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Jewish World Review June 25, 1999 /11 Tamuz 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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A nighttime walk to a House that feels like a cage --
WASHINGTON --- "Welcome to the White House," the sign, splattered with fresh rain, said.

I had walked over at night; my hotel was only a block and a half down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, and it seemed somehow wrong to be so close and not walk over and take a look. A fierce and frightening storm had hit Washington earlier in the evening. Sixty-mile-per-hour winds had knocked down trees all over the District and the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, the airport had been closed, people had run for cover.

Now, though, later at night, there was just a drizzle from the sky, and men, women and children -- as they do every day and night -- were descending on the White House as if it were a magnet drawing them in.

"Welcome to the White House," the wet sign said. "The White House is the oldest public building in the District of Columbia, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is the most famous address in the United States. While the Capitol stands for the freedom and ideals of the nation, the White House stands for the power and statesmanship of the chief executive."

It read like something written a long time ago, in a world ready to believe the civics-textbook version of life. The world's outlook is somewhat more complicated these days, and citizens know things of a sort they never knew before. Even the most innocuous words on the sign -- "Welcome to the White House" -- seem vaguely insincere.

Just take a look around. Barricades prevent any motor traffic from passing in front of the White House; a street once full of cars and vibrant city noise, day and night, is empty and silent. There are police cars stationed inside the Pennsylvania Avenue barricades, but that's it -- a state of emergency is the status quo on the street, of necessity.

But on foot you can walk past the barricades, and press up against the wrought-iron fence fronting the White House, which is what many of us were doing in the drizzle. Brightly illuminated in the hours before midnight, the grounds looked like a movie set, perhaps because for the last several years it has seemed that an endless, meandering, exceedingly unpleasant movie has been in constant production here. Grandeur aside, in this cable-ready era the White House has served as a stolid backdrop for 24-hour-a-day live reports from the lawn even when there has been no news to report. The satellites are up and paid for, the all-news channels have endless hours to fill, and the White House belongs to the people, not to the occupants.

Thus, covered in wet canvas, the television equipment even tonight, with no correspondents at their posts, remained on the people's lawn like bulky bundles of cut grass or garbage someone has neglected to pick up. The American flag waved from the top of the house, the white columns by the front door were as bright as in daylight, and the people who live inside. . . .

Well, who would want the job of living there, really? If this is the finish line, who -- in the dwindling days of the 20th Century -- would pursue the race? The spectators outside tonight, their faces close to the fence, are merely symbolic of the entire world, staring at the house ceaselessly. Bathed in spotlights, wired to be shown at any time to any audience on the planet, the residence seems even more exposed yet confining than a zoo cage. A zoo, while a target for eyes, is not a target for quite as much finely focused human emotion -- the whole range, love, anger, hatred, venom, pride, revenge, simple constant curiosity -- as is this place. Who would want this job?

The question answers itself. Plenty of people do. When George W. Bush decided in recent days to begin his campaign to live in this place, the Washington press corps reacted like a yearning boy whom the coy and beautiful prom queen has finally deigned to invite over for soda and popcorn. They couldn't wait -- they ran to be present. All because this building -- this house -- remains, despite everything, the ultimate place.

In front -- on the street with no motor traffic -- three joggers in shorts ran past the house, laughing and talking, relaxing easily on Pennsylvania Avenue. It was easy to half-believe that they were luckier than anyone who might be living inside. The house remained lit like a fragile statue, and the drizzle lessened, but the sky stayed dark as if promising other storms to come.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, Tribune Media Services