Protecting the president

November 03, 1994

President Clinton set the right tone for his security aides Saturday when he kept his public program after shots were fired at the White House. Frightening as the fusillade was, it should not panic White House officials or the Secret Service into ill-considered measures that would wrap the president in more of a protective cocoon. Certainly the safety of the president and his family is a prime concern. But so is seeing a flesh-and-blood chief executive and the stately building in which he works and lives. Erecting more barricades would further isolate the presidency from the people.

Within the lifetimes of many Americans, the White House was accessible. Private cars could drive right up to the portico in the '30s; journalists and other citizens known to the guards could drive onto the grounds as recently as the '70s. The shadow of world terrorism forced strengthening of the executive mansion's external defenses against car bombers and the like. Assassination attempts against Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan brought on tighter protective measures when the president travels in public. Even so, the president is no recluse and his mansion no walled fortress, to be viewed only in photographs.

Without question security measures around the White House need to be carefully reviewed after Saturday's incident and the crashing of a light plane on the White House lawn six weeks ago. Most security measures are designed against skilled assailants, but more often than not they are deranged amateurs, who are less predictable. Even in the Soviet heyday, dictator Leonid Brezhnev was fired on at the Kremlin gates.

Still, there are disturbing aspects to the incident. Why are the public sidewalks around the White House not patrolled? Guards need not apologize for not shooting into the crowd of tourists, but they should be embarrassed that tourists captured the gunman before they could reach him.

Closing Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to all traffic, as some officials want, is not the answer. Aside from the massive disruption it would cause to midtown Washington traffic, the move would bar U.S. citizens from viewing one of their most cherished symbols. It would be particularly silly when Mr. Clinton insists on jogging along nearby streets. The president must be protected, but in a democratic society he should not be cocooned.

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