Posted by: cctracker | February 21, 2013

A Lost Campaign for 600 Words

Every four years an intense Presidential season runs from the February before the general election to the State of the Union address the following February.  The season has just ended.

For 12 months the office of President of the United States, a subject never far from the headlines even on the most ordinary of off-election year days, dominates the news—and our imaginations.  No matter who gets in or what unfolds in a four-year term, the story of an ordinary, flawed human being bearing  unimaginable responsibilities has to be one of the most dramatic of all possible settings for a story.

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This past November I tried to write a story for NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction” contest. Three minutes is about 600 words—that was the limit. The only other rule was that the story needed to feature an American President, fictional or real. I wasn’t thinking of writing but the moderator’s last bit of advice hooked me: “Write what you know. Write what you care about most deeply.”

I’d entered a contest like this once before, but the challenge was much fluffier: to complete a romantic detective story set in St. Louis. In my story the villain drowned at the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi; I can’t seem to stop thinking about rivers. But the prompts for this NPR Presidential story got a lot further under my skin.

This time I found myself drawn to the setting of Ozark streams, but the advice to include what I cared most about reminded me that I’m also instinctively drawn to the angle of morality and meaning, the human struggle to choose good over evil, to square one’s life with one’s conscience and the truth.

For a few days I thought a lot about a President, a river and choice. I started a draft, saw that I was going way over the limit and started cutting words before I had the plot problems figured out. I got down to nearly a thousand, but couldn’t sustain the idea with anything leaner. The last few weeks I’ve tried to at least finish a “fat” version weighing in at a hefty 4500 words. Since I’m an inexperienced writer of fiction, it was a humbling task. But the exercise was a  way to imaginatively work through some of the themes I’m trying to explore in this blog.

So, here it is. It takes about 8 minutes to read silently.

The Heart of Shannon County

Boots Wald reached up in darkness for where muscle memory put the next handhold. Wheezing, he hooked a ledge with raw fingers and pushed with what was left in his legs to haul himself up into the next niche of the zigzagging limestone chimney.

The surprise of faint daylight filled the damp, stone cell, thin gauze suspended in slightly warmer air. “Morning,” he rasped out loud. The light was palpable hope—something he didn’t know he’d been holding out for—soaking through his skin into his chest.

“Breathe. Take a minute.”

The 3-hour climb up through the natural shaft from the cave below—an hour of pure exhilaration at 15 when he’d last done it with Sam—had taken him to the edge of exhaustion.  But he was smiling. Sam might actually be up there, standing in Crowder’s field right now with the truck.

For the first time in weeks the tumbling rush of thoughts calmed, his awareness widening out the way the canoe had shot through the chute of whitewater hours before in the dead stillness of a moonless Ozark night and eased into the wide, slow hole at the entrance to Jam-Up Cave. If the secret service guys hadn’t caught up with him by then, they’d never track him here.

When had the chaos begun?

As soon he’d framed the question, he flinched against the sound of shrieking tires, fresh and obscene though he’d heard them a thousand times, the sickening thump and roll of body and limbs eleven years gone. This time he didn’t push the memory away.

He remembered the serene pleasure of the instant before: the flush of victory tingling in his belly, radiating out to his limbs, his body suffused with the alcohol in his brain. There was Charlie Childress in silhouette against street lights outside the car: his friend, Senate Campaign Manager and the only person he’d taken orders from for 14 months, sober and staring straight out into the night. He recalled how strange it was to see him looking almost peaceful.

Then impact. Charlie exploding. “Get over!!” Clawing wildly to get under him to the driver’s seat, shoving him into the passenger door. “Buckle in!”  Charlie rushing out, stooping to cradle a woman’s head in his hands. Charlie with the Police. Charlie’s face looming over him the next morning saying that an accident wasn’t going to put an end to the political career of the man upon whom his whole political future would be built. Scattered images from the weeks of inquiry, the crisis fading away under Charlie’s low-key brilliance at the first press briefing.

“Yes, the newly elected Senator from Missouri had been celebrating, that’s why I was driving. The plain truth is it was dark. Darlene Green was crossing against the light. The Senator extends his deepest condolences to the family.  Of course,  I am profoundly sorry. But my conscience is clear. This is no scandal; it was a terrible accident. Accidents can happen to anyone.” The performance had terrified him.

Charlie had even been the one to tell his wife. When she collapsed screaming, Charlie dropped to the floor, took her face in both hands and refused to let her look anywhere but straight into his eyes.

“Abby, I was right  there and I swear to God there was nothing he could do. If I’d been driving this woman would still be dead. The facts are arbitrary. Change them around and the career of a man this country desperately needs is over, along with any chance of a normal life for you and Sarah. So, I was driving, do you understand? That’s the only way–and the right way–to think about this.”

The first few nights, he had waited for her tears or whispers as they lay together in bed. They never came. Within a few weeks Charlie’s voice had convinced him, too, and walling himself off from what happened became habitual and unconscious enough to muffle his anxiety of being exposed.

16 months later, Charlie had gone into treatment for an Oxycodone addiction. Eventually he’d returned to academia. He had not seen or heard from him during the Presidential campaign, but he had been following his advice about the accident everyday of his life until this morning.

The accident. That was the beginning, the most important thing to be clear about right now.

But the last moment of genuine calm he could remember before this moment underground was two months ago on the Truman Balcony the night before his last press conference. In most ways it had been just another day: Chuck Blair from the House had called to put the last nail in the coffin of the debt bill, though it had really died three days before when the TreadNots pulled the plug on the Cushing tax hikes for the wealthy. Without so much as a phone call, Blair had appeared on JOLT:

“We’ve got an entitlement problem, 9% unemployment and the President insists on more taxes! So I told him ‘No!’ How ’bout we grow this economy and get some more taxpayers!” Even worse, Donna Hellwig from the Senate hadn’t called, either. “ Just know this, America,” she’d announced on WIRED, “we had a deal for all Americans. We never gave you up to Wall Street fat cats. Speaker Blair and his party walked away from this deal because they already have.”

Poole, the young agent from his security detail was with him on the balcony that night. “I love it here,” he’d said to him. “I forget I’m pretending to be alone and I almost believe it.” The kid  just stood there, not knowing what to say.

He  reached up to probe a nearly invisible scar on the window casing. “You know, Clayton, a year ago they dug 5.56 millimeter LMG out of the woodwork right here.”

“I know all about that, Mr. President. We spent 3 weeks breaking that down and…”

He had waved to cut him off, pivoted in the chair and settled back. “I sit here just like this many nights. It would have hit me right here in the back of the head.”

He’d been thinking that night about how any night really could be his last. He tried to imagine the expression on Abby’s face at the public funeral. Sarah was almost 11,  but he wondered how many network commentators would compare the way she held Sarah’s hand to Jackie Kennedy anyway.

The election still over a year away, he was already sick of what he said in public all day long while hundreds of terrible secrets he knew about the nation and the world called for urgent action. He’d been thinking about the wasted weeks of gratifying work on the debt bill. And he’d been mulling over a plea he’d read in a letter from a young mother in Waldron, Arkansas: “Do something to help us believe that you’re all not just in there for yourselves.”

He’d gone to sleep that night imagining those words coming from the face of a tired woman who reminded him of his Aunt Helen. That face, in turn, pulled him upstream, back before the Presidential Campaign, before six years as the Junior Senator from Missouri, before the terrible night on Division Street,  all the way back up into the winding hills of Shannon County to memories he couldn’t mark in order on the map of his life, but could see in his mind’s eye and feel in his limbs and bones: stands of short leaf pine, logging lots, wood smoke, church dinners, blue-cold pools at the end of a spring branch.

Lying in bed that night, he remembered thinking that before the accident he’d been almost worthy of his own legend. The boy from the Ozarks whose parents died in a house fire, raised by kinfolk. Eminence High valedictorian and Georgetown scholar who’d won his first election for Congress at 27. Shannon County was proud. As an intern on Capitol Hill he’d charmed every one without trying. Something about his voice they couldn’t resist. “We got a Democrat here who sounds like Brad Pitt in ‘Inglorious Bastards,’ I swear to God!” one of them had said years ago. Party leaders saw charisma that would sell in any demographic and hustled him upward.

Most of all that night, he’d been thinking of Sam who stood in the frame of every picture called up from childhood.

His father had given him his brother’s name, but it was Sam himself who’d first  called him “Boots” watching him walk around in his Dad’s shoes in the weeks after his folks died. Neighbors heard the nickname and assumed the boots were his uncle’s. “Walkin’ in your Uncle’s boots, little fella?”  For 10 or so years their names were together on the lips of family and friends scattered all over the county. “Boots and Sam.” By the time he was six they were already floating the Jack’s Fork from The Prongs down to Alley Spring.

He was eight when Sam first guided their canoe onto the bank below Jam-Up Cave. Climbing up to the  yawning 80 ft. entrance he’d been thrilled and terrified: irresistibly drawn to clambering over cabin-sized granite boulders down into the darkness, but overwhelmed with fear at leaving the light behind, gaping up at an unimaginable mass of rock overhead that might come crashing down to shut off daytime forever.

Sam led him in 400 yards to near total darkness before he turned  on a headlamp to reveal the laundry-basket sized entrance to the shaft. “Climb in, Boots. This leads back up to the light.” Even that first time he’d gone in ahead of Sam, his headlamp below showing him the next place to grab hold, his voice soothing him past the panic and fear of that first ascent. They had come out into a sunlit field. He’d never tried to put into words what it was like to emerge from the underworld that day. Sam standing in the bleached, late winter grass beaming at him. His head tilted back with eyes closed and the sun on his face. A moment later he smiled into his nephew’s face without a word.

In a few minutes they’d clambered down the granite escarpment back to the river, but before they pushed off  he’d called out: “Boots?” He remembered  taking his eyes off the water, turning around to the back of the canoe as his uncle feathered a paddle to ease them into the middle of the stream. “Boots, there’s nobody in on this but you and me, OK?”

Next to that was a memory of  the unannounced visit he’d had with Sam in the heat of the August Presidential campaign. They’d had a night of beer, horseshoes and music in Clemmy’s backyard. Sam had driven him into town before dawn the next  morning. He’d had asked if they could be alone before he left town. Somehow the Candidate managed to  negotiate just one unmarked security car and two plainclothes guys. They’d climbed up through the abandoned hulk of the 10-story U-Haul building near the center of town at the corner of Hwy. 19 and Route ZZ. He remembered wondering if Sam had found out about the accident. If he was taking him up to look out over town and convince him to turn himself in.

But Sam spent the first five minutes or so just leaning out over a railing, making small talk. Catching him up about events and characters they’d have laughed about or lamented in former days.  Finally, he stopped talking altogether.

Kent Snowden from his detail stepped out of the shadows and tapped his wrist.

“Sam, my window is running out for the rally in Springfield; I gotta’ be going.”

They were looking east out over town. The sun was just coming up below a vast shelf of gold and pink clouds at the horizon. Sunrise would be covered over in a minute. A line of cars and trucks were coming up past the Pizza Hut to the intersection and pulling into the lot next to Sonic. Despite tight security, word had gotten around somehow and folks were out gawking. But his uncle wasn’t moving and, candidate for President or not, he wasn’t going to cut this moment off without permission.

At last, Sam spoke again. “You’re from Shannon County Boots, you understan’?” he asked, still staring out across town.  “An’ you got the best of us in you.” He’d paused to  jangle keys in his pocket and started up again, but in another direction. “Hell, we got the problem here, too. This is the tallest buildin’ in five counties. Goddamn disgrace. Coulda’ jus’ been a few roll-up door garages, an’ we’d still be gettin’ plenty a’ use out of ’em.  But Symes had ever’body on the Council seein’ more tall buildins an’ more free money. I bleeve we all knew it was bullshit, but he made us want to bleeve it wasn’t. You know what I’m talkin’ about?”

He remembered shame rising in his throat like bitter coffee and figured it was obvious on his face. Sam folded his hands, lowered his head and leaned further out into the warming air. He spoke with the flat sobriety that had unmistakably signaled dead seriousness every time he’d used it across their years together.

“Boots, I figure Presidents lie all the time about all kind a’ thangs. Has to be.” He waited for those words to settle, then looked over at him and grinned to call up without a word the hundred stories of dirty lies and goddamned liars he ever told. In a moment, somber lines settled back on his face. “But when the lies are for you, about protectin’ the world you’re all living in, instead of about servin’ all of us the best you can, well…”

After that night on the balcony, he’d finally been able to fall asleep by imagining Sam’s voice in his ears. No particular words, just the soothing, flat music of his voice like he was telling a story, as if he were a few feet below him in the shaft, steady and reassuring, guiding him up to the light.

A recollected calm was with him the next morning. It lingered as he finished the briefing before the Press Conference. He couldn’t recall exactly when he made the final decision, but as he walked over to the East Room he knew he wouldn’t be using the prepared text. By the time he stepped to the podium he’d rehearsed the first few lines of what he wanted to say in his head. The rest just came.

“Good afternoon. As you all  know I come from one of the poorest places in the country: Shannon County, Missouri. Folks there take pride that one of their own is President. But this afternoon, I want to tell all of you that I am proud of them. The fact that I’m here is more a credit to them than to me. Any strength or virtue I’ve called upon to reach this office, came from them. My heart–my soul– has been molded by the hills and rivers, by the people, of Shannon County.

“Now they’re not perfect, but they’re real. They’re honest. Like so many people in communities all across America, they work hard to wrestle a living from tough circumstances. But unfortunately,  again along with folks all across our nation, they are mighty discouraged about Washington D.C. right now. They watch us call each other out instead of working together for the good of the Country. They listen to us take positions on one side of an issue or another and they see opportunists out to advance careers instead of public servants trying to solve problems. As a woman from Arkansas put it in a letter I received just the other day, to many of them, it looks like we’re in this for ourselves.

“Today, I want to tell you that I agree with her. And I’m pointing the first finger right back here. I think the American people understand that there are times when a President, for the safety and security of the country, can’t tell the whole truth about some things. But that doesn’t give me–or  any of us who serve you as elected officials–permission to place politics before our obligation to serve all of you with integrity.

“I regret to say that I have forgotten that obligation. As my campaign has geared up these past few months, my public statements on issues from Medicare to Israel, from Greenhouse gasses to Immigration have been mostly aimed at one thing: getting reelected in November. In fact, many times I’ve said one thing, but in that honest place inside where I know what it is going to take really get something done, I’ve believed another. I apologize to all of you for that.

“So starting today you’re going to hear something different from me. Starting today, whatever the political consequences, I intend to tell you a plainer, tougher version of the truth about our problems. I hope to lay out a more honest–and therefore an ultimately more realistic and achievable–vision for our future.

“Let me get started right now. How tired are all of you of hearing someone in one party accuse somebody in the other party of ‘kicking the can down the road’ on an issue?  Well, I’ll agree that all of us in Washington, Democrats and Republicans, have been kicking the can down the road on a whole host of them. But the truth is that most of the responsibility for that falls on you–the voters, the people. You put us here. We take orders from you. If you were speaking up and making your voices heard, if you were telling us to make the hard choices calling for shared sacrifice, if you were demanding that your representatives in Washington and in your own communities truly take responsibility for the county we are passing down to our children, we’d be doing it. Because if we didn’t, you’d be voting us out.

“As much as I hope to serve four more years as your President, it may not be possible to run a successful campaign talking this way. So be it. But My fellow Americans, I believe it is time for us to face–together–what most of us know individually in the quiet of our own hearts and minds: there really isn’t anyone else to blame, or anyone else to do the work. It really is up to us, all of us, together. If you agree, I hope you’ll give me your vote in November. Meanwhile, as they say where I’m from,  it’s time to ‘Git ‘er Done’ in the United Sates of America.  Thank you.”

“Now I’m happy to take your questions.”

The room erupted with laughter and applause. For a few seconds he mistook the surge of energy for ridicule.  But scanning the pool of faces for someone to call on, he read waves of affection sweeping toward him at the podium, the laughter expressing a combination of incredulity and outright joy.  Helene Cooper from the Times got a nod for the first question.

“So, Mr. President, what’s the good news on your debt bill?” A burst of laughter.

“Gave me a mighty good excuse to sample some fine micro-brews, I can tell you that.” An even bigger swell of laughter.

But as he began his answer in earnest the room went quiet. He said that as much as he’d been stung by its failure in the  House, the bill had been mostly window dressing and deserved to die. Between bloated military programs like the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship which both parties had colluded to protect, and means testing and benefit age adjustments to entitlements which any actuary or social scientist could explain but no one in Congress was willing to propose, the fundamental outline of solutions to the country’s budget woes were pretty clear–and had been for some time. The real issue was political will, specifically  the will of America’s affluent middle-aged and elderly folks who were taking far more out of the system than the country could afford or morally justify.

There was a surreal quality to the atmosphere in the room as the questions continued. On the economy: most of the “investment programs” he’d been advocating were politics more than policy. The American economy would take off whenever corporations decided to spend the money they had in the bank, winnings many of them had taken from the house in the last gambling spree managed by the financial services industry. But most of the upper middle class in the country were shareholders one way or another in those corporations so, again, we had mostly ourselves to blame.

On healthcare: the government and healthy Americans with private insurance were subsidizing the wages of far too many health care providers and administrators delivering Cadillac services to far too many comfortable, wealthy and–many times–elderly Americans. Meanwhile the quality of basic healthcare for the young and the needy was terrible and getting worse. It was time for us to admit we had a bloated healthcare welfare system for a fortunate few, an expensive, mediocre system for many and a non-existent system for the rest. Either an honest market system or a well-managed and efficient single payor system could work, but we had the worst of both in a single hybrid monster right now. It was time to choose. He was for single payor.

On Israel and Palestine: Israel’s security and its right to exist were established policy and would continue to be, but the root issue standing in the way of peace–and being ignored or manipulated by extremists on both sides–was justice and quality of life for the Palestinian people. We’d been putting our money and our rhetoric mostly behind Israel for decades. It was time to champion Palestinian interests in matters like access to water and their right to travel and do business in their own territories as Israel’s best path to security. This would undercut Islamic extremists all over the world. Israel would have to figure out for itself how to deal with their own extremists.

When he finally stepped away from the podium, the Press corps was in raucous celebration of a stunning vein of material and his staff was in shock. Minutes later the Post ran the headline:  “Wald Says: ‘Git ‘Er Done!'” For the next few days his Administration was blasted from all sides and party power-brokers were calling on him to end his campaign and step aside for a new nominee.

But excerpts from the press conference kept cycling through the cable news shows and online feeds all week. Calls to the White House shifted massively in favor. At an appearance in Duluth, the chanting and applause had gone on and on in 7 degree cold and wind.

The first ‘Git ‘Er Done’ rally happened on a Wal-Mart Parking lot in Frankfort, Kentucky. The second was in Hyde Park. By mid-April the movement had offices in 24 states and online leadership registrations of over 1 and a half million. Nearly every state had a prominent leader from one party or the other that had defected. The Medicare Reform bill had passed on the strength of his speech on the floor.  His clout in rural America had held up. Independent political organizations focussed on solving problems rather than ideology were sprouting up all over the country. The machinery of the Republican and Democratic parties was in disarray.

It was  late April when Speaker Blair and Majority Leader Hellwig asked for a private meeting with extra measures for privacy. He assumed they were coming to resolve the last obstacles to the budget deal and the expanded Pre-School education Bill. Blair’s first sentence told him everything he needed to know about the purpose of the meeting.

“Mr.President, we’ve been talking with Charlie Childress.”

Donna Hellwig said that though Charlie was still a mess, all he wanted was a position somewhere in the Administration for his own security. Blair reassured him that Charlie was plenty scared and understood that there were no more payouts coming. They were convinced he’d spoken to no one else.

Chuck Blair continued, “As you can see, Mr. President, Donna and I are on the same page here. Both parties are ready to work with you as you steer this country back around to a more responsible and prudent course. Childress is in our pocket and the whole thing is all but dead…it’s over as long as we know you’re on board.”

Their proposal had been worked out in astonishing detail. His first public statements wouldn’t be straight retractions, just off the cuff remarks while he walked to meetings: “Yes, this new energy is wonderful, but we’ve got to be clear-eyed, and practical too.” “Revolution is easy, governing is hard.” He would never again mention the national rallying cry.

Then the addresses were to become more direct.  An Electrical Workers Union Rally in Buffalo to get labor focused on not losing ground their grandfathers had fought for. Another at the American Association for Manufacturing Technology to remind the country that private capital and investment had its own vital dynamism that could easily be thrown out of whack by government intervention. By the end of the summer, he would be pitching “the unique genius of our American system” rather than homespun remedies. Yes, he’d likely lose in November, but given the other option, perhaps that wasn’t so bad.

He’d agreed to their terms without looking either of them in the eyes.

“I believe I’d like to go home for a few days to think this all through. It’s going to take a few days to get it right in my gut. That’s the only way I can do this.”

The trip had been arranged according to the protocol for secret visits to foreign military installations. A small detail would be with him at a family cabin off Hwy. 17. He would have two days to be  alone in the hills. He left a note for Abby: “Away unexpectedly. Missed calling Sam for his B-Day. Tell him I’ll talk to him Sunday morning. Tell him  it will be ‘just between the two of us.’ Those words. Love always, Boots.”

It had been easy to get away from the cabin Saturday night. The detail had been on order to give him space to be alone. A light rain was falling and there was plenty of cover in the spring woods. They would have no clue how to track him. It would be at least a few hours before they got choppers in and even then it would still be dark. Two and a half miles cross-country brought him to Harold’s canoe outfitting shop. He’d asked Harold to call his nerdish, techy cousin Jason and tell him to meet Sam first thing the next morning. For the next hour he was alone on the Jack’s Fork with his thoughts.

It was clear from the cast of the light in the limestone cubicle that the rain had stopped.

As long as Sam was up there with the truck, he could finish this. His cousin Jason would be able to get him out on video all over the internet. He would apologize. Tell the country what happened on Division street that night, expose Blair and Hellwig. But in his last, unofficial, Presidential address he would also tell Americans they were still in charge. This had never been about a President. They could still rise above their own individual, narrow interests for the sake of the country, for the sake of future generations of Americans. And they could still demand that their elected officials “Git ‘er done” on behalf of the people they were elected to serve.

He stood, eased his head and chest through the next slot and reached up to get a good grip. Faith told him Sam would be waiting. Beyond that, all he knew was that there was a spring meadow in the Ozarks up there. And for Samuel James Wald, with a few hours left as the 44th President of the United States and the most powerful human being on earth, that was enough.

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