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Don't Be a Stranger! Be a Resident, Mr. President

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A41

This president's Washington is an insular, institutional place, a city of cordoned-off safe zones and Jersey-barriered encampments. It's a place where even a bit of outdoor fun involves a trip to a secluded reserve, far from any ordinary person. It's a city where dinner out means mediocre meals in vast banquet halls, where even dinner with friends is a hurried, early evening affair.

No wonder George W. Bush hates Washington.

The life he has led here over the past four years would drive anyone a little stir-crazy. But for his 86 trips to Camp David, where perhaps he truly can relax, Bush has led the most isolated, narrow Washington life of any chief executive in modern times.

The man needs to get out more. We're here to help.

We know Bush likes Mexican food; one of his rare forays into the local restaurant scene was a visit to Cactus Cantina on Wisconsin Avenue NW. For a more authentic Mexican outing, the president might want to get the motorcade in gear and head out to Riverdale in Prince George's County, where Taqueria Tres Reyes is open from early morning, Bush's prime time. Or, a few blocks away in Bladensburg, stop by El Tapatio, which should remind him of any number of such places in Houston or Austin.

The president is a man of faith, but rather than limit himself to St. John's, the church of presidents on Lafayette Square, he should head up 16th Street NW, Washington's avenue of religious entrepreneurship, and check out the full menu of spiritual offerings. No matter what the foreign crisis, he can avoid that nasty business of overseas travel simply by zipping up 16th Street to find a congregation full of emigres who will welcome him. No kowtowing to foreign leaders necessary, no risk of angry protests by natives. The tsunami, for example, was a grand opportunity to check out the Buddhist temple where local Sri Lankans gather.

Bush has positioned himself as a pro-immigrant president. This week, his whirlwind tour of the inaugural balls will give him a chance to step away from the fat cats and meet people who make in a year what some folks are paying to attend the coronation bash. The hardworking immigrants who staff the city's hotels would be thrilled to explain how they support a family of four on $20,000 a year.

Bush has made security the centerpiece of his presidency. Just a few blocks from the White House, he can visit the No Child Left Behind building, formerly the U.S. Education Department, stroll around the corner and watch as freight trains rumble by with tankers full of explosive chemicals just waiting for a terrorist to blow them sky-high. The folks over at Homeland Security say they wouldn't want to impinge on the railroads' ability to keep chemicals moving, so there's been no action taken to ban dangerous cargo from this path through the heart of the federal city.

No one expects the president to wander the city in this era of fear and danger. Even before 9/11, the presidency was a terribly restricting and lonely job. The movement of a president is an almost comically massive undertaking, involving street closings, livid commuters and motorcades that stretch as far as the eye can see. Since 9/11, the isolation of the president and other top officials has only deepened.

But long before 9/11, Bush turned his back on the place he fought so hard to call home for eight years. Not since Jimmy Carter has a president made such a light imprint on this city and its suburbs. Ronald Reagan famously noted, "The difference between the word 'president' and 'resident' is only one letter," a sentiment he backed up with dinner parties that reached across the partisan divide, seeking out Mayor Marion Barry and other local figures. George Bush the father became a fixture on the local restaurant circuit, eating out not only at prominent District eateries such as I Ricchi and the Palm, but also at Rio Grande Cafe in Bethesda and Bush's favorite spot, the Peking Gourmet Inn in Falls Church. Photos of Bush I and Bill Clinton became status symbols on the vestibule walls of restaurants all over town.

Not so this president. According to the encyclopedic catalogue of presidential movements kept by CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller, Bush's first-term contacts with Washington beyond the mansion's gates consisted primarily of weekend visits to government installations to exercise -- the U.S. Secret Service training facility in Beltsville or the grounds of the FBI Academy at Quantico.

Other than drop-ins at fundraising banquets and the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, the president's appearances locally have been extremely limited. He did make three outings in the weeks just after the 9/11 attacks -- a public show of confidence including dinner at Morton's with Mayor Tony Williams, dinner at Jeffrey's at the Watergate with Commerce Secretary Don Evans and a visit to Ford's Theatre to see Hal Holbrook's one-man show, "Mark Twain Tonight."

But Knoller records only about a dozen nights out with friends during the first term, including three visits to Evans's house in McLean, four to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's place in Kalorama and one to the vice president's mansion on Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Does this constricted view of Washington have an impact on the president's approach to policy? Is there a correlation between a president's efforts to stay in touch with the lives of his constituents and his performance in office? Was Richard Nixon a better president because he strolled over to Trader Vic's at lunchtime?

The list of presidents who broke out of the bubble does not align with historians' selections of great presidents. But there is a clear political advantage to being perceived as a leader who gets the pressures and strains of regular folks' daily lives. Politicians who come off as detached and isolated are, fairly or not, stamped as ineffective.

Bush is no recluse; he was all over the country during the campaign. Friends say Bush just doesn't like Washington. They say that he believes political Washington is corrupt and mean-spirited and that this belief colors the president's view of the D.C. area.

Other presidents have found that stepping out into this area can help build popular support. Reagan also ran against Washington, but when he made friends with a District schoolboy and visited city schools, he countered the impression that he was a heartless conservative. Even though Carter and Clinton didn't follow up on their early gestures, Carter's walk down Pennsylvania Avenue after his inauguration and Clinton's walk on Georgia Avenue NW in his first months here demonstrated a willingness to connect.

With just a few symbolic gestures, this president could have an enormous impact on the city and on his own image. A visit to the Mall's fenced-off memorials could send the message that Washington will not shut itself off to the world as terrorists want us to.

And starting in April, the president's seat at the ballpark will be available once again. Will this president use the game he loves to send a message that the city is a safe and fun place to visit? Check it out, Mr. President; good seats are still available.

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com

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