Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Barriers Between President and People
The Barriers Between President and People

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; Page C01

When President Bush retakes the oath tomorrow, he will be surrounded by a broad buffer zone of protection. You can already feel it in the wire mesh caging in Lafayette Park and the Jersey barriers and portable fencing along downtown avenues.

You may want to get close to the pageantry, to participate in the exquisite ritual that defines our nation, but unless you are a close friend or follower of this president, chances are you will have to watch it from afar. He may seem looser, more relaxed this second time around, but no closer to us really.

The multimillion-dollar inauguration -- attended by thousands -- will have the illusion of being a public event, but because of the particular nature of the office and of the moment, the American people will be participating in an exhilarating democratic drama in which the leading character has grown more distant with each new administration. It has been happening for a while.

And now: Maybe it's the sense of uncertainty in the world around him; maybe it's the sense of certainty in the heart within him, but this president has become further and further separated from everyday American life.

On the one hand, this year you have a wartime president who, in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, requires more protection; on the other, a second-term president who believes that he has been commissioned to make tough, unpopular decisions.

The result is a perfect storm of remove.

That Bush's second inauguration -- and term -- will be super-choreographed is no surprise. In recent years, the office of the presidency has turned into a series of staged events, says Shirley Anne Warshaw, a history professor at Gettysburg College and author of "The Keys to Power: Managing the Presidency."

About Bush, she says, "All of his interactions with the public are in controlled sessions."

These days the president has no accessible presence: His public life has been privatized. Celebrations like the inauguration underscore the point.

The president's safety has always been an issue at inaugurations. As Library of Congress historian Marvin W. Kranz strolls through the library's exhibit of inaugural memorabilia, "I Do Solemnly Swear . . .," he points to a black-and-white print of Theodore Roosevelt in an open carriage on his way to the Capitol in 1905. Roosevelt is flanked by what appear to be menacing bodyguards on foot. "Those are the Rough Riders," says Kranz, white-bearded, bow-tie-sporting and 74. "I'm not sure how much protection they really provided."

Abraham Lincoln, traveling to his first inauguration in 1861, learned from bodyguard Allan Pinkerton that someone planned to assassinate him. Pinkerton helped Lincoln disguise himself on the way through Baltimore to Washington.

As manuscript historian and American history specialist, Kranz has a cranium that's a trunk full of presidential anecdotes. Some are personal. "I can still remember Lyndon Johnson's inaugural in 1965," Kranz says. "They welded the manhole covers shut. They have been doing that for years."

The authorities will do it again this year. They will also block off streets, close three Metro stations during the day and employ more surveillance cameras than ever before.

Roger Wilkins, a history professor at George Mason University and civil rights champion, was on Johnson's inaugural committee. "Ever since the start of the Cold War," Wilkins says, "presidents have become more and more layered in security."

But the Bush administration, Wilkins says, is different in tone from earlier administrations "because there is such a certainty that emanates from them about the rightness of what they do."

Presidents have always dwelled among donors, supporters and yes-people. Since Herbert Hoover, writes Richard E. Neustadt in "Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents," they have been "surrounded by a set of aides somewhat resembling courtiers."

Bush, like other presidents, envelops himself with positive forces. The town hall meetings during last year's campaign were restricted to pre-selected, pro-Bush Republicans.

To his economic summits he invites only like-minded economists.

Because he doesn't read the morning papers, his news -- good and bad -- is delivered by trusted aides. He seldom ventures out into the random world, mostly retreating to Camp David or his ranch in Texas.

He is a president in a biosphere; his every interaction filtered.

"The American president has been removed for some time," says Allan J. Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University. He points to the classic work on the subject: "The Twilight of the American Presidency," by Johnson's former press secretary George Reedy.

"Increasingly," Lichtman says, "Johnson was caught in a bubble, not only remote from dissenting voices, but from the voices of ordinary people as well.

"That trend has accelerated since then."

You can feel it in inaugurations. Metal detectors were used for the first time in 1989 at George H.W. Bush's inauguration. By the time of Bill Clinton's second inauguration in 1997, security was tighter than ever. Sharpshooters were placed on rooftops; helicopters hovered above the festivities. Dozens of streets were blocked off and vendors along the parade route were told not to use potentially deadly propane tanks to cook hot dogs or heat drinks.

There will be some "non-ticketed general admission" access to the parade and the swearing-in. But to fully participate in most aspects of this year's quadrennial American celebration, you'll need a ticket. According to the Web site of the presidential inaugural committee, all tickets for the official events have been distributed. There will be one event, this afternoon on the Ellipse, that is open to everyone. Kenny Chesney, the Gatlin Brothers and the Temptations are scheduled to appear. So is the president. Fireworks will follow.

Yesterday Terry Tomlinson and his wife, Trish, both 46, were standing near the White House poring over a city map. They are in town from Dayton, Ohio.

Asked if they are Bush supporters, Trish Tomlinson said, "Heck, yes!"

Asked if they are going to watch the parade in person, they said they will. They have tickets.

But Lichtman predicts that most ordinary folks "aren't going to get within hailing distance of the parade. Bush is not out there among the people, he is in a cordon sanitaire of security."

If you don't have a lot of money or a long-term stake in Bush's success, Lichtman says, you won't really be a part of this inauguration.