Washington has vivid, dramatic emergencies every now and then because it is the capital. This has been going on ever since the Redcoats sat down in the White House, Aug. 24, 1814, and ate the dinner that had been prepared for President and Dolley Madison, before burning the capital. (Dolley escaped with the rolled-up painting of George Washington, though, which has survived until today.)
Last week I had an appointment with a congressman on the Hill and took a taxi for the usual 15-minute ride from my office. I never saw such congestion. It brought communion with the taxi driver who had never seen anything like it either; traffic past the White House, the Commerce Department, the downtown area was not blocked off exactly; it was just crawling. Instead of tuning in the radio and discovering that it was a general emergency we inched along, yard by yard denouncing the authorities. Then at the office of Rep. Henry Reuss (D) of Wisconsin the congressman waved aside my apologies: Terrorists had seized the Washington Monument, he said. Yes, they might blow it up any time.
As I said, melodrama occasionally intrudes startingly on everyday life in Washington, and this was one of those times. I have seen it before. It was so when the son of the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church of Atlanta, Martin Luther King, emulated the passive resistance of Mohandas Gandhi and led 200,000 people in an unforgettable protest in 1963 before the Lincoln Memorial. It was the ''We shall overcome'' march. Fortunately, that affair passed off peaceably though later King gave his life, too, as Gandhi did, to a fanatic.
Now as I walked as near as I could to the Washington Monument to find out what was happening all I could see were the yellow police ribbons strung everywhere along the sidewalks telling people to stay out. Police had dismissed 20,000 adjacent government workers, and President Reagan moved his state luncheon to another side of the White House to avoid the blast, if it came. It didn't come. The alleged explosives, of course, were all imaginary. There were no accomplices. It was all a figment that disrupted downtown. For reasons having nothing to do with the threat, there were only a few people in the monument itself. It was because winds were gusting above 25 miles an hour, at which point , authorities say, the 550-foot shaft sways slightly, despite walls 15 feet thick. Few sightseers were admitted.
The clerk at the monument bookstore and six tourists were trapped up there, however, and had to wait out five hours of the subsequent siege. So, another incident. The obsessed terrorist, who was trying to warn the world of the dangers of nuclear bombs, was shot, and the world went on with its normal people - who have accommodated themselves to the idea of the bomb.
Washington had another example of melodrama, I recalled sadly, back in 1950. The Trumans had temporarily moved out of the White House (whose floors were giving way) across the street to the old Blair House. This is a dignified four-story Georgian building of yellow brick and stucco, with green shutters. It was a phenomenally warm November day and Truman was taking a nap in his second-floor bedroom, stretched on the bed in his underwear with the window open and temperature 84. Robert J. Donovan in his fine new book ''Tumultuous Years'' recalls the affair. Two Puerto Rican terrorists who wanted an independent republic at home, came to Washington to take the President's life. One had a pistol thrust into the waistband of his trousers, extra cartridges stuffed in one pocket, and three colored postcards in another: pho-tos of the Washington Monument, the White House, and Pennsylvania Avenue. The youth had never fired anything bigger than a .22-caliber rifle. Outside the canopied entrance of Blair House there were sentry boxes.
At 2:20 the shooting began. As in the latest affair the whole thing seems, and was, irrational. One guard and one terrorist were killed. All told there were 27 shots. The noise awoke Truman with a start and he rushed to the open window. ''Get back, get back!'' yelled a guard. Later on, after order had been restored, Truman appeared at Arlington and paid homage to the guard, without mentioning his own ordeal. ''A President has to expect those things,'' he said.
A strange city, Washington. The latest incident at the monument again reminds us of it.