When Omar Gonzales leaped over the White House fence on Saturday and made a break for the front door, he exposed a weakness of our country and its people.
If one watches the movie Lincoln, you can get a good sense of how the White House used to operate – Americans were free to enter, petition their President directly, and rest their feet at “the people’s house”. Teddy Roosevelt used to greet with a handshake anyone who came by the executive mansion on New Year’s Day.
Today, the White House is a fortress in the heart of the federal city. Following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1997, Pennsylvania Avenue was closed to traffic in the 1600 block. Secret Service frequently expands its reach into Lafayette Park across the street and since 9/11 claims dominion down to Constitution Avenue. These 52 acres of hallowed ground, the phalanx of police and secret service, and the fleet of luxurious personal vehicles all evoke a monarchical streak unbecoming of a republic.
It would be eminently more befitting a nation of “rugged individualism” if we did not hold the life of our elected chief executive as such a precious commodity. Surely, his life is of value (as any citizen) and he should be afforded appropriate protection and staff as befitting his publicity, but the current status is overwrought.
The most convincing case for the infrastructure and mindset we have today is courtesy of Larry O’Connor on WMAL. O’Connor on Monday explained that the reason we protect the White House and the President is because he represents our democratic republic and the peaceful transition and stable political environment we value. If he is assassinated or his place of residence is attacked, it does violence to us as a people. I can’t disagree that an assassination is an affront to the American people and our system of government, but I do take great umbrage with the conclusion that, ipso facto, we must institute a de facto police state in the vicinity of our chief executives.
A better arrangement would be a huge devaluation in the importance of the person holding the office of the President in our democratic republic.
Larry’s position, no matter how grounded he personally is in his respect for the Constitution and the role of the President, leads inexorably to the increase of power and prestige of the office. When the man in office is imbued as the symbol of our Republic, when he is seen as the living, breathing embodiment of our determination as a people to maintain a respectable and respectful government, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and failure.
The current cult of Barack Obama, the lingering devotion to George W. Bush, the canonization on the right of Reagan, the worship of the one called Kennedy – do these not besmirch the honor of a people supposedly free from monarchy and desirous of individual liberty above all?
Our government, as John Adams put it so succinctly, is one of laws, not men. Our Constitutional order should be revered, our Declaration of Independence lionized, the balanced structure of our federal government admired. If we supplant in our pantheon those revered texts with a singular man holding an elected office, we threaten that characteristic Adams found so fundamental.
If we believe the symbol of our strength as a country rests in the heartbeat of an officeholder, then why do we single out the President over others? Surely, the Speaker of the House, the leader of the representative body closest to the voters (by tenure and nature of election), is a better vessel. Yes, he receives a (much smaller) security detail, but he also maintains a private home. Or why not the Majority Leader or President Pro Tempore of the Senate? Why do we not require the citizens of a Congressman’s district to pay for a security detail for him? Clearly as the local channel to the federal government, his life represents the wishes and desires of his district at the federal table, right?
We do not do this for a simple reason: it would offend us as a people. If we granted such symbolic power to a Congressman, his ego would inflate more than it already is (they have a staff of ~15; Senators ~40). And what is the result of our benign neglect? Are House Members and Senators taken hostage in DC hotels? Are they blackmailed for their partying in DC? Do al-Qaeda operatives target the Capitol Hill Club? Of course not.
Why is that?
The minimal value the American people put on the identity of the individual representing them in Congress means they escape the eyes of terrorists and the mentally-ill (Rep. Giffords being the rare exception). If we placed the same moderate value on the person holding the presidency, we would see similar results.
It would be far more becoming of the American people if they held their elected officials in esteem equal to their office – as servants and representatives in the matters of government, not wielders of arbitrary political power. He should be seen as a replaceable cog in the great machinery that is the American Constitutional system. His life would be in less danger, the cult of the presidency would reside, and our nation would closer resemble the Founders’ vision.