National Press Club

NPC's Gil Klein reveals the hidden, sordid tales of Lafayette Square

July 27, 2018 | By Donna Leinwand Leger | dcleinwand@gmail.com

Former National Press Club President and Club Historian Gil Klein, left, receives traditional gift mug from Club President Andrea Edney at a Club Headliners Book Rap for his book, ‘Trouble in Lafayette Square: Assassination, Protest & Murder at the White House,’ on July 26.

Former National Press Club President and Club Historian Gil Klein, left, receives traditional gift mug from Club President Andrea Edney at a Club Headliners Book Rap for his book, ‘Trouble in Lafayette Square: Assassination, Protest & Murder at the White House,’ on July 26.

Photo/Image: Alan Kotok

Each day as Gil Klein strolled through Lafayette Square on his way to the National Press Club, he marveled at the public square at the heart of Washington and wondered about its history. And like any good reporter, that curiosity got the best of him and a book was born.

Klein's decades of research into the often overlooked park became "Trouble in Lafayette Square: Assassination, Protest & Murder at the White House," a book full of sordid tales from the seven acres of public space just outside the front door of the White House.

"This was a 30-year project. This was not something that happened overnight," said Klein, who combed historic archives from Washington to Wyoming to gather the tales dating from the republic's earliest years.

Klein, the 1994 Club president and a longtime national correspondent for Media General, shared some of the tales and little known facts at a book talk July 26 in the Bloomberg Room. The talk was also broadcast on C-Span. He chronicled the changes from the square's first house, built in 1818 for naval hero Stephen Decatur, to protests that persist today.

At its start, the square was known as President's Park and "it was a wholly different place" than it is today, Klein said. Back then, the public could walk right up to the White House door, and often times, walk right in, Klein noted. As late as the 1940s, presidential advisor Bernard Baruch conducted business, often with then Secretary of State Dean Acheson, on a park bench near the Andrew Jackson statue, he said. The humble seat is now known as the "Bernard Baruch's Bench of Inspiration."

Security around the park increased after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the Secret Service continues to push back the security perimeter to protect the White House from potential attacks, Klein said. "I do worry for the future that this can remain open to the public," he said.

Even in its earliest days, however, the square wasn't free of trouble. Decatur died in his first floor parlor after being shot in a duel by fellow naval officer Commodore James Barron on March 22, 1820, Klein said. Congressman Dan Sickles shot his wife's lover, Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key, four times in broad daylight in front of a men's club in Lafayette Square in 1859, he said. The park also played a part in the affair: Key often signaled his lover by waving a white handkerchief from the Jackson statue, he noted.

Now the park is a favorite vantage point for tourists looking for a photo of the White House and for protesters hoping to catch the president's attention. And for that, Klein said, Americans can credit the Women's Suffragettes. The Suffragettes "invented the White House protests" and persisted for 18 months to shame President Woodrow Wilson into supporting the 19th Amendment, Klein said.

Klein said the U.S. Park Service issues more than 110 protest permits for the square every year, which must be obtained for protests involving more than 25 people.