Monday, August 23, 2010

Motorcade Madness

Years ago, I stood at the corner of Second Street and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, returning to work after lunch.

Suddenly, a large limo pulled up not five feet away from the curb on which I stood and stopped before turning right.

I peered into the back seat and who should I see but President Jimmy Carter, who waved before his car sped away. A colleague criticized my sense of journalistic indifference because I waved back.

To be sure, it was a simpler time and Mr. Carter didn't often draw large crowds of adoring supporters in his travels.

But contrast that brief and simple encounter with the Old Testament gridlock that ensued this past week when President Obama commuted from LAX to attend a fundraiser in Hancock Park.

It was so bad, according to news reports, that residents of the area were calling for an investigation because they were caught in traffic for hours.

Only Michael Jackson's funeral could rival it for sheer unmitigated inconvenience.

"It was a beautiful thing," one resident was quoted as saying. "Young, old, black, white - everyone was pissed off."

Another resident complained it took him nearly three hours to travel one mile (which he could have walked in 20 minutes).

Others tried to politicize it. After all, only a socialist would take away our God-given right to drive wherever or whenever we want, or so the fringe chatter went.

Look, I feel their pain. I once was herded off the Golden State Freeway in Burbank to let a Nancy Reagan entourage pass. In addition to the inconvenience, it makes you feel like a ragamuffin who is pushed aside so the royal coach can pass by.

But let's have a reality check.

First and foremost, the Westside of L.A is unrivaled when it comes to beaches, posh neighborhoods chucked full of celebrities, ritzy restaurants and the worst traffic in our merry megalopolis.

Traffic in the San Gabriel Valley is no stroll in the park. But on the Westside, it's the stuff of legends.

You can cause a noteworthy traffic jam with a fender bender on Wilshire Boulevard. Throw a hubcap on the 405 and a SigAlert breaks out.

Try a leisurely trip down Pacific Coast Highway at morning commute time. Check out the Santa Monica Freeway eastbound some evening when the Lakers are playing or there's a concert at Staples. It makes you wonder why the auto industry has fallen on hard times.

Public transportation west of downtown is almost nonexistent. And this in a community that was ranked in a recent IBM survey as No.1 in "commuter pain" among American cities.

Drop a presidential motorcade into this cauldron and watch the smoke rise.

Many residents blamed what they saw as a lack of planning and advanced notification. But the Secret Service doesn't do advanced notification for presidential motorcades. If you don't understand why, stop reading now and go watch television.

Advanced planning? The president visited, attended his event and left without being assassinated. Mission accomplished.

When President Reagan was shot by a lovelorn loner named John Hinckley Jr. on a Washington street corner in 1981, it was clear the Secret Service needed to do better.

After 9/11, that mandate became even more urgent.

Now, with the nation's first black president serving in an era of political toxicity, the security surrounding Mr. Obama is unprecedented. When he was inaugurated, the Secret Service coordinated at least 40,000 agents and officers from some 94 police, military and security agencies.

It was accepted as the norm when President Bush traveled with an entourage that included 100 national security advisors, 50 White House political aids, 200 representative from other government departments, a personal chef and his team of four cooks, 250 Secret Service agents and 15 sniffer dog teams. I doubt if those numbers have declined.

There have been public relations gaffes to be sure.

Just recently, Vice President Joe Biden held up airplane traffic for hours when he dropped into town for an appearance on the "Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

President Clinton was accused of shutting down two runways at LAX while he waited for his hair stylist on Air Force One, although the facts of that story are in dispute and it appears to be an urban legend.

Massive security for the president especially when he travels and the inconvenience it causes reflect the world we live in, unfortunately.

And when that world intersects with yours, expect delays.

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