul's admonition that we are ambassadors of Christ."
Sentimentality is another key to Fauntroy. At the prayer breakfast, when Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. finished a 10-minute sermon that stretched into a half-hour, Fauntroy stood and cheered. Then Marvin Fauntroy, 16, described his father as a family man, saying his middle initial stands for "earnest." When he finished, they both cried through a long embrace. Then Daniel Harrison, 17, a McKinley High School student, sang "To God With Glory." Everyone cried. Rev. David Eaton, when he dried his tears, said, "we almost got as close to eulogizing Walter as we will. If a person is perfect, as he has been portrayed to be, we wouldn't like him, because perfection is obnoxious."
Later Walter Fauntroy said, "I guess there was a little sadness there. He was saying what I have tried to teach, but also what I would like to be to my family."