1600 Pennsylvania Something

All one need really do to pin down one's uneasy response to last weekend's closure of Pennsylvania Avenue is to ask oneself: What would Ronald Reagan have done! It is very easy to imagine President Reagan announcing that he knew he had nothing to fear from the American people, that he would not be intimidated by the un-American murderers in Oklahoma, and that he would not hide behind concrete.

Politicians -- Republican and Democrat -- who have followed in Mr. Reagan's footsteps have sought his magic formula for success, in vain. Because there was no magic formula, as such: It wasn't Mr. Reagan's acting skill, his good looks, his appealing voice, his ready sense of humor or even the combination of all of the above that won him the hearts and minds ofhis constituents. (Though his successors as president, as well as a few on the campaign trail today, surely wouldn't be hurt by the addition of one or more of those talents to their personal repertoire.)

Americans loved Mr. Reagan because he loved them, because he had faith in their fundamental courage and decency, and because he demonstrated an unflagging respect and admiration for --and commitment to -- the unique qualities of American democracy, not least as expressed in the freewheeling openness of our society.

Closing Pennsylvania Avenue is unquestionably a diminishment of all of the above -- as it is of the traditional American notion of a citizen president, accessible to his fellow citizens. No one today would argue that the president ought to be as accessible as in the days when Andrew Jackson's guests trashed the White House. But it's a far cry from that to hunkering down behind a concrete barrier.

It's also a far cry from what American citizens expect from their government to wake up on a fine Saturday morning to discover their president hunkering down, and that they no longer can drive the family Ford past the White House. A fait accompli, imposed by presidential fiat and carried out in the dead of night.

Commentators have been clucking their tongues about the sad necessities of safety in the modern world (which takes on somewhat less weight When one recalls that neither of the two actual attacks against the Clinton White House -- by a plane and by a pedestrian -- would have been deterred a whit by the traffic ban). The truth is, however, that the closing of the avenue says far more about Bill Clinton than it does about the state of the world -- even after Oklahoma.

That road has been open to traffic through wars, following assassinations, and through all the civil unrest of the 1960s -- despite the fact that the Secret Service has wanted to close it for Fears. It stands to reason that those charged with guarding the president should push for an ever-expanding layer of protection. But presidents have recognized that more was at stake than personal safety; that an open Pennsylvania Avenue was a powerful symbol; and that interpreting and preserving and respecting such symbolism are necessary elements of leadership - until now, that is.

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park