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The White House Has Become a Militarized Island in Downtown DC

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The view over the South Lawn in July 2020. Photograph by Andrew Beaujon.

Last week, I walked around the White House twice. The first time, when I merely had to navigate the barriers that went up after the protests following the George Floyd killing, it took me a little more than a half-hour. By the time I came back for a second lap a few days later, a previously open pedestrian path in the Ellipse had been closed off. So it now took about 45 minutes.

And the place remains a fortification-construction site. Access to the pedestrian mall on Pennsylvania Avenue has been cut off since the first night of the protests that followed George Floyd’s death, and even though the protesters have gone, it will remain cut off at least for the rest of the summer. Meanwhile, a long-planned project to replace the White House fence with a higher one has recently occasioned a large white-painted wooden wall along the south side of the complex, which means the closest view most people can get of the “People’s House” is part of its top floor. The Secret Service closed the sidewalk along E Street in 2017, so you have to trek through a maze of “bicycle rack” barriers and police tape in the Ellipse to see even that.

The story of the White House cutting itself off from the surrounding city is nearly as old as the United States, and spans all parties. Thomas Jefferson was aghast at the idea that the President might live in anything resembling a palace, and for years the building and its grounds were startlingly open. Presidents used to greet visitors in the East Room every day at lunchtime. In 1841, a drunk threw stones at President John Tyler while he perambulated the South Grounds. Security was gradually hardened as the republic turned into a superpower. But even after two world wars, the grounds were often breached—notably in 1974 by an Army private in a stolen helicopter who touched down on the South Lawn before losing a dogfight with Maryland State Police by the Washington Monument.

In the age of terrorism, the building became much more difficult to approach. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Pennsylvania Avenue, which used to be a thoroughfare crowded with cars and busses, was turned into a pedestrian mall between 15th and 17th streets. After 9/11, even pedestrian traffic was cut off for three years, a time when Washington City Paper dubbed the District  “Jersey Barrier City.” In fact, when the current fence-raising effort began, advocates said it would enable them to take down these sort of improvised barriers that keep people away from the property line. I wouldn’t bet on it.

I started my walks both times from Black Lives Matter Plaza, near the spot where authorities tear-gassed protesters on June 1 so President Trump could execute a bizarre photo op in front of St. John’s Church. The space, which starts at 16th and H streets, Northwest, was exponentially quieter than it was in mid-June, when it was packed with street performers, protesters, families, live-streamers, TV reporters from foreign outlets, and vendors lining the sidewalks. Now, in the brain-melting heat of late July, the plaza was mostly empty, save for the odd group of people wearing lanyards one day and a few others posing in front of Mayor Bowser’s “Black Lives Matter” mural on another.

The high fence that blocked access to Lafayette Square Park was decorated with photographs of people killed by police and anti-Trump slogans. Looking through it, you could see several rows of barricades in places—Jersey barriers, bollards, more bicycle-rack fencing—vestiges of the protests.  Clark Mills’ statue of Andrew Jackson reared absurdly in the distance, surrounded by even more fencing. Beyond that, you could just make out the White House.

The Park Service told me it needs to keep the barriers up at Lafayette Square to assess damage from the protests, damage that by now is two months old. The Secret Service doesn’t intend to take down the barriers where 15th and 17th streets meet Pennsylvania Avenue until the end of August, saying they’re necessary for the White House fence replacement project, even though: 1) it previously issued a press release saying they were security measures because of the demonstrations; and 2) Pennsylvania had been largely open since construction on the fence project began last July.

About a dozen Secret Service police hustled out of the New Executive Office Building as I headed south on 17th Street on my second trip, as signs mounted that someone important was about to Do Something. Police vehicles paused along the street, flashers on, and I hustled across the intersection with Pennsylvania Avenue, spurred by the very Washington worry that I’d get caught waiting for a motorcade. Some people I passed, visitors to Washington, were hoping for exactly the opposite and urged me to stay put if we wanted to see the President’s car. I decided not to explain I was actually here to look at fences.

The Ellipse is no longer closed off completely, even though the closure of the E Street sidewalk means you have to walk through the mostly useless park’s twisty paths to get to a White House view. On my first trip, I made it to the Zero Milestone and could just see the top of the White House. On my second, that vantage was closed off, so I had to walk all the way around the Ellipse, past a demonstration that urged a Congressional investigation into Vanessa Guillen’s death, and along Constitution Avenue to 15th Street. It was, too, mostly quiet, with February-sized crowds in the middle of what would normally be high tourist season. (I passed one guy wearing a shirt that said “Waterboarding Instructor.” Would you like to guess whether he was wearing a mask?)

President Trump’s position to the rest of DC was a defensive crouch even before the pandemic and the George Floyd protests. In contrast to the Obamas, he hasn’t visited a single restaurant that wasn’t in his hotel a few blocks away, for instance. His trips to the Saint John Paul II shrine in Northeast and to Walter Reed could be among his longest car trips in the District. That makes the barriers seem higher and the bicycle rack fences more appropriate for guarding a trench at the Somme than for protecting the executive mansion.

A few years ago my family and I showed a Russian friend around DC, and when we stopped by the White House, she noted how unfamiliar it was to her that we know where our President lives, and that we could get so close to the building. She’d be a lot more comfortable with the current arrangement.

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*Who actually moves? Maybe three percent


*Who actually moves? Maybe three percent

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Abraham Lincoln: Library of Congress finishes transcribing letters to president

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An Italian opera singer expressed anger that the president had not replied to her: “How [can] a Great Personnage like your Excellency surrounded of glory and ornamented of fine education … not answer a Lady letters?”

Complaints, advice, congratulations, introductions, pleas, job requests and military reports poured into Abraham Lincoln’s mailbox before and during his presidency.

Last month, the Library of Congress completed a two-year, crowdsourced project to transcribe 10,000 documents in its vast collection of Abraham Lincoln’s papers and make them legible.

The effort rendered into print the scribbling of legions of correspondents, who wrote with a variety of spelling, grammar and punctuation skills.

It was finished July 8 and augments a prior Lincoln transcription project that ran at the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, in Galesburg, Ill., from 1999 to 2002.

The library had asked the college “to transcribe and annotate all of its Lincoln autograph manuscripts and a substantial portion of Lincoln’s incoming correspondence” when the items first went online, the college says on its website.

“They did roughly half of what was online,” said Michelle A. Krowl, a Civil War specialist in the library’s manuscript division. “They chose, obviously, to transcribe all of the things that Abraham Lincoln had written” as well as other important items.

The latest project aimed to transcribe what Knox College had not, as well as new material, she said.

The project used two teams of thousands of volunteer transcribers — one to do the initial transcriptions, and the second to double-check the work of the first.

The transcriptions are not designed to be official, said Trevor Owens, the head of the library’s digital content management. But they can “get that search and discovery capability enhanced, which, even having some mistakes, is still going to be okay.”

In one letter, what appears to be “few days” is transcribed as “fun day.” In another, what appears to be “N.Y.S.M.” — for New York State Militia — is transcribed “N.Y. Sill.” In another, what looks like “Genisee” is transcribed “Genisu.”

But “the volunteers … take this incredibly seriously,” Owens said.

They select an item on the library’s website, and go to work, said Carlyn Osborn, digital collections specialist and crowdsourcing community manager at the library. “We really encourage our users to find materials in the site that speak to them,” she said.

Krowl said: “Every generation has a different sort of questions they ask of these materials. … These collections continue to be dynamic, and they continue to answer new questions."

“We’re providing people with a way to become engaged with the material and explore questions and interests that they might have,” she said.

Dozens of letters to Lincoln have previously been transcribed and published in two books — “Dear Mr. Lincoln” and “The Lincoln Mailbag” — by the Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer.

But this is the first time that many transcriptions will be available online.

Most items in the library’s Lincoln collection are in English, but some are in German, French or Italian.

A New York woman writing in German asked “Linkoln” to help a bereft family that had apparently given up a daughter for adoption and wanted to recover the child. “Seiner Exelenz der Vereinigten Staaten,” his excellency of the United States, she began.

One item, thought to be in Arabic, turned out to be in neo-Aramaic, the library said. (Experts are still not sure what it says.)

In 1861, a band of anti-slavery militants — “the Army of Freedom in Kansas” — wrote, offering to bring volunteers to Washington and guard Lincoln’s inauguration.

An 1862 note came from the president’s friend Sen. Ira Harris, whose daughter, Clara, and her fiance would be seated beside Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre the night of his assassination three years later.

A Brooklyn infantry regiment had complained that its name was being changed from the 14th New York State Militia, under which it had earned fame, to the 84th New York State Volunteers. The governor wrote to Lincoln for advice.

Members of another regiment wanted out of the Army, claiming that its members’ enlistments were up.

The men’s lawyer wrote that they had been tricked into signing up for longer than they realized. “These men [believed] that justice would be done them when their Case reached the President,” he wrote.

(Lincoln’s response appears in the collected works: “The Secretary of War says this attempt, if successful, would reach forty thousand of the Army.”)

On March 31, 1864, Cornelia MacKay, of Stanwich, Conn., who described herself as the “daughter of a staunch Republican,” wrote to Lincoln requesting the autograph of “our beloved president.”

On April 18, she got a note from the president’s trusted aide, John Hay, enclosing the autograph, “A. Lincoln.”

When the desire of the Navy officer to marry came to Lincoln’s attention, the president wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles:

Executive Mansion. Washington, Aug. 2, 1862

Lieutenant Commanding James W.A. Nicholson, now commanding the Isaac Smith, wishes to be married, and from evidence now before me, I believe there is a young lady who sympathizes with him in that wish under these circumstances, please allow him the requisite leave of absence, if the public service can safely endure it.

(Two weeks later a newspaper notice confirmed that the marriage took place in St. John’s Episcopal Church next to Lafayette Square across from the White House.)

The would-be Army volunteer from western New York wrote in March, 1864:

I am 65 years old am able to do a fair days work (not the hardest kind of work) day after day am willing to go to the army, or rather into some fort or Garison, where there will be no long marches, was never a good traveler but worker will help you work out our national salvation will go free of any charge to Government except travel and rations Avery Coon is a stout man of about my age will go too to a Fort or Garison he may need the usual pay will be a good hand

We have Faith in God and dry Powder

Truly Yours Daniel Edwards

On Jan. 7, 1864, Lincoln received a court-martial report that included a list of nine soldiers who had been found guilty of desertion. They were sentenced to be “shot to death with musketry” — five of them in front of the men of their division on Jan. 29.

On Jan. 26, 1864, Lincoln ordered the executions suspended.

Also in January 1864, a former colonel, Frederick G. d’Utassy, wrote in, begging to be freed from Sing Sing prison, where he was serving a term for defrauding the government.

D’Utassy was a dashing Hungarian officer who had commanded the 39th New York Infantry Regiment, known as the Garibaldi Guards. But he had been convicted of padding his expense account, selling government horses and keeping the proceeds, and putting soldiers on the rolls of two outfits so they could draw two paychecks.

“I have a dearly beloved and aged mother whose honored head is bowed down and whose heart is almost broken on the verge of the grave. Shall my appeal for mercy not to say justice be in vain? Shall I have to add to the infamy heaped upon me and my family the gnawing worm of conscience that tho’ involuntarily I have become a matricide?”

It is not clear whether Lincoln intervened.

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