Dead-End Thinking on Pennsylvania Avenue

By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer

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."

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park