On The Value Of Crazies

Viewpoint Opinion and Analysis

Knight - Ridder Newspapers
Sandy Grady

WASHINGTON - Go up to the U.S. Capitol almost any day and chances are you'll run into Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln or anyway, bedazzling imitations.

The man who plays a Cecil B. DeMille version of Christ stands on the Capitol steps with white robe, long brown hair and out-stretched arms. A tape recorder blares at passing tourists, "Repent! Repent!" The same tourists are even more startled to see a man who's convinced that he's Honest Abe stalking the hallways in a beard, long cloak, and top hat.

It's my contention that such whackos perform a great public service in Washington.

I mean, so long as you have characters who think they're Christ or Lincoln on display, the senators and congressmen seem comparatively sane - even if they're hallucinating about such fantasies as MX missiles and "Star Wars."

That's the Grady Law of Washington Relativity: The more kooks on the street, the more normal the people working in the public buildings seem.

That's why the Reagan administration - or at least its hired hands in the U.S. Park Service - is so misguided in its effort to purge Lafayette Park of its gaudy collection of weirdos.

For my money, this is part of a campaign to make Washington as dull as possible. These eccentrics across from the White House with their peace signs may be the last colorful human remnant in a city taken over by blank-faced marble buildings and blank-faced bureaucrats.

No doubt these Lafayette Park people are - well, strange. They build huge signs saying, "No Nukes, For God's Sake" and "Peace, Not First Use." They sleep in the park and don't ask much and spend their days handing leaflets to tourists.

They got some bad ink a couple of years ago when one of their group, a gentle man named Norman Mayer, parked an empty van in front of the Washington Monument and vowed to blow it up. The U.S. Park cops, who have no sense of humor, shot him to death.

The Reagan team, especially Ed Meese when he was in the White house, has pursued the Lafayette Park peace hellions relentlessly. They moved them away from the White House fence two years ago. Now they want to regulate their signs to a modest 4 by 4 feet.

"The signs are a visual blight, an eyesore and a threat to safety," said Park Service spokeswoman Sandra Alley.

In the cool of the evening, I went over to Lafayette Park to inspect the visual blight. As usual, I found the park peaceniks a gabby good-humored crowd - probably no more deluded than the men in the White House dreaming of blowing up space with nuclear whizzbangs.

There was William Hale, a black-bearded Pottstown, Pa., native, Harvard '75, playing his flute in front of the White House in front of his 16-foot-high sign, which calls for a peace library.

"These signs are like letters to the editor in a newspaper," said Hale, who has been in the park since February. "Except we put 'em across from the temple of power where people can read 'em. They're a great advertisement that this isn't Russia."

"This park has been a hotbed of political expression for 50 years," said Ellen Thomas, standing in front of 12 foot anti- nuclear-war sign. She's a former corporate secretary who has lived here 16 months, dining out of dumpsters. "I don't think Reagan likes to look out his window and see our messages."

"They're hassling us to leave because they think we're terrorists," said Concepcion Picciotto, a stout, intense woman who has been tending her giant placards of mushroom clouds for four years. "But we give the tourists only good thoughts."

Oh, well. I guess the park peaceniks will eventually be banished. But the Park Service starts a dangerous trend when it starts ridding Washington of "eyesores".

I assume next they'll tear down the FBI building, that monstrous monument to J. Edgar Hoover's ego. Looks like a mausoleum.

Next, they put the wrecker's ball to the Rayburn building, that concrete congressional blob. Then the Kennedy Center, an imperial palace that could have been designed by Hitler architect Albert Speer. Then all the ribbon windowed, faceless K street buildings inhabited by lobbyists.

You want visual blight, boys, that's big league stuff.

Sure, the Reaganites and cops will win. They'll cleanse the White House park of the peace cranks and their messy billboards.

It will look wonderfully like Peking or Moscow: Clean, neat, and brutally dull.

Sandy Grady, a Charlotte native, is a Philadelphia Daily News columnist.