'No Muss, No Fuss... No Metal Detectors'

One of the stories I most injoy hearing from my father about growing up in Washington in the 1930's is the one about the way he and his high school classmates would march right up almost to the front door of the White House.

Dad was in the corps of cadets at Western High School at 35th and R streets NW. When his company won a competition, the uniformed teenagers would march briskly in formation down city streets to the Executive Mansion. After a brief conversation with the guards, the company would march up the White House driveway to snappily salute the commander in chief. Then the cadets would disperse to a film at a downtown theater, where they were admitted without charge.

With the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, my father's story increasingly seems like a tale from the remote past. In taking this latest security measure, a sad necessity in a world of car bombers and other high-tech crazies, President Clinton vowed not to "allow the fight against domestic and foreign terrorism to build a wall between me and the American People." While I'm sure the president is sincere, my own family's stories illustrate just how tall that wall has already become in a relatively few years.

My father's father came to Washington in the early part of this century. He would sometimes encounter President Wilson out for a walk on city streets, and tip his hat. That's not quite the same thing as smapping a photo of the presidential Jogger-in-Chief as he puffs by with Secret Service agents and reporters in tow.

During the wartime years of the 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelt still found time for a Sunday stroll in Rock Creek Park. My mother, whose immigrant parents had brought the family here from New York in search of economic opportunity, remembered personally greeting the first lady. Around that same time, my father's family had friends who lived in a middle-class apartment building on Connecticut Avenue that housed a tenant with a very visible government job: the vice president ofthe United States, Harry S. Truman. The idea of a vice presidential mansion - essentially, a way of cordoning off the VP from security threats - would have seemed ludicrous.

I personally was a president close-up for the first time in 1972, at the end of my freshman year of college, thanks to a sudden need for a visual backdrop for the TV cameras. I was working at a summer job with the President's Council on Environmental Quality, which was located across the street from the White House on Lafayette Square. The president of Mexico was visiting President Nixon, and the White House advance team needed to hustle up an appropriately large and enthusiastic crowd. Tourists and summer interns were corraled onto the White House lawn and quickly provided with little Mexican and American flags towave in frenzied greeting. No muss, no fuss, no Social Security numbers provided for background checks and no metal detectors.

In later years, as a newspaper reporter in Chicago, I'd see presidents and vice presidentsfrom time to time, particularly during election-year visits to the paper's editorial board. Even in a secure building with its own guards, standard security from the Secret Service included dogs sniffing through the newsroom for bombs. Covering the vice president on a visit to Chicago, meanwhile, meant arriving at a meeting more than an hour agead of time for those of us who weren't members of the already-cleared White House press corps. And when I'd go to the White House itself, I noticed that the unsmiling uniformed guard who checked credentials now did so through the sort of bulletproof glass and teller tray usually seen at a bank or dry-cleaners in the wrong part of town. As the guard worked, you waited behind an electronically controlled gate.

Think again about that security procedure for a moment: even carrying revolvers and surrounded by other police officers, the guards don't want to expose themselves unnecessarily to just anyone who might be walking. How far we've come from my father's high school cadet days. Today, you never know if an ordinary- looking civilian might be marching down Pennsylvania Avenue with a deadly weapon that is both concealed and fully loaded. Unfortunately, we've seen the grim evidence of what can happen next, in home video footage, on the nightly news.

But there are dangers in overprotectiveness, too, dangers that official Washingtonandthe national press corps, somewhat blase about political celebrities, may not appreciate. Official Washington often forgets the impact on the average citizen of actually seeing a president or vice president in the flesh. The "wall" that President Clinton says he'll avoid building between himself andt he American people already has too many bricks in place.

At a time when large numbers of Americans feel hostile, even violently hostile, toward the federal government, it is more important than ever for our leaders to reach out to average citizens - and not just those with the good fortune to live in early primary states. Personal contact, even in the electronic age, remains a potent weapon against the distance too many American's feel exists between themselves and their elected representatives. In the end, the most pressing security need of all is to firmly reconnectthe government of the United States with the hearts and minds of its people.

Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park