Make Way, Peasant!

Remember Bill Clinton’s $200 haircut?  In 1993 the new president, who had run as a populist, kept LAX travellers waiting as stylist-for-the-stars Cristophe sculpted the presidential ‘do aboard Air Force One.  Of course, the real outrage wasn’t how much Clinton spent on the cut (who cares?) but that he and his staff thought the president getting a haircut was reason enough to keep hundreds of ordinary Americans waiting on the tarmac so AF1 could take off first.  Who do these people think they are?

But for the protests of Virginia transportation officials, Washington-area commuters might have found themselves asking a similar question last week.  Unlike the Cristophe kerfuffle, in this case the plan to inconvenience thousands of Americans came from Secret Service, not the president himself.  The Washington Post reports that on Tuesday “the Secret Service asked Virginia officials if they would be kind enough to shut down all of the HOV lanes on I-395 from 1 to 7 p.m. the next day so President Bush could get where he needed to be.”  Which was a fundraiser for Sen. George Allen.  State traffic experts described the likely results of acceding to the Secret Service request:

“There will be approximately 8,600 cars using the HOV lanes over a three hour period (4 to 7 pm). This equates to approximately 20,000 to 22,000 people. If the HOV lanes are closed, according to the District’s estimate the back up of traffic in the general purpose lanes will not be cleared until 10 p.m.” 

Even so, it apparently took them quite a while to talk the Secret Service down from the plan. 

As Melanie Scarborough discussed in a 2005 Cato Briefing Paper [.pdf], the idea of establishing a permanent corps of federal agents dedicated to protecting the president proved surprisingly controversial, even after the assassination of President McKinley in 1901:

Sen. Stephen Mallory (R. FL) said, “I would object on general principles that it is antagonistic to our traditions, to our habits of thought, and to our customs that the president should surround himself with a body of Janizarries or a sort of Praetorian guard and never go anywhere unless he is accompanied by men in uniform and men with sabers as is done by the monarchs in the continent of Europe.” The House Judiciary Committee objected to the proposal that a cabinet secretary send presidential protectors “among the people to act under secret orders. When such laws begin to operate in the Republic, the liberties of the people will take wings and fly away.”

That sort of rhetoric may seem a little anachronistic today.  Clearly, the 21st century president needs a professional personal security detail.   But when that security detail makes clear that it couldn’t care less how much it inconveniences 20,000 commuters, so long as the president gets to his fundraiser on time–and that it cares still less about Americans’ free speech rights–you might begin to think that Mallory et al. had a point.