White House contradicts itself on `business as usual'

November 21, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - President Bush's urging of Americans to stay alert but resume their business as usual is a formula for surviving the war on terrorism that's a lot easier in the saying than the doing.

There being nothing normal about what happened on Sept. 11 or in the subsequent anthrax outbreak, special precautions doubtless are necessary to guard against further attacks.

After interminable delays and political squabblings, Congress has finally dealt with one of the most obvious in passing a package of essential airport security measures. But it will take at least a year to hire and train the 28,000 federal screeners and put the whole package in place.

Thanksgiving weekend travelers may feel a bit more secure with the president's signature on the bill, but it won't do anything for the millions making the round trip to family gatherings by train, bus and other means of collective transportation that haven't been addressed yet.

Still, Americans being a clannish folk, travel on this weekend, while perhaps not as heavy as in other years, will still be substantial, as families follow Mr. Bush's advice of remaining alert but going ahead with business as usual, which at this particular time means family reunions.

The same no doubt will be true for the next major holiday on the calendar, Christmas. In Washington, where thousands of government workers come from out of town and will be leaving for home, there is also a traditional influx of tourists who take advantage of the Christmas break to bring their kids to see the great monuments and other special attractions of the nation's capital.

High on the list has always been the White House, which is decked out in special splendor every December for the parade of tourists who stand for hours, often in frigid weather, to walk through the first-floor rooms and see the magnificent Christmas trees and other decorations inside.

Only this year they won't be invited, a White House spokesperson says, "because of the ongoing security concerns." Although the Secret Service is especially well equipped to screen visitors with the latest metal-detecting devices, it's been decided that this bit of Christmastime business-as-usual will have to be dispensed with.

The decision is perhaps a frivolous matter on which it is better to err on the side of caution. But it comes as the Bush administration is demonstrating an unsettling attitude of business out of the usual in a number of less frivolous things, especially in the realm of civil liberties.

The president's declared option of trying suspected terrorists under military rather than civil law and the holding of undisclosed numbers of suspects and possibly material witnesses without charges or arrests are very serious breaks from American normalcy, if not from constitutional guarantees.

The civil libertarians aren't likely to complain about pulling in the welcome mat from the White House over Christmas, but they're already squawking about these other new administration positions, which are based on arguments that belittle Mr. Bush's advice to the country not to let the terrorists scare us into changing the way we live.

The normal daily tours of the White House have been discontinued since six days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but District of Columbia government and tourism officials had hoped the Christmas tradition would go forward.

They are also up in arms over a new requirement of the National Park Service that only families with tickets will be able to attend the Dec. 6 traditional lighting of the huge outdoor Christmas tree that graces the Ellipse across the street from the rear of the White House.

The District's nonvoting congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, says the administration's message is, "Don't come; stay home and hide," contradictory to the president's advice.

Open houses, however, will be held for families of high government officials, congressmen, firefighters, police and even the press corps. That, at least, is business as usual around the White House.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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