Curiosity sent hundreds of people into Washington streets yesterday, giving America's most recent national political trauma a strange tinge of Hollywood stargazing.
Several hundred people gathered at curbside along C Street NW, between D.C. police headquarters and the U.S. District Court building, one of several spots where people craned their necks as if to catch a glimpse of movie stars at a Hollywood studio set.
Television camera crews with reporters in tow perched atop parked cars and along curbs in a daylong vigil. They aimed their cameras at the driveway from which President Reagan's accused attacker would depart. For some, the events were a morbid link with the assassination of president John F. Kennedy almost two decades ago. Bystanders whispered and worried, mentioning the names of Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald, wondering whether John W. Hinckley Jr. might suffer the same fate that Kennedy's alleged assassin, Oswald, met at the hands of his own assassin, Ruby.
"I don't expect to see much of anything, but I had to come see what kind of man would try to shoot down the president," said Carolyn Johnson of Hillcrest Heights, as she stood among a lunch-time crowd of court attorneys, secretaries and dozens of others, who came only to get D.C. auto license tags but stayed to watch. An eerie calm enveloped them as they waited for Hinckley's momentary appearance.
D.C. resident Mary Thomas balanced two-year-old Marie Bryant, her niece, on one hip as she pushed her way through for a clearer view. "My niece is going to read about this in the history books," Thomas said. "This is so exciting."
A moment later, the startling roar of police motorcycles revving up for a takeoff sounded the overture to this composition, and a contingent of agents in sky-blue Plymouths, sirens wailing, signaled Hinckley's imminent departure.
"There he is," gasped Robert Marshall, a laborer who had come to police headquarters to get his new driver's license. The hushed crowd rushed toward the curb, pressing against those already there. Hinckley, wearing a white bullet-proof vest, appeared through the smoky glass windows of a shiny Cadillac limousine, looking more like a screen idol than a failed murderer. A moment later he was gone.
Soon after police had whisked Hinckley away to his Quantico prison and later to an institution for psychiatric evaluation, Debbie Aguzin and her brother Fred Ernest Jr., visiting their parents from California, posed for snapshots in front of the Washington Hilton wall where the assassination attempt occurred three days before.
"I feel like I am close to the event by being here," Aguzin said. "It's really something to see."
The scene is not uncommon, said hotel doorman Wardell Crockett, who added that tour buses have stopped at the wall and dropped off sightseers who then pose for snapshots there.
At still another of Washington's new tourist attractions, Jack Guiffre and his friend, Jane Bannerman, were taking snapshots, too. They stood waiting for First Lady Nancy Reagan to leave after visiting the president at George Washington University Hospital. Guiffre focused his lens on the exit from which she was expected to leave any moment.
"This is for my scrapbook," he said, as several policemen assigned to watch the crowd posed at wooden barricades for pictures. "If we can find the Hilton, I'm going to take pictures there, too."