Some of the well-wishers who overflowed the auditorium made a great sacrifice to travel from the tiny Alabama fishing village of Bayou La Batre. They did it because the new "nation's doctor" had sacrificed so much to care for them. Benjamin's community clinic had twice been wiped out by hurricanes and once by fire. Rather than give up, this daughter of a maid piled medical supplies into her pickup truck and made her rounds on the road -- often taking shrimp or oysters as payment from the growing population of Southeast Asian fishermen who were some of her neediest patients.
Greeting the guests were the Public Health Service choral and wind ensembles, filling the hall with patriotic medleys -- men and women of every ethnicity and race, their differences erased by their full-dress black uniforms, reminding us that the surgeon general is a military office, carrying the rank of rear admiral. These healthcare workers descend professionally from the Marine Hospital Service created by President John Adams in 1798. And though Thomas Jefferson, in a show of fierce partisanship, fired many of the men in government after he defeated Adams, he allowed the Marine doctors to continue treating merchant seamen.
Over the past 200 years, the Public Health Service has taken on many more duties, but the sense of continuity remains and former surgeons general were there to reinforce it. The most recent man to hold that title -- George Bush appointee Richard Carmona -- handed over the seal of office, which he ceremonially received from his predecessor, Bill Clinton appointee David Satcher. Satcher had been Benjamin's Community Medicine professor when she studied at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Ga. Clearly, his course took, and Satcher still serves as a mentor to his former student.
Seated next to Satcher onstage was a man who was even more of a mentor: Dr. Louis Sullivan, the first president of Morehouse School of Medicine and secretary of Health and Human Services under George H.W. Bush. For a couple of hours in these partisan times, no one noticed that some of the dignitaries held office in Republican administrations and some in Democratic ones -- no one thought it relevant. Former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman wasn't there in her capacity as a Democratic Cabinet member; as Benjamin's old family friend from Mobile, Ala., she held the Bible for the oath taking.
The solemnity of the military ceremony couldn't cramp the enthusiasm of the other neighbors and friends. All it did was swell their sense of pride as Dr. Benjamin saluted her color guard and then announced her scripted first order: "Present my colors." Shouts of "Yes, sister!" went up from the crowd. What did they care who was a Republican and who was a Democrat on the platform? They cared that their "sister" had made it to the top and would be able to serve her country as she has her community.
It also didn't matter who was white and who was black, who was Asian American and who was Native American. Looking at the officials seated in front of the chorus -- the secretary of Health and Human Services (a white Midwestern woman), the deputy secretary (a white Southern man), the assistant secretary for health (a Korean American man) and the surgeon general (a black Southern woman) -- we were struck by the seemingly effortless achievement of diversity in this administration.
There has been none of the hand-wringing (and political correctness) we witnessed in the early days of the Clinton White House when aides publicly sought "one from column A, one from column B" to fill government posts. And though George W. Bush never got the credit he deserved for his team's diversity, it still wasn't as multiethnic and racial as this one. It's not surprising that new polls show blacks as markedly more optimistic about the country than they have been in the past. When they look at the people running the country, they see people who look like them. So do Asian Americans and Hispanics and women.
That was something to take home with us from this inspiring swearing-in ceremony, something to keep us feeling good about America even in these highly partisan times.
Steve Roberts' new book,
"From Every End of This Earth" (HarperCollins), was published
this fall. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at