American Gunfight

Oscar Collazo lies wounded at the bottom of the Blair House steps on November 1, 1950.
Oscar Collazo lies wounded at the bottom of the Blair House steps on November 1, 1950. (AP)
By Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge Jr.
Sunday, October 9, 2005

On November 1, 1950, the day that they planned to kill the president of the United States, Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo dressed carefully. Oscar chose a blue shirt, a white handkerchief, a brown leather belt. His suit was blue and chalk-striped. He wore a pair of brown shoes of a brand called Crusader and, under this sober business or church attire, added one touch of color: green-and-orange socks.

Griselio was a little more subdued; his socks were gray. His suit was a lawyer's gray chalk-stripe; his shoes were black; his shirt was white; his tie was gray. He had a brown hat, from a company called Adams. His belt was cordovan, an in-between color meant to unify black, brown and gray. He wore Arrow underdrawers and undershirt.

Then they went sightseeing.

The grounds of the U.S. Capitol were just a short walk from their hotel. No, the trees weren't full of leafy grandeur, and by this time, late in fall, the grass had lost its lush greenness, but still the grounds of the old place were majestic. So the two walked them.

They were Puerto Rican nationalists, animated by the dream of a free and independent island nation. They were also radical operatives, assassins on the hunt, and, in their own view, sacred warriors facing sure death. Yet they were out-of-towners who had a chance to experience a thrilling visit to a thrilling, world-famous locality, and with an hour or so to waste, they couldn't resist the temptation.

Weren't they touched by the sense of tradition and history; weren't they impressed by the monumental greatness; didn't the expanse of the patriotic message reach them? How could it not? They, too, were American citizens.

But there's another possibility as well. Perhaps Griselio and Oscar looked upon the Capitol as an exercise in hypocrisy and used its beauty as a way to rev themselves up emotionally for the action they were about to initiate. Perhaps everything they saw offended them, seemed cheap and tawdry, enraged them: In the dome they saw not inclusion but immense weight, the weight of empire. In the trees and gardens, they saw camouflage of the empire's true meaning. In the vast stairways that lead up, up and up to the grand mall entrance, they saw the vast distance between their humble, tiny selves at bottom, representative of their humble, tiny island civilization, and the elite rulers so far above them, encased in marble.

After an hour examining and interpreting the centerpiece of the American legislative system, they hailed a taxi and headed to the White House, where the president lived.

It was the cabdriver who said to them, No, no, he don't live there. See, they're rebuilding the White House.

He took them for exactly what they appeared to be. Two slightly foreign tourists, well-dressed, serene in manner and curious in disposition, in for a visit to the capital of the greatest country in the world.

Griselio and Oscar were slapped in the face by the truth of his statement.

Outside the cab stood the official mansion of the president of the United States, behind its wrought-iron fence and its elaborate ceremonial landscaping. There was even a steam shovel outside. The building was all shell. The insides had been torn out, and essentially a new house was being constructed within the facade of the old. This engineering necessity had been a long time coming, as the old mansion degenerated further each month, but Harry Truman, with his customary brio and decisiveness, put it into operation. He and his wife, Bess, and their daughter, Margaret, had moved out almost two years earlier.

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company