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The Best of Friends
Frank Deford
July 13, 1998
For 35 years, photographer Howard Bingham has traveled the globe, meeting princes and presidents, all thanks to his selfless devotion to a buddy who happens to be the most famous man in the world
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July 13, 1998

The Best Of Friends

For 35 years, photographer Howard Bingham has traveled the globe, meeting princes and presidents, all thanks to his selfless devotion to a buddy who happens to be the most famous man in the world

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After they'd escaped danger, Belinda said, "Why, Howard, you didn't stutter."

"I di-d-di-didn't h-h-have t-t-time t-t-to."

In fact, everybody pretty much accepted Bingham's stammer. "No one even perceived it as a handicap," George Jackson says. "It was just another part of Howard." Another notation on his special passport.

But, of course, it bothered him. In 1978, to everyone's surprise, he ran for Congress in his home district. He had a lot of support—Marvin Gaye, Sammy Davis Jr., Richard Pryor, the works. Ali campaigned, too, and he wrote a poem:

Bingham is smart
Bingham is wise
Elect Howard Bingham
Cut our problems down to size.

Unfortunately, at candidates' forums, Bingham would seize up as his turn to speak approached. He would run from the stage before the microphone was his. He lost the election.

But even if he never ran for office again, he never stopped trying to speak better. Now he knows: Muhammad Ali may have been the Greatest, but Howard Bingham dealt better with his infirmity. Sometimes, he tells his friend, "It isn't your fault, Ali, that you're only 50 or 75 percent of what you were, but still, if you won't give 100 percent of what's left, then you might as well keep your ass at home."

But at other times he looks at his friend, and he remembers only the beauty—that wonderful, powerful body, that dashing, fascinating original that was. "Oh, yeah," Howard says, "sometimes when I remember, it hurts."

He looks over at Ali on the couch, chubby and droopy, dozing off again. Softly, Howard reaches out and touches Muhammad—just enough, on the side of the head, to awaken him. Just enough. Ali stirs. He looks up torpidly, sees his friend and smiles.

The documentary is still playing. Lonnie is on the phone at the desk, talking business. Without a word, Ali lowers his head and goes back to sleep.

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