The Magazine

Not Your Father’s Washington

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Not Your Father’s Washington


W hen I returned to Washington in 1992 after a 13-year absence, I was frequently asked what changes I observed. Of course, the obvious answer was volume: Big buildings had appeared where humble shops once stood, and automobile traffic seemed considerably more congested. Crosstown excursions that had once taken 15 minutes now seemed to require three-quarters of an hour.

My actual answer, however, was rather different: What struck me, in the waning days of the George H.W. Bush administration, was the increase in what might be called police presence. In addition to the hapless Metropolitan Police, there were now innumerable uniformed agencies—Secret Service, Park Service, Executive Protection Service, etc.—that patrolled around the White House and Capitol and cruised the downtown streets in conspicuous numbers. In subsequent years, this has only gotten worse. Federal buildings are now routinely surrounded by concrete barriers; you can’t walk into the Government Accountability Office without passing through a phalanx of sullen cops and metal detectors. 

This is some considerable distance from the Washington of my youth, where only the president—not even the vice president—merited Secret Service protection, and Harry Truman could take his morning constitutional around the block, two detectives hovering discreetly in the background. In the 1950s, I took piano lessons in a studio over the Avalon Theatre where, on occasion, Mrs. Richard M. Nixon would pull up on a Friday afternoon, park her station wagon by the curb, push a coin into the meter, and escort Tricia and Julie into the movies. There was no “security” in sight.  

I thought of this the other day when the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent a few hours at the U.S. Institute for Peace. The institute happens to be located in a building across M Street from our offices; standing at my window, I enjoyed a ringside seat. About a half-hour before the two dignitaries arrived the police had cut off all traffic for two blocks moving in all directions—this is a busy downtown neighborhood; I can only imagine the consequences. Finally, with sirens screaming and motorcycles roaring, a 17-car entourage of black vans, light armored vehicles, motorcycles, and an ambulance converged on the intersection of M and 17th Streets. 

There they stayed for the next few hours. Those storied grim-faced men in dark suits, earpieces, and sunglasses (you see them a lot in television dramas) would occasionally bellow at pedestrians strolling too close to the curb, or point menacingly at people who wished to cross the street at the light. In due course, the secretary and her guest left the institute, and the great swarm of security broke camp for the State Department, cutting off traffic between downtown and Foggy Bottom, sirens at full volume, lights flashing.

I suppose there is an argument, in our venerable republic, for this kind of treatment for elected politicians: God knows I wish none any harm, and, the Obama administration notwithstanding, we’re still in the war on terror. Nevertheless, these bumptious displays of police-state behavior are a routine feature in the life of the nation’s capital: You get stopped on the sidewalk and ordered back several paces, to allow a visiting foreign minister, or the secretary of housing and urban development, to proceed from a hotel doorway to a waiting limousine. The other evening I was prevented from crossing Lafayette Square to walk to dinner—something I have done for decades. No explanation was given, and I dared not inquire. At the Capitol, where guards patrol a widening perimeter, there is a bunker-like quality to new protective construction.

The problem, in my view, is the subtle antidemocratic message. These spectacles inspire not awe and gratitude but resentment and estrangement. In 1901, when three presidents had been shot to death in the previous 36 years, it did not occur to Theodore Roosevelt to turn the White House into a fortress and treat citizens as a daily menace. In 1941, when we were at war with the greatest tyranny of the age, Franklin Roosevelt placed one armed soldier at each White House gate. 

And yet, with each new Secret Service-sanctioned level of “security” in our day, the insecurity of official Washington seems to grow. I don’t know whether Hamid Karzai and Hillary Clinton were in peril at the U.S. Institute for Peace, but it was obvious, on the basis of behavior and demeanor, that their guards seemed to think that the danger was demonstrable from passing tourists, bicycle messengers, and the local office workers on their way to lunch. 

Philip Terzian


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