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A Scandalous Tour of Washington

July 16, 1989|ANDREW MARTON | Marton is a free-lance writer living in Chevy Chase, Md.

WASHINGTON — On a bright summer day, with a slight breeze swaying the dogwood trees, a gaggle of tourists prepares to board a sightseeing bus on Massachusetts Avenue.

The bus driver introduces himself: "Hi, I'm John Hinckley, and since I got a weekend pass from prison, I'm your driver."

Immediately after this unsettling news, a woman bearing a startling resemblance to Marilyn Monroe sashays toward the bus.

Once inside, the sex symbol practices a vaporous rendition of "Happy Birthday, Mr. President." Shadowing her and adjusting his power tie is a dead ringer for President George Bush.

Fear not, this isn't some political time warp, just another day with Scandal Tours, one of Washington's newest and most entertaining attractions.

Part history lesson, part theater-on-wheels, Scandal Tours is Washington's first tabloid sightseeing show. Started last August, the tour uses political satire, with a dollop of "Saturday Night Live," to dig up the vast array of skeletons in Washington's closets.

The 90-minute city tour is historical info tainment, offering visitors a novel approach to Washington's corridors of power, where scandals always are lurking.

Scandal Tours is a mud-slinging supplement to regular sightseeing tours of the city. It looks at the seamier side of the nation's capital--its sleazy underbelly populated by Civil War-era mistresses, Watergate dirty tricksters and Iran-Contra plotters.

From the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol and Pennsylvania Avenue, Scandal Tours buses also pass in front of all the city's post-card sites.

Leading tourists on this irreverent jaunt is a theatrical troupe of guides. Using the front of the bus as a stage, actors from Gross National Product, the city's most popular company of satirists, portray such people as Bush, Monroe, Oliver North and Fawn Hall.

Each actor mingles with the tourists and shares tidbits of documented scandal that stained the good name of--for example--former Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Warren Harding and John F. Kennedy.

Throughout the actors' narration of historically verified scandals are tape-recorded re-enactments of Washington's "greatest hits" of sexual and political embarrassment.

Tourists hear Rep. Wilbur Mills drunkenly trying to explain why his companion, the stripper Fanne Fox (a.k.a. "The Argentine Firecracker"), has just taken a belly-flop in the Tidal Basin.

They listen to Rita Jenrette, wife of former South Carolina Congressman John Jenrette, describe her own bump-and-grind congress on the third step of the Capitol.

The master of Scandal Tours' ceremonies is the actor playing Bush.

As the bus passes the National Rifle Assn. building, he advises those on board that anyone seen brandishing a semiautomatic assault rifle "is just a legitimate sportsman out for a pleasant day's stroll."

When the bus nears the Lincoln Memorial a Scandal Tours' guide describes Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd, as an undiagnosed manic-depressive with a penchant for over-decorating herself and the White House. Mrs. Lincoln also maintained a live-in psychic for seances in the Red Room.

Passing the site of the historic Dolly Madison Hotel, the tour hears about Harding's gallivanting ways. It appears that Harding used the cover of his weekly card game at the hotel to escape into a tunnel to the town house of his mistress.

As the bus stops in front of the Parthenon-style Treasury Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, a guide recounts the nasty blackmail payments paid by the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

The hush money was demanded to stifle whispers of Hamilton's illicit affair with Maria Reynolds. A very thorough treasurer, Hamilton always asked for a receipt after he made his $1,000 monthly blackmail payments. The guide dubs the sordid mess "HamScam."

Even Lafayette Park, one of Washington's most groomed environs, can't hide its soap-opera past. In Civil War days, Union Army Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles chose the park as the spot to shoot his wife's lover, Philip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key.

On the site of the ornate District Building the raffish life of Civil War Gen. John Hooker unfolded. There, Hooker received massages and other favors from women. The term "hooker" can be traced to Gen. Hooker's favorite companions.

Scandal continues as the tour motors toward the marble portico of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This prompts the actress playing Monroe to undulate toward the front of the bus, pucker her mouth and coo the "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" song the real Monroe suggestively delivered to President Kennedy at his birthday celebration.

She then breathily lists the President's other rumored mistresses, including Louisiana stripper Blaze Starr and Judith Campbell Exner, former girlfriend of Chicago Mafia kingpin Sam Giancana.

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