Sunday, January 18, 2009


Earlier this week I realized I would be at work preparing to hold hearings this coming Tuesday, Inauguration Day. I hoped to watch the swearing in and hear Obama's address live rather than on the evening news. Our office does not have a television in the lunch room. After some preliminary investigation I decided I needed to ask Karen, the Hearing Office Director, and longtime boss of all things, whether she would permit arrangements to be made that would allow the office staff to watch the Inauguration. Karen was not in the office at the time so I sent her a brief email.

The next day Karen came to my office and told me she was unable to clear the idea. She looked uncomfortable. There were technical problems. It seems you can't get good TV reception in the office, and we aren't allowed to use SSA's satellite up-link for streaming TV over the internet. There was a possible issue with video hearings that might be held, which had something to do with available bandwidth, not to mention the difficulty clearing use of the computer system for such use, complete with allusion to prior difficulties encountered. Clearly she was not enthusiastic.

When I arrived home Tuesday evening, turning this bureaucratic encounter over in my mind, I was surprised to find an email waiting for me from John Mahoney, a friend of mine from way back in the late 60s. It seems John saw the item in the Bucknell Alumni magazine announcing my move to St. Louis and decided to drop me a line. He reminded me that back then when we were fellow student radicals working to stop the Vietnam war he arranged for a speaking engagement for a previous black presidential candidate. Here's how John puts it:

Do you remember when I brought Dick Gregory to Bucknell? Jake Register (and his wife) and I drove down to Harrisburg to pick him up that afternoon - but he wasn't there. We were told that he was at Penn State - so we drove there and picked him and his assistant up. On the drive he kept tossing out his campaign literature - which was dollar bills with his face on it with the White House painted black. We would have made it to the Davis Gym in time - but Gregory needed to be fed. He was a vegetarian! I had never met a vegetarian and didn't know what to do - so I headed to IHOP!”

Frankly, until John's email I had mostly forgotten this event. I still have one of those “Gregory Dollars” in my collection of 60s political memorabilia. I vaguely remember being disappointed in Gregory's speech at Bucknell not only because he showed up late, but because he spoke more about the health values of vegetarianism than about ending the war. I didn't vote for Gregory.

Next week an African American will be sworn in as our President. I believe Dick Gregory's somewhat jokey, sure-to-fail, presidential write-in candidacy 40 years ago played some role in changing the perceptions of my generation about the role of African Americans in US politics. I feel the same way about the ill-fated runs of Jessie Jackson (1984 & 88), Lenora Fulani (1988 & 92), Alan Keyes (1996 & 2000), Carol Mosely Braun (2004), and don't forget the Rev. Al Sharpton (2004). I think they all knew that they were in some subtile way laying the ground work for someone they knew would someday exist who would run and win. I very much doubt they dreamed that Barack Obama would come along so soon.

Racism runs deep in our national psyche and our institutions. It pervades the subconscious life of us all. In my view racism can be gradually overcome only by successful modeling of the possible future of people of all races living and working together. This can only be achieved practically, not by aspiration. We learn to live together in harmony by actually doing it. That's why so much rides on Obama having a successful presidency.

As of Friday, there was no official office announcement about whether, where or how ODAR staff could watch the Inauguration. I'm sure some staff members have already decided to stay home from work Tuesday. In the end Karen had agreed if I wanted to set up a TV with possibly poor reception and the staff wanted to watch on their lunch break, she was fine with that, but it was apparent the office would take no steps to facilitate such arrangements. I am troubled that the value of having the entire office staff watch the Inauguration together does not seem to even have occurred to the SSA bureaucracy. In a more perfect world all federal employees would pause, gather together and listen as their new boss explains his or her plans for the future.

I was heartened when one African American staff person told me her husband, who works for the Army, was going to watch the Inauguration on a big screen TV set up especially for the occasion at work. I am glad the Army recognizes the value of watching their new commander-in-chief be sworn in.

Right now I plan on unofficially watching the Inauguration on Tuesday on the TV in the claimant's waiting room. I'm sure many ODAR staff will join me. Together we launch our imperfect future.

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