Free Pennsylvania Avenue

Washington Times EDITORIAL
March 23, 2001

Concrete barriers, check points, police lines, metal detectors these are some of the obstacles citizens of the United States may encounter on any given day if they have the nerve to pay a visit to the public road in front of this republic's executive mansion. Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House is no longer a mere parking lot for the Secret Service. Today, it resembles nothing so much as an armed camp. During the presidential campaign candidate George W. Bush promised to do something about this sorry state of affairs. It will soon come time for President Bush to honor that commitment and give Americans back "the people's house" quaint as that description almost sounds today.

We can, of course, thank the previous occupant of the mansion for all this. The decision to close the avenue in May 1995, long sought by the Secret Service, has not prevented assaults on the property (ineffectual, fortunately), with gunfire or even from the air. What it did was to remove the president even further from the American people, tarnish one of the foremost symbols of American democracy and make a dog's breakfast out of traffic patterns downtown.

At a congressional hearing Wednesday on the besieged Pennsylvania Avenue, Rep. Constance Morella, head of the House Government Reform subcommittee, put it well. "The present state of Pennsylvania Avenue . . . is an affront to our traditions of openness and accessibility." So it is. Former Sen. Bob Dole, who now heads the Federal City Council, a business advocacy group favoring opening the avenue, made another important point. The fortress mode that currently prevails in front of the White House has "come to symbolize that we are giving into the fear of terrorism."Add to that the millions of dollars in lost business revenue in the surrounding streets which the closing has meant for the District, lost parking fees and the pollution from cars hopelessly stuck in traffic. In all, it is not so strange that local politicians are united to a rare degree in wishing to have the nation's main street open for traffic.

At the hearing, Secret Service Director Brian L. Stafford said that "any plan that would permit vehicles within the currently established security perimeter will not protect the president and the White House complex." With all due respect to the men and women who work hard to protect the president, that is more or less what one would expect him to say.

There are, however, proposals that would allow a decent compromise between public access and protection from truck traffic, which is the primary concern. The Rand Corp. produced one such plan, based on a design by Thomas Jefferson, which is favored by the Federal City Council. It ought to be given serious consideration by the Federal Planning Commission, which is expected by make a recommendation to President Bush come July.

Mr. Bush, who promised to bring honor and decency back to the White House, prides himself on keeping his word. That is exactly what he needs to do when it comes to Pennsylvania Avenue. Opening the street will make Washington again the symbol of free and democratic ways it used to be.

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