Tourists, "cranks," and other eccentrics have made it unscathed into the executive mansion.
Omar Gonzalez, the troubled Iraq War veteran who is under arrest for scaling the fence of and entering the White House, is not the first intruder to breach the building's security. Nor is President Obama the first president to express concern about his family's safety and await the results of a hastily arranged review of Secret Service practices. But given the embarrassment of the much-publicized incident and the disclosure of the arsenal in the intruder's car, this review could go beyond the wrist slaps that characterized many similar episodes in the past.
Despite erroneous reports that Gonzalez made it farther than any previous intruder, others have made it much closer to presidents and been in the executive mansion much longer before being apprehended. One intruder even persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to sit alone with him before an exasperated president summoned an usher and ordered him to "take this crank out of here." Only then, according to head usher Ike Hoover's later memoir, was the unauthorized visitor searched and "a gun of large caliber (found) tucked away in his rear pocket."
Unlike Gonzalez in the latest incident, that intruder did not need to scale a fence or race across the lawn to gain entry. According to Hoover, the man simply took a taxi to the front door of the White House. "Out stepped a man in full evening dress, cloak and high hat. He approached the police officer standing at the front door and said he had an appointment with the president." He was invited in, his hat and coat were taken and he was given a seat in the Red Room while the president was summoned. Roosevelt was reported to be uncertain if he had made an appointment but came downstairs to talk with the visitor.
When the president grew angry that he had been alone with a "crank," there were demands for a full investigation not unlike those heard in today's Washington. "There was much excitement when the affair became known and much investigating," wrote Hoover. But all that happened was the usher was relieved from duty for 30 days without pay.
One century later, Gonzalez's escapade is expected to have more-lasting consequences, particularly after federal prosecutors reported Monday that he had 800 rounds of ammunition, two hatchets, and a machete in his car parked a few blocks away from the White House.
Publicly, the president—who had departed the building with his family just 10 minutes before the intrusion on Friday—has been calm and voiced support for the Secret Service.
"The Secret Service does a great job," Obama told reporters who asked him at an Oval Office event about the incident. "I'm grateful for all the sacrifices they make on my behalf and on my family's behalf." But press secretary Josh Earnest said the president is "obviously concerned." He said the review will be conducted with "a sense of urgency" reflecting that high-level concern.
Earnest also noted that securing the White House and the adjoining grounds is made more challenging by the many federal and local law-enforcement agencies responsible for different areas. "There are overlapping jurisdictions in place that the Secret Service does have to work very closely with Park Police and with the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Police Department as they provide security here at the White House," he said, adding, "So that is another layer of complexity that is added to this task."
But Earnest is fortunate he doesn't have to deal with the complexity of earlier decades that brought one president into potential peril and triggered his fury.
That president was Herbert Hoover. And the incident didn't come to light until 1938 when the chief of White House police died and columnist Drew Pearson wrote of the chief's biggest embarrassment, an incident that brought a separate police force under the Secret Service for the first time. According to Pearson, one night "an elderly man carrying a briefcase walking up the front steps of the White House and without being stopped or questioned by the two uniformed guards sauntered into the mansion. No one accosted him and he made himself at home, wandering quietly from room to room examining the pictures and furnishings with lively interest."
Only when he was leaving the Blue Room was he stopped by a Secret Service officer and questioned. "Oh, I'm just a sightseer," the man responded. "I'm from Iowa and I was so busy seeing things during the day that I didn't get around to the White House. I passed by here this evening and I thought I would drop in and look around." The agent frisked him and examined his briefcase, which contained only maps and tourist books.
At that point, President Hoover came downstairs to go to dinner and was unhappy to learn what was going on. He immediately summoned Richard Jervis, the head of the Secret Service detail. "Jervis, how do you explain a thing like this? Why, I might have been shot," barked Hoover. But Jervis stood his ground. "Mr. President, this is not our fault. We have no control over who goes into the White House." Hoover was taken aback by the response and demanded further explanation. "The Secret Service," said Jervis, "guards the inside of the building and not the outside. The uniformed guards outside are not members of our staff. They belong to the Park Police. We have no authority over them."
Pearson reported that the president "snorted" and responded, "I'll fix that very quickly." And he did. He quickly issued an executive order transferring the uniformed White House guards to the Secret Service.
But that was not enough to avoid more incursions. One came when Hoover was having dinner with movie mogul Louis B. Mayer in the State Dining Room. A well-dressed man walked in from the street, past the Secret Service and police, and walked up to Hoover. When the man demanded an appointment, Hoover called for the Secret Service as his other guests cried out in fear. A butler pushed the intruder down. But usher Ike Hoover—no relation to the president—later wrote, "How could it have happened? The man could have done any harm he had seen fit to do." After the investigation, two policemen were dismissed and a Secret Service man was censured.
Ike Hoover, who came to the White House to install the first electrical wiring in 1871 and stayed on to serve 42 years under 10 presidents up to Franklin D. Roosevelt, was also there when a man vaulted over the fence and walked up to President Harrison, who was sitting on the South Porch. The man was the son of a Southern senator and was, wrote Hoover, "drunk and harmless."
No one today is calling Omar Gonzalez "harmless," certainly not after the discovery of his arsenal. But almost everyone, from President Obama to congressional investigators, is asking Ike Hoover's question: "How could it have happened?"
(Image via Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.com)