Worked for four future presidents
Herbert “Bertie” Bowman died on Oct. 25 at the age of 92. Bowman, who came to Washington as a teenager, worked his way up from sweeping the Capitol’s floors to becoming one of its key aides. Now, Washington and the nation are remembering his long career and his many personal relationships with important politicians throughout decades of public service.
Punchbowl News congressional correspondent Andrew Desiderio first reported Bowman’s death Wednesday, posting the “sad news” that “Bertie Bowman, the longest-serving African-American congressional staffer in history, passed away this a.m.” Desiderio pointed out that Bowman “was the longtime hearings manager for the Foreign Relations Committee. Served under 16 chairs.”
That brief statement only scratches the surface of Bowman’s story. One of 14 children in his family, Bowman grew up in a small town in South Carolina. In 1944, 13-year-old Bowman met South Carolina Sen. Burnet Maybank, who invited the teen to stop by if he ever visited Washington. Bowman took the offer literally, sneaking away from home days later and taking a train to D.C., where he found the senator and secured housing and a job sweeping the Capitol’s floors. From this start, Bowman became a janitor at the Capitol and, in 1965, a clerk for the powerful U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He eventually became the assistant hearing coordinator for the committee, helping to organize meetings. Even after his official retirement in 1990, he continued to work for the committee in a variety of capacities over the next three decades.
During his long time on Capitol Hill, Bowman developed working relationships with a number of current and future leaders, including future presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Bowman actually supervised a 21-year-old Clinton who was working as a clerk at the time; the two developed a friendship, socializing and bonding over shared musical tastes. Clinton wrote the forward to Bowman’s 2008 memoir,” Step by Step: A Memoir of Hope, Friendship, Perseverance, and Living the American Dream.” Biden, who served on or chaired the Foreign Relations Committee for many years, called the book “a great American story by a frontline witness to history.”
Bowman also had unexpectedly cordial relationships with a number of pro-segregation politicians, including fellow South Carolinian Strom Thurmond, who helped Bowman get into Howard University, as well as Jesse Helms and William Fulbright. “They had their political agenda and I had mine” but “they were my friends,” Bowman said in an interview with NPR. In 2021, the headquarters of the Senate Federal Credit Union was named after Bowman, who was then 90 years old and still working as a staffer for the Foreign Relations Committee.
“For 57 years – 57 years! – if you served on or appeared in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, you knew the big smile, the booming laugh, and the bear hug of Bertie Bowman,” former Secretary of State John Kerry posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. Kerry first met Bowman when he testified in front of the Foreign Relations Committee as a young man and later worked with Bowman as chairman of that same committee. “His title may have been ‘hearing coordinator’ but it could’ve just as easily been ‘heart and soul,’” Kerry wrote.
Bowman’s long legacy as the “heart and soul” of the committee is being remembered across Washington, D.C., and beyond.