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Jewish World Review August 26, 2002 / 18 Elul, 5762

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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It's not the new ways
that seem strange | WASHINGTON It's not that the things that have changed make no sense.

It's not the changes that particularly surprise us.

It's worse than that.

It's that -- looking back on the way things were before -- those are the things that suddenly seem odd and off-key. Not the new way -- but the old ways.

Take the White House.

You will not be startled to know that it is very difficult for a member of the public to get into the White House these days.

The White House tours, the way we remember them, are history. They don't exist. The public lining up outside for a chance to walk through the White House? Forget it. It doesn't happen anymore.

Sept. 11 did away with that. At first, the tours were stopped altogether. But with Washington tourism sinking fast after the attacks, the announcement that the White House, and the U.S. Capitol, were no longer tourist-friendly was costing the hotel, airline and restaurant industries millions. School groups from around the country -- a big economic factor for tourism -- began to cancel.

So a compromise was arrived at. Now, certain school groups, certain veterans' groups, and certain people invited by members of Congress can get into the White House.

(At first, the rule was that the members of Congress actually had to be with the visitors -- they had to accompany them on the White House tours. This did not go over especially well with the members of Congress, who sometimes feel twinges of an inferiority complex about the White House anyway. Now the members of Congress have been relieved of having to serve as chaperones.)

But the few people who do get into the White House now -- those select school and veterans' groups -- are checked out as thoroughly as a Supreme Court nominee. They don't just show up at the gate -- they provide Social Security numbers and other information well in advance, and submit to background checks.

You may be asking: What's wrong with that? It would be nuts just to allow anyone into the White House without knowing a thing about the person.

That is today's point. It's not that the new way seems strange -- it's the sense of amazement that we ever did it the other way.

For generations, just about anyone, unless they were visibly deranged, could get into the White House. In the days before metal detectors and X-ray machines, of course, those were not used at the White House door; visitors were not patted down because. ...

Well, because the White House was supposed to be the People's House, and you don't frisk the house's owners.

Were we foolish then? And if we weren't -- if we were right to do it the way we used to do it -- then what changed? What happened to make the world so different? It's like at the airports. Even as security experts come up with newer and stricter ways of trying to keep public airports safe -- and even as we go along with it because we know such efforts are necessary -- the thought of the other way, the earlier way, fades. Only 30 years ago, there were no security checkpoints at all in U.S. airports. An airport was as open as a shopping mall, or a city street -- anyone could meander around at will. You didn't need a ticket for a flight, you didn't need to speak to a guard -- you just wandered. Many airports had public rooftop viewing decks -- free, open to anyone. Just stand up there on the roof next to the runways and watch the planes take off and land.

Are we wrong now, locking down the airports? Or does it seem astonishing that things were ever the other way? Are we being too wary now, shutting the White House off to all but a favored, checked-and-double-checked part of the public? Or were we out of our minds in the not-so-distant past, when anyone who wanted in could get in?

No time to dwell on that right now -- the Secret Service has just announced that 17th Street in the vicinity of the White House will be closed to trucks. Truck bombs -- or the fear of them -- are the reason. Further restrictions are being considered. No one is complaining much. There is a sense of: What took them so long?

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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