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The president as a next-door neighbor?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
A winter view of the White House.
A winter view of the White House.
  • Bob Greene: Nothing in Constitution requires a president to live in Washington
  • Many Americans, even politicians, deride the Beltway insider mindset, he says
  • It would be a logistical nightmare, Greene admits, but it could be done
  • Other regions, he says, might not be so glad to see official Washington moving in

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Fraternity: A Journey in Search of Five Presidents."

(CNN) -- Serious question (sort of):

If a candidate for president of the United States made the following pledge, would that candidate have a chance of getting your vote?

"If elected president, I promise that during my four years in office I will not live in Washington. I will live in the middle of the country, among the people who elected me, and I will do my best to understand their concerns and needs. The White House may be a beautiful building, but it isolates anyone who resides within its walls. As much of an honor as it would be for me to live there, I believe I would do a better job as your president if I made my home somewhere other than the District of Columbia."

Would a candidate who made that promise the central tenet of his or her campaign have the possibility of winning you over -- and of garnering enough votes to win the presidency?

It's a question I have been asking, off and on, for 30 years, and most people tend to think it's either whimsical or stupid or both. Yet one constant thread that has long run through American politics is that voters, almost as an article of faith, claim to be averse to the ways of Washington. They deride the "inside the Beltway" mindset. And it's not just the voters -- politicians regularly say that they don't want to be categorized as Washington insiders, even when they are; any presidential candidate who isn't an incumbent can be counted upon to bemoan the culture and the alleged myopia of ingrained Washington.

So what would happen if a candidate were to roll the dice, to purposely separate himself or herself from the rest of the field, and proclaim that this time it isn't all talk? What if the candidate were to vow that if elected he or she would rent a house in a regular neighborhood somewhere in the center of the nation -- say, Tulsa, Oklahoma? And run the country from there, away from the rhetorical fog of Washington?

It would be perfectly legal. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires a president to live in the White House, or in the District of Columbia.

The logistical obstacles would be formidable; providing security for the president inside the White House fences is a daunting and expensive enough task as it is. But the Secret Service provides protection for former presidents at their homes and wherever they travel, and every four years protects the homes of presidential and vice presidential candidates regardless of where they reside, so it can be done. That bubble, cumbersome and necessary as it is, would not disappear -- it would just move to wherever, in theory, the new president said he or she was setting up housekeeping to seek new vistas.

No front-runner in a presidential race would ever entertain the notion; it's so risky that a person who thought that he or she was a potential shoo-in would never take the chance. But someone further back in the pack -- someone campaigning as a populist, someone whom the pundits were saying didn't have much hope of winning -- might give it a try. What would there be to lose?

The pitch to the voters would be clearly stated and easy to identify with. Something like this:

"For generations, politicians have been saying that they've had enough of Washington's ways, but I'm going to give it more than lip service. If you elect me, I'm going to live in a town where I can see and talk with people like you every day. I'm going to read the local paper every morning, I'm going to do my best, with the help of the Secret Service, to go for walks around the town, to eat in restaurants where I can hear your voices, to remove myself from the din of D.C. and to refuse to be a prisoner of the White House. They say that living there is splendid isolation, but no isolation can be splendid. No candidate has ever promised this before, but if you elect me, you have my word that I'll do it."

A gimmick? Of course. But are people tired enough of business-as-usual in Washington to say: We might as well try it? To conclude: It couldn't be any worse than the other way?

For those who say that a president absolutely has to live in the White House because that is where his staff works, and that is where the secure communications systems are: The staff could move to Tulsa with him; it's cheaper to live there than in D.C. And if there is anything we have learned over the last few decades, it is that digital technology has erased the concept of distance. A president can be just as connected to the world in Tulsa as he can be in Washington; the geographical remove from Congress can be seen as an advantage, not a detriment. Look at all the hoopla that was made Tuesday night when the president traveled the two miles or so from the White House to the Capitol for the State of the Union address. For all the much-touted drama of that drive, you'd think he was commuting from ... well, from Oklahoma.

The symbolic message of a candidate's pledge to live out in the country would boil down to one thought: a breath of fresh air. For the president and for the nation.

By the way, one of many reasons why this is probably destined never to happen is that the rest of the country might not be wildly enthusiastic about official Washington coming to it. At one point in the past when I suggested Tulsa as an example of where a president wanting to connect with Americans might make his home for four years, I received a letter from the governor of Oklahoma at the time, Frank Keating.

He said that living in Tulsa would be wonderful for any president. But it wouldn't necessarily be so wonderful for Tulsa.

"People tend to follow the president around," Keating wrote. "Where the president is, you'll also find big chunks of the federal government, and there goes the neighborhood.

"Lobbyists might move to Tulsa. Think tanks. Members of the Cabinet. Maybe even some government agencies, like the IRS. ... That gang would ruin Tulsa."

He wrote: "You know what would happen. Soon every politician in America would be out campaigning against Tulsa."

So, for all kinds of reasons, such a thing is not likely to come to pass. But with American politics as volatile as it is these days, with anti-Washington feeling said to be running so high, the question is:

If a candidate you admired were to say he would eschew the White House and promise to live among the people out in the heart of the country, would you call him crazy?

Or would you hope to call him Mr. President?

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.