At 7:30 a.m. on the dot, a siren screamed and an ambulance pulled up.
The back door opened. Out came a man on a stretcher, a sheet pulled to his chest. His eyes were closed.
Orderlies wheeled him to the front of the Government Printing Office, past a line of journalists stretching around the corner of the building. The stretcher was met at the door by a team of doctors in surgical greens and lab coats.
Stethoscope in hand, one doctor leaned over the patient on the stretcher, checking for a pulse.
The journalists closest to the door watched the scene with little apparent interest. It was cold. It was rainy. It was early. No one left the line to see what was going on.
"He's still alive," pronounced the doctor with a wink and whisked the patient inside.
On the second floor, the patient threw back the sheet, leaped up and stuck out his chest like Superman.
He wore a T-shirt that read: "FY '87."
THE BUDGET LIVES!
"There's been a lot of talk that the budget is dead on arrival," said Carlyn Crout of the public affairs office of the GPO, "so the OMB personnel decided to show that it had been revived."
Each year the Office of Management and Budget tries to inject a little humor into one of Washington's driest events. Last year, when the hot issue was the budget freeze, the staff handed out 500 Popsicles.
"This is my seventh year of covering the budget," said WJLA-TV reporter John Spiropoulous. "It's gotten goofier every year."
This year the rules went as follows: The Budget of the United States for Fiscal Year 1987, a blue-covered book that contains the "Budget Message of the President and presents an overview of the President's budget proposals," was released to news organizations at 7:30 a.m. yesterday and to the general public at noon. It was for "immediate release," which meant news organizations with the tightest deadlines, generally wire services, wanted the document as quickly as possible.
With no time to digest the document, said a Dow Jones reporter: "The wires will have to run to get some of this garbage out."
Knight-Ridder Financial News was the first organization in line. Jean Christensen of Knight-Ridder said a Knight-Ridder representative "was told to come at 3 a.m."
Ed Kean of Knight-Ridder came at 6:25 a.m. Two more people from Knight-Ridder showed up not long after that and sat on the steps reading a newspaper.
"We have two people to call in flashes," said Christensen, "and two to carry the books back to the office to do longer stories." He was wearing running shoes.
But he didn't have doughnuts or coffee like The Wall Street Journal (10th in line, Dunkin' Donuts) and The New York Times (25th in line, Krispy Kreme).
When asked about details, like why they were about 25th in line, the New York Times people had "no comment."
By 7:08 a.m. the line was turning the corner of the building. At 7:10 a.m., public affairs officer Crout walked down the line handing out order forms.
The cost of the budget, $13. Also offered: the Appendix for $21, the Budget in Brief for $2, a Special Analyses document for $8.50, Historical Tables for $11 and Management of the United States Government for $2.50.
Visa, MasterCard and Choice were accepted.
"They've figured out it cost a lot to print up all that stuff and that the news organizations can afford it," said Spiropoulous.
"Want to shoot some craps?" asked one newcomer to the line.
"So this is what dawn looks like," said another.
By 7:45, the GPO bookstore was jammed with people frantically cramming books into boxes, checking lists to make sure they had the correct books, tripping over books, restacking books and grabbing books. Security guards directed traffic and tried to keep the bookstore from getting too crowded.
Knight-Ridder was long gone.