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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

How to Beat the Traffic in L.A.: Become President

A White House motorcade is a maneuver that combines the precision of a military strike with the aggravation of a SigAlert.

August 16, 2000|JOSH MEYER and JAMES RICCI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It's a combination of Schwarzkopf and Baryshnikov, a show of brute military-esque power and exquisitely choreographed precision.

The presidential motorcade, in all its traffic-snarling, attention-grabbing, flag-flapping glory, can turn a clogged freeway into a deserted road. A trip to the gridlocked downtown Staples Center into a quick errand run around the corner. And a lot of inconvenienced Democratic motorists into . . . Republicans?

When Vice President Al Gore comes to town today to claim his party's nomination as presidential standard-bearer, it'll be hard to miss him.

He'll spend his time in Los Angeles careening around town, from event to event, ensconced in a highly visible "formal security" motorcade provided by the Secret Service, with help from the California Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies.

For those who have to make way for the 30-vehicle motorcade, the experience can be a teeth-gnashing, coronary-producing hour spent waiting, stewing and wondering if they'll make it to their destinations on time.

But from the inside, it's an exhilarating ride.

A week spent "inside the bubble" with Clinton or Gore, as traveling in the motorcade is known, provides a glimpse of what really goes on within the highly protective and secretive traveling security blanket wrapped around the president or vice president of the United States.

What is noticed first is the show of might. Then, the minuet.

When Gore finishes an engagement this week, one Secret Service agent will set things off. "He's moving," the agent will whisper into a tiny microphone in his sport-jacket sleeve.

And with that, dozens of agents will mobilize. They will swarm and surround Gore like ants around a picnic crumb as he makes his way to a specially equipped armored black Cadillac limousine with an official seal on one flag flying on the right front fender, the American flag flying on the left.

"He's moving," White House aides will repeat to the press corps and guests traveling in the entourage, herding them quickly out of a building--always in the opposite direction of the protectee--and into a waiting line of vans.

In all, well over 100 people will spring into motion to ensure that the motorcade gets to where it's going--and quickly.

Gore, as does Clinton, will ride in the second of two limos. The first, sometimes called the decoy, contains White House staff and Secret Service agents. Often, a third limo trails them, full of Secret Service agents and some ominous looking black bags. In front of the limousines, and behind them, comes a long assortment of police vehicles, trailed by three or four media vans, guest vans and vans full of White House staffers.

There is also a "straggler" van to ferry people back and forth into and out of the motorcade, a fire department ambulance and an ominous-looking SUV that carries at least five members of the Secret Service's Counter Assault Team. These extraordinarily mean-looking guys openly display automatic weapons and wear scowls and black ninja suits with secret containers and compartments from ankle to collarbone.

Rounding out the motorcade is "Road Runner," a rakish black Ford Econoline van with a satellite bubble top. It contains high-tech White House communication equipment, and other top-secret gizmos.

As Gore approaches the van, Secret Service communication techs will be in touch with a nerve center to see which route to the next destination is the path of least resistance, based on traffic patterns, weather and other factors.

Once chosen, CHP officers will be radioed. They will jump on their bikes and begin shutting down traffic routes. On freeways and larger roadways, the officers will "run a brake" or begin weaving in front of traffic, slowing it down to a crawl before stopping it altogether.

And then the motorcade is off, waiting for no one, cruising through one red light after another, often at well over the speed limit. Flying high above, the CHP chopper relays a bird's eye view of traffic patterns.

A local police representative is also in the motorcade to relay intelligence information, such as whether there are crowds of protesters at the final destination.

Unlike some police escorts, there are no sirens blaring. But there is a ballet of motion, as the caravan passes long lines of observers. Often, they have been waiting so long they are out of their cars, craning for a look. Some cheer and wave; others fume.

As the motorcade moves, CHP officers go whizzing by at speeds as high as 100 mph, leapfrogging one another and blocking off new traffic up ahead.

Secret Service Agent Frank O'Donnell is coordinating the various motorcades during the convention, as special agent in charge of the Los Angeles bureau. He has been in thousands of them but says he still gets a bit of a thrill from them.

"I think most people would think they're pretty neat," O'Donnell said. "But me, I just want to get the VIP there quickly and safely, with a minimum of disruption."

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