For the faceless nobody who was so long dismissed as just another sycophant in the Champ's entourage—the one who stuttered; don't even bother with him—the ease and confidence and humor that Bingham now displays is the stuff of metamorphosis. But then, Bingham has met presidents and dictators and a huge segment of the population with Q ratings. Plus all the right maître d's. Would it surprise you to learn that Bingham interviewed James Earl Ray? ("Howard completely charmed him," reports someone who observed the tête-à-tête between the black man and the racist.) He's met and photographed Elvis, the Beatles and Michael Jackson. James Earl Jones lent his grand voice to a Black History Month radio feature on Bingham. Here is a picture of Bingham with President Clinton, Billy Graham and Lauren Bacall. Here is another, with Bill Cosby and Nelson Mandela. Howard is the one in the middle. On the Internet, Bingham is on the select list of history's most famous stutterers, which includes Demosthenes. Surely it won't be long before someone says, "I don't know who the big fellow is up there shaking, but the bald guy with him is Howard."
He is amazingly eclectic. He befriends strangers on elevators. On this particular morning he hands over the Camry to the valet parking attendant at The Beverly Hills Hotel and strides inside, where Arianna Huffington and a bunch of Hollywood muckety-mucks have come to a breakfast to hear Orrin Hatch, the conservative Republican senator from Utah, deliver a speech. The Beverly Hills looks, in fact, a lot like Utah, lacking any black people. Except Howard Bingham.
Hatch enters the room. All the fat cats start to move toward him. Suddenly, the distinguished senior senator stops dead in his tracks. He falls into a boxer's crouch. It looks as if Hatch, usually so impeccable, so controlled, has lost it. But no, he has just spied Bingham across the way. The two men once met. They became friends. That's the way it goes with Bingham. Now, while everybody else looks on in puzzlement, the senator hurries to the one black man in the room and, beaming, embraces him. There is more hugging by and of Howard Bingham than goes on in a whole stadium of Promise Keepers.
At the microphone Hatch tries to rag on Bingham a little bit for being the lone Democrat in this Republican crowd. But the senator knows it's futile. Ali couldn't get Bingham to convert to Islam all those years when virtually all the other African-Americans surrounding the Champ were Muslims. So what chance does Hatch have? Ali must see some of himself in Bingham. It wasn't Ali's boxing talent that made him so special; rather, it was that he stood up for his beliefs. Well, it isn't just Bingham's niceness that makes him so special; rather, it is that he stands up for his beliefs.
"That's hard, too," says Lonnie Ali, the fighter's fourth wife. "To say to a personality as powerful and overwhelming as Muhammad—to say, 'No, you're wrong. I don't agree with you!'—that's very difficult. But Howard was never a yes-man. He always tells Muhammad what he feels he has to know."
Did you ever have a good friend?
Bingham Steers the Camry to downtown L.A., first to a good taco stand and then to the corner of Fifth and Broadway. This is the historical part of the tour, the one that revisits the moment of happenstance that changed Bingham's life. Late in 1962 one Cassius Clay and his brother, Rudolph Valentino Clay, were standing on this corner, watching the girls go by. Howard came along in his Dodge Dart. He was learning to be a photographer at the Sentinel, L.A.'s black weekly paper. It seemed quixotic. He'd taken up the craft mostly because, for a guy who couldn't talk, it seemed like a good way to meet chicks. So far he'd gotten an F in photography at Compton Community College and overexposed most of what he shot for the Sentinel. Still, the paper had sent him that day to a press conference to shoot the loudmouth young heavyweight who was in town to knock over some tomato can.
The Clay brothers got into the Dodge Dart, and Howard gave them a sophisticated tour. Besides looking for girls, he took them to a bowling alley and home to meet his mother. Later, his chauffeuring had more of a purpose to it. "Remember, Ali," Howard now says to his friend, "I'd drop you off at the mosque—making sure there were no white folks around to see."
Ali laughs at the recollection of being a closet Muslim, surreptitiously driven about by the Christian preacher's son. Otherwise, for more secular pursuits, Bingham and his new buddy started to hang out. "We just got along," Howard says. It was all fun. They were free, black and 21. Shortly after Ali returned East, he sent Bingham a ticket, and Bingham took his first plane ride, to Miami. There he and Ali picked up the fighter's pink Cadillac and drove north, to Louisville. It was wintertime. Bingham had been born in Mississippi and had grown up in L.A. and didn't have any cold-weather clothes. Ali outfitted him, and Bingham decided to stay. It was like suddenly being taken into Wonderland. "I'd never even heard of you, Ali," Bingham says now.
"Shows how dumb you were."