Facing Fears at the White House

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"You hear a low flying plane and for a second you wonder, but then you realize it is one of ours now," said a White House staff member last week, a regular in the Oval Office. True as long as Reagan National Airport remains closed. But when it reopens? Even with the plan to staff all flights to and from Reagan National with sky marshals, there is still a touch of nervousness at the White House, soothed a bit by crisis counseling, the first ever in the 201-year history of what is now judged to be "our greatest national cathedral."

It hit another worker that suddenly he was "on the front line" in this new war. Bomb sniffing dogs, frequent pass checks, new traffic barriers. Vulnerable offices along a side street have been moved within the White House complex, the never-ending stream of 5,000 daily tourists cut off because the security staff was stretched too thin to handle them, and aides are scrambling to find office space for Tom Ridge, the new Homeland Security czar, a title right out of World War II.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]The new world at 1600 Pennsylvania

White House police, park police, military security forces, District of Columbia police, Secret Service agents all have been beefed up on this particular ground zero, certainly the most renowned target in the world.

Its perimeters used to be 18 acres where 6,000 people worked and visited. Now that boundary has been pushed out to include Lafayette Park and the Ellipse, double the old area and, ironically, forming a "Presidents Park" just as Pierre L'Enfant had planned it back in 1791 with a President's security very much on his mind.

The stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House which has been closed since 1995 for security reasons will probably stay that way. This week the DC authorities are talking about tunneling the famous avenue under the park grounds.

Some of the new police in street clothes are on skate boards with the young dudes, standing at the fence with the tourists gawking at Harry Truman's balcony, wandering into the White House Visitors' Center to watch the few people who are watching for police officers.

Always on the front lines

Yet, by most measures the White House is serene and especially beautiful in the crisp fall air. Gary Walters, the exuberant veteran head usher, who keeps the building that way, is following President George W. Bush's exhortation to keep life normal. "We're going after the cobwebs we miss when we get too busy," he declared He has learned to live with all the recent attempts — by private plane, truck and individual — to breach White House security. He is on that front line.

It has been that way for two centuries. Dolley Madison spotted smoke from the burning Capitol with her little spyglass in 1814 and knew the British would be headed her way. She gathered up that spectacular Stuart portrait of George Washington and some silverware and fled into the hills of Maryland.

A wave of assassinations in Europe in 1817 prompted James Monroe to put sharpshooters on the rebuilt White House. The Confederate strategists had in mind capturing the White House with Abraham Lincoln inside, maybe having a mint julep on the porch. In the chaotic months after the Civil War the Army Engineers, who literally ran the Capital city, declared the White House a relic and wanted to move it to the more secure hills of Washington's Rockcreek Park. Ulysses Grant, realizing that the White House now was imbued with Lincoln's great mystique, stopped that.

Right after Pearl Harbor one of Franklin Roosevelt's officials saw the White House glowing in the bright moonlight and suggested it be painted black. The Army wanted it done in camouflage colors. FDR, who understood the power of great symbolism, ignored such nonsense and insisted the White House stay white and put up the Christmas lights for the world to see.

Every time that terrorists target the White House, it grows more dear to those who cherish its history and the story of freedom which has played out within its walls.