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Protection and protocol


WASHINGTON -- Since 9/11, a new wave of security consciousness has understandably gripped the country. Air travel particularly has been affected by fears of lethal skyjackings and, in this city, blocked streets around the Capitol and the White House plague commuters and tourists alike.

The government's color-coded alerts to higher levels of terrorist threat may have increased public awareness of the dangerous times. But they also have bred confusion and, in many quarters, irritation and even ridicule.

In a nation that has seen more than its share of political assassination, presidential travel has always dictated heavy security around the chief executive, whether at home or abroad. All the most serious attempts against American presidents, successful and failed, have taken place on home turf, from Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley to Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

President Bush, during his recent re-election campaign, was afforded extraordinary security protection, with tickets required for his public events and long lines of crowds funneled through metal detectors. Rallies for challenger John Kerry had similar but not quite so intensive procedures.

On Mr. Bush's first post-election overseas trip, to Chile last weekend for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, a small army accompanied him -- an estimated 200 aides, including Secret Service agents plus about 100 members of the press corps.

A minor row broke out in Santiago between U.S. and Chilean security forces when a member of the president's Secret Service was momentarily barred from following him into a dinner hall. Mr. Bush, after recognizing the problem, strode back and physically "rescued" the agent.

The incident, captured by news cameras, led to charges by some Chileans that Mr. Bush had weighed in like the cowboy he has so often been portrayed as by the foreign press. The scene was repeatedly aired on Chilean television, making it the top attention-getter of the conference.

More serious was a decision by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos to cancel a large and ornate dinner for conference attendees rather than acquiesce to a U.S. Secret Service requirement that all guests pass through metal detectors to dine with the American president. A very small working dinner was substituted.

None of this did anything to minimize the Ugly American image that has long existed in South America and has intensified in many quarters since Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq, which was opposed by Mr. Lagos and many other South American leaders.

In fairness to Mr. Bush, he received the same sort of security protection any American president gets from the Secret Service when he travels abroad, and he acted quickly to deal with the barred agent.

But the notion of the American guards dictating the sort of security required in a foreign country in which the president was a guest, and was only one of 10 chiefs of state present, was guaranteed to raise hackles.

The fact is that an American president, in the era of U.S. lone superpower status, can easily be perceived abroad as a sort of latter-day Roman emperor gracing such an event. Indeed, that frequently is the way Mr. Bush is treated by the foreign press corps at such gatherings, understandably so in light of the role he plays on the world stage.

Other chiefs of state have their own security when traveling abroad, but nothing like the hordes of armed protectors who seldom let the American president out of their sight or reach. The times require vigilance, to be sure, but a better balance should be sought so that offense is not so readily given to non-Americans.

Forty-one years earlier, foreign leaders from Prince Philip to Charles de Gaulle and Ethiopia's Haile Selassie had marched in the open along Pennsylvania Avenue behind the caisson carrying President Kennedy en route to his funeral Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral eight blocks from the White House.

Recalling it now is to measure how the world and the United States have changed and how the issue of security has become so dominant among Americans.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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