The streets of Washington turned into a miles-long diplomatic tarmac for Mikhail Gorbachev last night, having been cleaned and frisked during the day by hundreds of police and city workers.
Just before 7 p.m., Gorbachev's Aeroflot plane made a flawless landing at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Later, the Soviet president was whisked into Washington in his armor-plated Soviet limousine and a 40-car escort.
As he headed up Suitland Parkway and approached Alabama Avenue SE, residents lined the road and nearby grass fields, some with binoculars. "It's fascinating to see these bigwigs come through here," said Charles Carter, 78, who sat on his front doorstep for the event.
Gorbachev's view up Suitland Parkway, across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge and up 17th Street was mainly of shrubbery, citizenry and monuments. A crowd five people thick in places greeted the motorcade one block away from the Soviet Embassy on 16th Street NW, with onlookers crowding into the flower beds and a group of 75 protesters chanting "Stop Killing Armenians," a reference to recent clashes between Soviet troops and Armenian nationalists.
Once inside the embassy, Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, were greeted by Soviet children bearing bouquets of flowers.
This is Gorbachev's second visit to Washington and his second summit meeting with President Bush. He is expected to leave Washington on Sunday, when he heads for Minnesota and then on to San Francisco.
In contrast to Gorbachev's first visit to Washington in December 1987 for meetings with President Ronald Reagan, there were few obvious public displays that anticipated his arrival. The hotel across from the Air Force base did not display the "Welcome" sign it had up the last time. Yesterday it advertised a weekly bikini contest. Missing, too, were well-wishers and camera buffs eager for a snapshot of the Soviet leader's first roll onto U.S. pavement.
Small numbers of protesters gathered in Lafayette Square and near the embassy. There was a lone messenger with these two placards: "Russia is Beautiful and Great" and "Russia Saved the Whales." There was an older couple from St. Petersburg, Fla., carrying two Lithuanian flags, and a Soviet rock group playing on a stage atop plastic milk crates. All were outnumbered by sightseers out in the sunshine, including 20 Swiss tourists who giggled their way through Lafayette Square as their tour guide tried to explain the few placards and police.
"Where is everybody?" said Bob Kunst, a Miami-based activist for Cure Aids Now. "There's no pizzazz anymore."
What Washingtonians lacked in political enthusiasm, more than 500 police officers detailed to Gorbachev duty made up for in determination.
Beginning at sunrise, downtown Washington found out yesterday what it would be like to have not just one police officer on every corner, but 30. City police blocked 15th and 16th streets NW around the Soviet Embassy and near the Madison Hotel, towed dozens of cars and ticketed even more.
Nothing got in the way, not even the courtesy of diplomatic immunity. Police cranes hauled off at least six vehicles with red, white and blue Soviet diplomatic plates. "If we have the cranes available, we'll move them," said Officer S.L. Bock.
A truck driver trying to make his usual bottled water delivery shortly after noon got ticketed twice before he drove away in a huff, leaving a five-gallon plastic jug at the curb.
A Soviet cameraman trying to park near the Vista Hotel was refused. "We're like everybody else," said Sergy Cherkasov. "The officer won't let us park."
Meanwhile, Jeremy Griffin, 25, a recent graduate from American University's Washington College of Law parked himself on a white concrete barrier near the embassy, one of a dozen people who hoped for a glimpse of something from there. "I might get a chance to see him this time," Griffin said.
While scarce, the Gorbachev watchers were there, and from everywhere. Judith Lamb-Lion came from Salt Lake City with "no agenda, no political agenda," but a desire to "put out a quiet focus." Kimberly Leui, 22, and her mother, Cindy, drove 12 hours overnight from Chattanooga, Tenn., just for a chance at a glance. Kimberly Leui, who like her mother is an elementary school teacher, said she wanted "to be able to go back and tell our students that he is normal, that he is just like Americans."
Those who tried to leave the area around the embassy shortly after Gorbachev's entourage arrived found they could not remove their cars from garages or return to buildings. Jeff Ellis had left the University Club on 16th Street for a jog before the motorcade arrived and when he tried to return a police officer jokingly suggested he come back Sunday.
"My clothes are in there," said Ellis, and "my car keys."
Staff writers Dan Beyers, Ruben Castaneda, Bill Dedman, Veronica T. Jennings and Carlos Sanchez contributed to this report.