Yesterday I told you about going out to Chicago to praise booksellers. Today I want to tell you about going to Washington a week or two ago to attend the swearing in of my friend Fred Hochberg as the number two guy at the Small Business Administration.

Eighty percent of all the job growth in America (and since 1992, we’ve added 16 million new jobs) comes from small business, and the SBA is its advocate. Indeed, the head of the SBA, Aida Alvarez, holds a "cabinet-level" post. Not quite Secretary of Defense, but still. Phil Lader, now our ambassador to England, held the job before Ms. Alvarez, and Erskine Bowles, now the president’s chief of staff, held the job before Mr. Lader.

So the SBA is given considerable shrift (if that were the opposite of short shrift, which I deeply fear it is not) by the administration, and rightly so. Under its three recent administrators — Bowles, Lader and Alvarez — it has reinvented itself, finding ways to do more with considerably less. (Its budget, last I checked, had been voluntarily trimmed by about 40% since the Bush years.) It has learned largely to "get out of the way," reducing paperwork to a minimum, by guaranteeing enough of a bank’s loan to small business to encourage lending while leaving the bank sufficiently at risk (25%, in many cases, I think), so that the bank will not blindly make dumb loans.

(The SBA is not a place to go for financing if you have in mind to start a business. But once started, it has a corps of retired executives and others who can help with advice; it can help with additional financing; and it lobbies for small business on Capitol Hill. Interested? Click here.)

So there was Fred, whose appointment as Deputy Administrator had to be confirmed by the Senate, with his hand on a Bible held by his life-partner Tom Healy, being sworn in by Vice President Gore, with more than 100 well wishers, including two congresspersons and the chairman of the S.E.C. (another agency that’s been doing excellent work of late).

I was interested to hear that the oath of office Fred took was the same one the president takes: "I, state your name [Fred, I was relieved, repeated, "I, Fred Hochberg," where I think I, in the same frazzling circumstances, might well have repeated, "I, state your name"], do solemnly swear …"

Fred pledged to defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign or domestic, so help him God (you never know when the SBA may come under attack), and then, the formality over, made a really eloquent speech. Tom and Fred’s family and all the rest of us were very proud, and more than a few of us were proud not just of Fred, but of America — a country that in a relatively few short years has gone from almost complete intolerance of its gay and lesbian citizens to a growing acceptance of their right to pursue happy, constructive, responsible lives.

Although he’ll be making a small fraction of what he earned in the private sector as president of Lillian Vernon, the mail order company (don’t miss their red-white-and-blue inner tube pool floats for Fourth of July, about $6 each and terrific), Fred is more than a little charged up about his new assignment. Not that he could do Lillian Vernon any good at the SBA. With 5 million customers, it long since disqualified itself from the ranks of small business. (For that story, see his mother’s recent autobiography, Lillian Vernon: An Eye for Winners.)

 

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