Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Disposable President

By David G. Young 

WASHINGTON, DC, July 28, 1998 --  

The most amazing outcome of last week's shooting in the United States Capitol is nearly unanimous support for maintaining public access to the building. At every opportunity, House members and other public officials proclaimed that the violent act would not lead to further security measures. In his weekly radio address, House Speaker Newt Gingrich summarized this widespread view. "I want to emphasize that this building is the keystone of freedom, that it is open to the people because it is the people's building," he said.

This is a completely different reaction than after the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. In the months that followed, new barricades were erected around U.S. Senate office buildings and the top landing of the U.S. Capitol was closed to the public. Worst of all, President Clinton closed Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House—turning America's main street into a closed government parking lot.

Does the more reasoned response following the Capitol shooting signal a new openness in government?

Sadly, no. While congressmen spew election-year rhetoric about the importance of public access, House leaders are quietly pursuing a plan to close off Capitol entrances to the general public and bury a $125 million "Visitors Center" under the East Lawn.1 The plan would still allow public access to the building, but would seek to separate visitors from members of Congress, and allow for more strenuous security checks in an underground staging area. Such a plan, if realized, would blemish the U.S. Capitol's open atmosphere and further separate the government from the people.

The real debate should be about how to make the government more accessible to the people—not less so. The time to rescind the post-Oklahoma City security measures is long overdue. It has been three long years since Clinton closed Pennsylvania Avenue. What was once a bustling commuter artery and scenic drive has been transformed into a run-down landscape of faded lane markings and ugly concrete barriers. No efforts have been made to reduce the aesthetic damage to this important U.S. landmark. The President and his Secret Service staff have ignored the cries of tens of thousands of commuters—commuters who suffer daily traffic jams to enhance the security of a single U.S. citizen.

To continue to sacrifice the needs of commuters, tourists, and White House visitors for the sake of the President is the epitome of arrogance. Only in an administration where the President would consider open defiance of a Grand Jury subpoena could such behavior not be seen as surprising. Let there be no delay. Pennsylvania Avenue should be reopened immediately, as should closed streets surrounding the Senate office buildings.

But let's not stop there. The Secret Service should be forced to reopen the White House Lawn—with a more limited security perimeter—as the public park that existed through the first decades of this century. Such a move could be one of the most powerful symbols of a new openness in government. It would demonstrate a new responsiveness to the citizens it is supposed to serve.

Of course, reducing security will increase the risk to public officials working in these buildings. There is no guarantee that a car bomb, sniper or other bad guy won't attack the resident politicians. That's the price the job. There is no shortage of people who aspire to public office, and certainly plenty agree to accept the inherent risks. Elected officials need to face the hard reality that every politician, including the President, is replaceable.

A violent attack, while distressing, does not lead to the end of the nation. Life—and government—goes on.

1. Attack Stirs Interest In Visitors Center, Washington Post, July 26, 1998