Tractor Man.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
March 19 2003 1:43 PM

The Ballad of Tractor Man

A terrorist who frightened no one.

Tractor Man, making a point with his John Deere
Tractor Man, making a point with his John Deere

The first terrorist incident of Gulf War II lasted 48 hours in the nation's capital and hardly anybody seemed to care. Chatterbox is referring to Dwight W. Watson, a North Carolina farmer who drove his tractor during lunchtime Monday into a shallow pond on the Mall. Watson, aka "Tractor Man," said he had ammonium nitrate, a powerful explosive, and he was in a tense standoff with the police until lunchtime today, when he surrendered peacefully. Several buildings along the Mall were evacuated, including the Federal Reserve, which happens to be the most powerful government economic agency on the planet. Yet the story took two days to make Page One of the Washington Post, and when it finally landed there today, it was way down at the bottom. Chatterbox didn't hear about Tractor Man until a neighbor mentioned the incident last night.

Chatterbox can well imagine Tractor Man's high expectations in taking the Mall hostage. A similar incident two decades ago, in which a man threatened to blow up the Washington Monument, was immediately splashed across the Post's front page. It was even featured on Nightline, occasioning the first network news appearance of George Stephanopoulos, then an obscure congressional aide. A media star was born. (Things worked out less favorably for the perpetrator, who was shot and killed by a police sniper.)

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This time, though, press coverage was not nearly so sensational. Chatterbox doesn't fault the Post (or the New York Times, which buried the story inside the "A" section) for downplaying Tractor Man. The fault lay with Tractor Man himself. The man's lack of media savvy was almost as criminal as his threat of violence. His menacing behavior had little effect on the Fed, whose Open Market Committee managed to meet yesterday and make the weighty decision not to lower interest rates. It didn't seem to dent D.C.'s spring tourist season, either. Tractor Man's major impact was to snarl commuter traffic from Virginia for a couple of days.

Tractor Man's main impediment, of course, was the war. With the most ambitious U.S. military action in decades about to commence, he couldn't have picked a worse time to try to focus the country's attention on his chosen cause, which was to protest the federal government's tobacco farming policies. If his aim was to spotlight that cause, he couldn't have chosen a less popular or meritorious one than the injustice of lowering tobacco price supports and attempting to keep cigarettes away from minors. If, on the other hand, Tractor Man just wanted to kill people, he'd have done better to stay in North Carolina and continue farming tobacco. The cops couldn't have laid a finger on him.

[Update, March 20: It's back to the Post Metro section for Tractor Man today. It turns out he was bluffing. The cops found a phony hand grenade but no explosives.]

Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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