My turn: Minimize impact of presidential security

Posted: Sunday, January 11, 2009

I've been reading the various news articles on the upcoming Inauguration, and the lock down of Washington, D.C., that is planned to ensure security during President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration. Washington is going to be a virtual prison with tightly controlled entry and exits, and in some areas simply no movement at all.

And I ask, where's the outrage? How is it that Americans have become so accepting of governmental control and management by an elected leadership that possesses privileges even royalty would envy?

This is not the first time I've run up against the impact of presidential security on the American public at large. The first time I was introduced to it personally was during the presidency of George H. W. Bush. I was vacationing in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, with my family and had made a day trip down to the outlet shopping malls in Kittery. President Bush also was vacationing at his family home in Kennybunkport, Maine, during this same time. As it happens, going to Kittery on the day we chose was probably not the wisest decision, as a major hurricane was expected to come ashore along Maine's coast later that day. But I thought we had plenty of time to hit the stores and return to our home before the storm was scheduled to hit.

When the shopping mall stores starting closing and boarding up, we decided it was time to head back and make the 50-mile run up I-95 back to Old Orchard Beach. The local radio station was announcing that since I-95 was the primary "emergency evacuation route," the tolls would be suspended for the emergency period to facilitate the evacuation of those leaving before the hurricane struck. But right in the middle of beginning the evacuation, I-95 was closed.

Why? Because the Secret Service decided that it would be prudent to move the President from his shoreside home and return him to Washington D.C. The wind conditions made a helicopter flight risky, so he was moved by limousine down to Portsmouth to board Air Force One. To insure his safety, the road was closed to all other traffic while he was being evacuated.

So here we have an emergency situation where people all along the Maine coast are being advised to leave and move to safer locations inland, but the primary emergency evacuation route for this mass exodus is shut down right in the middle of this evacuation for the security and protection of one person. I had, and have had, difficulty understanding why the President's security should put so many others in danger. Inconvenience is one thing, but outright danger to the public is another.

In the years since, I've had several other occasions to personally experience the public disruption of presidential travel. I happened to be in New York City one day when President Bill Clinton made a visit to the United Nations, forcing Manhattan into gridlock. No crosstown traffic was moving for hours. On another occasion, President Clinton visited the Mid Hudson Valley area, and for several hours the Mid Hudson Bridge was completely closed to all traffic. For the people on the west side of the bridge, their only access for major medical services and scores of other services is to cross the bridge, or else they must take a 25-mile detour using an alternate route.

I experienced one more instance of the impact of the Presidential presence in Florida, when the younger President Bush made an inspection visit for some local disaster, probably one of the many hurricanes again. And again, major traffic flows were shut down resulting in delays in emergency services reaching some neighborhoods. To his credit, I've read since that President Bush has chosen to stay away from the scene of later disasters because he recognized the negative impact his presence had on the community and the operation of emergency services.

So back to my opening question: Where's the outrage? How can we, the American public, accept these extreme restrictions on our ability to conduct our daily lives and the potentially dangerous and life threatening lack of access to medical and emergency services? This is paired with our ability to go to work, travel or any of the other daily freedoms we have as American citizens because a "public servant" wants to travel, visit or entertain.

I have no argument with protecting the President. But let's do it in such a way as to minimize the impact on the rest of us. We provide the President with nice public housing where he can be protected and provided for in an envious fashion. Let's encourage him to stay close to home so the rest of us can get on with our lives.

• Don Brand is a Juneau resident.

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