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On the porous fortressing of the White House

Jan 29, 2015 On the porous fortressing of the White House

On my first visit to Washington, D.C. in April 1974 through my start of law school a few blocks away in 1986 until around 1995, Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was a major motor vehicle thoroughfare. Then, subsequent to the Oklahoma City bombing, in 1995 the Clinton administration shut off motor vehicle traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue from 15th to 17th Streets, making D.C.’s previously snarled rush hour traffic all the more snarled.

The closure of Pennsylvania Avenue to motor vehicle traffic created a new security issue for the Secret Service, because now tourists and other visitors freely spill as pedestrians back and forth from the sidewalk in front of the White House to Lafayette Park across the street.

When I last visited the front of the White House with my family this past Sunday, I was none too pleased to see, for the first time, Secret Service police walking a bomb sniffing dog so close to people in front of the White House that its handler at one point felt compelled to say "excuse me" for walking so closely to one visitor on the White House sidewalk.

Probably thanks to the recent White House fence jumper who helped himself into the White House’s front door, ugly short portable barrier fences now separate visitors from the White House’s permanent fence.

Perhaps as a nod to public relations concerns, the bomb-sniffing dog outside White House’s front fence was a cute wavy-haired dog — as cute as this one — rather than some intimidating-looking German Shepherd. On the way back to our car a few blocks north, I asked a uniformed Secret Service officer near Blair House when the bomb-sniffing dogs started to be used. He answered in perfect public relations office-suggested/prescribed speech along the lines of "I do not know, but rest assured they are keeping everyone safe.”

Yet, after the Secret Service agent spoke those words, and with all the White House security, a small drone found its way to the White House lawn less than twenty-four hours later.

In retrospect, it may have been better to have located the White House on larger land, farther removed from the street, to avoid its looking — as it does now — like more a fortress than ever on all four sides and in Lafayette Park, with ugly portable gates included. The fortress mood in visiting the White House today feels incompatible with conveying the ideals of democracy and civil liberties. Were the president willing to evict the vice president and move around two miles northwest, the vice president’s home on the Naval Observatory grounds on Massachusetts Avenue might be a more suitable location for the president’s mansion, located on much large property, set back far enough from the road, and not surrounded so closely by side streets. Of course, such an evicting would then create a choice between tourists to the White House feeling closer proximity to the president or less of a fortress feeling, and for demonstrators and pamphleteers, such an eviction would reduce their visibility, versus their current locations in Lafayette Park and on Pennsylvania Avenue directly in front of the White House. 

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