Is anyone home?
On Sunday of Labor Day Weekend, Rev. Sharline Fulton asked the summer congregation of St. John’s- by-the-Sea in Avalon, NJ to call the White House and express their opinions about the decision by the President to bomb Syria. I had the good fortune to be visiting with my friend Rev. David Funkhouser and hear the powerful sermon from Rev. Sharline about how pride can promote a sense of superiority and in this case, lead us down a path of violence and war.
After the worship message, I was having a conversation with Sharline and asked her if she actually had a phone number for the White House. Sharline, part Syrian, is a 79 year old semi- retired minister who has the energy and passion of a woman half her age. She pulled out her telephone book, you remember those before you kept your numbers in your cell, and showed me a number, 202-456-1111. I called the number. Even though it was Sunday, I assumed I could leave a message given our technological advances.
“Thank you for calling the White House Comment Line. The office is now closed. Your comment is very important to The President so please call again between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm EST, Monday through Friday. For additional information about the White House, please visit WWW.WHITEHOUSE.GOV and to share your thoughts click on the word “contact us” on the upper right hand corner of the page.” They also repeat the phone number several times telling you it is the direct number to the White House. Why do I need to be told it’s this several times? Why doesn’t the President have an answering machine? Or better yet, employ real people to answer the phone seven days a week. During the work hours described in the message, each administration has volunteers taking calls. Is the President only interested in hearing our comments during work hours or on the computer if you have access to the internet?
What if Dennis Rodman, former flamboyant basketball player for the Detroit Pistons, has a diplomatic breakthrough with the President of North Korea, Kim Jong Un and he wants to call President Obama for advice? Well, only privileged parties are privy to the “secret number” that reaches the President directly. And I suspect Rodman is not on that list.
Some of you might not remember President Rutherford B. Hayes. He wasn’t well known for much but in 1877 he installed the first telephone in the White House. The phone number was “1.” There was not a telephone in the Oval Office until President Herbert Hoover in 1929 and the problem with that system as it evolved was that anyone in the White House could listen to conversations with the President by pushing a button.
President Bill Clinton revamped the telephone system in 1993 creating a private line to the President. It’s not surprising that this particular president would want a private line.
There have been a number of times when the White House telephone lines have been jammed or overloaded by more calls than the system could handle. This usually takes place when there are catastrophic events, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or before a vote on controversial legislation such as the 2007 immigration overhaul bill or the 2008 Wall Street bailout.
For the sake of democracy, let’s hope that technology is a vehicle for communication and does not become an end in itself. Pick up the phone, Mr. President!