America's front yard On this statue-flecked patch, homeless and protesters may rest their heads but not sleep

January 13, 1993|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Staff Writer

Washington -- Mail call in Lafayette Park.

William Thomas, who has lived in the park since 1981 -- the better to be close to the White House, the better to exercise his right of free expression in what serves as the nation's front yard -- has returned from the post office to his home, on the sidewalk.

He has company.

There is his wife, Ellen, fellow park resident. There usually are tourists. There always are the homeless waiting out the day on the benches. Morning is the time for presidential aides; on their way to work they hurry past Andrew Jackson, the president tipping his hat from a rearing bronze horse.

Not long ago a young man in the park took off all his clothes except a T-shirt and without a word set them alight on one of the concrete tables used for chess. There are the child-care workers wheeling infants in 10-seat strollers, the lovers discreet and indiscreet, the joggers, the television camera crews wanting the White House as a backdrop.

There are the squirrel feeders. Until the National Park Service dissuaded them, two especially devoted patrons of the squirrels helped fuel a population explosion by bringing 100 pounds of peanuts a week.

Lafayette Park is a seven-acre theme park, the country's self-image being the theme. The park displays what the country wishes it were as well as what it is: Alongside the heroic statuary lie more of the homeless.

It is front yard because people gather there, opposite the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue, to be seen and heard by their fellow citizens. It is backyard too since countless TV images and postcards have made the space nearly as intimate as one's home. Even if you have never been in Washington you know that the porticoed White House rests on a manicured lawn and has behind it, as a stony sentinel, the Washington Monument. That is the view from Lafayette Park.

Anyone watching TV during inauguration week will get another glimpse of the area. To prepare for the inauguration parade, on Jan. 20, workers began building bleachers before Thanksgiving. People may realize, finally, that the statue of Baron William Augustus Henry Ferdinand von Steuben, Prussian hero of the Revolutionary War, looks remarkably like Bill Clinton, especially around the mouth.

Mr. Clinton's inaugural planners have promised an inauguration week fully open to the public, though presumably less so than the inauguration of Andrew Jackson.

Jackson rode his horse from the Capitol to the White House and invited his fellow citizens into the mansion. It was 1829. His guests stood on the furniture, and smashed much of the glassware. Meanwhile an even larger crowd of supporters gathered in Lafayette Park. To prevent a storming of the White House, the president's men sent tubs of well-spiked punch across Pennsylvania Avenue.

William and Ellen Thomas know much of the lore and have become part of it. They have lived in the park longer than anyone else since the federal government acquired the land, in 1791. They have been George and Barbara Bush's closest Washington neighbors, as measured by proximity though not by contact. They intend to become neighbors of the Clintons.

"This is the logical place to do what we do," Ms. Thomas says. They wait, not always optimistically, for the public and the residents of the White House to notice their vigil. Their cause is nuclear disarmament, as announced by their brightly painted signs. "We're like the prophets of old standing outside the Pharaoh's gate," she says.

Women opposed to America's entry into World War I came to Lafayette Park to demonstrate, in 1917. So did clergy protesting the American bombing of Cambodia, in 1970. So did opponents of the Shah of Iran, in 1979. So did advocates of the Equal Rights Amendment; opponents of the amendment; supporters of the Nicaraguan left; of the Nicaraguan right; groups wanting more federal money for AIDS research.

Mr. Thomas began his vigil in 1981 on the sidewalk directly in front of the White House fence. The National Park Service then changed its regulations to make it an offense to stand still along that stretch of sidewalk.

He moved into the park. His around-the-clock presence was intended to demonstrate the importance he attached to his cause, and was thus part of his message. The Supreme Court then held that camping could be prohibited in Lafayette Park; then came regulations to define camping (no stretching out in a sleeping bag and actually sleeping) and a limit on the size of one's signs (3 square feet).

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