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RESPONSE TO TERROR | SECURITY : Reading by 9

D.C. Won't Be So Merry and Bright

November 21, 2001|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Grumbling grew Tuesday in the nation's capital over the disappearance of traditional events behind a curtain of security--the latest being the public viewing of the White House holiday decorations.

White House and Capitol tours have been canceled since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The ceremonial lighting of the Christmas tree on the Ellipse, south of the White House, will be open only to 5,000 guests invited by the Bush administration and Congress.

Tour officials and local leaders are worried that security concerns are depriving Americans of the opportunity to experience the nation's heritage.

The result: A business establishment that depends on tourism, the No. 1 private industry here, is suffering.

"The only factor that is on the table is the security factor. Nobody is speaking for the town," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who is the District of Columbia's delegate in Congress.

Complaining that the message from the White House "has been overwhelmingly 'Stay away,' " she said of the Bush administration: "These folks are brilliantly showing us how to win the war. Surely they can protect the White House and the Capitol and keep the nation's capital open to tourism."

At the holiday season, the State Floor of the White House is brimming with trees and wreaths; the aroma of pine boughs permeates the formal chambers. This year's motif is "Home for the Holidays."

Each day in other years, thousands of visitors would walk through the same sort of magnetometers that are used at airports, send their belongings through an X-ray machine, follow a snaking line past displays of first family china, walk up a stairway and find themselves in a grand foyer at the heart of the Executive Mansion, one floor beneath the president's apartment.

This year, only members of Congress and their families, White House staff members, some military visitors and invited law enforcement officers will be on the tours.

"Laura and I regret that the public tours aren't going on," Bush said Tuesday. "We're in extraordinary times. . . . Evil knows no holiday; evil doesn't welcome Thanksgiving or Christmas season. And in these extraordinary times, we're taking extraordinary measures."

The cancellation dominated public talk at the White House on Tuesday, with Press Secretary Ari Fleischer defending the decision and Bush responding to a question about it while posing for photographs at the end of a meeting with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines.

"It is further reason why we must continue to wage a diligent and consistent fight against terror, and to rid the world of terror, to make our country safe so we can have tours at the White House," Bush said.

His remarks were a reminder of the dual message he has sought to send over the last two months: that the country is facing often-difficult security challenges but that people should do their best to live each day as normally as possible.

Two weeks ago, tourism officials said, Washington was on a rebound. The week after Sept. 11, only 25% of the city's hotel rooms were occupied; that figure grew to 72% by early November. A solid Christmas season could help bring the hotel and restaurant industry back to life, they thought.

But, putting herself in the position of a discouraged would-be tourist, Norton said: "If you can't see the lighting of the Christmas tree, the Capitol, the White House, what's to see there? If the message is, 'Nobody gets in,' you say, 'Is it worth the plane fare?' "

Without a doubt it is, said Victoria Isely, the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corps.' marketing director.

Handel's Messiah still will be performed at the Washington Cathedral. The Washington Ballet will perform "The Nutcracker." A new French technology will light up buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue.

And, Isely said, there will be a display of "the Washington attractions carved in chocolate at the J.W. Marriott."

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