Daily Life Is Like a Too-Cool Bumper Sticker

September 15, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- What's wrong with this picture?

It's not a bird, it's not Superman on the south lawn of the White house. It's a plane. It's a two-seat Cessna 150 that winged down 17th Street unnoticed, hung a U, headed across the lawn, stripped some bark off a 150-year-old magnolia tree, and crashed two stories below the presidential bedroom.

What's wrong with this picture?

There on television, John Corder, the brother of Frank Corder who pulled this suicidal stunt -- it's hard to know whether the suicide or the stunt was first on his mind -- tells a reporter that Frank had always wanted to go out ''on top.'' And, the brother adds matter-of-factly, without horror or shame, ''he did.''

What's wrong with this picture?

The president is sitting in the Oval Office saying calmly that ''the White House is the people's house and it's the job of every president who lives here to keep it safe and secure.'' (''It''? Dear Bill: We weren't worrying about the building. You, the wife and the kid could have been tucked in upstairs.)

What a group of snapshots of a late summer's day in the late, late 20th century! They deserve extra room in the photo album of an era.

The plane on the president's lawn, upside down and crumpled, surely presents a chilling portrait of our high-tech illusions. The White House has all the protection that any homeowner could dream of: the sophisticated security system, the sharpshooters, the anti-aircraft guns on the roof. All useless against a stolen single-engine airplane and a despondent single-minded loser.

The pilot dead in his seat presents an equally true profile of the dangerous man. The commies are extinct, the terrorists target citizens in the air and in the office. But the man who crashed on the White House lawn was the loner, a 38-year-old on a downward spiral who had lost his father, his business, his third marriage and, it appears, his last hope in the same year.

As for the motive? That too seems almost picture perfect for our time. It's not surprising to read that the man who hit this symbolic target was apolitical. He wasn't out to get the first family. No conspiracy theories will rise from his grave.

He was a convicted drug offender, a man said to have dreams bigger than his wallet. He had a yellow Cadillac in the repair shop and no money to retrieve it. He had alcohol and traces of cocaine in his blood when he aimed for the South Lawn, but he also had a role model: the 19-year-old German who landed a plane in Red Square in 1987. One day a year ago, Frank Corder said to his brother, ''The guy made a name for himself.''

Maybe John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan to impress a celebrity, Jodie Foster. But if the reports are right, Frank Corder wanted to become a celebrity, dead or alive.

What greater goal in the '90s when the line between hero and celebrity has been obliterated? Today the fear of anonymity sometimes is greater than the fear of infamy.

If fame was his last wish, Corder got it. In the days and weeks to come, we will know who he was. We'll learn about his childhood. We'll meet his wives and his daughter. We'll read about his time in the Army and his time in rehab. We will start to ''understand'' or think we do. And we'll move on.

But when all is said, the pictures we have assembled from this photogenic event will star in a rogues gallery of chaos. They are the latest additions to the collection of violent acts we call random.

What's wrong with this picture? The bizarre has become normal, everyday, mundane. Presidents and brothers and citizens alike greet an endless string of weird, even grotesque events with a shrug of the shoulders. The generic caption reads like the too-cool bumper sticker: ''S-- Happens.''

Slowly we have come to live with the sense that anything can happen. The drive-by shooting happens. The don't-take-this-personally murder happens. We cope with news that once appeared only in tabloid fantasies. And now real-life bulletins from Washington mimic a Tom Clancy thriller.

Monday morning, a small plane crashed into the White House, 50 yards from the Oval Office. Frank Corder died. The Clintons escaped. Another day. Another photo op.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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