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Copyright 1994 Time Inc.  Repritned for Fair Use Only
November 14, 1994, U.S. Edition

LENGTH: 1446 words



Never before in its 194 years had the White House, the world's most recognizable symbol of democracy, been sprayed by bullets. The British invaders torched the building in 1814, but there was no gunplay there, since the unprepared Americans wisely chose to run away. Abraham Lincoln stood at his bedroom window and listened to Civil War cannonading across the Potomac, but the Confederates never reached the White House.

The two fanatic Puerto Rican nationalists who tried to assassinate Harry Truman in 1950 attacked him when he was living across the street in Blair House while the White House was being renovated. One was killed on the sidewalk. A White House policeman also died.

But never was the stately facade of the White House nicked by slugs fired in anger until Oct. 29, when the brooding Colorado Springs upholsterer Francisco Martin Duran, 26, pulled a Chinese-made SKS semiautomatic assault weapon from under his coat and shot 27 rounds of ammunition in short bursts across the north side of the building. Five bullets pocked the mansion's 4-ft.-thick sandstone wall, and three shattered a window and chipped the stone of the press-briefing room near the West Wing. Several bullets burrowed into trees. President Clinton, who was inside the White House watching a football game, was probably the safest person in the area, given the bulletproof glass and scores of Secret Service officers between him and the gunman. U.S. prosecutors were considering charging Duran with attempted assassination, based on notes and other material found in his nearby pickup truck and threatening remarks he allegedly made to a co-worker at Colorado Springs' Broadmoor hotel. And the old question of how to assure a President's safety rose again.

Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, who has jurisdiction over the Secret Service, announced that a review of the shooting spree and White House security procedures would be incorporated into a study already under way. It follows September's safety scare in which a light plane crash-landed on the White House grounds and slid into the wall below the President's bedroom, killing only the depressed pilot. Meanwhile, the National Park Service, which maintains the grounds and building, is working on a long-range plan for White House preservation, tourism and work space. The White House is the world's power stage, and a new set is needed.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Richard Griffin, the Secret Service agent in charge of presidential security, raised anew the idea of closing off that portion of Pennsylvania Avenue that runs in front of the White House in order to give agents easier control of sightseers. Protests came from all quarters, including Bill Clinton, who said, "I just don't think in a free society you can have the President of the country kind of hiding in the sand and just wall him off in the White House."

True enough. Being busily at work on the premises -- and visible -- is an ingredient of leadership. In fact, the Park Service has a contingency plan for disaster, natural and otherwise, that would rush in work crews and get the White House functioning again as soon as possible so the President could be seen by the public to be back on duty in the old familiar place. "There is no symbol as powerful," says a planner.

Actually, there was a proposal made back in Lyndon Johnson's time to run Pennsylvania Avenue and E Street, which is behind the White House, in tunnels and return to Pierre L'Enfant's original layout for the capital city, in which an expansive President's Park included what is now Lafayette Square, the 18 acres for the White House and the ellipse behind, with no commercial throughways. "That would work a lot better than what we have now," insists White House historian William Seale. "Tourists could be more easily controlled, and yet they would get a sense of being closer by being in a park setting."

During the cold war, when security agents used to play war games involving terrorist threats to the White House, the one unsolvable problem was a commercial airliner loaded with explosives working its way into the landing pattern at Washington National Airport, then veering off for a suicide plunge into the White House. The only answer was to shut down the airport, which Congress refused to consider, since its proximity and reserved parking spaces are prized legislative perks.

Security is undoubtedly complicated by the myriad political jurisdictions. The District of Columbia police control Pennsylvania Avenue. The Park Service is in charge of the sidewalks. The Secret Service runs security inside the fence and White House. For certain last week there were more agents disguised in T shirts and leather jackets roaming through White House environs. Years back the Park Service used to have four separate beats for their uniformed police around the White House. The system melted away at times to one beat for a man on a motor scooter. The service is thinking about going back to more visible officers within eye contact of one another and trained to spot suspicious loiterers.

Presidential security started as an informal procedure but has grown into its own bureaucracy. George Washington rarely went riding without an armed friend trotting beside him. James Monroe stationed sharpshooters on the White House roof during big receptions. Franklin Pierce was the first President to have a regular guard. Lincoln continued the practice with Allan Pinkerton. The Secret Service, originally created to combat counterfeiting, officially took over in 1906 to protect Theodore Roosevelt.

Complaints over the years about security problems and cramped working quarters have produced a raft of alternate ideas for the White House. There were proposals in the last century to build a new White House in Washington's spacious Rock Creek Park. Just last week talk-show hosts heard concerned Americans suggest that the White House should be turned into a ceremonial museum and the President and his family moved out of the city to someplace like Camp David. Various crises have produced dozens of suggestions for altering the building and its routines. During World War II it was recommended that parts of the roof be covered with sandbags and fitted with machine guns. But the suggestion that the White House be painted in Air Corps camouflage was mercifully laughed down by F.D.R. In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, the information about a possible terrorist attack on the White House was so real that White House tours for the public were quietly suspended for a week, and the building was doubly secured.

The actual cost of protecting the President is a secret, creating some grumbling on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. "Too damn many Secret Service," says a White House aide, believing the agency may have passed the threshold of true security and now complicates its own operations. The entire Secret Service has a budget of $461 million and employs 4,600 people worldwide, but what portion goes to presidential protection is not known. What is known is that a Secret Service request or more money is almost never turned down by Congress and that a certain institutional arrogance infects the agency. "They are good but not as good as they think they are," says a former security man, who also believes agents are too eager to abridge civil freedoms.

That all this discussion is necessary brings a nostalgic sadness, particularly to those who can remember what it was like around the White House before Dec. 7, 1941. The grounds were open then. Kids scuffed through barefooted on their way to get ice-cream cones. Elmer Staats, former Comptroller General, recalled his days at the Brookings Institution, then located on Lafayette Square. "The fence was 3 ft. high and kept out only dogs. The policemen around smiled at everybody. The students at Brookings used to walk up to the front door and leave their calling cards in hopes Eleanor Roosevelt would invite them over for a reception, which she often did." There is an old story, which author Kevin Phillips picked up in his new book about Washington, Arrogant Capital. It is about a young man driving his convertible past the White House in the 1930s when it starts to rain. He turns into the drive, goes up under the Portico, puts his top up and rolls back out on the avenue.

One of the first things done at the White House on that fateful day of Pearl Harbor when the old, comfortable world came crashing down was to move the security boundary from the doors of the White House to the iron fence at the edge of the property. It has been there ever since, and it may have to be moved out again.

GRAPHIC: Picture 1, In the first of a series of photos taken by a bystander, accused gunman Duran runs along the White House fence after firing 27 rounds at the building descColor: Francisco Martin Duran, others., PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARK SOFIA -- SIPA; Picture 2, Harry Rakosky, 34, who works for a security company in Texas, tackled the gunman as he tried to reload descColor: Francisco Martin Duran being restrained by Harry Rakosky., PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARK SOFIA -- SIPA; Picture 3, Bystander Ken Davis, 24, of Maryland, held the gunman's legs as White House security officers climbed over the fence to arrest him descColor: Francisco Martin Duran being restrained by Ken Davis and Harry Rakosky., PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARK SOFIA -- SIPA; Picture 4, Officers subdue and handcuff the shooter, who was later charged with an attempted assassination of the President descColor: Francisco Martin Duran being handcuffed by police officers., PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARK SOFIA -- SIPA