The most famous address in America no longer exists.
Oh, no doubt the White House will continue to get any mail sent to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But at dawn Saturday, the president stopped living on a street and began living in a subtly fortified park.
With fear rising that an Oklahoma Citystyle bomb could strike the White House, President Clinton closed Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic between 15th and 17th streets. From H Street all the way south to the edge of the Ellipse, the White House will be surrounded by fences and gates and guard houses.
People live on streets. Kings live in parks. This is not a new observation: President George Washington and his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, argued about this very point 200 years ago. Pierre L’Enfant, designer of the capital city, had envisioned a broad avenue that would lead from the Capitol at one end to the president’s house at the other - a brilliant conceptual linkage of the two great constitutional powers. Washington believed this avenue should end at the grounds of a vast presidential palace, befitting a monarch.
Jefferson disagreed. To symbolize that the president was a citizen like any other, he proposed a more modest mansion. He prevailed, and for generations, Americans on their way from one place to another, in the course of their ordinary business, have been able to pass the president’s house, on horseback, by trolley, in buses and cars.
The president was a person who lived on a street.
“Pennsylvania Avenue has been routinely open to traffic for the entire history of our republic,” Clinton said Saturday. “Through four presidential assassinations and eight unsuccessful attempts on the lives of presidents, it’s been open. Through a civil war, two world wars, and the gulf war, it was open.
“But now it must be closed.”
“America’s Main Street,” it has been called, and it took a lot to close it down. The British invaded Washington and burned the White House to the ground in the War of 1812. That didn’t do it. The country split in two and fought a war, but President Abraham Lincoln had to be talked into grudgingly accepting a bodyguard. Although Bonus Marchers went right to the gates of the White House during the Depression and threatened to riot, the trolleys up Pennsylvania Avenue weren’t diverted. During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt nixed the suggestion he should camouflage the White House and black out the windows.
Outside 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue, on the stretch of street that no longer exists, is a plaque commemorating the heroism of Leslie Coffelt, “White House policeman who gave his life in defense of the President of the United States here at Blair House, Nov. 1, 1950.” Terrorists armed with handguns had attacked the house where President Harry S. Truman was living while the White House was being renovated. Coffelts and one of the gunmen died in the firefight. Truman’s response: No more public announcements of his daily walks.
But terrorists don’t just pack guns anymore.
The bipartisan review of White House security seemed to take it for granted that sooner or later a truck bomber would pay a visit to 1600 Pennsylvania, and bystanders would surely die. Folks who say the federal government is terminally slow and unwieldy have not seen the Secret Service in action. At 5 a.m., the first traffic was diverted. By 9 a.m., gray concrete barriers blocked the avenue where some three dozen newly inaugurated presidents have paraded, and the victorious Grand Army of the Republic, and the heroes of the world wars, and the bodies of beloved presidents Lincoln, Roosevelt and Kennedy.
By 11 a.m., the roadblocks had been decorated by huge concrete pots full of geraniums, which added a bit of life and color. Passers-by added more color: the tourists posing for snapshots in the center median strip, the in-line skaters whizzing back and forth, the slouching teen who abruptly sprawled in an eastbound lane, just to see what it would feel like.
Safer, quieter, lovelier - the pedestrian mall where the street used to be may turn out better in many respects, just as the president’s advisory panel claimed in its report. But those factors were not decisive. Fear and menace and evil were the decisive factors; only they could change the age-old symbolism on the street where the president lives.
At noon, most of the work was done. Not only was the street being sealed to vehicles, so was the park.
And so, it wasn’t just that the president was being removed from the city. A piece of the city was, in a sense, being locked up with him: Lafayette Park, which has long been a symbol of protest against the presidency. Depression-era veterans camped out there, and opponents of the war in Vietnam, and advocates for the homeless. Through the years, that square across the street from the White House has been a place to confront power, to face it down over a gulf of asphalt.
Now the park and the White House are closed up together in one big bubble.
Without moving, Ellen Thomas went from outside to inside. For more than a decade, Thomas has kept her anti-nuclear vigil across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. She surrounds herself each day with colorful hand-painted signs and waits for peace.
In Saturday’s bright morning sunshine - as forklifts placed the last pots of geraniums and that crane ringed the park in waist-high blocks - one of her signs declared grimly: “Live by the bomb, die by the bomb.”
In Washington, D.C., America took a step Saturday to live through an age of the mad truck bomber. And it was hard not to feel that something had died.
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