America's Front Lawn
New York Times Magazine
AS IT BEGAN TO SLEET ON New Year's Eve, I was sitting on
a bench across from the White House dreaming of Carole
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 scavenaer hunt. Finding one (a down-at-the-heels William
Powell) in a ciry dump on the East River, she offers him a job,
asking blithely, "Can you butle?"
There are no scremball 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
uniucky White House.
"It has been a weird series of things, one afrer 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
"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 semiauromatic rifle
from under his coat and fire through the north gate.
"Real tragic," he says, lighting a cigaretre. "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 rhe 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 cluses, vendettas and conspiracies. (One
conspiracy involves the C.I.A. building robotic sleds under the
Dwight Baird, 44, lying amid his sleeping bag, economic books
and cardboard marked wilh 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 ciry walk through Lafayetre Park
on their way to lunch at the posh Bombay Club; they giance at
the rame 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
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."·
Pennsylvania Ave. Closure || Peace Park