Robert Parker remembers Lyndon Johnson as the man who helped him rise from an impoverished Texas background to become the first maitre d' of the Senate dining room -- but who rarely referred to him as anything other than "boy," "nigger" or "chief."
"I hated that Lyndon Johnson," writes Parker in his new memoir, "Capitol Hill in Black and White," which he insists is not meant as an indictment of a man he grew to admire and love.
"Some of the Johnson people have been upset," Parker says today. At 65, he's a bit stockier and grayer than he appears in old photographs with his famous clientele. "I never thought Lyndon Johnson was a bigot. He would just use whatever tactics he had to use to get what he wanted. He played to the southern politicians. He was very good to me, and I don't believe he was two-faced -- he was just a politician."
Parker learned much about the subtle difference during his 30 years on Capitol Hill, where he also came to know more secrets than he knew what to do with. Now, he's promoting his own version of life under the Great Dome, and all his cards are pretty much on the tables he served for years.
*The book, written with Washington journalist Richard Rashke, caused a stir among Johnson loyalists after an excerpt appeared this month in Washingtonian magazine. Unhappy with the way their former boss has been portrayed, Johnson intimates Jack Valenti and Horace Busby maintain Parker has greatly exaggerated his relationship with LBJ.
"All I can say is that Johnson very well may have picked up a phone and gotten this man a job, as he would have with a thousand other people -- but the intimacy of the relationship as portrayed by him is a hoax," says Valenti, now president of the Motion Picture Association of America.
*"I was on the Senate staff from '49 to '50, and he was no one I knew," says Busby, who advised Johnson for years. "I never saw him."
Attorney Lloyd Hand, who was on Johnson's Senate staff from 1957 until LBJ became vice president, confirmed that Johnson had known Parker, and said he remembered Parker serving at Johnson parties.
But while Parker's book titillates with racy tales of Johnson's "crude and cruel" behavior and a behind-the-scenes view of other legislators' philandering, drinking and homosexual escapades, it is also a straightforward, touching story of a southern black man's dreams and successes.
Born a sharecropper's son in rural Texas, he dant to the powerful, coddling the members of the famously exclusive Senate club until his abrupt firing in 1974.
*He says he put drunk senators to bed and abetted womanizing senators in their search for privacy. He helped entertain constituents and befriended wives. He banned spittoons from the dining room so his black staff wouldn't have to polish them. Adam Clayton Powell was the first black man he ever heard call a white man by his first name.
"I learned," says Parker today, "to keep my mouth shut and not ask questions."
*Not shut enough, apparently. Despite all those years of pampering his 100 bosses, they didn't turn out for his book party at the Sheraton Grand on Capitol Hill the other night. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who happened to be at the hotel, stopped by, as did House members Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) and Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). But no present or past senators were seen at the wine-and-cheese gathering given by Washington businessman Albert Nellum, who has bought the film rights to Parker's story.
"A good number of them were invited," said a friend of Parker's who asked not to be named. "But they all politely called and said they couldn't come. I think they were afraid it would look like they agreed with what he wrote . . . "
*A few highlights from the book:
In 1973, Parker writes, he accidentally discovered electronic bugs under the tables in the Senate dining room. He reported it to the restaurant's manager. Shortly after, Parker said, the bugs were removed.
Many of the senators had "hideaways" -- private offices where they could escape to work or to quietly entertain.
Once, Parker reports, he set up a senator's hideaway for lunch for four. When a waitress went back to clean up several hours later, she walked in on four naked men having sex.
On another occasion, he was about to serve lunch to a senator and his secretary when the senator's wife walked in and started a fight with the secretary. Soon "they began rolling on the carpet, pulling each other's hair and clawing at their blouses . . . "
Once a black Secret Service agent reached in to help Lady Bird Johnson out of her car in front of the Capitol. Said the first lady: "Move your hand."
*Parker arrived in Washington in 1943 from Magnolia, Tex., "a greenhorn country black man," as he likes to say. "I had never been to the city before, never even seen a paved street."
He left Magnolia a bitter youth, vowing never to see his father again. The book's opening chapter relates the horrifying tale of how his father, seeing no other choice, basically allowed Parker's older sister to be raped by their white landlord.
The first thing he did in Washington was head for the office of then-Congressman Johnson, whom he had met several times at a country club in Texas where Parker had been a waiter. Johnson got him a post office job and shortly after enlisted him as an unpaid part-time chauffeur.
* Parker loved the glitz and names and attention, but there were drawbacks. Every Saturday, for example, Johnson recruited Parker to drive him to Navy football games in Annapolis. "I hated those Saturday trips," he writes. "I would drive Johnson and his party up to the front gate of the Navy stadium with instructions to be waiting there when they walked out of the game. Whenever I was late, no matter what the reason, Johnson called me a lazy good-for-nothing nigger."
Still, Parker says today that "Lyndon Johnson was good to me. I couldn't have made it without him . . . And what he did for civil rights was priceless. Black people are terribly indebted to this man."
While Parker was still a mailman, Johnson occasionally asked him to serve drinks or dinner at parties. He began jotting down who drank what, the first notes for what eventually became a 400-page manuscript for his book. He says he learned about Washington by reading the Congressional Record during the day so he would know more about the men he was serving at night.
*"Believe or not, in the 1940s and the '50s, congressmen would say the word 'nigger' and it would appear in the Congressional Record," says Parker.
*When Johnson became vice president, he sent Parker to Hubert Humphrey, who landed him the job as head waiter in the Senate dining room. In 1963, he became the first maitre d' in the history of the Senate.
*But by 1974, his world was crumbling. According to Parker, he was wrongly accused of pocketing $44 from a restaurant check by the staff of the late senator James Allen (D-Ala.), then chairman of the Senate subcommittee that dealt with the restaurants.
He was placed on leave in May 1974 without an explanation or a hearing, he says, and fired in September. He then filed suit against George White, the architect of the Capitol (who was responsible for the Senate dining room) and the members of the Senate Rules Committee. In June 1975, a U.S. District Court ruled that he had been wronged and that Parker was entitled to a public hearing. In the settlement that followed, Parker received back pay and $15,000 in damages. Parker says he also receives full retirement benefits.
* "I'll say this: Sen. Allen was the only senator who would fire me, and that was because he was a freshman and did not know what I had done over the years," says Parker. "I was the United States senators' man. They could walk in the dining room and I would do what they wanted me to do. The secrets were always with me."