'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
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
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
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