A blue Toyota inched up on my left. A red Chevy van crept even with me on the right. But I couldn't figure out why they were bothering to inch and creep. There was obviously a three-star biggie ahead -- another giant, dead- stopped rush hour traffic jam on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Which was making me late for an interview in Oxon Hill. And would make me late for the one after that in Laurel. Which would make me late for dinner -- again. Which was already curling my stomach curl into knots.

I pounded the steering wheel. "Dammit, Woodrow Wilson!" I shouted. "Why can't you do something about this bridge that bears your name?"

Just then, the radio began to wail in an unearthly fashion. The rear speakers crackled. The floorboards shuddered. And a soft, precise voice said:

"Hello from heaven, Mr. Levey. You spoke my name, I believe?"

"Spoke your name? Wait a minute. It can't be. Are you . . . ."

"Yes, Mr. Levey. I am the 28th president of the United States. I am the man who wanted to make the world safe for democracy. And now I have selected you to carry forth the word of my latest mission. To clear my name, I want to make the Woodrow Wilson Bridge safe for rush hour."

"Mr. President, I don't know how rush hour is up where you are, sir. But down here on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, it is a son of a gun, sir. I mean a real major-league kick in the pants, sir."

"It's so nice to see that journalists are every bit as refined in 1988 as they were 75 years ago."

"Gee, sir, I'm sorry if I got carried away. But this bridge of yours . . . ."

"Just a minute, Mr. Levey. It is not my bridge. It is only a bridge named for me. I had been dead for nearly 40 years the day it opened."

"Quite correct, sir. Very sorry. Anyway, sir, I'm glad you saw fit to get in touch with me, because your name is in deep trouble, sir. I mean, there's no respect for it any more. You can tell by listening to the radio traffic reporters. They don't let their frustrations show when they talk about the 14th Street Bridge, or the American Legion Bridge at Cabin John. But Mr. President, whenever they come to your bridge, sir, they sigh. And they moan. And they say stuff like, 'Meanwhile, big trouble as usual down at the good old Wil-l-l-l-lson.' "

"Mr. Levey, I have heard those reports, and I am very upset about the damage they are doing to my reputation. The irony of it is that I welcomed the chance to have my name on a bridge. My name on high schools and libraries, well, that's a bit humdrum, you know? When the word filtered up here that my name would adorn a major crossing of a major river, well, Mr. Levey, I must tell you that I beamed in a way that I hadn't beamed since I was reelected in 1916."

"Mr. President, you implied that you have a strategy for improving rush hour on the bridge. If you do, sir, I'd say you could get reelected tomorrow, even though you are no longer here."

"Thank you, Mr. Levey. But politics no longer interests me. Effectiveness, however, does. So here is my proposal. Decking."

"Uh, sir, I think they did new decking on the bridge a couple of years ago. Those huge potholes where you could see right down to the water, they're gone now."

"You remind me of those fools with whom I dealt at the Big Four meeting in Paris. I'm not talking of decking the roadway, Mr. Levey. I'm talking of putting an additional deck underneath the existing deck, the way they did across the Hudson River on the bridge that's named for my predecessor, George Washington. Think of it! Eight new lanes! In honor of my name! A Woodrow Wilson Bridge that will make people proud!"

"I don't know how to tell you this, Mr. President, but there are formidable problems with that idea. You'd have to get the governors of Maryland and Virginia to agree -- which doesn't happen every day. You'd have to make sure the extra deck wouldn't interfere with shipping beneath the bridge. And you'd have to file an environmental impact statement promising that not a single bird would be evicted from his nest. I realize you were president during wartime, sir, but we are talking about a tough piece of politics here."

"Nonsense! If I nationalized the railroads, this fellow Reagan can nationalize the bridges. I can see the slogan now: 'PUT THE RUSH BACK IN RUSH HOUR.' The country will get behind it in a moment!"

Just then, an 18-wheeler gave me two blasts of his air horn. I looked up. The car in front of me had moved up about 25 feet. The impatient trucker wanted me to do the same.

A radio traffic reporter was offering another gloom-and-doomer. "Bad day out there, folks," he said, "and nowhere is it worse than at the good old Wil-l-l-l-l-son."

"Mr. President," I said, in the direction of the dashboard, "there are some reputations that are beyond help."