Friday, April 18, 2008

It’s a tricky equation, even for the capital of the Free World:

1 pope + 1 spiffy popemobile + 1 president + 1 prime minister + 1 vice president + a cast of thousands = a very hectic 24 hours inside the Beltway.

Indeed, in the past two days, the city hosted Pope Benedict XVI and his fine ride, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Mohammad Karim Khalili, one of the two vice presidents of Afghanistan.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak arrived yesterday for a visit — not to mention eager throngs anticipating the D.C. Hip Hop & Peacebuilding Festival and X-Conference 2008, a forum exploring all things extraterrestrial — both of which will run through the weekend.

“It’s always busy at the White House, but I would say that this week has been something else,” said White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore. “During Pope Benedict’s appearance on the South Lawn on Wednesday, there were 13,500 people attending. That breaks all records for an event like this, as far back as all our curators can remember.”

Queen Elizabeth II of Britain only rated 7,000 last May. But such is life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“These kind of things are part of the job description. We’re excited — and we’re still excited — about the pope and our other visitors,” she added.

And such is life at the State Department, as well. The agency must coordinate perfect protocol, white-glove diplomacy and ironclad security with a certain panache and within a certain time frame.

“With three visits at one time, our dedicated staff is working tirelessly. The collaboration with White House, the UK and South Korean embassies, National Security Council, U.S. Secret Service and others has allowed the visits to run smoothly,” said U.S. Chief of Protocol Nancy G. Brinker, who credited staffers for all the heavy lifting.

“They deserve the credit. As Ronald Reagan said, ‘You can accomplish much if you don’t care who gets the credit,’ ” she said.

For some, it’s just another day at the office.

“We’re just doing our job. Certainly we wouldn’t venture to say it was a day like every other day — but it’s similar to all the other times when we have heads of state visiting,” said Secret Service spokesman Malcolm Wiley.

“We adjust accordingly. One of the bigger challenges is simply managing public enthusiasm for such visits,” he added.

The public takes it all in stride, meanwhile.

“I don’t think these events, particularly the pope’s visit, were all that disruptive. There was a lot of publicity. People understood who was coming, where these people were going, where the street closures were,” said WTOP traffic reporter Bob Marbourg.

“Besides, since this kind of thing happens on a regular basis, commuters are accustomed to sirens, motorcades and Secret Service black Chevy Suburbans racing by,” he said.

Washington has not always been the meet-and-greet spot for world-class leaders with big entourages, however.

“Until the turn of the 20th century, D.C. was just not that kind of place. We were considered a backwater — not seen as a seat of power until the Spanish-American War and World War I,” said Jane Freundel Levey, historian for Cultural Tourism DC, a nonprofit group.

The visitor logistics were handled with the kind of practical grace that only Washington can muster. For the pope’s visit alone, 1,300 police officers from the District, Maryland and Virginia were deployed to make sure that things were harmonious when the bulletproof popemobile was in motion.

Then there was the challenge of turning a baseball stadium into a holy place. It took some 500 workers more than three days to transform the field into an appropriately papal venue.

“But it was just so bizarre to see the pope walk out of the dugout,” said Fox News host Bill Hemmer.

“Looking back on it, I was struck with the fact that the pope’s visit and the Mass in particular was very American, very multicultural, all about diversity. There was discussion about whether he liked it, or was just putting up with it,” said Lauren Green, religion correspondent for the network.

The papal visit alone is expected to cost the Metropolitan Police Department an estimated $1.8 million, and the department faced added pressure with the presence of additional dignitaries.

The department typically coordinates motorcades for visiting foreign officials, while the Secret Service provides personal protection.

“We’re moving a lot of dignitaries around,” D.C. Chief Cathy L. Lanier said. “That’s kind of what our special-events folks do every day. So far — I haven’t let my breath out yet — everything’s gone flawlessly.”

Chief Lanier said she activated the entire department to ensure full security for the papal visit and that no officers were taken out of the community.

Assistant Chief Patrick Burke of the department’s Homeland Security Bureau said this week’s security detail includes patrolmen specially trained in crowd control and dignitary protection.

Chief Lanier said the District also received assistance from 219 officers from surrounding law-enforcement agencies including Montgomery County and Prince William County police and Maryland State Police.

Other participating agencies included Virginia State Police, Fairfax County Police, Federal Protective Services, the U.S. Park Police and the National Guard.

“This is Washington, D.C.,” Chief Lanier said. “When you have [dignitaries] come here, there is no way we’re going to let anything happen in the nation’s capital.”

Gary Emerling contributed to this article.

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