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Boys, beers, bladders and the White House lawn

A one-person helicopter landed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol on April 15, 2015, prompting a temporary lockdown of the Capitol Visitor Center.

On a warm summer evening in 1954, my high school classmate Gerry and I walked up to the steel fence topped by tall bronze spears that surrounded the Eisenhower White House. There we unzipped our pants and violated the perimeter. Once we completed our business, we just walked away.

I hadn’t thought much about that moment until last month, when I saw all three cable channels go “live” with “breaking news” from the same spot outside the White House. As I looked at the coverage of a scene that should have seemed familiar, all I could think about was how much has changed.

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A passenger vehicle struck a security barrier of the White House on Friday.

In today’s tableau, the White House grounds and the streets around them were swarming with Secret Service agents, in and out of uniform, bolstered by D.C. police. What seemed like dozens of official vehicles were either on the move or parked to block any incoming traffic. A fire engine had to be stopped at a gate with an armed guard gate until a bomb-sniffing dog could clear it to go through. With President Trump and the Prime Minister of Australia inside, the White House itself was locked down.

It soon became clear that the real story was not what caused all the action — a “mentally challenged” driver had struck a concrete barrier at 17th and E Streets — but the action itself. The woman, who was familiar to law enforcement, was “apprehended immediately. What the anchors and experts on cable news sets were talking about was the massive security infrastructure that had been deployed against the unlikely possibility that the threat turned out to be real.

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Gerry and I encountered no such obstacles on that night long ago. We were students at Sidwell Friends, the elite prep school where the Obamas would send their children in a much different era. When we went there, Sidwell was segregated, and for us white kids visiting black nightclubs in downtown D.C. was an adventure. The minimum age to drink beer in the District was 18, and we looked old enough to get served. We didn’t spend much money, but owners and patrons indulged us for reasons of their own, and we were flattered.

On that particular evening, Gerry and I went to the Rocket Room, where the band played rhythm and blues, the comedian told dirty jokes, and the stripper was almost maternal. We had a few brews, and then walked out onto New York Avenue.

Traffic was light, it was balmy and the air smelled good. For no particular reason, we began to walk toward the White House. We probably talked about school friends, sports and national politics, which were inescapable at Sidwell Friends. I’m sure we did not talk about our fathers. Mine was the assistant attorney general in charge of the Criminal Division of the United States Department of Justice. Gerry’s was legal adviser to the president.

A passenger vehicle struck a security barrier near the White House on Friday afternoon, according to the U.S. Secret Service.

It didn’t take long before those few beers asserted themselves on our bladders. Pennsylvania Avenue was still open to traffic in those days, and we crossed where it intersects both New York Avenue and 15th Street, creating the corner of the White House grounds. An occasional car rolled by. We were getting uncomfortable, as we proceeded down 15th and then through an open gate and on to the White House grounds. It was dark under the trees as we approached the fence that surrounded the South Lawn.

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The need was urgent, and there was no point in delay. We approached the fence, unzipped and leaned against the bars, facing the lawn. There were no sirens, horns or buzzers. No blazing lights or barking dogs. No shouts from uniformed guards or Secret Service agents. We walked back to the street and continued on our way.

No doubt our parents would have been angry, as much about the beers and the Rocket Room as about our disrespect for presidential surroundings. Had we been stopped and identified, we probably weren’t significant enough to make The Washington Post.

I don’t think we were being truly rebellious. But, considering the scene that played out on the cable news channels in 2018, it will take massive changes in both politics and society before anybody can ever do what we did again.

Warren Olney is the host and executive producer of To the Point. He wrote this for Zócalo Public Square (zocalopublicsquare.org).

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