What Really Happens During a ‘White House Down’ Moment?

Bryan Enk
Movie Talk
Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum in 'White House Down'
Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum in 'White House Down'

This weekend brings us the release of "White House Down," a flag-waving extravaganza that aims to make a bona fide action star out of "Magic Mike" hunk Channing Tatum and adds "Django Unchained" gunslinger Jamie Foxx to the ever-growing list of on-screen U.S. presidents.

The film could best be described as "Die Hard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" (which could've also been the best description of this spring's "Olympus Has Fallen," but whatever). Capitol policeman John Cale (Tatum), who was just denied his dream position as a Secret Service agent, ends up protecting the President in a more unofficial way when the White House is overrun by a group of paramilitary invaders.

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This raises and interesting question: What happens when the real White House goes on lockdown, and what's it like on the inside? We talked to a couple people who have been there and seen the world's most famous house in panic mode up close.

Dave Anderson, a White House communications staffer during the Clinton Administration from 1992-'95, recalls a lockdown situation that was both harrowing and humorous.

"The Secret Service patrols the grounds every so often, and there was an incident in a parking lot on West Executive Drive, which is for senior White House staff and photographers," said Anderson, who now works as a photographer himself. "There was a photographer who had a particularly messy car. The bomb squad dogs are trained to sit down if they sense anything suspicious, and they sat down right next to this car."

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White House
White House

What happened next kind of resembled a low-budget science fiction movie or an episode of "The Twilight Zone."

"Everyone had to shuttle away from the side of the building the car was on," said Anderson. "I snuck over to the window and looked out at the parking lot, and there were guys wandering around in what looked like 1960s moon suits — kind of a cross between a spacesuit and the robot from 'Lost in Space.' They checked the car — and, of course, nothing was wrong with it — and we got the all-clear and everyone came back."

There was a certain amount of tension inside the White House during the situation, Anderson recalled, though ultimately everyone seemed to take it in stride. "There was no sense of palpable fear or anything like that," he said.

The term "lockdown" might conjure images of giant steal doors slamming down and sealing everyone into the White House, a la the 1999 remake of "House on Haunted Hill." But Anderson confirmed that "nothing physically happens to the building" during a lockdown.

Actually, the whole point during such a situation is "to get the President out, not to lock him in," according to Ronald Kessler, author of "In the President's Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect."

"Evacuating the President is the whole idea," said Kessler in regards to when "lockdown" protocols are implemented. "There is an underground bunker six stories below the White House that's under construction, though for now there are underground tunnels that lead out of the White House. The whole point is to get him out."

Kessler also said that if the President is able to be evacuated above ground, it might be via his personal limo, which is referred to as 'The Beast,' a mega-vehicle with eight-inch-thick bulletproof doors and windows and its own oxygen system.

The Beast could certainly serve as a "lockdown on wheels." According to Business Insider, it's completely sealed in case of biochemical attack, has a fuel tank covered in foam so it won't explode, a night vision lens and even tear gas cannons. According to some reports, it also contains an emergency supply of the President's blood type.

So it appears as if the White House is more than prepared for any potential threat. It may only be a matter of time before Channing Tatum running around in a sweaty tank top is added as part of official lockdown protocol.

"White House Down" opens June 28.

Watch 'White House Down' Featurette — The Beast: