Friday, April 05, 2013

Security in the White House

He saw the men ahead.  There was no way to avoid them.  The guards could not seem to keep them out, and many of them slept in the White House hall.  The word had passed that he was coming, and so they were on their feet and smiling.  Each of these wanted a favor...In four years of living in the White House, Mr. Lincoln had become accustomed to the morning vultures.  He could do little to be rid of them...
There was no way around them...Some men, desperate or arrogant, grabbed the crook of his arm and held him until the President pulled himself loose and said: "I am sorry.  I cannot be of help to you."  Some spoke quietly and swiftly, their heads swinging to follow him as he kept walking.  Some wept.  A few muttered threats and departed.
That's on the first page of Jim Bishop's bestseller The Day Lincoln Was Shot.  Quite foreboding the lack of security, too, for the title tells us what happened to President just a few hours later.  This atmosphere at the White House registered quite a surprise - it's a tremendous contrast to the armored fortress that the White House has become since.

Until that day, the 14th of April 1865, no US president had been assassinated.  Security is usually reactive, and people don't often assess threats realistically until the threats have been proven.  But the nation was just finishing a calamitous civil war, and lots of people had animosity for its author, and the Administration knew it, "talked about it...worried about it and...counterplotted against it."  Steps were taken, but (then and now) it is difficult to protect the life of a public figure from the truly determined.
Mr. Lincoln's philosophy was that he could be killed at any time by anyone who was willing to give his own life in return.  Now and then, the President discussed a violent death, and, in this, his attitude was one of sadness and resignation rather than fright.
That must wear on a person.

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