The People’s House

Julia Pierson, head of the Secret Service, testified before Congress yesterday on the security lapses that resulted in a fence jumper making it into the White House and then into the East Room.  But Omar Gonzalez in just one in a long line of uninvited guests.  Anyone remember the couple that got through security into a state dinner?  Peter Baker had a nice history of the uninvited in the New York Times.

Long before the latest fence jumper captured international attention by getting as far as the East Room, the history of White House security breaches was vast and varied. One intruder in a white karate outfit carried in a knife hidden in a Bible. A stranger slipped in to watch a movie with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And a pilot crashed his Cessna into the mansion.

Theodore Roosevelt once agreed to see a man who identified himself as “Mr. John Smith” and insisted he had an appointment, even though the president did not recognize him. But after talking with him for a bit, Mr. Roosevelt quickly changed his mind. “Take this crank out of here,” he ordered an usher. In the man’s back pocket, it turned out, was a large-caliber pistol.

Pierson herself pointed out

…that before the most recent incident, 16 people had jumped the White House fence over the last five years, six of them this year alone. Many of them do not seem intent on harming the president, but are eager to draw attention to some issue or cause. One this year was a toddler who had slipped through the fence.

We seen to want the impossible.  We want our President and his family to be safe, but accessible.  And for much of our history, the President and the White House have been much more accessible than they are today.

During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt had just finished watching a movie when the lights came on and he discovered a stranger standing nearby. His predecessor, Herbert Hoover, came downstairs for dinner one night to find a man in the Blue Room who said he was just a sightseer. On another occasion, Mr. Hoover was having dinner with a movie producer in the State Dining Room when an intruder marched up, demanding an appointment.

During Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration, a man followed the Marine Band into the White House and wandered around for 15 minutes before being discovered. And of course, President Obama found himself with a couple of extra guests for a State Dinner in 2009, when the party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi managed to get past White House aides and the Secret Service even though they were not on an invitation list.

There have been shots fired (so far without hitting anyone) and President Tyler had stones thrown at him by an intruder in the White House garden.  But more disturbing are the aircraft that manage to penetrate the White House airspace.

A helicopter stolen from nearby Fort Meade by an Army private landed on the South Lawn of the White House in 1974.

A helicopter stolen from nearby Fort Meade by an Army private landed on the South Lawn of the White House in 1974.

With all the ground protection, several men have tried to pierce the White House perimeter by air. An Army private stole a helicopter from Fort Meade in 1974 and flew it to the White House, where he landed on the South Lawn, took off again and then returned. Secret Service officers eventually opened fire on the chopper, forcing it down. The private survived and was sentenced to a year in prison. That same year, a failed businessman tried to hijack a Delta passenger jet at Baltimore-Washington International Airport with a plan to crash it into the White House, but was shot by the police while in the cockpit before takeoff.

In 1994, an unlicensed pilot who had spent an evening drinking and smoking crack cocaine stole a Cessna 150L and crashed it on the South Lawn in the middle of the night. The plane skidded across the ground, smashed into a magnolia tree and eventually came to a halt against the wall of the mansion. The pilot was killed, but the building was not seriously damaged and Mr. Clinton was not at home at the time.

President Andrew Jackson famously called the White House “the People’s House” but in the current climate, protection and screening would seem to be most important.  Perhaps President Obama should take satirist Andy Borowitz seriously.

President Barack Obama has decided to move his family into a full-service doorman building in Washington, D.C., saying that “it just makes more sense right now.”

“It really will work better for us,” Obama said in a press conference Tuesday morning. “In addition to the doorman, there’s a guy at the front desk, and, if anyone comes to see you, the desk guy will call up to your apartment first to make sure it’s O.K.”

 Photograph:  Charles Tasnadi/Associated Press

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