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Removing barriers may open more than an avenue


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 2, 2000

WASHINGTON -- President John Quincy Adams was bathing in the Potomac River when a woman reporter, Anne Royall, happened by and decided to sit on his clothes on the river bank until he answered her questions.

On Sunday mornings during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln could frequently be seen by himself making his way east on Pennsylvania Avenue to attend worship services at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

And of course, President Harry S. Truman loved to stroll along the sidewalks near the White House, engaged in lively conversation with newspaper reporters who chose to follow him.

These are scenes from a Washington, D.C., that no longer exists.

Not only are our political leaders kept out of public view at all times, but the city itself has been altered in many ways to suit the needs of the security personnel who have been entrusted with keeping them from being harmed by an assassin or terrorists. Every federal building is surrounded these days by ugly concrete barriers and other not-so-subtle evidence of tight security. Of course, there is no question that our society is more dangerous that it was in the days of Adams, Lincoln and Truman. And even in an era where politicians get little respect, nobody wants to see them hurt.

But the issue of providing security for public officials in a democracy is not as simple as building higher walls, increasing the number of gun-toting guards and restricting access to them. As everyone knows, if we completely limit public access to our political leaders, we begin to obscure the notion that these are our representatives, not our rulers.

The question that often baffles many experts is: If the realities of modern life prevent a president from bathing in the Potomac, walking to church or strolling around town, can we still preserve the spirit of representative democracy that enable us to see our president as one citizen among many citizens?

These philosophical musings bring me to the hottest topic in Washington today: Whether the government should reopen a three-block section of Pennsylvania Avenue closest to the White House. As a local resident, I can attest that this issue currently generates more emotion than Bush versus Gore, tax cuts versus paying down the debt, or paper versus plastic.

These three blocks were closed by President Clinton five years ago at the recommendation of the Secret Service after the car-bomb explosion at the federal building in Oklahoma City. Before closing the street, the Secret Service depended on a variety of other measures that remain in place today: sharpshooters on the White House roof, concrete "Jersey barriers," reinforced fences and vigilant guards stationed at intervals around the perimeter.

While the shutdown of Pennsylvania Avenue may have prevented any terrorist attack on the White House, it has not been popular with business leaders or residents. In fact, it seems the only people who like it are the Secret Service and the skaters who can be found there at all hours of the day and night.

Before closure, these were perhaps the most well-traveled three blocks in the entire city. By closing them, the government has made driving across town very difficult, forcing an estimated 29,000 cars per day onto more congested streets.

Just as architects contend that the closure destroyed the democratic aesthetic of Washington, local political leaders argue that the President trampled on the democratic process by closing Pennsylvania Avenue without consulting Congress or the local government.

It should be noted that when Congress considered walling itself off from the public a few years ago, the public outcry was so loud that the plan was abandoned. Unlike the presidency, Congress is an institution designed specifically to be sensitive to the will of the people.

Seeing an opportunity to influence the Pennsylvania Avenue issue during an election year, a group of Washington businessmen last week came up with a plan that would allow the three blocks to be reopened while at the same time taking precautions against terrorism.

The plan calls for two pedestrian bridges over the avenue at either end of the three blocks. The bridges would be low, thus allowing cars to pass under them while restricting the access of trucks.

Although the Secret Service opposes it, the plan seems to be gaining support. I wouldn't be surprised if one of the presidential candidates, Democrat Al Gore or Republican George Bush, joined the fray before Nov. 7.

Of course, no one wants to see the government brought to a halt by a terrorist attack or an assassination. And you cannot blame the Secret Service for wanting to make their job easier.

But our country also has learned from bitter experience that the strength of the government does not depend on one man or one building. As Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., said: "This is about the idea of an open city in an open society. Little by little, we're losing that. We're the oldest constitutional government in history. Why should we be frightened?"

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