Wed, Dec 09, 2009 - Page 9 News List

When folks swarmed the People’s House

Until World War II, the public could freely roam the White House, but the tradition has vanished amid tight security

By Calvin Woodward and Christine Simmons  /  AP , WASHINGTON

The couple who sneaked into US President Barack Obama’s state dinner are part of a long tradition of people showing up as they please at the People’s House. It’s just that the tradition vanished ages ago.

Americans staked their claim to the White House in muddy boots on fine carpet, picnicked on the grounds, parked their carriages and then their cars outside and tromped inside to look for the president, often finding him. They did not need invitations, engraved or otherwise.

Many were ordinary people. Others were social climbers, gate crashers, fence jumpers, patronage job seekers, cranks and crazies.

Why so loose? A child’s primer from the Civil War explained that there is an essential difference between an imperious monarch and a US president.

“How are emperors and kings protected?” it asked. “By great troops of guards; so that it is difficult to approach them. How is the president guarded? He needs no guards at all; he may be visited by any persons like a private citizen.”

Try that now.

Tareq and Michaele Salahi more or less did. The Virginia couple’s caper angered Obama, mortified his troop of guards, left a mum White House social secretary doubtlessly embarrassed and sent ripples of fear through lawmakers that the security breach, if achieved by a malcontent, might have caused a “night of horror,” as one put it.

No, it’s not the 1800s anymore. Or the 1900s, for that matter.

Former US president Thomas Jefferson wanted the Executive Mansion, opened in 1800, to be accessible, not a palace separated from serfs.

Even the idea of stationing guards in and around the complex was considered inappropriate through the 19th century; their presence was only tolerated when the city itself was threatened in wartime.

So says a federal report that reviewed White House security and access after a disturbed pilot crashed his small plane on the grounds and a man sprayed bullets from outside the fence, both in 1994. The report, rich in capturing the history of openness at the White House, was written by a panel that recommended the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic outside. That happened in May 1995.

Few remember now that until World War II, the public could freely roam the White House property, gates opening to the masses in the morning and closing at night. The attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was one of many events that tightened security several significant notches.

“The gates at the beginning were more to keep cows out than they were to keep people out,” said Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian. “This was a very open government and very open city.”

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin cited accounts of “backwoodsmen with their muddy boots standing in line with diplomats.”

Former US president Abraham Lincoln welcomed visitors who routinely lined up for hours seeking employment, Goodwin said in an interview.

When his secretary told him, “you don’t have time for these ordinary people,” he is said to have replied “You’re wrong.” He considered the visitors his “public opinion baths.”

Facing frequent death threats, Lincoln used policemen in plain clothes with concealed arms to serve as “doormen” in the mansion, while uniformed guards were posted outside.

His bodyguard at Ford’s Theater had left his post, either to drink at a nearby saloon or watch the play from the gallery, when John Wilkes Booth fatally wounded the president in 1865.

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