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It's Prayer, Not Policy

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Saturday, December 20, 2008; Page A17

If Harry Truman's inauguration had been proclaimed by one of the theaters lining Washington's black U Street in 1949, the marquee might have read: "The Truman Inauguration, starring Lionel Hampton."

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That's because Truman tapped Hampton to be the first African American musician to perform at a presidential inauguration -- a source of pride to people of Hampton's hue.

There was a similar buzz among African Americans in 1953 when soprano Dorothy Maynor became the first African American to sing the national anthem at an inauguration.

I learned from those experiences and the inaugurations that followed that Jan. 20 is more than just an occasion to induct the nation's chief executive into office.

The inaugural ceremony is the new president's first opportunity to show an appreciation for American sensibilities. It gets reflected in the president's choice of inaugural participants.

Which, I confess, is a long-winded way of getting around to President-elect Barack Obama's decision to ask evangelical minister Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration next month.

Let me say at the outset that I have no inside dope as to why Obama chose Warren, just as I don't actually know why Harry Truman invited Hampton to play his vibes on the evening of that special day.

Or, for that matter, what led Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush to ask black Harvard professor and minister Peter J. Gomes to pray at their inaugurations.

Truman was a piano player who liked Gershwin and Debussy, favored Mozart and Beethoven compositions, and reportedly disliked the sound of jazz. So why Lionel Hampton?

What made Reagan pick a black East Coast preacher from an Ivy League school to deliver his inaugural benediction or caused Bush to invite Gomes to deliver the invocation at his swearing-in?

It's not as if Gomes was either man's personal pastor or shared his denominational affiliation. At the time, though, Gomes was a registered Republican, so that might have counted for something.

But I suspect that Gomes was selected because he reflected the kind of broad appeal that both GOP presidents wanted for their inaugurations. The same probably applies to the choosing of Hampton, Maynor, et al.


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