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Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 2000 / 28 Elul, 5760

Philip Terzian

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Driving on America's Main Street -- THIS YEAR'S Republican platform has a line about pledging to "reopen Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House as a symbolic expression of our confidence in the restoration of the rule of law."

It's a cleverly worded sentence. To the uninitiated, it sounds as if recapturing the presidency for the Republican Party would restore the rule of law in the White House -- which, when you think about it, makes a certain sense. But what it really refers to is, ostensibly, a parochial matter: The two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue between 15th and 17th streets, bounded by the White House and Lafayette Square, have been closed to traffic since 1995, and the Republicans are determined to welcome cars back onto the Avenue of Presidents. The Democratic platform has nothing to say on the subject.

To be sure, this is a traffic-flow debate only Washingtonians could love, or care about. Everyone agrees that the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue has been a hardship on the life of the city. The thousands of cars that used to traverse the boulevard are now routed onto narrow nearby streets, none of which is equipped to handle the increased flow. The city has lost parking-meter revenue; the metropolitan bus system has been disrupted; local businessmen complain that trade has suffered. Downtown Washington is in perpetual gridlock.

For that matter, the avenue itself has become an eyesore. There was an early White House proposal (mercifully forgotten) to transform the open space into some sort of park named for Jackie Kennedy. In the meantime, random concrete barriers have been erected at either end of the enclosure, and informal parking lots for the various -- and increasingly voluminous -- federal police agencies have grown in their midst. Pennsylvania Avenue has not become a lively pedestrian mall but a slightly desolate, and deteriorating, asphalt strip, populated mostly by skateboarders. Chroniclers of urban psychology should note that pedestrians (including me) still tend to cross the street at the old traffic-light corners.

Now comes the Federal City Council, a nonpartisan, nonprofit committee of "business and civic leaders," chaired by former Sen. Robert Dole, devoted to reviving the nation's capital. The council has proposed a detailed plan for the reopening of Pennsylvania Avenue, featuring low-hanging elevated crosswalks, a security bend in the street away from the White House, and a ban on trucks and other heavy vehicles. The council's design has acquired widespread bipartisan support on Capitol Hill -- notably from Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, D-N.Y. -- and been endorsed by the District's nonvoting delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). Architects, commuters, city planners, tourists, area residents, urban designers and downtown merchants and pedestrians are united in their hope that the Federal City plan may actually achieve what years of griping, writing letters to the editor and pleading have failed to yield.

The problem is that the Secret Service is opposed to the idea, and in the Clinton administration, what the constabulary says goes. By contrast with his predecessors -- one of whom, named Reagan, was shot and nearly killed -- President Clinton is especially concerned about his personal safety. And in 1995, when a car bomb ripped apart the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the Secret Service made its move. Not only did it persuade Bill Clinton to close traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue, but it sealed off traffic on the thoroughfare south of the White House, the two blocks on either side of Lafayette Square -- and, to give Congress a comparable sense of importance, from streets around the House and Senate office buildings, and the Capitol grounds. The executive and legislative branches of government are now thoroughly protected from citizens in their automobiles, just like the presidential palace in Pyongyang or Baghdad.

The upshot, naturally, is paradoxical. The measures are ineffective: Any self-destructive truck bomber determined to barge onto the White House or Capitol grounds can still do so, regardless of barriers or pistol-wielding cops. They are also embarrassing: Instead of symbolizing the strength of a people's democracy, they suggest a ruling elite paralyzed by fear. The threat of terrorism has so gripped the imagination of the federal government that it has, in effect, surrendered to its baleful influence.

The Secret Service has the safety of presidents in mind, which is commendable. But short of moving the White House underground, and concealing the president from the public, it is impossible to guarantee an absence of risk in public life. Security is important, and guards have a job to do; but security is never an end in itself, and when democracies adopt the trappings of police states, it is time to stop and rethink such measures. Pennsylvania Avenue is more than an east-west corridor in Washington; it is America's Main Street.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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09/20/00: They've got a secret
09/18/00: Today, Dr. Laura. Tomorrow ...
09/12/00: What passes for knowledge
09/05/00: The catcher gets caught
08/31/00: A Golden Age that never was
08/28/00: Blame communism, not Russia
08/24/00: Social progress on one front, regression on the other
08/21/00: The beat goes awry
08/17/00: The unwelcome democrat

© 2000, Philip Terzian