Todd Oulette is proof that one person acting alone can get the president's attention.
All you've got to do is walk across the country and camp in front of the White House day after day for 18 months - stand at attention hours at a time in the snow and rain and swampy summer heat, kneel on the sizzling concrete or march around the president's house with 50 pounds of rice strapped to your shoulders.Don't laugh. It's working.
Two of President Clinton's top advisers talked to Oulette recently, with one delivering a letter from the president. But Oulette says he won't abandon his vigil until Clinton personally accepts his petitions demanding action on behalf of missing American servicemen who fought in Vietnam and are still not accounted for.
"If the guy's got enough time to go golfing, he's got enough time to talk with me," he said. But Oulette is a little surprised he's gotten this far.
"I'm just one person out here," he said. "It's not like you've got 5,000 people out here chanting with me."
Oulette, 27, is obsessed with the POW-MIA issue, and he doesn't know why. None of his relatives or friends served in Vietnam. He was only a child when the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam.
Writing to his congressman didn't work, nor did trying to forget about the war he remembered watching on television. "Sometimes you gotta go to the man," he said with a shrug.
His protest began six months before Clinton was elected, when he left a restaurant job in Winona, Minn., and traveled to Los Angeles. He said he walked across the country from Aug. 5, 1992 to Feb.19, 1993, picking up signatures along the way.
After losing his downtown apartment and quitting his job waiting tables, Oulette began sleeping in a park across the street from the White House and eating at local missions. His exacting forms of protest took a toll on his legs and made it too painful to work, he said.
To mount his protest, Oulette stands ramrod-straight at attention - holding a black-and-white POW-MIA flag tied to a rickety stick - or kneels on the cement, sweat dripping from his face, his legs trembling from the strain. Sometimes he carries bags of rice around the White House.
The protests are modeled on methods of torture employed on American servicemen, he said.
He is a regular outside the White House gate, normally dressed in black shorts and shirt, shielding his eyes with futuristic wraparound sun glasses. He wears a tangle of rubber bands and paper clips on his left wrist, explaining that the earliest rationale for U.S. involvement in Asia was to protect tin and rubber interests.
His damp, ratty petitions are kept in a clear plastic bag, stuffed into a soiled gym bag.
The protest paid off this month when National Security Adviser Tony Lake stopped and chatted with Oulette and left with a sampling of petitions.
Top Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos returned Tuesday to deliver a letter from Clinton, commending him for his "vigilant efforts" and his "ongoing commitment." Oulette noted that ink from the signature seeped to the back of the note - proof, he said, that Clinton signed it himself.
Stephanopoulos offered to accept the rest of the petitions on Clinton's behalf, but Oulette refused. He wants five minutes with the president.
"I don't understand it myself," he said. "Like Bo Didley said, `It's in him and it's gotta come out."'
Back in Minnesota, far from the politics of war and Washington, Oulette's parents are mystified. "I hope he's doing some good," Joyce Oulette said by telephone.
"But I wish he'd get on with his life."