Despite all the hatred directed toward Washington these days, I'm not ashamed to admit that I love the city. I spent two years there attending American University and adored every minute of it, except for the "going to class" part. I was there during the Nixon administration and although I didn't know it at the time, I was living history each morning when I picked up the Washington Post, which was delivered to the dorm. In the local section were daily stories about some kind of break-in at the Watergate Apartments written by two guys named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
Although you get used to all the monuments the way New Yorkers get blasé about the Empire State Building, my heart always skipped a beat whenever I passed by the White House. This was before they closed Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic and I would go out of my way to drive past it at night to see it all lit up. A madman was living inside but I still was thrilled at the sight of it.
Of course in those days, security was much more lax. One of my favorite activities was to stand at the front gate of the White House and look inside the limousines at the VIP's while they waited for security to let them onto the grounds. One of my fondest memories was the first weekend I spent at American doing just that.
I went down with my roommate to check out who was coming and going. Most of the limos didn't have tinted windows so it was easy to check out who was inside. After about five or six cars passed with a few senators and faces that were soon to become infamous in the Watergate scandal, a huge stretch limo pulled up to the security gate WITH tinted windows. Must be a really big cheese inside that sucker. Knowing no fear at the time, I cupped my eyes against the window to peer inside. It was General William Westmorland, the current Army Chief Of Staff who every college student at the time knew was the villain running the Vietnam War.
My roommate didn't have the guts to press his face against the window and asked who was inside. I told him it was Westmorland. "Give him the finger! Give him the finger!" he cried, as I stood frozen against the limo. At first Westmorland wouldn't look my way. He was shuffling some papers trying to ignore me. However it was impossible not to know I was less than a foot away from him, staring wide-eyed at the infamous general.
"Give him the finger!" my roommate continued. I didn't know what to do. Finally feeling the intensity of my stare, Westmorland turned and looked directly at me. He stared at me for a few seconds and then gave me a salute. Awestruck by the power of the man and totally caught off guard, all I could think to do was to meekly return the salute. Westmorland nodded curtly to me and then he and his limo entered the White House grounds.
My roommate hit me in the back, hard. "You saluted him? Are you crazy? You should have given him the finger!" he yelled. I turned and shoved him in the chest. "Hey Bigshot, why didn't you give him the finger?!" He mumbled something to the effect that I was closer to Westmorland than he was. What bull. I shoved him again and pressed on. "What was I supposed to do? The guy was six inches away from me. If I'd have given him the finger he probably would have had my as* on the next troop transfer flight to Saigon!" "You're such a pus*y" he retorted wittily a la Oscar Wilde.
Do I regret that I didn't give the finger to the man responsible for the death of thousands of American soldiers? Not really. If I had been in a crowd about twenty feet away I might have done it. But I was face to face with him. At that moment it was just the two of us. I was frozen. And he really threw me a curve when he saluted. Of course when we got back to the dorm, my roommate told everyone what a wimp I was. I got a new and much better roommate a week later.
Over the course of the next two years at AU I went to Nixon's second inaugural parade, sat in on a congressional hearing as homework for a political science class, used the Library of Congress, got drunk while waiting all night in the freezing rain with thousands of others to file past Lyndon Johnson's flag draped casket in the Capitol rotunda, got yelled at by an FBI agent for standing on the running board of J. Edgar Hoover's hearse, used my WAMU radio pass to enter Andrews Air Force Base and take a look inside Air Force One, got a senator from Georgia to call me whenever he had an extra Redskins ticket he wanted to sell and had the wherewithal not to drive dorm legend "The Ambassador" into town one night and set off bottle rockets aimed at the White House which resulted in him and the poor schmuck he did get to drive him arrested for endangering the President Of The United States.
I'll save that story for another time.
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An obscene gesture would have changed nothing about war but might have caused unessary trouble for him.
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