America's Front Lawn
New York Times MagazineAS IT BEGAN TO SLEET ON New Year's Eve, I was sitting on a
bench across from the White House dreaming of Carole Lombard.
Watching the homeless who live in Lafayette Park drift around, I was
reminded of "My Man Godfrey," the 1936 romp in which Lombard, as a
madcap New York society girl, looks for a "forgotten man" in a scavenger
hunt. Finding one (a down-at-the-heels William Powell) in a city dump on
the East River, she offers him a job, asking blithely, "Can you butle?"
There are no screwball angels in Lafayette Park. Only a few
well-dressed Washingtonians hurrying along the red brick paths. But the
forgotten men and women camped near the statue of Andrew Jackson are a
little less forgotten this winter. In the past few months, this quiet, pretty
square has turned ominous and jittery. Like the scene in Disney's "Fantasia"
scored to Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain," the park seems suddenly
alive with macabre spirits, rising up and swirling around an unlucky White
"It has been a weird series of things, one after the other," says Bill
Pugh, a 64-year-old Marine veteran from California who has made a bench
in the southwest corner his home for a year and a half. "I'm beginning to get
a little queasy about being here. We have a little rhyme that we put
together: Now I lay me down in my bed, With the sounds of gunshots going
off in my head."
Pugh presents himself as the Samuel Pepys of the park, witness to the
eerie, violent goings-on. He recalls that he was sleeping on the ground one
night in September when he was awakened by a "crunching, slamming"
noise as a small plane crashed onto the South Lawn.
"About three minutes after that, this place was covered with every
policeman you could think of: D.C. Government, Park Police, the
Executive Protection Service, the Secret Service," he said, adding, with the
savvy that comes from his milieu: "Actually, it was an F.A.A. slip-up."
Pugh says he was on his bench on Oct. 29 when he saw Francisco
Duran stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue, pull a semiautomatic rifle from
under his coat and fire through the north gate.
"Real tragic," he says, lighting a cigarette. "It's bad enough on the
streets of New York or Los Angeles, but here in front of the White House,
that's absolutely obscene."
In December, an unidentified gunman sprayed shots through the
window of the State Dining Room. One man was arrested after making up a
story about having a bomb in his car; another for trying to climb the north
fence of the White House. And, in the most disturbing incident for those
who live in the park, the Park Police shot and killed Marcelino Corniel, a
homeless man who rushed across Pennsylvania Avenue waving a knife.
"It was a real shock, because he was the last guy we expected would do
something like that," Mr. Pugh said. "He used to sit all day and sketch
real-life scenes -- trees, birds, pigeons. He seldom spoke to anyone. But
something snapped. The officers kept telling him to 'Drop the knife! Drop
it!' But he wouldn't. It was just 'Bam! Bam!' "
Mr. Pugh, a compact man with ruddy skin and a yellowy white
mustache, is wearing a maroon knit cap, and jeans and gloves with holes.
Jazz squeaks from the Sony Walkman hanging around his neck. "My
favorite was Stan Getz before he died," he says, waving off some young
men offering peanutbutter-and-jelly sandwiches and Christian pamphlets.
"Well, everybody loves Stan Getz."
Pugh says he is a retired master gunnery sergeant who served in World
War II and the Korean War. He came here from his home in Marina del
Rey, Calif., to have a knee operation at the Veterans Administration
hospital, then lingered watching the passing scene. He says he gets a
Government stipend, but prefers to stay in the park so he can save money
and go to restaurants.
The park has an anthropology every bit as complex as that of the
executive mansion across the way. Bill Pugh gets along pretty well with the
various cliques, except for one trio of paranoid brothers who accuse him of
being a C.I.A. operative sent by William Colby. He tries to steer clear of
"the front line" of less stable park residents who gather along Pennsylvania
Avenue to receive messages from Mars coming through pots on their heads
and to protest various causes, vendettas and conspiracies. (One conspiracy
involves the C.I.A. building robotic sleds under the sea.)
Dwight Baird, 44, lying amid his sleeping bag, economic books and
cardboard marked with swastikas, announces grandly: "They hate me
because I'm white. And I hate them." And, at another point: "My family are
fascists. In fact, I've sued them."
The park, which was the front lawn of the White House until Thomas
Jefferson turned it over to the public, has long been a symbolic slice of
reality in the unreal Federal city. Administration officials and media big
shots who never venture into the murderous parts of the city walk through
Lafayette Park on their way to lunch at the posh Bombay Club; they glance
at the same sprinkling of homeless people and feel that they've experienced
the gritty side of Washington.
An extreme manifestation of this attitude came in 1989, when
Government agents lured a drug dealer to the park so they could buy crack
for President Bush to use as a prop in a televised speech on drugs. Speech
writers wanted the President to be able to claim that drugs were being sold
right outside the Oval Office.
Sometimes, as Presidents have grown isolated in crises, they have
looked out the window and seen, in the park, the specter of their demise.
During the Vietnam era, protesters shouted "Hey, hey, L. B. J., how many
kids did you kill today!" as the anguished President stared back, asking
advisers, "Why are they doing this to me?"
Not everyone appreciates the park's reputation for free speech. When
protesters beat a drum round the clock to protest the Persian Gulf war,
President Bush grumped to Republicans, "Those damned drums are keeping
me up all night."
But now the mood has grown spooky. Frank J. Fahrenkopf, a former
G.O.P. chairman, has demanded that the park be cleaned out so that
Americans can "bring their kids to see the people's house without having
bums abuse them or yell or scream or see people lying in their own filth."
Bill Pugh says he won't be around to see what happens. He was going
to celebrate New Year's Eve at Mr. Egan's restaurant, a few blocks away.
"I'1I have the hot roast beef sandwich and a couple of drinks -- V.O.," he
mused. "By midnight, everybody in the park will be pretty well drunk and
will go to sleep.
"In a couple of days, I'm going back to California," he said. "It's been
an educational experience. But now I'm getting the heck out of this place."
January 15, 1995