December 21, 1998

On the Streets Near the White House,
a New Subplot to Life as Usual


WASHINGTON -- The morning after impeachment, the capital city stirred back to life in its familiar Sunday ways. Deacon Gary B. Pledger, an alumnus of the homeless contingent living across from the White House, had the chili and cornbread cooking for his church's weekly homily-and-handout spread for his old buddies.

"It's all good food," he said, keeping his observations simple as he eased into the day and headed out to 50 or so indigents stirring from their wraith-like sleeping lairs within shouting distance of the White House. "Two years ago, I was living with the guys in that park, watching the high and mighty come and go."

Pledger paused to speak of President Clinton. "The mighty is falling, huh?" he asked, touching on the question that haunted Washington on the day after impeachment.

Two blocks away from the Temple Baptist church, which plucked Pledger from the streets two years ago, Tim Russert showed up for work as bureau chief at the NBC News television studios, easing his own way into Sunday.

"Unbelievable week," he said wide-eyed to no one in particular, as if acknowledging a hangover of sorts as he hooked up his microphone and earpiece. He checked for the latest developments, more than ready for some fresh shocker, then made sure Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had some hot tea at hand as air time approached for "Meet the Press."

In his own way, Russert is one of this city's Sunday deacons of the here-and-now, not the hereafter, of the political world with all its headlined sins, judgments and punishments as politicians fall from grace before the nation's eyes. He had as busy a Sunday workload as Pledger, what with impeachment and the Iraq bombing runs on the program agenda.

There was no chili or cornbread cooking, but Russert offered catered finger sandwiches and holiday chocolate truffles later, after the morning's lineup of talking heads had their say. He brought James Carville and Mary Matalin and their two small children on the show for the human side of the capital, with the couple mostly feuding about impeachment.

With his deacon's eye, Russert seized on a politician's phrase about granting "absolution" to the president and used it to stir observations from four guest senators.

"They're trying to work it through," the moderator estimated afterward, sounding more like a hopeful groundling than a stage manager in the capital's grim impeachment show.

Outside the White House, a man in roller skates blithely sped back and forth on Pennsylvania Avenue, saying nothing and wearing a protest sign on his helmet: "SEXUAL WITCHHUNT." On the sidewalk, a dozen pickets protested the administration's Iraq policy, complaining about children dying.

A few blocks away, a customer complained in a souvenir store that the price of the Clinton nesting dolls had been raised overnight from $50 to $70. The customer was rudely told to leave. Outside, tourists puzzled over the dolls at the shop window.

"I recognize Monica and Paula and Gennifer," one woman said to a friend, identifying the painted wooden dolls that fit one within the other, capped by a Clinton doll. "But the fourth?"

"Kathleen Willey?" the friend tried. "Or maybe Hillary."

Next to the dolls sat a full mannequin version of a stupefied looking president, reading a book about impeachment and draped with a copy of the Starr report printed on a roll of bathroom tissue. The effigy drew little more than a routine glance from passing citizens.

Across from the White House, the homeless lineup was beginning in LaFayette Park, the Sunday event unfolding reliably, impeachment or not.

"Jesus took the taste for drugs right out of my mouth," Pledger preached to his patient, needy flock. The chili and cornbread were kept covered until he finished. "Don't worry, it'll be hot and good," he said as they glanced hungrily at the food.

The White House glowed beyond them, Christmas-card perfect except for a string of TV news encampments. "I know, you're thinking of when you were little and the presents and the fun," Pledger went on. "But it doesn't have to be depressing," he insisted of life, closing with a brief prayer, then the chili.

Thomas Gary gratefully finished a plateful and faced the White House on a park bench, reading impeachment stories in someone's discarded Sunday paper. "It was a circus here yesterday," he complained of rival pro- and anti-impeachment groups that disturbed his own homeless setting as much as the presidential hearth.

"It was so wild, no one paid any attention to these two kids playing carols on a clarinet and horn," he said. "That impressed me."

Gary said he had absolutely nothing to say about the president's predicament that has not been uttered and heard before in this city and the nation. "I hope he survives," he said gesturing toward Clinton's home and turning back to the impeachment story.