Tom Sherwood's Notebook: 1/20/10

Two anniversaries marked in D.C.

By Tom Sherwood
|  Wednesday, Jan 20, 2010  |  Updated 6:15 AM EDT
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Do You Really See Us, Mr. President?

Associated Press

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The annual observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday has come and gone.

Amid the daily worries of the nation's two wars, the horrific situation in Haiti and the battle over health care on Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama used the King occasion to visit our little town.

This time, he and his family went to what is surely a local Washington institution and landmark, the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church just north of Logan Circle. We're not sure how it all was arranged, but even the president acknowledged that carrying out his local outings involves quite a "fuss."

"Let me apologize in advance for all the fuss," he said sincerely, and the congregation nodded.

A video of the Sunday service captured the president as he recited the exceptional history of the church, which was formed by freed slaves. The president said the church "rose like phoenix from the ashes of the Civil War."

Since that time, Vermont Avenue Baptist Church has been a rock in the local Washington community. And since its start, in 1866, it has had only six pastors. The first was the Rev. John Henry Brooks, a former Union army wagon driver. The current minister, in the post since 2007, is the Rev. Cornelius Wheeler, son of Rev. John R. Wheeler, who served as pastor for nearly 40 years.

The congregation was rightly proud to host the president. And, of course, everyone greeted him respectfully, politely applauding after his sermon/speech.

President Obama recalled that Martin Luther King Jr. had visited the church on Dec. 6, 1956, as a 27-year-old preacher, and spoke of "the challenge of a new age." It was just after the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott had ended with bus desegregation.

But King preached that the future was uncertain and seemed daunting, saying that it wasn't "clear what would come next." The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled school segregation unconstitutional. But its ruling had met with continuing resistance.

Obama said we should honor King by remembering what we take for granted today, including the right to vote. He said the long struggle for voting rights "made it possible for me to be here today."

As we listened to the video recording, we thought to ourselves: Now is the time for the president to mention the lack of voting rights in the nation's capital. Surely, Dr. King would have found it relevant to mention.

But again, on the umpteenth occasion, the president failed to mention our lack of voting rights in Congress.

It would have been the right place and the right thing to do. It would have added to the grand history of the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church. It would have made national news.

But it was another opportunity missed.

Speaking of the great sweep of history, Obama said, "There are times when progress just seems too slow ... so painfully slow in coming."

When it comes to D.C. voting rights, we know what he means.

Can we get an "Amen" on that?

• A Different Anniversary

It's hard to believe, but it's been 20 years since Marion Barry's arrest for possession of crack cocaine at the Vista Hotel.

The hotel has changed names a couple of times, but it holds a number of memories for The Notebook. The arrest on the night of Jan. 18, 1989, was the first-ever live shot we did for television. As a brand-new TV reporter of only a couple of months, we had no idea how to handle all the technical aspects of appearing "live" outside the studio.

So NBC4 sent down veteran reporter I.J. Hudson to interview us, as our station was first to report the historic event. Yes, your correspondent was the first reporter to break the news on TV, but the original tip had come to our then-anchor Susan Kidd, who called desk editor Paul Irvin with the news.

Barry allowed the 20th anniversary to pass without notice this week. The Washington City Paper played it up with a classic photograph of Barry walking out in front of the federal courthouse at 3rd Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Reporters and cameramen staked out the spot for weeks, fondly calling it "Barry Beach."

But we want to recall a couple of facts from the case: First, Barry was not found guilty in the Vista Hotel case. The jurors felt the Vista sting had the smell of entrapment. And despite popular comment, Barry is not a "convicted felon."

Barry, instead, was found guilty of one misdemeanor charge of drug possession in a separate incident. The jury deadlocked on the dozen other charges. Barry served six months in jail.

That was 20 years ago. And the Barry story is not over yet.

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