Fence Jumpers

Why it’s so easy to leap over the White House barrier.

The White House

A man jumped over the White House fence on Tuesday and was arrested by the Secret Service. It’s not a rare occurrence: Citizens scaled the iron gates in 2009, 2007  2006, 2005, 2004, and 1995. Why doesn’t the Secret Service stop this from happening?

PR. The Secret Service could easily stop jumpers from hopping the fence with a little barbed wire. They could also halt pedestrian traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue altogether or double the height of the current fence. But they won’t do any of those things: The White House must maintain the illusion of accessibility, even if you can’t simply walk in the front door.

That said, White House security has increased substantially since the founding fathers walked its halls. In 1805, Thomas Jefferson hosted an open house to celebrate his Inauguration, and later invited the public to his abode for New Years Day and Fourth of July celebrations. Despite this facade of openness, it was Jefferson who demanded the construction of a stone wall to encircle the grounds. Part of the wall was built, but President Monroe later tore it down, replacing it with an iron fence (with heavy locks) on the north side of the house in 1818. Monroe thought Americans should be able to see a clearer view of the White House.

Andrew Jackson also welcomed the electorate into his home. In 1829, 20,000 inaugural attendees stampeded the White House, forcing a besieged Jackson to escape to a hotel. But the unwashed masses weren’t inside for too long: Aides poured whiskey and orange juice into wash tubs on the lawn to draw them out.

In 1922, Warren Harding pressed Congress to pass legislation creating a White House Police Force to protect the grounds. Eight years later, the Secret Service assumed responsibility for White House security. Security also increased during the Great Depression because the president received more assassination threats. The fence enclosing the entire grounds was built in 1937, but for aesthetic reasons—not to counter any security threat.

Security increased again in 1976, shortly after a man rammed his Chevrolet Impala through the Northwest Gate. He got all the way to the North Portico, or the president’s door. As a result, the White House reinforced its original 19th-century wrought iron gates

Now, it’s impossible to get a car anywhere near the president’s door. After the Beirut bombing in 1983, the Secret Service positioned concrete barriers around the perimeter. These were replaced with metal posts in the early 1990s. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, they closed the section of Pennsylvania in front of the White House to all vehicular traffic.

Those moves eliminated the gate-crashers, but not the fence-jumpers. Luckily, most jumpers don’t get very far before being apprehended. Gerald Gainous, however, is a famous exception: He wandered around the grounds for an hour and a half in December of 1975, strolling up to President Ford’s daughter while she unpacked her car.

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Explainer thanks Ed Donovan of the U.S. Secret Service and Monica McKiernan of the White House.