The other day Simeon Booker, the Washington bureau chief for Ebony and Jet magazines, had just returned from lunch with Vice President George Bush, where he had managed to get in a dig about the all-white U.S. delegation at the United Nations, and then had hitched a ride in the entourage back to his own Pennsylvania Avenue office, a block away from Bush's.
"He's a very shrewd man, and I tell him, man, he's about all we've got and I'm not about to get him messed up by writing too many good things about him or we'll really be in trouble," said Booker. "He said, 'Booker, you know . . .' He went to Moscow for the funeral of Brezhnev, and got more publicity on that than his trip to Africa. He said, 'That's tragic,' and I said, 'Well, that's interesting but that's not a story for me.' "
Booker hunches over his typewriter, mulling over the news and the spirit of the lunch. But what Booker doesn't bring up is that he was the only black reporter at that lunch of columnists and bureau chiefs, a commentary on the pace of racial progress in the media during his three decades in the business.
Tonight Booker, 64, will receive the Fourth Estate Award of the National Press Club, the first black to receive this honor. The behind-the-scenes talk is that the nominating process was anything but harmonious, but the committee's vote finally was unanimous.
Booker thinks most awards are meaningless. "But this is a legitimate award. You know in our community everyone gives you an award, they can't give you an honorarium, so they say, 'Give you an award, come over.' I say the hell with all that," he growls. "I've never been excited about notoriety. I get the news, go home, have a drink and forget it."
After 27 years in Washington, Booker is a mini-institution. The second black reporter to win a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he became The Washington Post's first full-time black reporter in 1952. His coverage of the murder of Emmett Till, a young black who allegedly whistled at a white woman in Mississippi, in Jet during l955 is credited with mobilizing support of the southern civil rights movement. His column is the only weekly news-gossip column about black politicans and professionals, and he has a special personality, all the rough edges of the old-fashioned movie reporter and the charm of a Runyonesque character. His office is an-office-away-from-the-office for a lot of black Washington bureaucrats, who periodically stop by for some scotch, some often raucous talk and, occasionally, a fast poker game.
In his office Booker is never still. Tall and husky, he moves rapidly. His thick hair is almost white, and his plain shirts are brightened with bow ties. He turns down his hearing aid if he doesn't want to be bothered. His voice, a rumble like a vacuum cleaner, reverberates through the office. As he talks, he never finishes what he starts, and that's the style of his column, always punchy, leaving the end dangling.
"If you check things out, people learn what you are working on. If you make things too accurate, people will figure out where you got them," says Booker, who is sometimes criticized for his journalistic techniques. "Then, a lot of times you put things in, sometimes deliberately to get a stream of thought going on things . . . If the facts are wrong, that's not the important thing but, is there some element of truth in it."
Booker doesn't exactly remember why reporting has been second nature to him since high school and college. "I was the only one who worked my way through Virginia Union, writing sports, instead of working tables or washing dishes," he recalls. Booker was born in Baltimore, one of four children. The family grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, where his father was secretary of the YMCA and a minister. After Virginia Union, Booker joined the staff of the Baltimore Afro-American, supplementing his meager salary by working in the shipyards.
After his Nieman year in 1951, he went to Cleveland but couldn't find a job with the white press. Then he received an offer from The Post. "It was the wrong time, wrong everything," says Booker. "But Phil Graham said if you can take it, I'm willing to gamble." Most of his stories ended up against the classifieds, he could only use one bathroom on the editorial floor and had limited access in segregated Washington. "If I went out to a holdup, they thought I was one of the damn holdup men. I couldn't get any cooperation," says Booker.
When the civil rights story began to dominate the news, Booker, by now working for Jet and Ebony, was one of the most energetic and knowledgeable chroniclers. While he was covering the Freedom Rides in 1961, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy called him to find out what was going on. "I told him all hell had broken loose and that these people needed federal assistance," recalls Booker. Kennedy sent down a plane to get the demonstrators safely out of Alabama.
Swirling around in his seat, Booker pulls out papers that remind him of other stories. His six weeks at Little Rock. His interest in African politics, starting with the trip of Vice President Richard Nixon in 1957. The time he reported that President Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya had given a waiter, who dropped a bowl of soup on him, a karate chop at a State Dinner for Hubert Humphrey. "Knock the living daylights out of him," recalls a shouting Booker. "Well, after I wrote that, I had no friends at all."
Booker used his 10 years as a radio commentator for Group W/Westinghouse to ease one of his frustrations, "not being able to jump at the breaking story" in his weekly and monthly columns. Once he went on the air with an appreciation of National Urban League president Whitney Young while the network was still confirming the story that Young had drowned. "They said, 'What is this fool talking about?'" he says.
His gregarious style has benefited his personal life. During a conference he was covering, he introduced Carol McCabe, a young reporter for the Voice of America, to the principal speakers, and later he and McCabe were married. He has three grown children by a first marriage. With McCabe, who is now a lawyer, Booker lives on Capitol Hill and in Annapolis, where he has just finished a novel.
His purpose has not changed over the years. "I worry about what goes on all over this country," says Booker. "Like that judge in Alabama last month , the first black ever elected statewide to the Supreme Court of Alabama. Now, there's another story, four black women in the Alabama state legislature. That's a hell of a story."