Dead-End Thinking on Pennsylvania Avenue
By Ken Ringle
Richard Nixon and his erstwhile Watergate attorney John
Mitchell are supposed to be dead, but you'd never know it from
the security committee report this week recommending that we keep
the White House safe by closing Pennsylvania Avenue.
Why not be really safe and shut down the city?
It was during the Nixon years, you may recall, that talk first
surfaced about shutting down East Executive Avenue, a perfectly
harmless little street that had led traffic between the White
House and the Treasury Building for at least half a century
without incident. With left-wing longhairs building bombs as they
were in those days, the street was suddenly judged hazardous,
even with the White House shielded--and hidden from view--by
those mammoth earthen berms of the sort you see around arsenals
and banana republic presidential palaces. Not to mention the
Orwellian loudspeakers behind the fence. And the hidden cameras
eyeballing the tourists.
When the street was actually closed--in 1983--there was a good
deal of excavation between the White House and Treasury and a
rampant rumor that tactical missile launchers were being pianted
there to take out any potential kamikaze strikes from National
Airport. The Secret Service, always mum about presidential
security, refused to confirm or deny that the missiles were
there. Given the single engine Cessna that crashed into the White
House last fall, the missiles were probably apocryphal. Either
that or their keeper was watching "Kojak."
These days, with right-wing longhairs building bombs, the bunker
Junkers are back in force. Like any good Washington bureaucracy,
they're attempting to use a media feeding frenzy--in this case
over the Oklahoma bombing - to create a bigger institutional
empire with less accountability and more control over our lives.
Why not close Pennsylvania Avenue? We already have Secret
Service agents giving traffic tickets.
The truth is that the Secret Service is full of dedicated public
servants, but it tends to attract people who have eyes extremely
close together. They are rarely given to cleareyed visions of
openness in a democratic society. They are the type who gave us
the doomsday architecture of the FBI's J. Edgar Hover Building,
designed in the Nixon-Mitchell years and defiantly promxtnced at
that time to be bomb-proof. They are the people who close down
streets whenever Bill Clinton goes out for a steak.
It is rarely useful to point out to such people that the United
States was created on the sort of premise that had Thomas
Jefferson--at a time when heads of states had palaces and
guards--taking his meals at an ordinary Capitol Hill
boardinghouse (sitting in the drafty spot near the door) and had
Harry Truman taking his morning walks among F Street shoppers.
These are different, more dangerous times, we are told. Never
mind that Truman, greatly reviled in his era, strolled
Washington's streets during to wars despite an assassination
attempt by Puerto Rican terrorists. Are the times more fearful,
or are we?
"There are always risks in a democracy," says historian Daniel
Boorstin, who has meditated in print about the cultural symbolism
of the White House. "That's the price we pay for freedom.
Excessive security can give the impression of a fortress state
when what we want is a sense of openness."
If things are so dangerous these days, why stop at closing
Pennsylvania Avenue? What about the field of fire from the
Washington Monument! How do you prevent a grenade launcher on the
Ellipse or a mortar barrage from Farragut Square! A tactical nuke
Cleveland Park? How do we know all those people talking to
themselves in Lafayette Square aren't waging germ warfare against
the White House with every north wind?
There are few greater props for the political ego than a
security force. The shakier the politician's self-image, as
Mayors Kelly and Barry have recently demonstrated, the bigger the
force needed. Nixon's brooding paranoia required not just Secret
Service protection but White House guards dressed like Imperial
footmen. And if anything can top that, it's the notion that one's
importance requires closing the nation's Main Street.
Before the roadblocks go up, however, President Clinton should
talk to some Marines just back from Haiti. Of all the aspects of
the recent American intervention there, nothing has so impressed
the average Haitian as the fact that he can now walk and drive
freely in front of the Presidential Palace in Port-al-Prince, and
even touch the fence.
The security forces of Haiti's many dictators always forbade
that, they say, "but now our president's house is really ours:
You Americans have taught us what it's like to be free."
Washington Post Staff Writer
Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park