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“I’ll put it this way,” says William Pennington. “I am the only man in Washington, D.C., with a legitimate reason for sitting down and talking to President Clinton as of this moment.”
Pennington, who is better known, at least locally, as “Hillbilly,” actually has a number of reasons for meeting with the president, and after four days of visiting the capital, he has submitted his case in writing to Clinton, as well as to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Sen. Wendell Ford (D-Ky.), Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.), former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, the Justice Department, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Pennington hopes to focus Washington’s attention on a stretch of the Tug fork of the Ohio River near Buskirk, Ky. Ask him. He’ll tell you.
“My grandfather back in 1920 left Florence County in a houseboat. He come up the Tug Fork River where you can’t even get a paddle boat to float no more. That’s how bad it is,” says Pennington in his Kentucky drawl. “I’ll invite anybody from Washington, D.C., or any state in the United States, to come on up the Tug Fork River in May, June, July, or August, and they’re going to see the most messed-uppedest, filled-innedest, trashedest river you’ve ever laid eyes on. I got a bowling ball out of that river….I could have took fenders and refrigerators and stoves out of that river.”
Pennington, who is 37, is sitting on a bench in Lafayette Park, where he comes each morning after checking out of a downtown shelter. He has written with magic marker on the lapels of his jacket: “PUT CUT THROUGH AUBURN HOLLOW”; “DREDGE THE TUG!”; and “AMUSEMENT JOBS PREVENT CRIME”all references to his sweeping plan to create jobs by cleaning the river and building amusement parks. His right arm lists Tug Fork River trouble spots: “MCCARR, MATEWAN, BUSKIRK, LOBATA, SPRIGG, RIVER ROAD.”
“The day I stand in front of the president and tell him my plan, that’s the day I’ll stop wearing this jacket,” he says.
During three extended trips to the capital over the past two years, Pennington has shared his political headquarters in Lafayette Park with a community of pilgrims who, like himself, have made a career out of trying (and failing) to deliver their message to political figures. They pack briefcases and knapsacks and plastic bags full of documents and board Greyhound buses bound for the nation’s capital. They get off at 1st and L Streets NE, ask directions, and wind up in Lafayette Park.
Pennington’s closest neighbors in the park, Dwight Baird and Zeus, are hoping to secure, respectively, political asylum in Russia and a mass conversion to a vaguely Celtic religion. For four months this summer, the park was home to a young woman who thought she was married to Bill Clinton, another who thought she lived in the White House, and a couple from West Virginia who said Republicans had kidnapped their children. Until recently, an elderly man in military uniform stood guard over an atomic submarine that he said had been placed underground as an escape route for the president. He introduced himself as a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. He kept his vigil for several years.
“He was a sweet guy and well-intentioned,” says Kenneth Freeman, a mental health specialist who works with homeless people in the area, adding that the uniformed man was suffering from the terminal stages of a neurological disease. Another Lafayette Park regular, a veteran called Combat John, used to walk up to the submarine guard and order him to do 20 push-ups, Pennington remembers.
“You know the craziest thing?” Pennington adds. “He would drop right down and do them.”
Some of the Lafayette Park pilgrims are radical activists, some are run-of-the-mill eccentrics, some are mentally ill. Now and then, even the social workers disagree about which is which.
At the extreme end of the spectrum fall the “White House Cases,” a group of mentally ill people deemed potentially dangerous, and who are distinguished, according to doctors at St. Elizabeths Hospital, by their “psychotic preoccupation with prominent political figures.”
The White House Cases are no new phenomenon. In a 1949 Washington Post articlesensitively headlined “D.C. Called Mecca for Those Headed for Mental Crackup”the superintendent of St. Elizabeths attributed the District’s large numbers of mentally ill in part to the “wanderers on the verge of mental breakdown” who come to Washington to see a senator or member of Congress.
Today’s experts are more likely to ascribe the city’s sizable mental health caseload to poverty, but the White House Cases have not gone away. Since the ’70s, about 100 patients per year have been involuntarily committed to St. Elizabeths as White House Cases. Many others continue to make the rounds at other government agencies. Although a Secret Service spokesman declined to be interviewed for this story, mental health workers say the White House keeps a running list of names (a guess at one name on that roster: John Hinckley).
Ever since the term was invented in the 1930s, the White House Cases have been accorded special attention. When Dr. David Shore began work at St. Elizabeths in the 1970s, he was struck by a peculiarity in the admission formthe first item was a space for the patient’s name; the second was a box labeled “White House Case.” Studies by Shore and other psychiatrists of this group of patients portray people who spend their last dollars for a trip across the country in a desperate attempt to convey a message to those in power. A 1965 report by two local psychiatrists on 38 White House Cases stated the following:
“Fourteen felt they were being followed. Seven came to help the country in some way. Three of these brought messages from God, one claimed to be Jesus Christ, and one reported an elaborate spy ring surrounding her Pennsylvania farm. Another had suggestions about combating the Russians. Five came to collect fortunes in money or land. Three claimed they were the president, one maintained that she was married to the President, and a 75-year-old lady, who refused to believe that Mr. Eisenhower was no longer in office, claimed to be the president’s mother.”
White House Cases are unusual among the mentally ill in that they tend to function very well. According to Shore, most of his White House patients were paranoid schizophrenics. Although many schizophrenics “tend to withdraw socially and tend to be relatively uncommunicative,” paranoid schizophrenics are sufficiently organized “to express and sometimes act upon and carry out their delusion,” Shore says. So they can maintain energetic lobbying campaigns for years, writing mountains of letters, knocking on every locked door, and occasionally strolling right up to the White House’s north entrance, as if the Secret Service would quietly open the gate and usher them right into the Oval Office.
“We had a woman who used to split her time between Florida and D.C. She would leave here in the morning and always go to Sen. Kennedy’s office and threaten to chop off her arms and legs,” says Michele May, an advocate for the mentally ill homeless who works at the Calvary Shelter for Women. “Sometimes I wished I could talk to the staff there. They knew her better than anyone.”
White House Cases tend to make their rounds in the capital for several months before they find their way into the mental health system, head home, or, most commonly, are sent back to their families. The D.C. Mental Health Commission actually put one woman on a plane to Liechtenstein last summer, and Freeman says he routinely buys his patients bus tickets home, with full knowledge that for every person returned to a family, “another one is getting off the bus with no coat on.”
When the political pilgrims leave Lafayette Parkvoluntarily or notthe protesters and other regulars are there to watch them go. William Thomas is a free-speech and anti-nuclear activist who has been picketing the White House since 1981. Over 14 years, as he has smoked his way through thousands of unfiltered cigarettes and amiably made the peace sign for Japanese tourists, Thomas has come to know generations of amateur lobbyists.
“One guy I talked to last night, Jimmy Wayne Powell, left here and went back to Oklahoma. He still feels the way he felt, but he’s given up on [seeing] the president. People come here and they have very firmly formulated ideas about what’s making things run. And if this is correct, applying it to Jimmy, what’s probably changed is his firmly established opinion about how things work in the executive branch.”
“I guess he doesn’t see a long-term presence in front of the White House as being a good method,” Thomas says. “You could say he has evolved in his thinking.”
Dwight Baird, similarly, has evolved in his thinking. He estimates that, among the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Justice Department, and the National Reconnaissance Office, he has filed upwards of a thousand official complaints about government surveillance. The Indiana native came to D.C. seven years ago, and during his first three years in the nation’s capital, Baird slept outside the Dirksen Senate Office Building so he could file his papers early in the morning. But gradually, seeing no response from his government, he became disillusioned with the system. Last year he “went Communist,” and now he hopes to win political asylum in Russia.
Baird, who is 45, has achieved a certain amount of notoriety downtown. He is on a first-name basis with Tipper Gore, whom he says has urged him (thus far fruitlessly) to move into an apartment. When he goes to any of the fast-food restaurants near the park, he is greeted by name not only by the cashiers but by the panhandlers outside. His relations with the officers who patrol Lafayette Park are not so friendly; last summer he was arrested for running toward the White House screaming “Sanctuary!”
But on his home territory he is an undisputed leader, the king of Lafayette Park. He is handsome and well-spoken, and his closest neighbors come to him for advice and extra blankets. “Dwight is very intelligent,” Pennington says admiringly. “That guy should work for the government.”
Once Baird’s brother took him home to Indianapolis and rented him an apartment. His brother enrolled him in a treatment program and told him he would never have to be homeless again. Baird says he slept for a full month. When he woke up, he informed his brother that he was returning to Washington.
“I told him I had to finish this stuff up,” Baird says. “But he wouldn’t give me the bus fare back here. It took me a month to get out. They put me in a mental hospital, had me declared legally insane. This was serious bad stuff.
“One thing I learned from that,” he adds, “I never leave without a round-trip ticket.”