The Other Changing of the Guard by
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Prompted By Inaugurations

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While this month’s inauguration was memorable, there have been other memorable inaugurations in the decades I have lived in the Washington, DC area. One I especially remember was January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration. I was working for the federal government at the time, in the research office of the Food and Nutrition Service, which administers the food stamp program, the school lunch program and several other food programs for needy families. We knew that the incoming Reagan people were ideologically opposed to anti-poverty programs, so we spent the weeks between the election and the inauguration finishing and publishing every research report we could.

Past inaugurations have also brought dramatic changes in approaches to governing.

We suspected – accurately, as it turned out — that they would stop putting out any new research once they were in control. The problem was that the research we were doing did not support their negative assumptions about the poor. Our research showed that most families receiving food stamps were either elderly or working and that very few owned new cars, big homes, or fat bank accounts. Or any bank accounts at all. I remember doing a table for someone that showed that the median bank account balance for non-elderly food stamp recipients was $0.

So on inauguration day, I came into work, even though it was a federal holiday, to see if I could get one last report out the door. My office was a couple of blocks from the National Mall and the streets were all deserted that early in the morning. I lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood and the police had made everyone take their cars out of the neighborhood the night before. I assumed it was for security reasons and left my car with a friend in the Virginia suburbs. But the day of the inauguration, all the parking spots in my neighborhood filled up with limousines and fancy cars with out-of-state plates. We waited in vain for the police to ticket them, until we realized that we had all been forced to relocate our cars to provide parking for the inaugural VIPs.

Later in the morning, I took a break to see what was going on. At that point, I could see groups of people moving toward the Capitol for the inaugural ceremony. Even though it was not that cold – Reagan’s second inauguration was the coldest on record, but the first was not – there were fur coats everywhere and people being dropped off by limousines. I could see that the Reagan administration was going to be very different from the administration of Jimmy Carter.

I did get that report published and it was a good thing, because within a few days, they had replaced all the political appointees in the agency. Ironically, the guy who was appointed as the agency director was a man I had worked with when we were both staff for the Senate – he on the Republican side and I on the Democratic – so I cut a deal with him to let me stay in my job until I left for graduate school in the fall. He used to call me into his office, ostensibly to talk about some policy issue, and then spend the whole time complaining that no one in the department leadership would listen to him. I think his problem was that he was a fairly rational guy and not ideological enough for the higher level political appointees in the department. He was pushed out of his job shortly before I left mine for graduate school.

Profile photo of Kathy Porter Kathy Porter


Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Marian says:

    A unique picture into events behind an inauguration, Kathy. It all makes sense, and I applaud you for trying to get data out so the record could be straight on the programs you supported. Limos and fur coats, indeed. Symbols do speak volumes, don’t they?

  2. Suzy says:

    Kathy, I love this picture from a DC local of the transition from Carter to Reagan. I had forgotten how truly awful Reagan was until I read the book “Heartland” by Sarah Smarsh, which documents the damage he did to the working poor. Great that you got your report published, and that you were able to cut a deal with your Republican colleague to keep your job for a few more months.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Great story and perspective on what happens substantively at inaugurations, Kathy. I was so pleased to see that Jared Bernstein was named to Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers. The worm definitely turns in both directions.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Thanks for sharing a totally different point of view, Kathy. Reagan is looking pretty mild compared with today’s GOP.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Thanks for sharing this insider view, Kathy. I well-remember Nancy Reagan’s bestie, Betsy Bloomingdale and all the other fat cats. The term “well-fare queens” was coined during this administration; ironic, given the conspicuous consumption going on. But it was my politically astute mother-in-law who told me, years later, how much of the safety net had been shredded and people thrown into poverty during this era of “trickle down” economics. Reagan just did it with an “awe shucks” smile.

    • Kathy Porter says:

      I appreciate your comment, Betsy. Reagan also began an era of conservative governing that lasted well beyond his tenure. Even Clinton, who followed him (after H.W. Bush), felt the need to throw bones to the conservatives.

  6. Kathy & Betsy, this somehow triggered a memory of Nixon trying to stress his humble roots and his wife’s “Republican cloth coat”. Of course since animal rights have become PC, fur coats are out for everyone!

    Years ago when I was on the board of a local civic organization, the Carl Schurz Park Association, my friend Laura, then the association president and I were invited to a city reception at the Natural History museum.

    Laura knew I had a fox coat I loved. “You better not wear it tonight!”, she said!

    • Kathy Porter says:

      Thanks, Dana. I remember an incident from the Reagan years, after graduate school when I was working for a non-profit, when the Reagan assistant secretary in charge of food programs participated in a photo opp handing out surplus food to the homeless. Unfortunately for her, the assistant secretary came to the photo opp in a fur coat. So the press ran a wonderful photo of this woman in her full-length mink coat handing a hunk of cheese to a poor homeless guy. I kept that photo on my bulletin board in my office for years, as it perfectly symbolized the Reagan administration.

  7. The image of having to park far away in order to make a place for VIP limousines is a very powerful one that speaks volumes to this week’s prompt. Yes, we have had some disastrous presidents, and thanks for doing whatever you could to stave off the retrograde policies.

  8. Hopefully, we are beginning to see the pendulum begin the swing back from the bad old days signaled by Reagan’s entrance (following Goldwater’s resolve). The pendulum swings and — hopefully, through it all — the arc of history does bend toward justice. Time’s up, m’f—kers.

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