October 31, 2000. George W. Bush had just dived into the crowd after giving a speech onstage at Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Oregon. I remember thinking, “this is not safe.” From the worried looks of the Secret Service agents who moved to follow the presidential candidate into the sea of waving hands and crowding bodies, they didn’t think so either.
Bush’s Halloween stop in Portland was part of an election eve barnstorm through numerous states, and had only been announced on radio the day before. Those interested in attending were supposed to call and get on a list, but I never got that memo. When I heard about the event only hours before show time, I grabbed my kids and headed downtown.
A lot of people had that same idea. When we reached the plaza in front of the Coliseum, the lines stretched back to the surrounding streets. A phalanx of folding tables had been set up and several besieged list-checkers worked to process the flow.
If I hadn’t brought my children, a 14-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl, I’m convinced I never would have gotten in. It was only because my daughter grew faint in the clutch of bodies as we neared the tables that one of the list-checkers noticed my BUSH-CHENEY sign, took mercy, and waved us through.
The sign itself did not make it through the security checkpoint.
* * *
Bush was great that night. It was the last fifteen minutes of the eleventh hour of a long campaign. A sense of momentum surrounded the Texas governor as he lambasted bureaucratic inefficiency, called to account White House moral slippage under Clinton, and invoked a new era of compassionate, fiscally responsible conservatism. The old Coliseum, home to the 1977 world champion Trailblazers and biannual monster truck rallies, was rocked to the rafters by an agreeable uproar that seemed surreal in the center of ultra-liberal — some might say Bush-adverse — Multnomah County.
But it seemed to me that Bush, after leaving the stage, was out pressing the flesh for an incredible length of time. I could see him in the middle of a circling crowd, a tawny sideburn here, a longhorn cufflink there. I couldn’t subject my daughter to another crush, so I sent my son to try and shake the hand of the man who I was convinced would be our next president.
More minutes passed; amazingly, W. was still out on the floor, his position indicated by the direction of the manically waving arms and the flashes of disposable cameras.
I’d written letters to editors, called talk shows, and let my support of Bush’s candidacy be known. At that moment I felt oddly like my investment was in danger. The people checking lists at the tables had allowed in thousands of people in a hurry. So many that it became necessary to pull back the burgundy velvet ropes and open the arena’s upper decks. They had frisked my son and me, but they had not frisked my daughter.
I remembered the Kennedy brothers, both of whom in younger, more Democratic days I’d greatly admired. Martin Luther King, John Lennon. The horrid attempt on my presidential hero, Ronald Reagan. As I stood watching the human cyclone around Bush, assassinations that had wrenched my sense of a safe and sane world flashed before my eyes.
It suddenly occurred to me that despite the guardians at Memorial’s gates, a committed assassin could have gotten through.
The Secret Service apparently finally said “enough” and hustled the soon-to-be chief executive through a side door. My son never got his Bush handshake, never got close.
In the wake of the Tucson tragedy, compelling voices are calling for more security around elected officials and other political figures. Representative Peter King (R-NY) has proposed that no firearms be permitted to come within 1,000 feet of our lawmakers. This might be an overreach, and simply impossible, but I’m keeping an open mind about such proposals.
I am in favor of enhanced security for higher-ranking state and federal officeholders. I would support cones of protection around politicians at public events, cones in which a prior determination can be made regarding any possible threat. By that, for those in Rush Limbaugh’s Rio Linda, I mean weapons.
Part of the genius of George Orwell’s novel 1984 is that it is never made clear whether Big Brother is a real person or a propagandist fiction.
It is this we fear as a society when we are confronted with the prospect of not being able to approach those we have elected to office. The fear that they will become nothing more than media images, cordoned off from us behind bullet-proof glass, fleshless entities which we know exist in the flesh but are never allowed to meet in the flesh.
We don’t have to go this far. But it is a sad commentary in a sea of other sad commentaries that Americans need to get their minds around the idea of sacrificing access for safety.
My desire to see Bush 43 was eminently human, and the possibility of fulfilling that desire is something I have come to expect as a citizen living in a free country. But don’t we have too much invested in our chosen leaders to continue, in pursuit of lofty and inherently dangerous national and political values, to place them in the line of mad men’s fire?
Creating a buffer zone around those willing to seek public office won’t turn them into Big Brothers and Sisters. It will send a message to our best office-seekers: we care enough to protect you.
Mark Ellis is a Portland, Oregon, journalist and writer.