Capital's daily life takes on strange cast Business as usual in extraordinary time

December 18, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It was life as usual. Turned slightly askew.

At his office, veteran Republican lobbyist Charls Walker substituted the usual chatter about power deals with worries about his stepdaughter's possible mission to Iraq.

In the Capitol, Chicago mother Laura Shermer watched the House floor, taking in the last of an impeachment-related debate and fretting for her president's future.

At the White House, security guards joked about looking for their gas masks.

On the National Mall, visitors stopped by the display of Christmas trees from the 50 states to ask for directions to the nearest anti-impeachment protest.

Life attempted to carry on as always yesterday, but even as it did, the spectacular events of the past two days cast a surreal light over the city. As details of impeachment and war continued to collide, Washington crept closer to the Twilight Zone.

"It's extraordinary," said Walker, a Washington lobbyist for more than 30 years whose stepdaughter, an Army reservist, is awaiting word on whether she will be called to duty. "Think of the things taking place in Congress with respect to the president the last month, and then suddenly we're sending our men into battle," he said. "The timing is extraordinary."

Even so, much of the city still had a regular-dayness to it. At the White House, staffers were still working on the upcoming State of the Union address and the budget presentation due in a little more than a month. The grinding business of government moved on.

The business-as-usual atmosphere helped create an almost too-calm strangeness. At the entrance to the Pentagon, there was no air of panic. In a gift shop for military employees, men in uniform continued to buy Christmas presents ($50 teddy bears in Marine Corps jumpsuits) and chat about the holidays. At lunchtime, 1st Sgt. Jerry Arnold even picked up his gleaming black shoes with new taps on the bottoms -- no military strike would stop that.

Bombings were in some cases easier to fathom than the events on Capitol Hill. Shermer, the mother who drove 12 hours from Chicago to attend a Washington anti-impeachment protest, watched Republicans on the House floor and declared their work a coup d'etat.

"I'm not fanatical," said Shermer, who said she voted for Reagan, Bush and Clinton. "I'm just a regular person who is watching what our country is going through in amazement."

Shermer, on her first visit to Washington, was only in town for 24 hours. To longtime watchers of such things, they were among the most unusual 24 hours the city had ever seen.

"It's the weirdest it's ever been here, and this place is a weird place," said National Public Radio's Mara Liasson, who has covered Clinton since he became president, as she hurried to the Clinton team's afternoon briefing. Inside the jammed room, a sign hung on the door hinting of the craziness to come: "Briefing Room Open All Night. North Lawn Lit Til 1 a.m."

Washingtonians can be rather blase about history changing outside their doorsteps. Whether the Republicans win the majority in Congress for the first time in 40 years, or an intern called Monica tells all on tape, the old hands take the news without flinching much.

So it may seem at the Internal Revenue Service, where IRS management analyst Darlana Harris hurried yesterday to her planning session for the new tax filing season as though nothing were different.

But when pressed, Harris admitted to some nervousness.

"Last night my husband told me not to ride the subway under the river in case Saddam decides to blow it up," she said of the Blue Line Metro route she takes to her Springfield, Va., home. "You can't get paranoid -- but you know Washington is a target."

Folks at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home in Washington were not interested in shaking up life as they knew it. World War II veteran Allan H. Gordon, 81, said he did not want to see the bombings or the impeachment drag on any longer.

"I'm getting sentimental in my old age," he said. "I don't have the heart to shoot a wild turkey anymore." But is he interested in the momentous news? "I've been watching CNN a bit," he said, "but I'd rather be watching a good western."

To others, the collision of two giant news events was strange enough to prove entertaining. Public relations expert Marie Stanley woke up first thing yesterday and rewrote a Christmas poem she was sending to 120 friends to accommodate the dramatically changing stories.

"It was already dated," she said of her poem, which she altered to make the phrase "show Clinton the door" rhyme with "Hey look, we're at war."

Stanley then quickly got her cards ready for the mail. After all, if she waited any longer, who knows what rhymes she would have had to dream up for the latest breaking news.

Pub Date: 12/18/98

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