Beauty, Controversy And Violence in D.C.

Cherry tree blooms put a pretty face on multifaceted nation's capital - a letter from Washington

IN official Washington, the Bush administration hopes its increased relief effort will help keep starving Kurds alive without getting America stuck in an Iraqi quagmire. In tourist Washington, visitors throng Capitol Hill, swirl around the Washington Monument, and stroll along the Tidal Basin admiring the spendor of pink Japanese cherry blossoms.

In inner-city Washington, a child-care aide phones her boss: ``Please excuse me from work today. My son was shot last night - and killed.'' As in many other cities violence and murder, largely black on black, continue unchecked where poor minorities live.

Washington is a trisected city. In one clearly defined area government carries out the nation's business, and the city's as well. This area unreels down renovated Pennsyslvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol, an invigorating 40-minute hike.

Like a teacher's transparent overlay, Washington's tourist area is partly superimposed on the government section. Where government works tourists gawk, from the FBI Building to the White House. They throng the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, Arlington National Cemetery, and Mount Vernon.

Few tourists or Washington officials see the city's third sector, a melange of run-down residential areas where violence is endemic and hope rare. Living in these areas are many courageous residents making Herculean efforts to rear children.

Child-care aide Annie Elkins is one such person, respected and loved by colleagues and friends. With most of her seven children she has succeeded, but Johnny was another story: He succumbed to the siren songs of drugs and the seamy world. Last week, Mrs. Elkins buried her son.

Only family and friends know of the anguish of Annie Elkins. But in official Washington and across America tongues wag about two very public families - the Kennedys and Reagans.

For the Kennedys the two-week-old accusation of rape in Palm Beach is yet another tragic event for a family that has had too many; the police investigation continues into the alleged actions of William Kennedy Smith, a nephew of Sen. Edward Kennedy. Lurid tales abound; law enforcement officials and lawyers for several parties evidently are probing to determine not only facts but also the credibility of those involved.

Credibility is also an issue in the gossipy new ``unauthorized biography'' about Nancy Reagan, which portrays her as small-minded and extremely forceful, and charges that both she and the former president had extra-marital affairs. Several people mentioned in the book flatly dispute the accuracy of incidents it records. Mr. Reagan says the book contains ``flagrant and absurd falsehoods.'' Author Kitty Kelley's book-promotion tour has suddenly been canceled.

Titillated as it is by the Kennedy and Reagan gossip, official Washington is also paying attention to major international and national issues. With a million Kurdish refugees without food or shelter on the Iraqi-Turkish border and pressured by its critics, the Bush administration has doubled to 8,000 the number of US military forces airlifting food and shelter to the refugees.

Meanwhile, the administration disclosed its controversial decision to close 43 military bases in the US and to reduce the size of 28 more. It is part of the Defense Department's effort to cut by a quarter the size of the American military.

Critics laud the idea of reducing military expenses. But closing individual bases replaces the NIMBY syndrome - not in my back yard - with the PIMBY syndrome: Please, in my back yard. Local officials and members of Congress already are protesting the closing of individual bases, as they have done whenever the Pentagon has proposed the idea.

Bases may be closed anyway, but the process could take years. Washington has not heard the end of the issue, anymore than it has seen the last of tourism or inner-city violence.

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