Walter E. Washington, three months shy of his 70th birthday, gives every appearance of a man at ease. He looks healthier than he has in at least a couple of years. He seems content with his place in the city's history. He clearly enjoys his role as elder statesman, with no hint of any secret hankering to be a behind-the-scenes political power broker. And though he still does a little legal work, and dabbles at pulling together his memoirs, he seems content to be home.
He escorts his visitors to the new section of his house -- he has broken through a wall into the adjoining structure, nearly doubling the size of the row house at 408 T St. NW, where his wife was born -- pausing to show off the potted plants that have become a new hobby, and has the butler bring refreshments.
Then, hauling out the scrapbooks, the photographs and the newspaper clippings of years of public service, he is ready to talk about his role in the transformation of the nation's capital from a sleepy, segregated, congressionally ruled plantation to a bustling, sophisticated city of modified self-government.
Question: It would help us some if you talked just a bit about the Washington you saw when you were at National Capital Housing, before you entered politics. What are your recollections of what the city was like then?
Answer: Well, we were coming out of the segregated patterns. Fourteenth Street and upper, around the Cardozo area, was going through the transition from white to black, very middle-class whites were moving farther out.
You see, a meanness was developing all over the town based primarily on facilities, or lack thereof. All of the high schools were hand-me-downs. There hadn't been a new high school built for some years.
Q: Who could black people turn to in government at that time [in the early 1960s] for a sympathetic hearing?
A: Well, there were no blacks in any substantial positions. They hadn't appointed a black commissioner at that time.
But the control, the control of the city, was in the hands of the engineer commissioner who had the staff, who had the resources and had the programs. Urban renewal, for instance, gave them more control than any single thing I think that you had.
But they had control of the water department, the environmental resources, the urban renewal and housing resources. They had control of practically every programmatic area that you have in municipal government, with no sensitivity to amount to anything.
Q. What was your first contact with Congress?
A. [As head of the housing authority,] I got 340 units of housing for repair and that sort of thing, amounting to probably $250,000. And the congressman on the House side from Texas, Albert Thomas, he would grill me just as he grilled the Defense Department, and I would be there for a whole day behind the Defense Department.
I had to explain why we had to have a second nail on the second floor or why is this necessary.
President Johnson sat me down and he said, "Now look. I don't think you're going to be able to survive this, but I want you to do it."
I had been asked years earlier to become the commissioner, the chairman of the board of commissioners. But the proviso was that I would not have anything to do with police.
It's so much like South Africa, people think that a black man taking over the police department, he's going to do something to white people. I mean, it's the same syndrome over and over again.
We were in a different situation, but they feared that. There was a lot of fear of southern members of Congress. Not all of them, some of them.
Q. What was [House District Committee Chairman John] McMillan like?
A. Chairman McMillan, he wore a sport coat on Saturday. And he was more relaxed. And I looked in, I talked to him.
I went there once and I said to him, "Mr. Congressman, you said you were going to help." He said to me, "I'm going to help you when I can." And then he called on Congressman Abernethy and Abernethy said, "I'll help you when I can, and when I can't, I'll talk to you." I said, "That's fair enough. I don't need any more."
Q. Can you say something about the congressional opposition and congressional condescension and so on? What about local Board of Trade-type misgivings about home rule?
A: The Board of Trade misgivings were very crucial. It was the Board of Trade or other interest groups that would lobby, but they all had direct relations with a congressman or a committee. And I must tell you it took me the better part of four years to give them to understand that I was now going to be the spokesman on all major issues up there.
Now, the fire department, they loved the fire department, they loved the police department, they didn't care much about anything else because those were security areas for the business community.
Q. I don't think there's any question but that the 1968 riots were probably the toughest period of your administration. But isn't it a fact that it was also that period that gave you the support in the Congress and in the local business community and, in fact, even in the metropolitan area that made the home rule legislation possible?
A. Well, I think you've put your finger on it. There's no question about it. There's no question about the fact that that period and our sensible conduct, not shooting people, looking after people who had been displaced . . .
We had then that whole series of 3,500 or more demonstrations and [the demonstrators] were trashing and tearing up downtown and in the community, and it was taking our precious tax dollars really to finance the security that we had.
But, you see, we never had a chance after the riots to recover and start working on things like rebuilding, and the normal municipal services.
Every day we'd go to the office, it was how many [problems] do we have today? Who is on board? Who is handling this? Who've we got out in front? We don't want anybody hurt out here.
Q. What did you see as the key turning point in getting home rule, going from a time when they [Congress] would not pass even the limited home rule to when they would?
A. I don't think there's any single thing or any single time. I think that it was a combination of everybody working. I think the White House's full support, President Johnson and President Nixon. . . . He found his way to do that and also gave me 1,000 more policemen.
Q. [D.C. Delegate] Walter Fauntroy seems to think that the effort to defeat McMillan and finally the success in ousting him was a crucial turning point.
A. I know Walter feels that way. I'm not too sure. But there is a very, very interesting parallel. The advent of home rule sees the demise of most congressional leadership by the southern bloc.
Q. In talking to some other people, they painted a picture of a slightly nastier group of people that you had to deal with up on the Hill and that Fauntroy said, for example, that they never called him "Boy" to his face, but he assumed that they were saying that.
A. Look, we're just out of segregation. We're just out of getting some kind of rights. We're just into a period where we're beginning to focus and get some strength. So you know that's there. I mean they were courteous to you. But I mean in the back, in the cloakrooms they're still doing it, I guess.
My objective was to get something done. I mean, you could call me whatever you want to behind my back. That is not the point. The point is what can you do to get something for the people of the city.
A lot of things fell because you couldn't be embarrassed by not having your door open to the mayor and so forth.
Q. How about after home rule? How did things change? Did they change radically or gradually?
A. There were still some feelings in the Congress about, well, "They got it now, let's see what they're going to do about it." I found that I couldn't get the same degree of support for a while that I'd got before.
I mean, it was a peculiar thing. Overnight like. People were asking more questions. Being more precise, being more questioning; and that meant that you had to organize and deal with that.
I look upon this period as a foundation period. I set some foundations that were substantive, they were real, they're here now.
I wanted to build facilities. I built swimming pools. I built the centers and the neighborhood centers. I built 54 schools. All of those in areas that had never had a new school. Built high schools, junior high schools. Replaced shameful Shaw over here.
Q. You know, a lot of people are saying these days that if you look at the two administrations under home rule, that Walter Washington was the right man for his time. He was the perfect person to have as mayor during the transition, and going into the early years of home rule. Marion Barry was a good man for his time. Maybe different interests or throwing himself more into reorganization and doing all the things executives have to do to develop and allow a government to grow.
Do you think there's anything to that? That the two styles were right for the time?
A. Maybe so. I wouldn't argue it. You have to look at it in retrospect. When you're going through it, it's quite different.
When I was going through it I thought, rightfully, everything I was doing was to build a foundation for the future of the city. When we went to the bond market, for instance, I wanted to have our public facilities in place all over the city.