Remember Cheese Day? According to Leo McGarry, fictional chief of staff to fictional president Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing, Andrew Jackson opened the White House once a year and welcomed all citizens to come and share a big block of cheese and their ideas about how the government should be run. The closest we’ve come to that in the modern era is Mark Zuckerberg serving fruit and cheese to conservative pundits who think Facebook is too left-leaning.
I was in the White House once, years ago, on a tour. It was easy then. I have visited it often since, snapping photos from an increasing distance. As one tourist, looking across a kind of wide neutral zone toward the White House, said to his companion, “You used to be able to…”
Too many fence jumpers, I suppose. Not to mention terrorists. It’s a shame, though. Physical distance increases the sense of political and moral distance. Jackson had the right idea for how to keep the political dialogue alive and well (one of his few good ones, among many other bad ideas).
I was thinking as I was snapping photos of the West Wing today, under what I imagined to be the increasingly interested gaze (yes, I’m a little paranoid) of the Capitol police and the Secret Service, that in North Korea I would surely be off to fifteen years at hard labor for doing what I was doing. So we’re not that bad.
With a zoom lens, I got one photo of a Marine guard in formal uniform outside the Oval Office. That’s the way I like to think of our security for the President: formal, dressy, not really expected to have to spring into action. Like the palace guard at Buckingham Palace, or the Swiss guard at the Vatican. Colorful.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to expose the President to risk. We don’t want the heartbreak and disillusionment of another Kennedy assignation. We don’t want to see Ronald Reagan thrown on the floor of his car after he was shot. We don’t want any opening for the crazy violent impulses that men like Donald Trump incite. So I guess I’m down with having to use a long zoom lens to get close to the White House.
But it saddens me. Our security comes at a terrible emotional cost. Seeing that those who protect our President are afraid for his life makes us all afraid. Not just for him, but for ourselves as well. If the leader of the free world is not safe, what about the world he leads? What about the rest of us?