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"Did Barbra Streisand Whup Sonny Liston?"
By Thomas Hauser
Late last year, the Secret Service was embarrassed by the revelation that an uninvited couple had worked their way past security checkpoints and been photographed with Barack Obama at a White House state dinner honoring the Prime Minister of India.
Been there, done that. Sort of.
* * *
On February 7, 1996, I was in the lobby of the ANA-Westin Hotel in Washington DC with Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Ralph Boston, and a handful of others. That night, HBO would present a promotional screening of The Journey of the African-American Athlete. In anticipation of the event, ten people had been invited to the White House to meet with President Clinton in the Oval Office. My name was on the list, along with Nancy Bronson, whom I’d been dating for six months. The mini-bus that would take us to the White House was pulling up to the hotel when Seth Abraham (then President of Time Warner Sports) approached me with a look of consternation.
“Didn’t anybody tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“Yesterday, the White House took you and Nancy off the guest list. You’ve been replaced by Zina Garrison and Calvin Hill.”
Seth was apologetic.
Nancy was accepting.
And Muhammad was . . . . Well, Muhammad was Muhammad.
“Stay by me. I’ll get you into the White House.”
“Don’t waste your time,” Paul Costello (Time Warner’s point man in Washington) told us. “No one just walks into the Oval Office. In fact, no one gets past the White House gate without advance security clearance. All that will happen is, you’ll have to turn around and take a cab back to the hotel.”
Which seemed likely. But Nancy and I had nothing to lose, so we boarded the mini-bus with the others. When we arrived at the first security checkpoint by a wraught-iron gate outside the White House, a guard asked for ID’s from everybody. Five minutes passed. Several limousines drove by. Then the guard returned.
“There’s two people who don’t have security clearance. Who are Hauser and Bronson?”
Nancy and I raised our hands.
“Come with me, please.”
Nancy and I got off the mini-bus and followed the guard to the security booth where I pleaded our cause. “I was told on Monday that we’d been approved by the White House. No one told us our names had been taken off the list.”
The guard was polite but unyielding. “I’m sorry; you can’t go any further.”
At which point, Muhammad joined us.
The guard repeated what he’d just said. “Mr. Ali; this man and this woman don’t have security clearance. I’m sure you understand how these things work. They simply can’t go any further.”
And Muhammad was understanding -- “If they don’t go, I ain’t going.”
Unsure as to what to do next, the guard telephoned the White House. Minutes later, an official-looking man with a mustache strode down to the gate to meet us.
“What seems to be the problem?”
Obviously, he already knew what the problem was because, before I could answer, we were advised, “Look, this is my event. Your names aren’t on the list, and that’s the end of it. No one without security clearance is allowed past this gate.”
“But these are my friends.”
“Mr. Ali; you don’t understand.”
Nancy got back on the mini-bus, and Paul Costello came over to monitor the proceedings. There followed an explanation about how Barbra Streisand had recently been invited to the White House. The Barbra Streisand, who had helped raise millions of dollars for the Democratic party and was a personal friend of the President and Mrs. Clinton. Yet when Ms. Streisand brought someone with her for her appointment with the President, her friend was turned away at the gate.
And Muhammad was duly impressed.
“Did Barbra Streisand whup Joe Frazier?”
“Mr. Ali -- ”
“Did Barbra Streisand whup Sonny Liston?”
The Man With The Mustache, who I’m sure is a fine public servant and was just trying to do his job, excused himself and returned moments later. “All right; we’ve got to get this show on the road, so you two [pointing to Nancy and me] can go as far as the reception area, but that’s all.”
The mini-bus proceeded to the West Wing of the White House, where we were ushered into a reception area. There was small talk. Several minutes passed. Then The Man With The Mustache reappeared.
“Those of you with security clearance, come with me into the Roosevelt Room. You two [pointing to Nancy and me], stay here.”
The members of the group with security clearance were ushered into the Roosevelt Room, directly across the corridor from the Oval Office. Nancy and I stayed in the reception area, settling on a sofa. Inside the Roosevelt Room, various cabinet members, presidential aides, and White House staffers had gathered for a “photo op” with Muhammad.
Except Muhammad wasn’t there. He was with Nancy and me in the reception area beneath a painting of “George Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
Which is how Nancy and I got into the Roosevelt Room.
“But I’m telling you now,” The Man With The Mustache warned. “You are not going into the Oval Office, and I mean it.”
And he did mean it.
When the time came to enter the President’s office, The Man With The Mustache approached. “You two [Nancy and me], sit over there [pointing to the far side of the conference table].”
He waited until we’d followed his command.
“Now, I’d like the rest of you to line up over here.”
At which point, I said to Nancy, “Look; there’s no way that both of us will make it into the Oval Office. When the others go in, just walk over to Muhammad and take his arm.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll stay here.”
“That’s not fair to you.”
“Sure, it is. I’ve been to the White House before. I already have a photo of me with the President.”
“Not in the Oval Office.”
“It doesn’t matter. You can go into the office for both of us.”
Across the corridor, the door to the Oval Office opened. We saw the President of the United States standing there.
The line started to move forward.
Nancy got up from the sofa, walked over to Muhammad, and with considerable trepidation took his arm --
The Man With The Mustache walked over to Nancy, and stood in front of her. “Mr. Ali,” he importuned. “The President of the United States is waiting for you.”
And Muhammad walked forward, alone.
Nancy and I watched from a distance as the President greeted his guests. Then the door to the Oval Office closed and we were left in the Roosevelt Room.
I was disappointed. I won’t tell you I wasn’t. For a while, we explored our surroundings, which was kind of fun. If you’re ever in the Roosevelt Room, I suggest you look at the gold medallion given to Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Also, check out the bronze sculpture by Alexander Pope and the portraits of Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Nancy did her best to put a good face on things. “Tom; this is really very exciting. We’re having a wonderful time in Washington with Muhammad. We’re in the White House. We saw the President from a few yards away. Don’t feel bad for me.”
But I did feel bad, for both of us.
Muhammad and the others stayed in the Oval Office for about ten minutes. Then the door to the President’s office opened, and they filed out, moving down an adjacent corridor.
Jim Brown . . . Ralph Boston . . . Calvin Hill . . . Zina Garrison . . .
All but one.
Finally, Muhammad Ali walked out of the Oval Office, leading the President of the United States by the arm toward the Roosevelt Room.
“These are my friends,” Muhammad told him.
Bill Clinton smiled and beckoned us forward with a wave of his arm toward the Oval Office.
“Come on in.”
The minutes that followed will remain forever etched in my mind. The President began by asking Nancy her name. Then he turned to me. We chatted briefly; the President was warm and gracious. Eventually, he even called in a photographer. But what I remember most about that afternoon, and always will, is something I’ve seen many times; something that has been on display for the entire world for almost four decades -- the sweetness, the determination, the power, and the magic of Muhammad Ali.
This article is excerpted from Muhammad Ali: In Perspective. Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (An Unforgiving Sport) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.