The Butlers got a visit from President and Mrs. Reagan yesterday. The afternoon guests brought a jar of gourmet jellybeans for the Butlers' 4-year-old daughter and a message that a Ku Klux Klan cross burning that occurred on the Butlers' front yard five years ago "is not something that should have happened in America."
Reagan had read about it in the morning newspaper. The cross-burning incident has been in the news again because of a federal court ruling that last week awarded the Prince George's couple $23,000 in damages in a civil suit. "That was the first thing on his mind this morning," Reagan's deputy press secretary, Larry Speakes said. "The first thing he said when White House aides Baker and Deaver walked in was, 'I've read this story. I'd like to go see these people.' "
Deaver set about arranging the visit, the president's first to Prince George's County outside of his frequent trip to Andrews Air Force Base. He called the Butlers at the Government Printing Office, where both work as printers. "They said, 'When are you going to send a car?' Speakes said. "They thought they were going to come to the White House."
Phillip Butler, 40, told his boss he had to leave early because of a family emergency. For security reasons, the couple had been advised not to tell anyone at work why they had to leave early.
The president, meanwhile, met with the National Security Council, was briefed by his top staffers over lunch, discussed voting rights legislation with the attorney general and the budget with members of Congress. He got out of his last meeting at 4:15 p.m. He and Mrs. Reagan, Deaver and Speakes left the White House lawn in a helicopter at 4:30. They were accompanied by two other helicopters, one for Secret Service, the other for press.
The helicopters landed at the Beltsville Agricultural Center. The president went by motorcade to the Butlers' house on Drake Place in the College Park Woods subdivision. The presidential limousine pulled in the driveway outside the four-bedroom beige brick rambler-style house at 4:45.
Phillip and Barbara Butler and their daughter Natasha and Mrs. Butler's mother, Dorothea Tolson, were waiting on the lawn. Their neighbors in the 500-home subdivision, with its 20-year-old brick homes and neatly trimmed lawns, stood on the sidewalks and gawked. A few grumbled: Reporters were everywhere, and the street had been blocked off. "It's nice that he Reagan is here, but I just want to get home," said one commuter.
The Reagans and Deaver visited with the Butlers in their living room. Speakes stood in the hallway and took notes. His report: Reagan sat on the couch with Mrs. Butler and Natasha. Mrs. Tolson and Butler sat on chairs. Reagan said, "I came out to let you know that this cross burning isn't something that should happen in America."
Mrs. Butler said, "It makes a difference when the president of the United States will take time to come from the White House to a little community like this. It's been a long hard battle out here. We know by your coming that everything has changed."
Reagan noted that Mrs. Butler grew up in California, where he was first a movie star and then the governor. He also told an old campaign anecdote--about the black football player, a victim of racial slurs, whom Reagan befriended on the football team at Eureka College.
The White House photographer took a picture of the Reagans and the Butlers standing in front of the fireplace. Reagan picked Natasha up in his arms. Natasha's grandmother--Mrs. Tolson--held the jar of gourmet jellybeans. The visit lasted 20 minutes. The Reagans shook hands with the Butlers. Mrs. Reagan kissed Mrs. Butler on the cheek. The president hugged Mrs. Butler.
The Butlers were newlyweds six years ago when they became the fifth black family to move into the predominantly white subdivision. Because of the cross burning, which occurred eight months after the Butlers moved in, they say they have never felt completely safe or at home in the neighborhood. They plan to move eventually, but they say they will wait for the economy to improve before they try to sell their house.
The presidential limousine pulled out of the Butlers' driveway at 5:15 p.m. The Butlers then met the press.
Phillip Butler told the reporters, "His main discussion was that he had read it in the paper and he was very moved by it--that we'd gone through all of this. He said he wanted to wish us happiness . . . He was sincere. I really think he came here on his personal feeling. I don't feel it was political."
Some of the neighbors yesterday were not happy with the attention.
Alvin Kushner, who is the mayor of College Park, said community meetings were held after the cross burning to discuss ways that the Butlers could be helped.
The presidential helicopter returned to the White House lawn at 5:40 p.m. The Butlers went inside to watch themselves on the evening news and receive their telephone calls.