Everything But Passion

January 20, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON — Washington.--OUTSIDE THE PRESIDENTIAL palace in Baghdad, Iraqi faithful greeted Saddam Hussein by bowing and kissing his hand. Outside the executive mansion in Washington, U.S. citizens were slightly less respectful.

On the first afternoon of this war, dozens of unhappy Americans protested in the park across from the White House. Some circled around a youth with an Indian war drum, who pounded it in rhythm as they chanted, "U.S. out of Persian Gulf!" over and over.

Then they shifted to "Send George Bush! Send George Bush!," then shifted again to "Send Neil Bush!" and yet again to "Send Dan Quayle!"

The contrast between Washington and Baghdad is not only in how citizens signify to their president. Here, the worst a peacenik will get for protesting too vigorously is a conk on the head by a policeman's club. There, anyone who dares to deride Saddam Hussein is likely to lose his head, permanently.

But there is something lacking in today's demonstrations in Washington, something different from the mass turnouts of yesteryear. The passion is not there.

The protesters run true to type, some looking as if they just emerged after 20 years in a time capsule, or under a rock. Rummage-sale sartorial fashions and pothead hair styles remind the days when the chant was "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids have you killed today?"

There is a ban-the-bomb symbol battered enough to qualify as a folk-art collectible. There is the standard cluster of sincere grandmotherly ladies, with their banner saying "Women Fast for Peace," and another sign identifying "Health Workers for Peace."

The little cadre of full-time protesters who spend weeks and years as park people, sleeping under signs and passing out no-nuke literature, seem glad to have all this temporary company. They often have visitors, of course, because whenever people object publicly to anything, they like to use this pulpit. But this time the career anti-bombers are surrounded by chanters on their particular wave length, not opponents of Corazon Aquino or fans of the line-item veto or other esoteric passing fancies.

At appointed hours, after notifying the TV stations, anti-war organizers can still whip up substantial crowds here. Before peace returns, some of them may be angry. But whatever spontaneity there is comes between those hyped media events, from people who turn out on their own, some on each side of the issue.

This afternoon, there are more spectators than participators. Some are office workers on a late lunch hour, some tourists who take each others' pictures with the demonstrators and the White House in the background. For their parents, perhaps, marching against the Vietnam war was the thrill of a lifetime. Now they can show photos to their own children, proving they, too, were here when history was made.

But everyone with an opinion did not come to object. There is a row of debates, some good-natured. Three young men, perhaps not out of high school, are challenged by a portly Republican-looking fellow who has a blond mustache and wears a camel's-hair cap. He used to be an instructor at the armored school at Fort Knox, he says. To make a point, he quotes Lincoln, about how no foreign army could ever reach the American heartland, and defeat can come only from within.

One of the young men counters with a quotation of his own. "That's not in the Bible," says their challenger. "I didn't say Bible, I said Gandhi," says the boy. "Oh," says the portly gentleman. That seems foreign territory.

A few yards away, a trio of youngsters, one wearing a Morningside (Md.) Volunteer Fire Department jacket, jeers an apparently Arab woman who carries a "No Blood for Oil" placard. "You don't know what you're talking about," they say. She turns away, and holds her sign at the curb. Three passing drivers in a row toot their horns in agreement with it.

The sound may penetrate to the Oval Office, but the police see that nothing more menacing does. White House tours are off for the duration. Police line the street and the fence. For some of us, there is the inevitable deja vu -- for Andrew Jackson, for instance, there on his bronze warhorse since before the Civil War. He has seen it all, and if he could talk he would say it's not the same this time.

"Why?" I would ask. "Because it's too soon," he might say. "Because we seem to be winning, cheap. Because there are no body bags yet. Because there is no TV film of infantry combat. To all that I would agree, and add my own suggestion: There is no passion because there is no draft."

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