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COLUMN ONE : 'People's House' or a Bunker? : The public should feel at home at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But recent attacks there may force changes that cut off access to the White House, making it a symbol more of the nation's ills than of its virtues.


WASHINGTON — It is a brilliant autumn day. Diane Entzminger picks a spot along the black iron fence that runs along Pennsylvania Avenue to spend the noon hour gawking at this place where the President lives.

A Little Leaguer connecting well with the ball could hit one of the White House windows from where Entzminger is standing. She figures that she has been here a hundred times and has yet to glimpse a President. But this summer she scored a wave from Vice President Al Gore, so she keeps coming back.

This is America's Main Street, site of the grand white mansion that is home to the leader of the free world, symbol of the nation, a place where--even so--a 37-year-old Maryland housewife can stand less than the length of a football field from where the President sleeps.

"It's nice to just walk around and feel that you're not seen as a threat. It's a matter of trust," said Entzminger, a mother of two so drawn to the White House that she has toured it five times.

But lately this is as much America's mean street as its Main Street. And security experts are seriously questioning the wisdom of allowing so much access to an increasingly unpredictable public.

On Sept. 12, an unemployed Maryland trucker crashed a stolen Cessna 150 into the White House lawn in what appeared to be a bizarre suicide. Last Saturday, a dishonorably discharged Army veteran opened fire on the presidential quarters with more than two dozen shots from an assault rifle. Eight hit the White House.

The Secret Service has spent decades pressing for tougher security--once even suggesting that the glorious white walls be painted in camouflage colors. Virtually every President in memory has resisted.

Now security experts responsible for the President's safety are drafting new proposals and dusting off old ones. Some wonder whether the dreaded steps so long resisted finally will render 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. as much a monument to the nation's ills as to its virtues.

"It's a more dangerous environment and yet they're still working under the same parameters that they have for years," said Chuck Vance, president of a private security firm who was a Secret Service agent for 14 years. "They've changed the rules on sacking the quarterback and haven't changed the rules very much on protecting the President."

Clearly, this is about more than putting up some walls. The country's emotional attachment to the White House is powerful. The First Family resides there courtesy of the American taxpayer, and President Clinton calls it "the people's house."

To the millions who come from around the nation to take a tour or merely stand in its grand presence, the White House is a symbol of democracy. If the Russians haven't a clue where President Boris N. Yeltsin lives--such information is considered none of their business--scarcely an American has failed to learn the street address of the President of the United States.

To turn this graceful icon of Americana into a fortified bunker is to acknowledge that we have sunk to some new depth--a nation so armed and violent that the very place where the President is supposed to be safest cannot protect him from the people who put him there.

"In a country where the government is of the people and leaders are truly elected popularly, you shouldn't have to protect them this way," David Anthony, a Washington attorney in an elegant glen plaid suit, said this week as he gazed through the White House fence during a lunch-hour constitutional.

As recently as 1941, casual visitors were permitted to stroll the White House grounds by day and visit the mansion, merely leaving a calling card at the north door.

But the White House was gradually fortified as more sophisticated weaponry became accessible not only to hostile nations but to an unpredictable public. Still, the precautions have been painstakingly subtle, even invisible to the untrained eye, sustaining the pretense that the President can live among us, even if truly he cannot.


It was not always this way. Abraham Lincoln considered it essential to meet his public. Most weekdays at noon, the White House doors were thrown open, admitting to the main floors crowds of the well-connected and the simply curious.

When Ulysses S. Grant's wife, Julia, complained that she and her children were followed by "a crowd of idle, curious loungers" as they walked the White House paths, the south grounds were closed. But to compensate the public for this loss, another wall was cut to half its height so the President's three children could be seen at play.

But by the 1950s, the mansion was becoming such a gilded cage that Harry S. Truman took pleasure in sneaking away for a walk downtown. During one such escape, he popped inside a church picnic tent and demanded: "Quick, buddy, gimme a shot of bourbon."

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