August 17, 1998

Tourists Gather at Courthouse

Filed at 7:39 p.m. EDT
By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Cardboard covered the windows of Courtroom No. 4, where Kenneth Starr's grand jury faced the TV monitors showing President Clinton's image. One mile up Pennsylvania Avenue, the white-gloved Marine guard -- normally a sign the president is at work in the Oval Office -- was gone.

After seven months of "business as usual," White House aides made no pretense Monday as Clinton and his three lawyers filed into the basement-level Map Room to answer to Starr and his prosecutors.

Chief of staff Erskine Bowles reminded senior aides of "the importance of sticking together." Press secretary Mike McCurry acknowledged it was a day Clinton had dreaded. Starr, long vilified by Clinton loyalists, sailed up the White House driveway, his Crown Victoria untouched by the bomb-sniffing dogs and mirrors that normally screen visitors' vehicles.

In the 5 1/2 hours the prosecutors were closeted with the president, a bright muggy haze gave way to downpour outside. Starr emerged to the crackle of lightning, his lips sealed but for a "Take care" to reporters.

All day, the incongruent rubbed shoulders with the surreal. Just 30 minutes before Clinton sat down to testify about Monica Lewinsky, McCurry helped himself to cheap champagne -- in a plastic cup with the presidential seal -- at a West Wing birthday celebration for press aide Elizabeth Newman.

Beyond the gates, a carnival of partisans, tourists and press circled the White House. Extra patrols of Secret Service officers and Park Police were edgy.

"You'll make us a little less nervous if you move that stroller," one officer instructed Joe Zammataro and his 3-year-old daughter, who had taken up a position near the White House's southwest entrance after a brief bomb scare chased them from the southeast gate.

On the north side, a sweaty sextet garbed head-to-toe in winter wool bounced snow shovels to the off-key tune of "Oh, Susanna" and warbled about "freezing in the blizzard of Clinton lies."

They were upstaged by the commotion when a young man jabbed himself in the neck with a screwdriver after saying something about Iran or Iraq. He was taken away in an ambulance for observation but was basically unhurt, police said.

At the northwest corner, Clinton pal Harry Thomason, who's been hunkered down for days with the president and Mrs. Clinton bracing for the testimony, nonchalantly hailed a cab for lunch at The Palm.

Ten yards up the sidewalk, "Peaches for Impeachment" was George Primbs' gimmick as he handed out fruit. Primbs and his Council of Volunteer Americans have been squawking about Clinton's ethics for more than two years.

Another man pressed his face to the iron bars and squinted across the rolling South Lawn to see Starr get out of his car. "Good. I hope he gets 'im," the man muttered.

"Sleazy-style McCarthyism," sniffed Shirley Morrison, a school nurse visiting from Drifting, Pa.

The drama's first stirrings came at 5 a.m., when scores of news camera crews began their descent on the White House and courthouse.

At 7:20 a.m., two engineers from Starr's office slipped in a rear courthouse entrance normally reserved for judges. Escorted by federal marshals, they carried to U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson's second-floor courtroom a stainless steel case marked "KG-104, Secure Video." Reporters were kept 80 feet from the door.

Before Clinton's testimony over closed-circuit TV, officials fanned out across the second floor for a sound check. They briefly experimented with placing a boombox-type radio in the corridor, presumably to mask any sound from inside the courtroom.

"Can you hear anything?" prosecutor David Barger jokingly asked journalists.

Though the day's topics were sex and lies, Zammataro brought his two children to the White House in hopes the spectacle would be instructive. "It's a valuable opportunity for my 13-year-old son and I to talk about ethics and integrity and the really hard choices -- good and bad -- that you make," said the St. Petersburg, Fla., car dealer.

Across the street in Lafayette Park, where homeless people keep vigil in a makeshift "peace park," one perennially posted sign advertised in faded red, "Wanted: Wisdom & Honesty."