Leland William Modjeski usurped a moment in the nation’s fleeting consciousness, armed with a gun without bullets.
This seemed strangely telling to sociologist Jack Levin.
“He got fired, so now he’s firing back with an empty gun.”
When someone jumps the fence at the White House, his need for attention might outweigh any designs on the life of the president, believes Levin, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston and an expert on violence.
The fact that the man arrested Tuesday night was white and in his 30s and that he recently had lost his job as a pizza deliveryman also seemed to Levin to be part of something larger - the frustration and impotence that are part of what he calls this “age of rage.”
There is much that is not yet known about the motivation of Modjeski, who is from Falls Church, Va.
But his name seems destined for the roll of “fence jumpers,” gate crashers and other intruders who have penetrated the security of the White House grounds - a slow, strange stream of people who resist pat generalities.
“They are not your regular guys,” says Joe Sheley, a criminologist and a member of the sociology department at Tulane University. “They are not all alike, except they are not regular.”
There was Marshall Fields, who crashed his Chevrolet Impala through the northwest gate on Christmas Day, 1974, claiming he was the Messiah.
Chester Plummer, the taxi driver, scaled the White House fence in 1976, armed with a length of pipe.
Anthony Henry, wearing a white karate suit, did the same two years later, carrying a knife and Bible.
There have been some pranksters, some protesters.
Some with a death wish.
Some quite sane.
Some mentally ill.
In September of last year, a despondent pilot, Frank Eugene Corder, crashed his small plane and died on the South Lawn of the White House.
In October, Francisco Martin Duran opened fire through the fence. His lawyers said he was crazy, he was trying to shoot down an evil “mist” that was controlling the White House. He was convicted last month of trying to kill President Clinton.
“It’s a mistake to believe there is a uniform profile,” says Edwin Megargee, a professor of psychology at Florida State University who has served as a consultant to the Secret Service.
But it is safe to say that the White House serves as a magnet for some among the powerless because of its symbolic weight as the seat of power, says Jerrold Post, an expert on terrorism.
Post now directs the political psychology program at George Washington University, but in the 1960s he served on the staff at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital here.
One of his responsibilities there was screening the assortment of cranks and crazies who showed up at the White House gate, or jumped it, or crashed it.
“There was a man … who tried to drive his truck through the White House gate,” Post recalls.
“When I asked him why he had driven at the White House, he explained he was king of the world and the throne of the world was at the White House.
“I said, ‘Someone else is on it, Mr. Johnson, and he appears to be enjoying it. He was elected and all.’
“‘He is only the president,’ insisted the man, ‘and I am the king.”’
“He had the idea he was king of the world,” Post recalls. “He’d been fired the day before from his job as a dishwasher. He snapped when he was fired. Psychologically, he handled the mortification by developing a delusion of grandeur.”
And showed up at the White House to claim his throne.