Crashing the White House? People used to show up uninvited all the time

The couple who crashed a state dinner follow a tradition of folks appearing at the White House uninvited — but years ago. Throngs came Jan. 1, 1927, when Calvin Coolidge was president.

Associated Press (1927)

The couple who crashed a state dinner follow a tradition of folks appearing at the White House uninvited — but years ago. Throngs came Jan. 1, 1927, when Calvin Coolidge was president.

WASHINGTON — The folks who sneaked into the president's state dinner are part of a long tradition of people showing up as they please at the People's House. It's just that the tradition vanished ages ago.

Americans staked their claim to the White House in muddy boots on fine carpet, picnicked on the grounds, parked their carriages and then their cars outside and tromped inside to look for the man, often finding him.

Many were ordinary. Others were social climbers, gate crashers, fence jumpers, patronage job seekers, cranks and crazies.

Why so loose? A child's primer from the Civil War explained that there is an essential difference between an imperious monarch and an American president.

"How are emperors and kings protected?" it asked. "By great troops of guards; so that it is difficult to approach them. How is the president guarded? He needs no guards at all; he may be visited by any persons like a private citizen."

Try that now.

Tareq and Michaele Salahi more or less did. The Virginia couple's caper angered President Barack Obama, mortified his troop of guards, left a mum White House social secretary and sent ripples of fear through lawmakers that the security breach, if achieved by a malcontent, might have caused a "night of horror," as one put it.

No, it's not the 1800s anymore. Or the 1900s, for that matter.

Thomas Jefferson wanted the Executive Mansion, opened in 1800, to be accessible.

Even the idea of stationing guards in and around the complex was considered inappropriate through the 19th century; their presence was only tolerated when the city itself was threatened in wartime.

So says a federal report that reviewed White House security and access after a disturbed pilot crashed his small plane on the grounds, and a man sprayed bullets from outside the fence, both in 1994. The report, rich in capturing the history of openness, was written by a panel that recommended the closing of Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic outside. That happened in May 1995.

Few remember now that until World War II, the public could freely roam the White House property, gates opening to the masses in the morning and closing at night. The attack on Pearl Harbor was one of many events that tightened security several significant notches.

"The gates at the beginning were more to keep cows out than they were to keep people out," said Donald Ritchie, the Senate historian. "This was a very open government and very open city."

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin cited accounts of "backwoodsmen with their muddy boots standing in line with diplomats."

Abraham Lincoln welcomed visitors who lined up for hours seeking employment, Goodwin said in an interview. When his secretary told him, "You don't have time for these ordinary people," he is said to have replied "You're wrong." He considered them his "public opinion baths."

In a ritual that lasted through the first quarter of the 20th century and the assassinations of James A. Garfield and William McKinley, presidents and their wives would come to the East Room most days to say hello to members of the public.

Today, people still tour White House staterooms, but submit advance requests through members of Congress. It's a faint echo of the ethic willed down from the ages that the people have a right to be there.

Crashing the White House? People used to show up uninvited all the time 12/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 5, 2009 9:04pm]

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