From couriers to Bush, all live differently now
WASHINGTON — In the nation's capital, it is no ordinary time.
A young president, just eight months into his term, comes before Congress and calls for American resolve in the face of a long-term, new kind of war. His wife, acting as a sort of new national pastor, appears on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and bathes viewers with assurances as comforting as the soft-blue outfit she wears.
On Capitol Hill, as all over the city, security is tight. Couriers - those guys in Lycra carrying pizzas and urgent documents up and down the halls - are banned. When the trunks of cars heading into Capitol lots are opened, the guards actually look inside.
The culture of Washington has been transformed by the events of Sept. 11 - in ways the people who work here are only beginning to understand. People are striving to maintain their routines. President Bush, for instance, still comes home to his two dogs, his cat, and his wife, and is still able to sleep soundly. But his words this week echoed the thoughts of many in official Washington: "Life around the White House or around the Congress," he told reporters in the Oval Office, "is not the way it used to be."
Most noticeable is the clampdown on security. Awake in their beds at 4:30 a.m. or out on their lunchtime break, Washingtonians can't escape the roar of fighter jets, which patrol the area 24 hours a day. On Massachusetts Avenue, known as "embassy row" for its many consular buildings, police are parked at nearly every corner. Officers astride horses now patrol Lafayette Park, directly across from the White House.
The White House Press Office no longer divulges to reporters - via pages or e-mails - Mr. Bush's schedule or whereabouts, unless he's staying "on campus." When the president does move, he doesn't travel in the usual helicopter. Returning from Camp David on Sunday, Bush and the first lady arrived in a VH-53D - a bigger, faster bird also used by Air Force special forces.
In recent history, every threat to the capital (there have been more than the average American might think) has changed the way of life here. The 1971 bomb in a Senate barber shop brought television cameras down the back corridors - and the first security IDs. The 1983 explosion that reduced portraits of Daniel Webster and Charles Sumner to shards led to the installation of airport metal detectors on the Hill.
During the Gulf War, officials installed pop-up vehicle barriers. (The car belonging to the architect of the Capitol was once hoisted aloft on one of these.)
This week, signs of change are more subtle, but everywhere. Besides the couriers, journalists are having their wings clipped a bit: Press credentials, for example, are much harder to get now. New evacuation procedures are being worked out on the Hill, and members of Congress can no longer bring family or guests through checkpoints without a screening. Across the city, Washingtonians from all walks of life are talking of upgrading their own emergency preparedness.
On Capitol Hill, the new "must-have" gadget is the Blackberry - the hand-held wireless device that proved to be the only way to communicate when land lines and cellphones failed during last week's emergency evacuation. This week, a superviser passed one around at a staff meeting, and "most of us looked at it like it was a moon rock," says one attendee.
The new security measures are unsettling to some and comforting to others - though they certainly haven't calmed all fears. One morning this week, two businessmen paused on the corner of 17th and K streets, just steps from a heavily used Metro station, and could be overheard discussing the safety of the subway system.
"They could gas it," the one said to the other.
On the other hand, last week's terrorist attack has created an unusual atmosphere of bipartisanship that people here find inspiring. On Wednesday, for instance, congressional leaders from both parties sat down with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin to discuss an economic stimulus package. Last week, Congress quickly passed use-of-force authorization and approved $40 billion to deal with the terrorist attacks and their aftermath.
"We're in a very, very new world, including the opportunity to work in a real bipartisan way," says Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) of California, a member of the House Democratic leadership. "The partisan pettiness that had crept into everyday life is now intolerable. We have to do the right things, and do them quickly."
The attacks have refocused attention here, and only two subjects now count: combatting terrorism and reviving the US economy. Bush, for one, has been spending his mornings hunkered down with his national-security team and his afternoons tackling the shocked economy.
At the same time, foreign dignitaries spun through the Oval Office as if it had a revolving door, with Bush attending working dinners with France's President Jacques Chirac and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair.
For the president, the full weight of the office has landed, quite suddenly, on his shoulders. Mostly he's bearing it well, but sometimes he stumbles.
He was criticized at home and abroad for describing the war on terrorism as a "crusade" - a word that, with its reminder of the holy war of early Christians, pricks the Arab world. Bush had to backpedal on that utterance - "a mistake I'll bet his father would never have made," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's center for governmental studies.
But otherwise, Bush is being applauded for his resolve, his example, and his nurturing. At the start of the week, he greeted White House employees in the cafeteria, ordered a coffee with Equal and milk, and told workers, "Thank you for showing up" and "We're setting a good example. We're showing we will not be intimidated."
John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, was impressed that Bush visited an Islamic mosque in Washington this week, calling it a "spectacular" moment of solidarity with those of the Muslim faith.
As if to underscore the White House's sensitivity, a press aide reminded reporters covering the event not to wear skirts above the knee and, when they remove their shoes, to wear socks - "preferably without holes."