The People's House

Washington Times 8.08.00
Balint Vazsonyi

Even though there must be literally millions of white houses on this planet, only one is known as The White House. At least, that is how the world knows it. For us, it is The People's House. For some years now, we have watched it being turned into a fortress.

The Republican Platform of 2000 proposes to re-open Pennsylvania Avenue. Frustrated motorists, and merchants whose livelihoods are on the line, are overjoyed at the prospect.

But much more is at stake.

Ours has been an open society from the beginning. The world has looked upon it with amazement and incredulity. Occasionally, there was contempt, too, masking the jealousy underneath it all, for a truly open society is as difficult for outsiders to comprehend as it is impossible to emulate.

To establish and maintain an open society requires extraordinary levels of confidence, tolerance, courage and faith.

There must be confidence in the nation's ability to deal effectively with any crisis that may arise.

There must be tolerance toward all, including those who appear to harbor hostile intentions.

There must be courage with which to face the certain knowledge that adversity cannot be avoided.

There must be faith in the rightness of this nation's cause, and in the rightness of an open society.

Like all good things, open society comes with a price tag. Ultimately, that price tag translates into loss of life. Of late, we have mourned men, women and children in Oklahoma City; we have lost brave guards in the U.S. Capitol.

One of the lives at risk is that of the president of the United States.

Every reasonable precaution must be taken to prevent - not only the loss of a revered life, but the trauma the nation invariably suffers when a president is assassinated. Alas, history teaches that, as John. F. Kennedy observed when briefed on the subject, a determined assassin will find a way.

They have, too many times. In a sense, we still mourn Abraham Lincoln. We always will.

But the nation has survived every one of those tragedies. It always will.

What the nation may not survive is the loss of its fundamental character. When all is said and done, when the debates about taxes, social security, gay marriages, and bilingualism yield to the subjects of tomorrow, we realize amidst the din that America, above all, is about freedom. And, across the generations, Americans have found open society a condition of freedom.

The administration of the past eight years has proposed from the outset that security trump freedom. From nationalized health care to virtual elimination of the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), the thrust of the Clinton-Rodham-Gore era has been that increased protection against risk justifies the restrictions imposed upon personal liberty. Against such a background, it was relatively easy to install ever more layers of fortification around The People's House.

Among other things, America's Capital serves as a series of symbols. The unsightly symbolism of E Street and of Pennsylvania Avenue sends a message George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and those resting underneath Arlington National Cemetery - primary symbols of this nation - would be unlikely to approve.

It so happens that Americans heard the venerable Dick Cheney speak of just these symbols a few nights ago as he accepted the vice-presidential nomination of Republicans. That, in turn, reminded me that our current president, first lady and vice president are not given to statements that stir the American in our hearts. Indeed, it is difficult to recall a speech by any of them that suggests the kind of emotional bond to and with this country we have come to expect of our leaders since George Washington's Farewell Address.

The foregoing has nothing to do with political parties. Our history is filled with Democrats whose commitment and devotion to this land is legendary. True - during the 1990s many a Democrat has been discouraged by the establishment from being vocal about our national identity. But throughout our "Re-Elect America" bus tour, we have encountered scores and scores of closet-Americans waiting to be outed.

And so, looking to November, the relationship to country and people looms larger than legislative programs. Whatever the intent, the latter is contingent upon the balance of forces in Congress, the state of the economy, opinion polls, and a host of factors we cannot foretell. The relationship of a candidate to and with country and people is one of the few constants, independent of external components. Here, it will be remembered that Democratic presidential and vice-presidential candidates of 1992, 1996, and - so far - 2000 excluded from their appeal millions of Americans by branding them as the enemy: "special interests" (whatever that means), religious Christians, gun owners, and all sorts of other categories too numerous to list.

It must be difficult to love your country if you believe that large segments of those who live within its borders are the enemy.

Our hope must be that The People's House soon will be occupied by one whose concern, commitment and devotion is to this country and all who live in it. Our chief executive should exhibit the attributes that have established and maintained our open society: confidence, tolerance, courage, and faith. America's Executive Mansion grew up amongst the arteries of our Capital, and the current disfiguration of Pennsylvania Avenue has come to symbolize other, deeper disfigurations of the American ideal.

It is much to ask of our president to live with the constant threat that surrounds his high office. It is much to ask that he forego the additional protection against potential terrorists afforded by concrete defenses.

The risks, no doubt, are considerable.

But the rewards remain immense.