WASHINGTON -- Free speech was in full, unrestrained force yesterday in front of the White House. As President Clinton testified inside, a smattering of protesters weaved among the tourists gawking through the fence on Pennsylvania Avenue at the reporters and cameras set up under umbrellas on the White House grounds.
Most of the tourists and other bystanders paused briefly. But those engaged in heated debate about the president and his future raged on.
One man carried a sign over his head reading, "Starr's zealous indiscretion, like Joe McCarthy's tyranny, is political terror."
"I say this is obstruction of injustice Clinton is guilty of," 55-year-old Brent Riley of Logan, Utah, bellowed to anyone who would listen. "There's tyranny taking place right behind us today," he said, referring to Kenneth W. Starr's interrogation of Clinton.
But a second sign-bearing protester appeared quickly to challenge Riley -- and, perhaps, to draw away some attention.
"If he's lying about this, what else is he lying about?" asked 25-year-old Richard Marquez of Arlington, Va., whose sign featured clippings of articles that reported Clinton's initial denials of an affair with Monica Lewinsky.
"I just think it's important that we keep track of these things," Marquez said. "People should care about a pattern of lies."
One group of protesters wore T-shirts reading: "Let President Clinton alone -- 'Let Him Be.' " One of them carried a boom box, from which a song called "Let Him Be" blared -- to the tune of the Beatles' "Let It Be." They were selling copies on audio cassette and compact disc.
Ed Randall of Oxon Hill wore his sentiments on his bright yellow T-shirt: "Clinton Liar Coward Adulterer Perjurer Traitor."
The 66-year-old retired naval officer said he was aghast at a nation that he said did not care about the wrongs committed by its leader, notably the sale of "military secrets" to China. Randall blamed the culture of the 1960s for failing to inculcate a clear sense of right and wrong in youths.
"That man was a liar from the get-go," he said. "Something's wrong when there's no outrage."
Geoffrey Walters, a 47-year-old London lawyer on vacation with his wife, son and daughter, seemed puzzled by the vehemence of Randall's statements.
"I don't know why they're all upset," Walters said. "[Clinton] was known to be a draft dodger, a liar and an adulterer, and you got what you bargained for."
Just down the block, some visitors from Texas fervently supported the president.
"I think he's done a good job for us," said Abbitt Branham Jr., 43, a painter from Nederland, Texas. "I'd vote for him again if there were another election tomorrow."
Branham, in the area for his son's Babe Ruth League baseball tournament, said he had no difficulty looking past allegations of infidelity and perjury. "It's just like baseball," he said. "We all make mistakes sometimes."
The street scene often verged on absurd. As several men shouted above the clusters of debaters, reporters furiously took notes and some bystanders laughed at the entire tableau.
"I am very close to God -- it's up to God," shouted one man, Oscar Ramey. Later, he added, "Everybody's going to heaven except the president."
Another man shouted: "We are all God's children. God put you in this world; God can take you out of this world."
Perhaps the most startling incident came around 1: 30 p.m., when a man, his back against the White House fence, began dragging a screwdriver across his throat.
Mike Gallagher, a radio talk show host from New York who witnessed the incident, said the man shouted, "He's a bum, he's scum, I know," in reference to Clinton, "but it's not about him, it's not about sex -- it's about Iran." Others said they heard him instead refer to Iraq.
"It was real surreal," Gallagher said. "I thought, 'My God, this guy's going to kill himself here.' "
A police spokesman said the unidentified 26-year-old man would not answer questions about his nationality or motive. He was being held last night at D.C. General Hospital.
Pub Date: 8/18/98