Obama’s ‘glamorous prison’

2009-01-22 00:00

In 1980, former United States vice president Dan Quayle made news headlines when the Secret Service guards forced their way into his bedroom. Reason? His spouse accidentally pushed a security button, which was fixed to the bed, setting off panic reactions that resulted in the vice president being ripped out of bed.

“In seconds, the door burst open, the lights went on and Marilyn Quayle was thrown out of bed to the floor as bodyguards flocked around her husband to ensure his safety,” said an article in Britain’s Sunday Mirror soon after Barack Obama’s victory in the U.S. presidential poll.

The incident and swift reaction offered the public an insight into security details of their commanders in chief, which includes unrestricted intrusion into their private lives.

President Obama has surrendered his and his family’s privacy to the Secret Service, an elite security team that protects U.S. presidents and senior members of their governments. Obama will have more security than before. The extra measures will mean that his private life will suffer. The Secret Service agents will storm Obama’s bedroom if they hear the slightest sound. Obama is already on a collision course with his security team that is against his continued use of the Blackberry, which he used effectively to reach his potential supporters at grass roots. Obama has a penchant for being folksy — relating freely with hoi polloi — a trait that has endeared him to many. He will have to drop this habit given the high risk he runs of falling prey to white supremacists and terrorists.

“The new president will have to get used to handing his glass to a Secret Service agent every time he has a drink outside the White House. The agent carries a small bag in which to pop the glass and later destroy it. The idea is to ensure that no unauthorised person has access to the presidential DNA, but it is not clear how an enemy would use it,” the Sunday Mirror wrote of Obama’s changing life.

Even in privacy, he will be armed with a set of panic buttons. Obama’s Secret Service code name is Renegade. The names suits him. In a sense he is a classic heretic. The Secret Service must keep tabs on him for his own and national security as he is a prime target for assassination, just as happened to former president Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and a century later to former president John F. Kennedy in 1963. Lincoln, Kennedy and Obama share a common political philosophy regarding civil liberties and individual freedoms that have often strained race relations in the world’s premier democracy.

Since Obama declared his interest in the presidency in February 2007, the Secret Service has uncovered over 500 plots to assassinate him. The number is inordinately high, which is why the Sunday Mirror reported: “Even when he goes to the loo, bodyguards stand outside it. And when he travels by motorcade there are a dozen identical cars, so potential assassins won’t know which one he is in.”

Obama will have to give up some of his personal habits such as driving his children to school and spending “quality time” with his family. Former president Ronald Reagan’s 1981 daily routine reveals that Obama’s time will be managed in large part by the Secret Service and White House staff.

While in Chicago, Obama relished venturing out to the gym, where he would sit it out with fellow basketball big hitters. Not any more. An indoor basketball court will be built for him to replace former president Richard Nixon’s bowling court. “President Obama will invite professional basketball stars to join him ‘shooting hoops’.”

The Secret Service bodyguards have already warned Obama against “thinking of cycling around Washington as he did as a senator. He will make full use of the White House gym to lift weights most mornings and the billiards room to relax some nights.”

Michelle Obama will also give up small trivia such as buying groceries. “No such domestic trivia will bother her [for the foreseeable future]. Michelle is soon to become the mistress of the six-storey, 132-room White House,” reported the Sunday Mirror.

Daughters Malia and Sasha have moved to Sidwell Friends School. Their movement is guided by tight security, as they are the most vulnerable to kidnapping by terrorists or white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and their activities will be confined within the precincts of the White House.

The First Lady will have more than 100 domestic staff including her own florist, chefs, drivers and dressers. However, unlike at their residence in Chicago, the First Family will be billed for the food and service they get.

According to Time magazine, Nancy Reagan said that a month after moving into the White House, she was surprised when the usher sent up a bill for their food. “No one told us the president and his wife are charged for every meal, as well as for dry cleaning and toiletries,” she said.

Ronald Reagan said it was like living in an eight-star hotel, but Harry Truman complained the place was a “glamorous prison”.

• Tiema Haji Muindi is a Kenyan journalist based in Durban.

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