THE sirens scream. The lights atop the limousines flash. The motorcycle outriders swerve their machines with panache. There are lead cars, and backup cars, and security cars, all hedging the VIP car, which is the center of the operation. It is a sight familiar in Washington, where Cabinet ministers and dignitaries and foreign leaders are swept around the capital in motorcades.
The motorcades may be fun, even ego-stimulating, to drive in, but to many ordinary citizens they are irritating. They block traffic and shatter the city's routine. Some people, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan among them, think they are even a little tyrannical. Says Senator Moynihan: ``I do not like ... the impression that we are somehow emulating the manner of other nations where rulers roar down the street, traffic is cleared, and passers-by are scrutinized.''
He has introduced a legislative amendment expressing disapproval of the ``recurrent spectacle of screeching, self-important, heavily armed caravans of limousines.'' He thinks VIPs could be transported just as easily with a couple of ``unadorned'' limousines.
I have to declare a conflict of interest in this story. During a few years spent working for Secretary of State George Shultz, I spent many hours riding around in motorcades of varying diversity and drama.
As a participant, one has mixed feelings about it all. The first time the sirens scream and the cars take off at 60 miles an hour, you feel uncomfortably undemocratic. On the other hand, there is something of the schoolboy in all of us, and the motorcade is about as close as even a foreign minister will get to racing to a fire atop a fire engine.
Mr. Shultz is a very self-contained man, and in my time with him showed little interest in the trappings of office. Whenever he moved around Washington, it was in a State Department limo with just one security car full of Uzi-wielding agents behind. His car stopped at stop streets and traffic lights. He hated to use the siren. But occasionally, on a frenetic day, when he was late for a meeting with the President, or in Congress, he would ask his security men to speed things up. Then the siren would go on, the red light atop the security car would flash, and we would cleave through the lines of other - probably frustrated - motorists. It sure beat going by subway.
In capitals outside the United States, the host countries control the motorcades. Sometimes they do it with 'elan. Screaming through Rome's narrow streets at 70 miles an hour, Italian security men lean out of the car windows and rap with truncheons on cars that come too close. In Mexico, the security men have been known to shoot out the tires of offending drivers. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, robed Bedouin drivers took our motorcade down the magnificent arterial highway not in single file, but five cars abreast. In Bonn, one of the gleaming official Mercedeses carrying security men simply rammed a suspicious car that came too close.
Without blowing security, I can reveal what terrorists certainly know - namely that in some less secure capitals, the security people run decoy motorcades to confuse those who wish the visitor ill. On a number of occasions in Beirut I was separated from Secretary Shultz and sent off in his limo in his motorcade while he was transported by other means. Explained a terse security man the first time around: ``If they try to hit his car, they'll get you instead.'' It was not the most cheerful way to play secretary of state.
The most orderly city for handling motorcades? Ironically, Moscow. A single traffic policeman flicking a baton suffices to send traffic screeching to a standstill to let a motorcade swirl by.
The most disorderly city? New York, whose drivers are singularly unimpressed by official motorcades. As for New York cabdrivers, far from moving over, they like to insert themselves into the motorcades. Perhaps it's their way of striking a blow for democracy.