It’s not often that The Scrapbook finds common cause with Vincent Gray, the mayor of Washington, D.C. But occasionally, worlds do collide. And in this instance, we are in full agreement with the mayor about a familiar topic for readers of this page: the United States Secret Service.
As we have mentioned before, the federal agency that protects the president and other senior officials has enjoyed a growth spurt in recent years: The size and scope of the Secret Service has expanded relentlessly, and along with it, the level of inconvenience to ordinary citizens has exploded as well. Washingtonians are now accustomed to daily motorcades—transporting Valerie Jarrett to and from lunch, no doubt—featuring loud sirens, flashing lights, roaring motorcycles, and grim-faced agents glaring angrily at pedestrians.
When President Obama travels the two or three blocks from the White House to a nearby hotel for a Democratic fundraiser, the Secret Service makes sure that the inconvenience to the president’s constituents is maximized: Traffic is closed for several blocks around the venue, sidewalks are cordoned off, and Secret Service agents and the Metropolitan Police patrol the neighborhood, heavily armed. A journey on foot from one’s office to the drugstore for a bottle of aftershave can seem like a trip across no-man’s-land during the Great War. And if the Obama fundraisers are held in the early evening, as they usually are, the poor souls trying to get home get caught in a vise.
Last week, Mayor Gray wrote a letter to the head of the Secret Service, Julia A. Pierson, complaining that, during the visit of the Israeli prime minister to Washington for the AIPAC conference, long stretches of major commuting arteries were closed to traffic during peak rush-hour periods. Moreover, Prime Minister Netanyahu was ensconced at the downtown Willard Hotel: The customary venue for visiting dignitaries, Blair House, is closed for renovations, and traffic was blocked for a wide perimeter around the Willard for three days. Pedestrians were barred from walking from point A to point B, and commuters were trapped in gridlock for hours.
Apparently the Secret Service is in the habit of doing these things without consulting the District government, and Gray is understandably angry: “I appreciate that important dignitaries visiting the nation’s capital and the White House must be afforded every courtesy and protection available,” he wrote to Pierson. But arbitrarily closing off large segments of downtown Washington, and without warning, causes “tremendous inconvenience to tens of thousands of District workers and visitors during rush hour. To treat the District with such disrespect is simply unacceptable.”
The Scrapbook would not have made this a question of pride—“disrespect” and all that—so much as a matter of common courtesy and concern for democracy. Washington is a large city full of people going about the business of the nation’s capital, and the arbitrary imposition of what amounts to martial law is both arrogant and discourteous. Moreover, we’re not a banana republic or uniformed oligarchy: While the president and senior government officials require protection, our culture is better suited to understatement than overkill. Americans used to admire Harry Truman’s early-morning walks around Lafayette Square; if you want to see long menacing motorcades bristling with guns, you visit Pyongyang or Havana or Chechnya (for grim amusement, Google for the video of Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov’s cortège).
The Secret Service, in response to Gray’s letter, said that it would review its street-closure policies and meet with local officials (in the words of the Washington Post) “to improve how streets are closed.” Better yet, how about keeping streets open? Surely there are practical measures the Secret Service can take: housing visiting dignitaries in less central locations, or even in the White House; consulting with the local government before shutting off downtown. And the president might ponder the symbolic effect of disrupting thousands of lives, and paralyzing the nation’s capital, to entertain fat cats at a posh hotel.