Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 7/30/2013
Journalist Wil Haygood first came to the realization—“as if kicked by a mule”—that Barack Obama would become President of the United States while covering a campaign rally in the summer of 2008. Interviewing three emotional college students after a rousing speech at the University of North Carolina, he was surprised to learn that they would be defying their fathers by voting for Obama.
Haygood began researching a story that might filter the enormous depth of symbolism a historic presidency might frame for Obama supporters. He went in search of a career White House employee, who would be voting for the first black president to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
He discovered the name of a butler, Eugene Allen, who had served eight presidents over a 30-year career from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan.
“It is such an old-fashioned and anachronistic term: the butler. Someone who serves people, who sees but doesn’t see; someone who can read the moods of the people he serves. The figure in the shadows.”
Armed with phone books from the Washington, DC–Maryland–Virginia areas, Haygood’s persistence hit paydirt.
An interview with Allen and his wife Helene in their home in Otis Place culminated in a front page story for the Washington Post published three days after Obama’s election. The story, titled “A Butler Well Served by This Election,” sparked heartfelt responses in letters and a VIP invitation to the inauguration.
Haygood’s book The Butler: A Witness to History is a short-but-sweet summary of his interview with the Allens and the inspired push to make the story into a film.
“During the tense Little Rock school desegregation crisis, he watched President Eisenhower argue with Arkansas governor Orval Faubus over the phone. It made him mighty proud when Eisenhower sent in federal troops to protect the black schoolchildren. He was there when President Kennedy had to protect James Meredith on the campus of the University of Mississippi in 1963 as the school, by court order, was forced to allow the first black student to enroll.”
Haygood writes touchingly about Allen’s locked basement full of career memorabilia and his thoughts about presidents Johnson, Nixon and Reagan in whose administration he was promoted to maître d’.
Only 112 pages long, the book deserves a look in anticipation of the release of the movie directed by Oscar nominee Lee Daniels and starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda and Robin Williams.
The Butler by Wil Haygood is a worthwhile read about the author’s capstone interview with White House butler Eugene Allen in the context of Barack Obama’s historic presidential election.
Category: Nonfiction, Journalism