The Line O'Fire

* The calibre of presidential assassins has plummeted.

John Wilkes Booth. Lee Harvey Oswald. John Hinckley, Jr. And now, apparently, Francisco Martin Duran. Are we witnessing the deevolution of presidential assassins?

This backward development is quite puzzling, given modern technology and the fact that even pro-life activists are out murdering people.

Just six weeks ago, in the middle of the night, a drunken and disturbed man crashed a single-engine Cessna into the White House lawn, below the President's bedroom. I was pretty impressed, until I heard that instead of the bedroom he hit a magnolia tree. And, even more embarassing, the President and First Family were sleeping across the street at Blair House.

I must admit that I expect a little more forethought and cunning from my fellow countrymen--especially when attacking the most powerful man in the free world.

Yet the day after that near-miss, a 26-year-old former Army soldier bought a Chinese-made Norinco assault rifle in Colorado Springs.


And this past Saturday, the dishonorably discharged Francisco Duran, whipped out the semiautomatic weapon from his tan trenchcoat, pumping approximately two dozen rounds into the White House. While bullets pierced the West Wing's concrete and glass, President Clinton sat upstairs watching football on television.

Fortunately, Duran was tackled by three men while reloading his rifle. One of these civilian heroes was Robert Haines, who claims he was a candidate for the presidency in 1992. (He didn't win.)

So where was the Secret Service? Sharpshooters and lookouts are supposedly posted on the roof of the White House when the President and family are in residence.

Evidently, members of the Secret Service were holding back their force in case the shots were intended as a distraction for another attack. Perhaps it didn't occur to them that a man standing right in front of the White House with an assault rifle just might in itself constitute a serious attack.

Or perhaps they realize how pathetic contemporary assassins really are. Their laxity might just be a sign that they want a fair fight. Maybe it would have taken Duran's scaling the White House walls for the presidential protectors to spring into action.

Regardless, for our amusement. Duran did leave his gray Chevy truck out on Pennsylvania Avenue, decorated with witty bumper stickers, advising the President to "Fire Butch Reno." And: "Those who beat their guns into plows will plow for those who don't." Whatever that means.

Perhaps Duran developed his sense of humor, as well as his animosity for the President, while staying at the lovely Leavenworth military prison for the last few years.

Nonetheless, Duran's attempt was so pathetic that the Secret Service refuses even to charge him with attempting to assassinate the President. They opted for lesser felony counts. While there is no law against being an idiot, evidently it is illegal for convicted felons to possess weapons and for any citizen is damage Government property.

Curiously, the day after the pathetic rifle assault, President Clinton did not make it out in public for his daily jog. He didn't even make it to church. Sunday night, however, Clinton did attend on event at Ford's Theater.

Yes, that's the place where Lincoln was assassinated 129 years ago. As we all know, Booth pumped fatal lead into Honest Abe and then dived to the stage for a dramatic exit.

So perhaps last Sunday evening there was an assassin at the theater after all. Of course, with the current state of the world, he probably forgot his slingshot.

Brad Edward White's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.