|Portrait of the author |
by Susan C. Price
By W.M. Dean
[The novel is set in the 1970s of Watergate. Chapter 3. “The Muse’s Fee,” appeared last month.]
President Flawless looked out the south window of the Oval Office at Washington’s monument and wished politics were as simple for him as they had been for the general. No television, no airplanes, fewer newspapers, only twenty-six Senators, not so many enemies out to get you.
Ron Zinger strolled in with the morning media synopsis, prepared the previous day and night by a six-man team, with the help of volunteers from the Silent Majority. The top few pages of the report summarized the network news shows and the releases of the major wire services.
“The White House press corps are complaining about the swimming pool.” At thirty-eight, Zinger looked like a college fraternity prankster, but this unlucky appearance was the cross he bore: he was a serious press secretary behind his shiny eyes and pointed nose.
“They say the Vice-President is the only one who swims in it—”
“No, they can’t swim in it.” The President’s upper lip twitched.” If they’ve got time to swim, they can go douche.”
“They don’t want to swim. They want you to cover the pool up again for a press room, the way President Dixon had it.”
“After what they did to him? Humpf. They can stay in the trailers.”
Zinger put the media synopsis on the desk, next to the President’s own copy of Taking the Heat, which lay open with a red silk ribbon marking the page.
“Ron, what do you know about telephone calls yesterday from the White House to some talk show?”
“I don’t know anything, Mr. P. Who made the calls?”
“CBS says it was you and me.”
“You talked to CBS?”
The President snorted. “Of course not. They talked to the switchboard.”
“Maybe someone else made the calls.”
The President glowered.
Zinger tensed at his boss’s annoyance. “I mean, someone else on the staff.”
“The staff knows they can impersonate our enemies, and I haven’t ruled out the staff impersonating each other, if they check it out first. Or even check it out afterwards. But I draw the line at the President. I’ll impersonate the President.”
The President sat down. He was tired. Hectic eighteen-hour days of seeing after the affairs of the White House were taxing his stamina and his amazing powers of relaxation and mental revitalization.
He tapped the pile of paper on his desk. “What’ s the reaction on that leak yesterday?”
“There was more than one?” The President closed his eyes and tried to remember yesterday’s leaks. “I want to know about the Silent Majority Institute one.”
“Well, Barry Wrangler seems to think it’s a joke. He was smiling a lot when he reported it. But he always does.”
Zinger came around alongside the President and lifted the top page. “I think there’s something on the second page.”
The President put his hands up and turned his head away. “I don’t want to read it. Just net it out for me.”
Zinger hesitated. He sometimes wondered whether reviewing the media synopsis first thing each morning was good for the President, but the President insisted on it. He seemed to draw strength from the broadsiding media, as though he had a magical facility for converting their destructive energies into fuel for his lonely endurance.
Zinger cleared his throat. “The reaction is mixed.”
The President looked at his press secretary hopefully.
“A number of papers in Kansas and Nebraska were enthusiastic—”
The President’s lips formed an evil smile. “But television and the liberal press barfed?”
Zinger swallowed. “Yeah, Dan Somewhat filed a report for CBS. He—”
The President raised his hand. “No, I don’t care what Dan Somewhat said. I have no respect for Dan Somewhat. What he says is of no account.”
“See if Rob’s around. Tell him not to wait – I want to see him now. And check the switchboard. See if those calls were made from the White House.”
Zinger nodded and left.
President Flawless looked around his office to make sure no one was there. He pulled the report over and ran his eyes down the top sheet before lifting it. Hardly breathing, he read the summary of CBS’s reaction, and then decisively pushed the report back across his desk.
He looked around the room again and pulled open the second drawer on the right. The drawer was empty. Taped to the bottom of it was a picture of former President Dixon. He was smiling.
President Flawless looked at the picture for a minute. He closed the drawer, sat up straight, and placed his hands on the desktop. He fixed his eyes on the shiny platinum pen set that the former President had given him in June of 1972. He breathed in deeply, then out. In. Out. He was counting.
Then, still counting his breaths, he recited to himself, over and over: “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” In. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Out. His slightly loose jowls flapped and his broad chest rose and fell rhythmically.
He tried to lower his shoulders. He was very self-conscious that they were practically fixed in a tight, hunched position. At a Washington party one time, before he became President, some smartass had told him his shoulders were like that because his mother had caught him so many times with his hand in the cookie jar. The raised shoulders were his perpetual reaction to being caught in the act.
Nobody’d say that now that he was President.
But, still, he was embarrassed by it, especially when he had to answer questions at a press conference. He could never remember to hold his shoulders down. There were too many other things to think about at a press conference: the answers his aides had prepared for him, the answer s he had given to previous questions, the fear that somebody might ask him something unforeseen.
The President’s chief aide, P.R. Addleman, entered. He was agitated. “Mr. P, Tinker’s got something for us.”
The President was interested, but he remained detached. He was able to remember at all times and in all places that he was the leader of all the people.
“I’ve got something for you, too, Rob. You’re in trouble.” The President liked to keep his men on their toes.
Addleman swallowed. His ears pricked up and narrowed the strip of cleanly shaved scalp above them. He could never tell when the President was bluffing. “What is it?”
“Never mind. You first. What have they got on us?” The President laughed uncomfortably. “I mean, what have they got for us?”
The President looked around quickly. “Wait a minute. Tinker hasn’t told you the details of his operation, has he?”
“No, I don’t know a thing about their procedures.”
“Good. Have they found out yet what Clara Noemann’s up to?”
Addleman took out a little think pad. He wet his thumb and riffled the pages.
“What’s that?” The President was tense. “You shouldn’t write down anything having to do with – uh, the boys.”
“I write things down to discourage my mind from remembering them. It’s a technique I learned at the workshop on forgetting. The best way to forget something is not to remember it in the first place.”
“Okay, okay. But don’t give me any details.”
“All right.” Addleman looked over his notes. “Clarabelle’s trying to get dirt on you from the Outs – stuff they didn’t use during the campaign.”
“What? I thought they used all they had – and more.”
“Right, they haven’t got anything on you. You’re as clean as the driven snow.”
“Why is she trying to make slush?”
“Wait a minute. There’s more, and it’s worse. Tinker found out that Carla Burnstone is an investigative reporter.”
“Who? That cute little society reporter who’s been around to see my wife about dinner parties and dances and meditation seminars?”
“That’s the one. Clara Noemann has been meeting with her too – in garages, late at night. And she’s been talking to other investigative reporters. You can never tell what they’ve got. They sit on it, check their sources, get confirmations. They’re a lot more cautious than politicians are.”
“Politicians aren’t cautious?”
“Sure, but they’re practical – they know the value of action. You can’t be idealistic and get elected.”
“Yeah, yeah. What’s Clarabelle up to?”
“I don’t know, and that’s what worries me. If we knew, we could deal with it.”
“But don’t you have a special understanding with her, Rob? Surely you can find out what she’s up to.”
Addleman snapped his head around. “Special understanding?”
The President’s eyes were two corkscrews boring into Addleman. He often used his psychic energy to extract truth from other beings. “Did Clara Noemann give you money last summer?”
“I didn’t hear the question.” Addleman raised his hand to bend his left ear forward.
“Clara Noemann visited you in Seattle before the nominating convention. Did she give you money?”
“To the best of my recollection, I believe she paid for our dinner. But she used a credit card.”
“I’m talking about after dinner. You discussed with her the question of her husband running for Vice-President—”
“I don’t have all my records with me, but I believe it’s possible that subject was discussed.”
The President paused and intensified his energy, but Addleman didn’t seem nervous.
“At this meeting, did you—?”
“What meeting are we talking about now?”
The President’s knuckles turned white in his fists. He rose off his chair and shouted: “The meeting where she gave you the campaign contribution, the—”
“I never heard of any campaign contribution.”
The President slumped back in his swivel chair. “You thought I was drilling you in case you’re called to—” He burst out laughing.
“Uh, yes – ‘thought.’ You fooled me for a minute. That was more realistic than usual…Are they going to call—?”
“No. Or at least, not yet. No, I want to hear about the campaign contribution again – all of it. Tell me one more time about how you checked out Noemann before the convention without discovering he was a spineless noodle that couldn’t be used for a lightning rod or a whip, a man whose wife” – the President looked steadily at Addleman – “tells him what to do, a man whose only notable asset to me is his inability to displease anyone.”
Addleman inhaled. “I looked into his background thoroughly. No indication of unpatriotism, no medical history—”
“No medical history? You mean he had never been to see a doctor? How did you know he wasn’t wasting away or something? Nobody’s that healthy.”
“I mean no history of severe or chronic illness. He had regular checkups.”
Addleman continued the checklist from memory. “No suspicious liaisons with contractors or real estate developers, no traffic violations, no regular drinking of alcoholic beverages—”
“Weren’t you suspicious about a non-regular-drinker being able to hold his liquor? There are lots of temptations to drink in Washington.”
“May I remind you that this was your own list of criteria, Mr. P?”
Addleman continued. “No psychiatric record, not dependent on relaxants, depressants, or stimulants, no history of writing letters to Time magazine. Children did not, to the best of my knowledge, smoke pot.”
The President looked at Addleman archly. “So, what would you say were your reasons for recommending him to me as your number-one choice for Vice-President?”
“Well, I’ve just gone over th—”
“But, as you said, those were my criteria. What were yours?”
Addleman cocked his head and looked sideways at the President.
“Come on, Rob, I want the truth. I’ve had news about your trip to Seattle.”
“Goddamnit, Rob, cut the crap. Don’t play dumb. This is no drill. How much did Clarabelle give you?”
“You know she made a campaign contribution of one hundred big ones.”
“Yes, I saw that money. But I want you to tell me about the additional money she gave you.”
“What additional money?”
“Loren received a note that said she made a contribution of a hundred and fifty big ones.”
“Shit! You know Orda doesn’t like me – he probably wrote it himself.”
The President frowned. “He figures Clara must have sent the note. Who else – besides you – would know about the…transaction?”
“What did you tell Orda?”
“What could I tell him? I told him to do a thorough investigation and I would look into it. You’re in big trouble. If this comes out, l can’t keep you around.”
“Can the note be traced?”
“No, it was composed of cut-out newsprint pasted on a brown bag. But, on the bright side, I don’t think it’s admissible as evidence. According to my correspondence course – I happen to be studying evidence now – such a note is no better than hearsay.”
“But if Clarabelle sent the note— That kind of information could be embarrassing to her husband and even more embarrassing to her. She’ll never leak it. She must have sent the note to Orda to make trouble for me.”
“You’d better hope so. Now, tell me about the fifty big ones you kept for yourself.”
Addleman swallowed hard. He studied the President. “She didn’t make a hundred-and-fifty-thousand dollar contribution. It was only a hundred—”
The President’s face was ugly.
“I realized that she might increase the contribution if she thought there was any doubt about Noemann being the choice, so I pretended to be doubtful.”
The President’s eyes bored into Addleman’s clammy flesh. “You weren’t doubtful?”
“No, not at all, but she thought so…She didn’t just increase the contribution, she suggested I take another fifty thousand for myself…No one would ever know…I deny that the money influenced me.”
“Rob, I don’t care about the money – you know money is of no concern to me. But a political contribution is one thing, and personal money is another thing. No one could possibly connect her hundred-thousand-dollar campaign contribution and Noemann’s nomination...Of course, we never reported it – there was no need…Are you absolutely sure you weren’t influenced?”
“No, not at all. Noemann was the perfect choice. Nobody could point a finger at him for anything.
“Well, how come he’s such a washout?”
“Running for Vice-President and being Vice-President are two different things. He had beautiful negative qualifications for running, but nothing positive for serving. So long as nothing happens to you, he’s the ideal Vice-President. If Clarabelle wasn’t behind him – pushing and paying – he’d probably be an elementary school teacher somewhere – specializing in recess.”
The President paled. “My God, but what if I – heaven forbid that such a thing should be inflicted on the American people – what if I were assassinated, gunned down by one of the loonies that populate California or someplace? Who would save the government? Jesus, with Noemann in the White House, big business would walk right in and take over…or the labor unions…or” – the President’s voice trailed off, in awe of the enormity of it – “Rough Nadir….”
“And the Institute,” he continued. “Noemann could never handle the Institute.”
“Mr. P, you’ve always respected my opinion and given my ideas a fair hearing, right?”
“Do you have to remind me now?”
“You can’t start tuning out things you don’t want to hear, like President Dixon did, or the flower children before him did. You’re a great President precisely because you accept reality and do only what you can do – while at the same time convincing everybody that you are doing more. But you know what’s happening? You’re starting to believe that you should be able to do the impossible. It’s unnatural for a man to have to accept responsibility for everybody else, however willing President Dixon said he was to do so.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Noemann’s the Vice-President. Accept it as a fact. It is a fact, either way. The people elected him.”
“But they didn’t elect him – I did. Or, now that I hear about this money, maybe you did.”
Addleman was warmed up. “The point is, you can’t do anything about it. There were too many resignations in Dixon’s administration to force him to resign. It’d be pretty hard to get the Congress to pass a Constitutional amendment to bypass the Vice-President.”
Addleman stopped. “Hmm, maybe they would consider that, come to think of it.”
The President sat up. “Do you think so?”
“No, not really. There you go again. Grasping at fantasies. Being a realist is your forte. You’re the one who taught me that worry doesn’t help. You’ve always done what was necessary and what you could do and you’ve forgotten about the rest.”
“Shit, I can’t forget about the rest. You know what Clarabelle did last week? She told me that Nadli and I ought to switch with her and Fred – every six months.”
“She wants for us to live in the basement and them to live upstairs. I didn’t even mention it to Nadli – she’s just got her new drapes and carpets installed.”
“You’re sure Clarabelle suggested you come downstairs? I bet she meant she would come upstairs and Nadli would go downstairs. That makes more sense anyway, since you’re President.”
The President gaped. “It wasn’t that kind of switch!”
He lowered his head to the desk and buried both hands in his curly dark hair, into which the gray was trespassing more and more as the months went by.
“All I can say, Mr. P, is that I’m glad, since President Dixon wasn’t successful in protecting the confidentiality of future Presidents, that he did make it inconceivable for another President in this century to record all of his conversations....”
The President started to shake. “There’ll be no bugs in the White House!”
Addleman sat down and contemplated the lessons of history. “I wonder why Clarabelle sent Orda that note.”
The President laid his hand on his copy of Taking the Heat. “Have Tinker find out. Make up some cover story. I don’t want him to know what he’s doing. And I don’t want to know what he’s doing either.”
|Copyright © 2015 by W.M. Dean|