Political appointees and their service to the nation.
Whenever a new political appointee, with right hand raised, promises to protect and defend the Constitution, it's a step forward for our democratic system, or so I would argue.
Even if one disapproves of the appointee's past affiliations or record, the ceremony still stands as another milestone and our faith is renewed that good people will risk their reputations, and the calumny that sometimes descends upon them before and after confirmation, to serve the nation for modest salaries.
We've recently witnessed two important confirmations and swearing in ceremonies-those of Samuel A. Alito Jr. as an associate justice of the Supreme Court, and of Ben S. Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Alito endured months of scrutiny from the opposition and attacks on his record going back to his days as a Princeton undergraduate. Even his wife's clothing was the subject of derisive coverage in the press.
Bernanke was confirmed, after a routine, one-day hearing, for a position that many consider more important than that of Supreme Court justice: a four-year term as the nation's monetary policy leader and a 14-year term on the Fed's board of governors.
Alito is in the minority-but one that's been growing for a generation or more-of nominees swept up in partisan combat.
Another such case is that of my friend C. Boyden Gray, who was nominated in July 2005 to be the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Gray served for 12 years as counsel to first vice president and then President George H. W. Bush. He was the Reagan administration's leading deregulation strategist, helped draft important laws on air quality and on disability rights and fought to get Clarence Thomas confirmed to the Supreme Court, among other accomplishments in government.
Gray has been active in GOP fund-raising and championed conservative causes, including confirmation of controversial Bush judicial nominees who were being blocked by Democrats in the Senate. Angry about the tactics he embraced in that fight, they put a hold on his confirmation, so he took a two-year recess appointment and was sworn in by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Jan. 20.
No such controversy attended confirmation of Lyons Gray, Boyden's cousin, as chief financial officer of the Environmental Protection Agency. He was sworn in by EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson on Jan. 23.
Lyons and his wife, Constance, have moved to Washington from North Carolina, where he spent 13 years as an elected member of the general assembly, because he welcomed another opportunity for public service.
The Gray cousins, nearing the end of successful careers in the public and private sectors, could have rested on their laurels. But the country is the better for their willingness to serve.
And that goes for Michael Chertoff as well. He might be struggling in his difficult job as secretary of the Homeland Security Department-as our cover story this month suggests. Still, when he answered the call to serve and took his latest oath of office, our democratic system showed its strength once more.