Matthew Dallek, an assistant professor in George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, is writing a book about home defense during World War II.
What is the right balance between preserving the White House as a symbol of democratic openness and turning it into a fortress bristling with Secret Service agents, guard dogs and fences that scream “Keep Out”?
The egregious security lapses that allowed a troubled, knife-carrying fence-jumper to make it all the way to the East Room have led to the resignation of Secret Service director Julia Pierson, and the battle over how to properly secure the first family’s residence is only beginning. But the tug between openness and safety was a flash point long before Sept. 19, 2014, or even before Sept. 11, 2001. It was after Dec. 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor, that the White House truly ceased to be the “people’s house.”
Few subscribed to the notion of an open White House more than Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. In the 1930s, the first lady cast her new home as a democratic living room where Americans should come together for conversation and debate on big issues. Security was so lax that two high school students, on a dare, nonchalantly entered the White House on New Year’s Eve in 1938, found FDR and the first lady, and requested their autographs. The Roosevelts cultivated an informal air when they occupied the White House, a trademark of their political style and a symbol of their sympathy for ordinary citizens, who in turn felt that the couple understood their needs and treated them as friends. Using the White House to project their faith in “the common man,” FDR and Eleanor shook hands with 14,056 members of the public in the mansion in 1939 alone.
Americans believed that the White House was their house, too. People wrote Eleanor to ask her if they could stop in and pay her a visit. Four women wanted to know whether she would permit them to see the White House’s “swimming pool and recreation room” and even promised to bring “our swim suits, just in case.” One correspondent learned that he needed only to hand the letter he had received from the White House to the chief usher anytime from 10 a.m. to noon on the following day to gain admittance to the presidential mansion. During the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn, anybody could join in the fun as long as they had children with them under age 13. “You do not need an invitation to enter the grounds,” one White House letter instructed.
The bombs that fell on Pearl Harbor, more than the planes that struck on 9/11, are responsible for changing the White House and Washington into the place we now know.
Eleanor Roosevelt called the nation’s capital “a completely changed world” in the wake of the attack. In the days after Dec. 7, the White House received a cache of submachine guns, FBI agents and plainclothes police officers patrolled nearby streets, and The Washington Post reported that a “special detail” with red lanterns was stationed on the mansion’s perimeter, seeking to keep crowds away. The Post also warned Washingtonians to prepare for imminent air raids on the capital.
FDR and Eleanor — despite their devotion to the people’s house — found themselves helpless to turn back the clock. The Easter Egg Roll was canceled. The White House closed its doors to the public, and it “will no doubt remain closed” until war’s end, one correspondent learned.
Security concerns trumped the first family’s desire to live and work in the open, democratic manner to which they had grown accustomed: The Secret Service nixed Eleanor’s idea of hosting a White House tea for 350 foreign students. The Christmas tree was put not in Lafayette Park or on the Ellipse but on the White House grounds, where agents could check those who witnessed the lighting ceremony.
Eleanor resented the creeping paranoia she witnessed, yet she also accepted the reality that security was now king. On one hand, she said in exasperation, according to an aide, that perhaps security services should go so far as to “take down the Washington monument because an enemy could measure the distance between it and the White House,” using the landmark to help target the residence. On the other, she resigned herself to the fact that intensified security was necessary. When a deranged woman bit a guard’s thumb so badly that he required medical care, even Eleanor concluded that the White House could no longer remain the people’s house. “A man must be protected while he is the President of the United States,” she said in her memoir, reflecting on the stepped-up security measures after Pearl Harbor.
The transformation acquired its own momentum; security begat more and more security. The steps that the Secret Service took in the days after Pearl Harbor were extraordinary even by today’s standards: No more members of the public were permitted to visit the White House’s first floor; every staffer and White House resident was fingerprinted; employees were given gas masks and practiced air raid drills. The first family grudgingly accepted Secret Service-sanctioned gun crews on the White House roof, and Eleanor even reasoned that the ban on flights over the White House at least gave her husband a better’s night sleep.
Although FDR quashed a proposal to camouflage the White House (to make it a more difficult target for enemy bombers), his Secret Service drilled hard with a stopwatch to spirit a wheelchair-bound man to a newly built bomb shelter in the Treasury Department. When Secret Service agents forced FDR to dine one night with his Cabinet in the mansion and not in a less-secure hotel as originally planned, FDR deemed it “a wonderful opportunity . . . for Hitler.” If the Germans bombed the White House, they could destroy the government, and “if all of us except Frances were killed we would have a woman president,” FDR joked, referring to Labor Secretary Frances Perkins.
Since World War II, security at the White House has ebbed and flowed, but mostly it has moved in the direction of hardening the people’s house. President Dwight Eisenhower fled to an undisclosed location during annual nationwide evacuation drills, as the exercise required; after all, better to leave the White House when the threat was a nuclear bomb. The wave of political assassinations in the ’60s — John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. — hardly calmed the Secret Service. Bill Clinton closed the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to cars after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. And on Sept. 11, 2001, the White House, of course, was evacuated, and Secret Service agents thought President George W. Bush was safer on Air Force One, where he spent some of the day, than back in the mansion.
It is conceivable that the Secret Service, on high alert for so long in the years since 9/11, recently let down its guard. It’s also plausible that the agency, which has been heroically depicted in films starring Clint Eastwood, among others, became convinced of its own invincibility. Or perhaps budget cuts and alcohol-fueled scandals have taken their toll. Whatever the explanation for the recent debacles, they are likely to push the White House, Washington and the country to security steps that will continue to make the people’s house a relic of a pre-Pearl Harbor world.