Sunday, May 31, 2009

A question the White House refused to answer

By DeWayne Wickham

It was, I thought, a fairly simple question — which threatened nothing more than the arrogance of the White House's Praetorian Guard.

I wanted to know how many black higher education institutions have asked Barack Obama to be their commencement speaker this spring.

Black voters, many of them students at historically black colleges and universities, turned out in record numbers to help lift Obama to the presidency. While overall voter turnout in 2008 was roughly the same as in 2004, the black vote rose 23.5 percent, and 95 percent of black voters cast their ballots for Obama, according to David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

So when the White House announced that Obama would give the commencement address at three schools this year, I wondered why none of them was black.

Whatever the reason, the White House doesn't want to talk about it.

My efforts to get the names of the black schools that invited the president to speak were rebuffed. "We don't give out that kind of information," White House press aide Corey Ealons told me.

Imagine that. The list of black schools that asked Obama to give a commencement address is a state secret. Press secretary Robert Gibbs didn't bother to respond when I e-mailed him to ask whether Ealons correctly stated the White House's policy.

During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to bring greater transparency to the White House. "The American people deserve to know what their government does and why," his campaign declared in an online policy position titled "Restoring Trust in Government and Improving Transparency." Obama, the presidential candidate, promised to end the "unprecedented secrecy" of the Bush administration.

But in refusing to release the names of the black schools that asked the president to give a graduation address, the Obama administration is being more than petty. It's behaving like its predecessor. The Bush administration refused to name the people who attended a White House meeting to help Vice President Dick Cheney formulate energy policy in 2001. Cheney even resisted revealing the names of visitors to his official vice presidential residence.

It was that kind of disregard for the people's right to know that moved Obama to issue a memorandum on open government a day after he was sworn in. "My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government," he said in that document.

For many people, Obama's election signaled a break with the small-mindedness of the Bush administration — an end to keeping secret those things that have nothing to do with our national survival.

Withholding the names of black schools that asked Obama to give a commencement address trivializes the president's commitment to open government and undermines his promise of change.

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