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The better sort wore jeans or habits

The Washington of the somebodies and the Washington of the nobodies were much on display last weekend. The somebodies _ beginning with President Clinton _ gathered at the Hilton for the White House Correspondents' Dinner, a delirium of glitz and din, with Paula Jones at the heart of it wearing a dress that belied her yearning to be taken for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

Some of the other women attending the summit of spinners and spun were overdressed, others unnervingly underdressed. Hollywood, which feels a kinship with the Clinton White House, was much in evidence. Star-gawking by and of the powerful was the recreation while the goal, as always, was the pursuit of power.

The next day's action was in Lafayette Park, and it couldn't have been more different. These people were not trying to open doors like the folks at the Hilton; they were trying to shut a school, a hideous relic of the Cold War called the School of the Americas. Its graduates have participated in the worst murders, slaughters and atrocities in Central America for the past 20 years. The gathering, convened by the School of the Americas Watch, was liberally sprinkled with seniors and people wearing jeans or habits, the livery of those seeking justice.

They had conscientiously counted themselves _ 1,350, they said _ and there was no counter-report from the police. They listened with aching attentiveness to dozens of speeches made by unknown orators. Alan Nairn, a writer-activist, brought them to cheers with his call for truth commissions in Guatemala, Honduras and other luckless recipients of the savageries of Fort Benning graduates.

The leadership of SOA Watch has been depleted. Father Roy Bourgeois, its famous director, is again in jail, this time for criminal trespass on government property in November. Watch office director Carol Richardson is also in prison for the same offense. Her daughter, Heather Dean, carried on.

The commander in chief would have been better off in the park, hearing things that might have stiffened his spine to stand up to the Pentagon for once. At his party, he made a brittle speech. To his credit, he did not end with the customary flourish about the wonder of fraternization between hunters and prey. Instead, he praised Helen Thomas, who got an award for being a fine reporter and authentic human being. The first lady got her first standing ovation from the press _ for showing up after five hours of interrogation by Kenneth Starr.

In the park, there was raging conviction. These people were ready to go to jail for their belief that SOA makes us the ally of torturers, rapists and killers. Last year they came within four votes of winning in the House. A last-minute push from the Pentagon saved the school. Unexpected names were among the ayes, none more conspicuous than Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a tireless champion of human rights. He said he was persuaded by a House Appropriations Committee staff that proposed a new curriculum.

"They deserve another chance," says Wolf. "If we don't tell them about human rights, how will they know?"

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota says he thought the self-sacrifice of older religious people has had its effect. He has written a book called School for Assassins, and he thinks the contrast of blameless seniors doing time while the U.S.-trained perpetrators of murder and torture are free is bound to get to the taxpayers.

Take 70-year-old Sister Rita Steinhagen of Minneapolis and the order of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who is in a federal pen and is a heroine in her town.

Sister Rita's sisters were part of the entertainment, a guerrilla pageant with gigantic figures on stilts wearing grotesque masks, acting out the atrocities.

Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., still leads the fight against the school. He recently called Father Bourgeois in jail. The priest was in handcuffs; someone had to hold the phone for him. He is in the hole for refusing to work.

Of course the larger crime was the Reagan policy of "better dead than red," with Elliott Abrams of the State Department defending Salvadoran death squads. While the demonstrators were on Capitol Hill on Monday, word came that a Guatemalan bishop, Juan Gerardi Conedera, who had just completed a report on human rights abuses in his country, had been brutally murdered. It was another reminder that what Central Americans don't need is more "training" of a military that thinks anything is justified in the name of preserving the status quo.

Universal Press Syndicate