Obama: Trapped in His Security Bubble

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Presidents -- and presidential candidates -- can't even seem like regular folks anymore

If I were president of the United States, and especially if I were the first black man to hold that office, I'd be paranoid as hell about my personal security and the safety of my family, so this isn't a criticism of Barack Obama or the agents in the Secret Service, who seem to do a thorough and professional job protecting him. But the video above, showing Obama's bus motorcade rolling through Zumbrota, Minn., is a powerful visual example of how segregated from normal life our presidents have become and the impossibility of their actually touring the country and having even semi-normal interactions with average members of the public. The woman whose voice we hear is exactly right: Our elected leaders may try to act like "normal Joes," but even a brief glimpse of the way they travel explodes that silly notion.

What I find fascinating is that it wasn't always so -- that bygone presidents weren't in nearly so much of a security bubble, even though there have always been people who would do them physical harm, and even though there have been successful assassinations. Consider the scene after Andrew Jackson's 1829 inauguration, when the masses flocked to the White House to shake his hand and congratulate him:

Ladies fainted, men were seen with bloody noses and such a scene of confusion took place as is impossible to describe, - those who got in could not get out by the door again, but had to scramble out of windows. At one time, the President who had retreated and retreated until he was pressed against the wall, could only be secured by a number of gentleman forming around him and making a kind of barrier of their own bodies, and the pressure was so great that Col. Bomford who was one said that at one time he was afraid they should have been pushed down, or on the President. It was then the windows were thrown open, and the torrent found an outlet, which otherwise might have proved fatal.

There was eventually an attempt on Jackson's life -- the would-be assassin's gun misfired. Yet even with the country embroiled in Civil War and regular threats against his life, Abraham Lincoln often walked alone at night in Washington, D.C. and had only one cop assigned to protect him the night he was killed.

President James A. Garfield was also shot and killed in 1881 by a mentally unbalanced man who took issue with his politics. But the Secret Service wouldn't be asked by Congress to protect the president until William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. He was killed while shaking the hands of members of the public in a receiving line.

How sophisticated was the plot?

Leon Czolgosz had made it into the building and it was his turn to greet the President.

In Czolgosz's right hand, he held a .32 caliber Iver-Johnson revolver, which he had covered by wrapping a handkerchief around the gun and his hand. Although Czolgosz's swaddled hand was noticed before he reached the President, many thought it looked like it covered an injury and not that it was hiding a gun. Also, since the day had been hot, many of the visitors to see the President had been carrying handkerchiefs in their hands so that they could wipe the sweat off their faces.

Nowadays even a guarded presidential motorcade with Obama waving from a convertible would be unthinkable, for obvious reasons. Thus the spectacle of tens of police cars and an armored bus snarling local traffic and speeding through a small Minnesota town without stopping or waving.

Thus the reality: The president is right to protect himself better than did many of his predecessors. There is a cost to the attendant security bubble. And it's perfectly rational for the people to feel more removed from their elected representatives. The same goes for presidential candidates too. Congress extended security details to them in 1968 after Robert F. Kennedy was shot. And many of them are governors with their own security concerns and police protections in their home states -- more porous bubbles, to be sure, but ones that encircle some potential presidents for many years before they even assume the presidency. As the son of a CIA director, vice president and president, George W. Bush spent a lot of life in a partial security bubble even before ascending to the statehouse in Texas and the White House in Washington, D.C.

It is difficult to imagine ever going back to the casual attitude toward security that prevailed for so long. For better and worse, the members of our ruling class are mediated from the public for their own protection.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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