I did not hear the Secret Service agent the first time he ordered me to stop.
It was a late Tuesday afternoon, a couple of weeks ago, and I was minding my own business (to the extent that anyone within spitting distance of the White House can mind their own business) riding my bike home after a pretty typical day at work.
Pennsylvania Ave. in front of the White House, which has been redone as a broad, Chinese-style avenue in the last couple of years (paved with the oddest pink-orange asphalt I have ever seen), was blocked off again — someone "important" was staying at Blair House. So I would have to work my way around. Not much of a problem, I have a good half-dozen routes that can get me to any of the three bridges I normally take home to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
So I turned around and headed south on 15th St., between the Treasury and the Hotel Washington, keeping to the far right lane. I try not weave between cars in traffic like some cyclists do — I got hit by a delivery truck when I was 12, spent a week in the hospital and another couple recovering from a concussion (the bicycle was a twisted mess of metal, and I’m still shocked I survived the accident), and that made me a cautious, perhaps overly cautious, driver and cyclist. One morning on Pennsylvania Ave. near the World Bank, I decided to follow some bicycle messengers, just to see if that would get me to work earlier, and realized about two minutes into that ride, sandwiched in-between a giant delivery truck and a big, black SUV in the middle of the street, that I had made a very unwise decision.
"Those bicycle messengers, they crave death," I recall reading in a small book of quotations from New York City taxi drivers.
I had just passed the corner of E St. and 15th St. when I heard a human voice. I did not know what it said or if it had been calling out to me. There’s a lot to pay attention to when you ride in traffic, mostly because you can never trust that any one else has seen you when you’re on a bicycle.
And traffic is loud, too. Something you never realize in the sealed compartment of your average truck or car.
Halfway through the block, as I approached the intersection of Pennsylvania and 15th, I heard the sound again, an order: "Stop!" I looked in the rear view mirror I had attached to left-end of my handlebars and saw him — a uniformed Secret Service bike cop, in his custard-colored polo shirt, his black utility shorts, black strip-covered badge, and his wrap-around sunglasses, right behind me
"Stop!" he ordered me for a third time.
"What the #$%!* is this all about?" I asked myself, pulling over to the gutter and coming to as quick as stop as I could. The Bridge bureau in Washington was at 14th and F St., and I don’t recall ever seeing many uniformed Secret Service agents before attacks on September 11, 2001. Now, the bike cops — most riding specialized Trek bikes built specifically for police — regularly patrol the intersections around the White House, making themselves an obvious and very visible presence in the center of the District. I’ve even seen them pull cars over (though in heavy traffic, it doesn’t take much to force an automobile to stop) and watched one Secret Service agent reduce one woman motorist to tears during their encounter.
It takes a lot of real and implied power for a man on a 15-pound bicycle, no matter how well armed he is, to force the driver of 3,000 pound automobile to stop.
This is the very essence of our collective idea executive power — the ability to command, to usurp, to impress and to commandeer. When I say executive, I do not merely mean the president of the United States — Potus, that ugly word the Clintonistas began using in what seems to me now like the distant fog of prehistory — and his anointed mouthpieces and minions, but the very trappings of executive power, of uniformed men and women with earpieces, blue suits, crew cuts and bulging hips, of helicopters and airplanes and secrets and plans and bunkers and detention centers. They are like virtual particles smashed into existence in a cyclotron; not the executive himself, not the man on the teevee who lectures and demands from the Oval Office, but they are part of him, part of an unholy godhead that extends from the president down to the smallest private soldier or police officer.
The "something greater" so many yearn to be part of, maybe.
We know, in our minds, from our lives, from our movies and teevee shows, how the executive behaves and is supposed to behave. The executive does not ask. Not ever. Not politely nor in any other way. It does not say "stop, please." It does not request "can you ride on the sidewalk?" It does not ask" can you move, please?" It demands. It compels obedience. It says, "Stop!" or "On the sidewalk!" (and points with a cruel and menacing finger) or "Move! Now!" with an urgency that suggests death and destruction will rain down if people don’t move. Because everything the executive does is urgent, needed now, far more important than anything we do, or in the words that have become sadly familiar — because the military has infected our entire society in the same way the Soviet Gulag infected Russia’s — "essential to the mission."
For our part, we succumb to it, give our love willingly to it, as if it were some great bronze Baal demanding endless devotion and sacrifices. We accept it, expect it, even demand it, take pride in our slavish service to it.
And what was essential to the mission, at that moment on that Tuesday afternoon, was for me to stop. As I psyched myself up to play "20 Questions" with the nice man with the badge ("Why did I turn around on Pennsylvania and ride south? Because the street was blocked off, sir…"), he zipped right past me. The only interest he had in me was in preventing my forward motion and making sure he got to the intersection before I did.
Before I could cruse the cop — silently, because I’m neither that brave nor foolish — for pulling rank, and using the power of his badge to bully a single cyclist to the curb, I noticed the entire intersection of 15th and Pennsylvania/E St. was blocked off. Motorcycles sat, engines revving. Men and women with earpieces and bulging hips looked upon the stopped cars and blockaded pedestrians nervously. Potus was preparing to move.
A presidential motorcade is an amazing thing, and if you spend any quality time living and working in the District of Columbia, you quickly learn what an inconvenience the president of the United States really is, especially when he moves by car. (Conversely, you become thankful and grateful he has a whole stable of helicopters.) Traffic comes to a halt for what seems like forever when his entourage — limos, SUVs full of menacing looking men trained and primed to shoot and kill, trucks topped with more antennas than you might find on a properly equipped communications satellite in geosynchronous orbit, an ambulance, and all black, as black and shiny as Darth Vader’s helmet — speeds through, oblivious to all other traffic, to anyone else’s safety.
The safety of us mere citizens is not, after all, "essential to the mission."
I can imagine Caesar Augustus, Harun al-Rashid, Louis XIV, a Chinese emperor or a Borgia Pope moving around in such fashion. Not the "leader" of an ostensibly "free" people. Thankfully, we mere citizens are not required to bow down and avert our gaze from the Divine Majesty. (We are, however, required to get the hell out of his way.) I probably ought not give the security people any ideas, since there probably is a "legitimate" security reason to someday have us all grovel before our "leaders" as they pass by.
And pass by he did, a little gray-black head behind a deep-blue sea of bullet-proof and bomb-proof glass, in the back seat of a death-black limousine. I only knew this because of the squeals from some of adults standing on the corner. Adults chaperoning a group of grade-school kids on something called a "6th Grade Liberty Tour." I knew because that’s what their tee-shirts said.
Because, as we all know, liberty is something ossified and fossilized, a specimen on display, something you board a tour bus to see during a visit to the capital, something kept only on display under hardened Plexiglas in a special helium atmosphere, something pounded into a granite and steel monument and secluded behind concrete barriers. Something talked about and admired, maybe, but never actually used.
Because liberty is dead, clearly, and not alive.
After a minute or two, after all the law enforcement decided it was okay to let traffic move again, I made my way south, passing by tourists who compared their photos of the passing chief executive. Did you see him? Who had the best shot? Did you get him? Wasn’t that cool? Smudgy, blurry digital photos to show friends and grandchildren, the way a childhood friend of mine showed off a similar blurry motorcade photo of Gerald Ford taken nearly 30 years ago.
"That’s him," he said, pointing to a blurry, partially exposed bald head. Because you would never have known otherwise.
To be fair to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and his most loyal supporters, my first experience with leader-love — the Greatest Love of All — was with the previous occupant. I mean, what else can you call it but "The Greatest Love of All," that love that people have for those leaders who brutalize them, who steal from them, who devour their wealth, their children and their property and then demand loyalty, obedience, commitment and love?
I don’t know how many Clinton press conferences and speeches I went to, but I think I could probably count them on one hand. A couple at the White House itself, one at USDA, and then one at the D.C. Food Pantry. Wherever the president speaks outside the White House becomes a medium-security lock-down. The day Clinton came to speak at USDA — I don’t recall what the speech was about, but I think it may have been about alternative fuels like biodiesel and ethanol — they shut the place down. The water was cut for the duration of his speech, and the elevators turned off. Between the Secret Service and the uniformed agents of USDA’s Inspector General, there were armed men and women everywhere. They sat the press corps in the worst spot in USDA’s enclosed patio, behind a concrete fountain, under the wary gaze of a fidgety U.S. Marshal. I’d of gotten a better view of the president had I stayed in my office and watched the speech on USDA’s closed-circuit teevee.
At the D.C. Food Pantry, I actually met Clinton, briefly. It was toward the end of his second term, and he was tired looking, worn out and glowing an unhealthy pink, like he’d been coated with some otherworldly toxic resin. I spent three hours at the Food Pantry, mostly wasted, because everyone who wanted to attend had to arrive early and no one who left could return. Clinton never did anything on schedule, either. So, waiting for anything at either the White House or elsewhere during the Clinton regime meant a lot of standing around and doing nothing.
Because Potus’ time is valuable, while ours is not.
What struck me most were Clinton’s supporters. They looked tired too, partly because we’re talking about the aging do-gooders of the 1970s and 1980s, but also because Clinton’s inability to keep his pants zipped up had sapped a lot of the goodwill of even the most passionate Democratic partisans. It has always been clear to me that partisan politics requires some surrender of independent thought to both ideology and the party’s "group think." But I had never met real partisans in any concentration, and it became obvious that the most partisan were those with the sparkliest eyes and the widest smiles.
Sparkly eyes means empty heads, heads where nary a wheel spins or tube gets hot. And there were plenty of sparkly eyes there at the D.C. Food Pantry that day as they watched — from a distance — then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman take Potus on a tour of the facility after his speech.
By far the worst case — or best, depending on how you look at it — of leader-love I ever came across was during a Senate press conference in late 1999, during the regular wrangling over the agricultural appropriations bill. A group of farm-state Democrats in the Senate (For the record: Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Tom Harken of Iowa, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, the late Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, and Max Baucus of Montana) were joined by Missouri Democrat Rep. Dick Gephardt to push for the Democrat alternative to that "evil" House Republican agriculture bill. The argument was really about who got federal farm subsidies — "corporate" farmers or "family" farmers. Who was which depended on who you talked to.
Regardless of party, everyone believed they were entitled to tax dollars.
The Democrats brought a whole room full of "ordinary, family farmers" to the U.S. Capitol to help them make their case for higher agricultural subsidies. I have always believed the way politicians use "ordinary folks" to help them push legislative or ideological agendas is similar to the way a carnival barker works at a freak show. Those "ordinary folks" are floor models, suitable largely for display, and are solely a source of income. And not much more.
The Democrats also hauled Vice President Al Gore out to bolster their arguments. Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee, began to talk about his commitment to agriculture, his experience tilling the soil himself on the "family farm," and the need for the country to "support" family farmers.
But it was an odd speech. He pitched and yawed during the speech, like he was suffering from some kind of palsy. And it quickly became apparent that the vice president of the United States had no idea what he was talking about. None of his sentences made much sense. He was wandering into a verbal swamp and we were going to need to send the National Guard in after him if it kept up.
I wish I had a recording of that speech, but I don’t. I do remember feeling a tremendous unease. "Does anyone realize that the vice president is making a fool of himself?" I looked around. Reporters were scribbling in their notepads. Aides and staff were not paying attention, either talking quietly on their cellphones or checking their Blackberries for very important e-mail.
All the while, sparkly eyes sparkled and smiley faces smiled.
"Am I the only person in this room who sees what is going on?" I asked myself, a little alarmed that something so obvious was not, then noticing the legislators standing behind Gore seemed themselves to be getting a little, well, uneasy too.
Several minutes into his speech, during a lengthy pause I can only assume Gore was using to try and figure out what inane thing to say next, Daschle stepped in and saved the day. "What the vice president means is…" he said, and finished the impromptu speech succinctly and thoughtfully. I never admired Daschle for his politics, but he could think on his feet and was usually kind to the press. I admired him for that.
After the speech, the smiley faced, sparkly eyed partisans surged forward. Flesh was pressed. Appeals were made. Thanks was given. The crowd of true-believers gathered while the politicians slowly wriggled away. It seems sad, really, that as the Greatest Love of All is so one-sided. We are expected, and many of us do, to love our leaders so much that our eyes sparkle and our heads become near-perfect vacuums for them. Those who lead us, on the other hand, love us in the way the farmer loves his cattle. We are just something they consume. We mean nothing more to them.
I did not have time to mill around. I had a story to write, to phone in to our editorial desk, so I reviewed my notes and stepped outside. As I reached for my cell phone, I heard someone in the distance shouting at me.
"You better go back inside, now!" yelled a Secret Service agent, fingering the pistol strapped to his hip and pointing to the doorway behind me.
Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.