AS A PRESIDENT LAY DYING

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In New York a president lay dying.

And I was on the 4 p.m. Metroliner to Washington in the April sun. At Philadelphia in the late afternoon, the river was carved into gentle V's by the shells, most of them eights, with the oarsmen stroking easily and from the launches coaches called out to them through megaphones. In the train you couldn't hear the shouts, of course, but you could imagine. College oarsmen are accustomed to being shouted at; it is their lot in life and they expect nothing better.

Wilmington came along and then Baltimore. To the east, through trees, you could see arms of the Delaware and then the Chesapeake, with the small coastal towns and here and there a boat. Then came Washington. Right on time, just before 7. The cabby took the route behind the White House where some young men played soccer on a lawn across the street. Then, through traffic, we got into Rock Creek Park and off at Calvert Street and the Shoreham, which is now the Omni Shoreham. The sun wasn't yet down and everything was blooming and it was nice to be back again in Washington where for three years I lived and worked.

I had a steak at Duke Zeibert's and didn't see anyone famous, no John Riggins, for example, and went to bed early with the paper. In the Metro section of The Washington Post a columnist named Courtland Milloy wrote about "career day" at Evans Junior High where he talked to 7th graders about his job at The Washington Post and one of the kids asked, "What channel is that?"

The papers were also a virtual delicatessen of slaughter in various countries, including our own, some nonsense about Roseanne Barr, and the news that Marty Davis, having left Paramount with about $146 million "in perks, bonuses and options," according to Paul Tharp in the New York Post, would immediately "hatch" a brand new "global vulture fund."

Marty, give it a rest. Buy some Callaway clubs; enjoy!

In the morning the local NBC station showed fields of tulips to open the early news and then a commercial informed us Marie Osmond was coming to Washington in a new staging of "The Sound of Music" and then on the "Today Show" Bryant was interviewing a small-town reporter who'd been canned because she quoted a reader as complaining about the circulation department and Willard was out in Albuquerque in a gym with some Indians, one of whom jumped up and down with an assortment of hula hoops. So I think it was some sort of sacred festival.

The Washington Times, which is owned by the Moonies but has a good sports section, profiled this hot new quarterback, Trent Dilfer, quoting his own mother as calling him "a selfish, self-centered egocentric," and his best man calling young Trent, "a jerk." Sounded to me like a future NFL Hall of Famer.

All the papers were still reporting on a speech at Howard University, which all agreed was the finest black university in the country, given by one of Rev. Farrakhan's sainted ministers, who orated on how fond he was of Colin Ferguson, the guy who shot everyone on the Long Island Railroad this past winter. According to this orator, God told Ferguson, "Catch the train, Colin, catch the train." The audience, some but not all Howard students, cheered at this.

I took a walk down Connecticut Avenue where there are a number of fairly precious bookshops and then to Dupont Circle where young men in tight shorts Rollerbladed in pirouettes and waited to be discovered. This is now apparently the Greenwich Village of the town.

On the way back I stopped at the Washington Hilton just to look at it and think back. I was to interview the former press secretary, Jim Brady, that afternoon about gun control and his wounds and I wanted to see again where it happened, where Hinckley fired and Mr. Reagan and Jim Brady and two others fell. Tourists walked past and cabs loaded and unloaded and no one paid much mind. Maybe that's healthy, that we can put things behind us.

Though I was pretty sure Mr. Brady would remember that day and that I would have to ask him.

It was Magazine Day and the Advertising Club was hosting a luncheon at the Shoreham and there were about 400 people there and we all talked magazines and had a meal and I met some nice people and then I went off to interview Mr. Brady for Parade.

We met in his office at 1225 I Street which isn't more than a mile or so from the Union Station and Capitol Hill but afterwards I had a bag and took a cab and an Indian gent got me safely to the depot which is so spanking clean and full of shops and cafes and services and is run so smartly that you truly wonder about why Penn Station in Manhattan has to be so bad. Did they appoint a committee to come up with bad ideas? Is the Rev. Farrakhan somehow to blame for Penn Station? In the course of considering all these things I sat down in Union Station and had a cold one and wondered if this was where the railroad station was when Mr. Lincoln arrived that first time and they'd had to smuggle him through Baltimore where there was a plot to bump him off even before he was sworn in.

And I remembered changing trains here and getting on the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac that summer when I was 19 and joining the Marine Corps at Quantico.

The four o'clock to New York was again off crisply on time and Clarence Hairston, the trainman, who said he's been on the trains now four years and likes the job, made a few announcements and served food and drink and pretty much ran things for the next three hours.

I had a fresh batch of papers now, lest I actually have to talk to someone, and there was coverage of all sorts of terrible things happening in a troubled world. There was also much about the first lady's new hair. And continuing tut-tutting about Mr. Clinton's response to the kid who asked on TV if he wore boxers or briefs, the shock not being that he was asked ...

But that he answered.

Like the flawed old man dying in New York, they are smart people. But you wonder about them, their timing, their discretion, their sense of what is right and seemly. And for the country's sake, you hope Clinton's presidency ends better than that of Mr. Nixon.

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