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A real man needs a ‘REAL ID’ driver’s license. Doesn’t he?

Illinois REAL ID driver’s licenses will feature a gold star in the upper right corner. They’re now available at Secretary of State facilities. | Provided

A letter arrived from the office of Jesse White, Secretary of State.

“Congratulations!” it began. “As a safe driver, you are currently eligible to renew your driver’s license via Internet, phone or mail, and receive your new driver’s license in the mail.”

I assumed this meant I could renew my driver’s license via internet, phone or mail, without bringing myself bodily to the license bureau, not one of life’s peak experiences. I remarked upon this to my wife.

“Oh sure,” she replied. “You could do that. If you were the type of man who would be satisfied with an ordinary driver’s license.”

I raised an eyebrow, interrogatively.

But, she continued, if I want the new super duper driver’s license, the “REAL ID” as it is called — which would, under tighter Homeland Security rules, allow a real man such as myself to board a plane to Cleveland without bringing along a passport as if I were flying to Tunisia — I would still need to apply in person.

Apply in person, I learned during the study that followed, along with a sheaf of supplemental documentation. And thus is our nation made secure.

What sort of documentation? My passport, for starters, plus my old driver’s license or other ID showing my signature, plus two bills to prove my home address is recognized by the post office and, the cherry on top, my Social Security card.

Why go through this?

Because if you don’t have a driver’s license with a gold star after Oct. 1, 2020, you won’t be able to fly anywhere without a passport. And why is that? This is the closest thing to an explanation, from the Homeland Security web site: “Passed by Congress in 2005, the REAL ID Act complies with the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that the federal government ‘set standards for the issuance of sources of identification, such as driver’s licenses.'”

If these changes are necessary, why did they take nearly two decades to implement? And if they’re not necessary, why are we doing them?

Easy questions to answer: lawsuits, delays, dithering.

A more interesting question is: I already have a passport; why bother getting the REAL ID?

Part of it is playing the game. Could I locate the proper chits needed to make the Secretary of State combination lock click open? Part of it is American pride, a reluctance to present my passport to fly to St. Louis. Something sad about that.

Otherwise, with Americans slaughtered at churches, synagogues, concerts, schools — everywhere except airports, it seems — we’re deploying another meaningless bit of security theater.

And I was interested in how White’s office is faring. Arriving at 3 p.m. on a Thursday, I found the Deerfield branch full, but was quickly given a number — X 550 — and directed to a chair.

They were calling the As and Bs. But there were 10 open windows, and I had a sense they’d clip along. I also brought Robert Caro’s 1100 page biography of Robert Moses, “The Power Broker.”

An hour passed. They called my number.

A brisk young man, Bryan, eyeballed my paperwork, gave me a chit and directed me to another window. I paid $30, received my old license back with a hole punch in it and a photocopied receipt to act as a license until the new one shows up.

Later, I spoke with Henry Haupt, deputy press secretary in White’s office. He said that 40,000 people have gotten their REAL IDs since the program began at the end of March, and emphasized three things: 1. Not everyone needs a REAL ID, so if you don’t fly, or don’t go to federal facilities, you might not want to bother; 2. Make sure you have the necessary paperwork (here visiting REALID.ilsos.gov helps) and 3. Be patient when you show up.

We media types are always pointing at official misconduct or ineptness. So in the spirit of fairness, I feel obligated to report that the Secretary of State’s office seems to be efficiently handling the hot potato the federal government dropped in their laps, or at least was when I was there. People were polite. Things moved. Assuming the new license actually shows up in the mail, it was one of those moments that reminds you the entire government isn’t frozen with dysfunction.

None of this makes the country any safer. But at least we can say we’re doing something, and isn’t that the entire point?