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Saturday, 8 February - link

Mr Hall Goes to Washington

I was in Washington DC for a conference. I was staying at a hotel near the White House. Oh great - I'm staying near the White House, I thought, if I fart loud enough, can the President hear me?


A flotilla of armored Cadillacs and sport-utility vehicles festooned with blue and red lights plowed steadily down the cleared street as pedestrians stood at a curious distance and cars impatiently waited a return to normal commerce. I wondered who was inside - I asked the cop with his blocking arms nearest to me. "How important do you have to be to ride in a motorcade?"
"Just below God." he replied, declaratively.
"So who was that just now?"
"I have no idea, and I like it that way."


I wondered if it was someone's brother or sister - visiting them at the White House. "Okay, thanks for giving me back these golf tapes. I'll see you at Mom's in two weeks."
"Wait, don't go out that way - I'll call you a ride."
"I'm fine taking another taxi."
"You never know - here let me get the motorcade."
I imagined this small inconsequential figure in the back of one of the five large black vehicles staring out of a corner of the window, sorry for the inconvenience and fuss and strange feelings they were spreading as the roads were cleared for them.
"Step aside for the King's coaches!"
I imagined that they couldn't leap out of that car if they wanted to. Whoever they were.

Walking the White House

My last afternoon, I took a walk around the President's mansion. It was very locked down. Roads around it were patrolled by foot police and guarded by vans and guardhouses. Impressive-looking gates and barriers kept anything larger than a squirrel at 150 yards (note to self: if I need to get a camera in on the White House grounds, strap it to a small furry mammal).

I passed two police - one inside the fence, one outside. The one closest to the President was dressed like a tech-Ninja - a neck to toe black pasti-fabric suit accessorized with a vest of pockets. He was carrying some kind of folding machine gun hung from his shoulder, a large clip with small bullets on top. Adjusting my notebook and camera, I cheerfully asked "Are those rubber bullets or real bullets?"
Before I'd gotten my question out, the American ninja had melted away and the other cop was standing between me and any further glances or photographs - "I'm sorry we're not allowed to talk about it."
I think I might have said something about being a taxpayer, and having bought that guy his gun. She smiled and repeated her refusal. I asked where I was - "At the South Lawn." We nodded at each other and we each continued our rounds.

I remembered from my American History class that Andrew Jackson had an inaugural party that involved a rather large party on the White House grounds with a great many kegs of whiskey - I believe it was open to the public. I wondered when all these fences were built. I stuck my head through the bars as far as I could to look at the seat of government as it must have looked before the President lived at a greater, more secure distance from his people. The cold bars seared my temples.


Despair set in - democracy was about keeping government close to the people. But this government seemed quite far away from me.

As I stood at the South end of the White House lawn, I lifted my head to hear the conversations of the other passing citizens and visitors. A half dozen middle-aged women walked by, eying the large off-white mansion, and one said, "I heard it's for sale!" The others chuckled.

index.htmlI strolled a bit and came upon five lads standing at the fence. One gazed up at the far building, asking his mates, "You think we can take it?" Guffaws erupted and they took turns bragging and strategizing about storming the White House.

I couldn't help myself - I broke into a smile. Here were citizens gazing at this armed, sealed, guarded group of governors and making dumb jokes. They weren't taking all this pomp and power seriously - they felt inclined to bridge the distance between them and their leaders with humor.


I left the White House in a taxi. As I headed towards China Town, I spied the Congress off in the distance. Ahh, I remembered, I had only seen the Executive Branch of the US Government. Probably the Congress is nowhere near as well protected - they are more numerous and more frequently replaced. Aren't they? My paranoia surrounding the armed encampment surrounding the President came creeping back.

I was only distracted riding past the Department of Justice. I found it partly encircled by a twelve foot high cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. Above a doorway read an inscription - "This Place of Justice is a Hallowed Place."

Posted on 8 February 2003 : 01:29 (TrackBack)
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Justin's Links, by Justin Hall.