Saturday, February 20, 2016

Chapter 8 of The Unmaking of the President (a novel)

Portrait of the author
by Susan C. Price
The Battle of the Press Conferences

By W.M. Dean

[The novel is set in the 1970s of Watergate. Links to earlier chapters are provided at the bottom. We regret that this chapter didn’t appear last month; the author was sick and unable to prepare it for publication. The time-out did allow him to reflect and discover that he should have been including photos of some of the real cast of characters from Watergate. Making up comical names for some of them was part of the fun in writing the novel in 1974.]

HR Haldeman
The next morning, PR Addleman walked with pretended casualness past the armed Oval Office guard, who might have supposed the brown paper bag under the chief aide’s arm contained a book of pornography.
    During the ten days since Fred Noemann’s return to Washington to launch himself into the role of the middle-aged physical fitness champion, Addleman’s paranoia had grown feverish. He now believed that he really had been bribed. How could he have sincerely recommended Fred Noemann to President Flawless? Believing that Noemann best met the President’s own criteria, which was true, didn’t help. What was an advisor for, if not to contradict the President?
    A long line of yes-men advisers, beginning at least with General Custer’s scouts, demonstrated their failure to help not only their advisees, but also themselves.
    So why hadn’t Addleman said, “Look here, Otis , maybe this Fred Noemann doesn’t drink, doesn’t drive off bridges, hasn’t been psychoanalyzed, doesn’t alliterate, never talked to a real-estate developer in his life, doesn’t take expensive vacations – and maybe his old lady is willing to give me fifty G’s – but, Mr. Future P, I can’t recommend him to you”?
    Well, he didn’t say that, because he believed saying it would have been the uneasy thing to do. Otis had put more thought and worry into the selection of a Vice-Presidential nominee than any other Presidential candidate in history, and for that reason, Addleman rationalized, he wouldn’t have been receptive to advice contrary to the logical, scientific conclusion: Fred Noemann.
    Addleman reached the desk unnoticed by the meditating President and laid the parcel down, as far as possible from the President’s autobiography, to avoid profaning it.
    “Mr. P, you’ve got to listen to this.”
    “Wh—” The President was startled back to ordinary consciousness.
    “I’ve got a tape of—”
    “Not so loud! Here, give me that.” The President stuffed the bag inside his coat and clasped his arms around his waist.
    He unclasped one arm. “No, I don’t want it.”
    He reached in and started to extract the bag.
    Miss Good came in from her secretarial chamber. She was a gray lady – blue-qray bottled hair, gray wool dress, pallid skin. “The gate guard wants to know what to do about the television crew.”
    She regarded the President’s exaggerated Napoleonic pose. “Are you all right?”
    “Television?” The President looked at Addleman, who ran to part the curtains with clammy hands.
    “Oh, my God! It must be the real plan.”
    “Get your hands off the drapes,” commanded Miss Good.

A girl with emerald eyes and extremely curly hair answered the door. “Oh, Mr. President.”
    The President thought the girl looked familiar. “Who are you?”
    “Oh…yes.” He examined the girl’s face for clues about what was going on. She seemed worried.
    “Come in?” Janet stepped back into the parlor.
    He had a presentiment that something was happening he couldn’t do anything about. He felt it in the rigidity of his shoulders and neck.
    Sometimes he wondered whether Miss Good’s arthritis was communicable.
    One leg of the coffee table stood in a circle of damp rug.
    Clara Noemann came softly into the room. She seemed fragile, more wifely than usual. Or hadn’t the President ever noticed it before? But now he would be likely to suffer from imagination.
    “Hello, Clara.”
    “Hello, Mr. President.” She seemed reserved.
    He couldn’t be sure he wasn’t imagining that she looked at him with suspicion and disapproval. He waited for her to go on, but she didn’t go.
    “The television crew—” The President interrupted himself, but Clara still didn’t say anything.
    “What’s the television crew for?” He was annoyed and apprehensive.
    “I told them to come down to interview me.”
    “Huh? Those teevee guys aren’t coming in here until I know what’s going on. Where’s Fred?” Speaking strongly made him feel better.
    “You don’t know?”
    “You say that like I do know. Now, what’s going on? Is this the re—” He remembered just in time that he didn’t know anything about the real plan.
    Clara studied the President’s face in her turn. “There are so many things that could have happened.”
    He didn’t like the way she said “so many things.” It sounded like “rumors” to him.
    “Fred went to Philadelphia last night…on a secret mission—”
    “A what? Secret from the President?”
    “It was supposed to be...but I…thought you knew all about it. That’s why I didn’t tell you first….”
    “Tell me what?”
    “He called last night—”
    “Last night! From where?”
    “From Philadelphia. I told you he went to Philadelphia last night.”
    “Oh…right.” The ground seemed to be quaking under the President. Sinister forces were at work.
    “He told me he thought he was being followed. A tall man and a short man, one on either aide of the street. He thought it might be— Oh, I don’t want to say it.” Clara kneaded a small handkerchief.
    “Who? Didn’t he have Secret Service with him?”
    “That’s who— No. He was on a…confidential mission. Anyway, the Secret Service men always complain when he asks for an escort. They say no one would recognize him anyway. They say they would attract more attention than he would.”
    She sniffed and raised the line of her jaw an inch.
    “They flay that! What are their names?” The President was genuinely surprised that the sort of conversation that went on in the Oval Office also went on among the rank and file.
    “Mom, I think the television people are here.” Janet went to the door.
    “Hold them a minute.” The President moved closer to Clara.
    “Who did Fred think was following him – enemy agents?” He was entering into the world suggested by Clara’s pauses and tonal nuances.
    They heard voices and shuffling feet outside the door.
    “Clara! Tell these guys you’d rather not say anything now, until we can get going on the investigation.”
    “Why should we cover up? The people have a right to know.”
    The President was jolted. “What was that?”
    Janet opened the door, and Mickey Walrus stepped in.
    “Oh, President Flawless! Has Vice-President Noemann been found?”
    The President didn’t want to leave the power of the media in Clara’s free hands, but staying for the interview was intolerable.
    He smiled into the camera. “I only just now learned he needed to be found.”
    With a stiff nod to Clara as he left, he acknowledged she had won the first round.

The President felt he was acting in someone else’s charade, but he went back to the Oval Office and dispatched the FBI to look for the Vice-President. He told them to start getting leads from Mrs. Noemann – and to tell him immediately what she said.
    On the off chance, he called the CIA to see whether they had received any reports of foreign agents in the United States.
    The switchboard operator at Langley told him: “Call the FBI – they handle domestic operations.”
    Addleman told him – without using words that might have made the President nervous – that Austin Froth was being put under close maintenance.
    The President called Congressional leaders of both parties.
    House Speaker Prince was alarmed. “Please take extra precautions, Mr. President. If anything happens to you too, I….”
    The President and Addleman interviewed the leader of the Secret Service team assigned to the Vice-President.
    “Mrs. Noemann tells me you people more or less refuse to accompany the Vice-President anywhere.”
    “That’s not true!” The agent was moon-faced and bald.
    “He usually slipped out without notifying us.”
    “Did you ever advise him to go without escort?”
    “No, sir...On several occasions he and I discussed the situation….”
    “We discussed the merits of anonymity versus force in protecting public figures.”
    Addleman was impatient. “Okay, what about last night?”
    “He left without notice.”
    At least that jibed with the way Addleman fancied things were.
    “It’s six o’clock, Mr. P.” Addleman turned on one of the televisions along the wall in front of the desk.
    The President dismissed the agent.
    The equine face of Fred Noemann was the first image on the screen. “—if you see this face. It belongs to Vice-President Fred Noemann, Vice-President of the United States. He took office in January this year. Mrs. Noemann last heard from him last night. Mickey Walrus is at the White House.”
    Mickey Walrus was standing in front of the South Portico. Harry Truman’s balcony seemed to rest on his head.
    “You can’t see it from above ground, but below these windows” – the camera panned the lower edge of the ground floor and came to rest at the windows to the west of the Diplomatic Entrance – “are the rooms of the Number Two Man and the Second Lady. It was from here that the Vice-President left last evening.”
    Clara came on the screen. She sat on the French sofa in her parlor.
    “Mrs. Noemann, where did the Vice-President go?” The camera zoomed in past Mickey Walrus’s ear.
    “He went to Philadelphia.” A tiny microphone hung on a cord around her neck.
    “Why did he go?”
    Clara’s face worked with uncertainty. “Well—” She hesitated.
    “Yes, Mrs. Noemann?” Walrus’s tone seemed designed both to coax her and to pull the audience to the edge of the couch or dining room chair.
    “We…found a bug – an electronic bug – in that vase.”
    The camera turned to the vase on the table and dropped down to the dark circle on the rug.
    The President slammed his fist onto the desk. “What’s she working up to?”
    “It was waterproof,” she said.
    Addleman grinned involuntarily.
    The President glared at him.
    “Could we see the bug, Mrs. Noemann?”
    “Fred was so disgusted, he destroyed it.”
    “Who do you think was listening?”
    “Right now I don’t know what to think – I’ve spoken with the President. But last night, we— We thought it was— Fred felt he had to get away from the surveillance. He went to Philadelphia.”
    Walrus asked her about the telephone call. She explained about the short and the tall men.
    “What did you talk about with the President? Did you ask him about the bug?”
    The President cursed. “That son-of-a-bitch – he’s out to get me!”
    “No…I should have asked him, but there was so much on my mind. The bug has to be investigated…It’s just conjecture, but…someone in the White House must have known where the Vice-President was going….”
    “Are you suggesting—?”
    “Ye—Uh, I’m not suggesting anything. I think the President should investigate, that’s all.”
    “Who do you think might have known?”
    “I’m not going to say any more.”
    “D0 you think an independent investigation ought to be launched?”
    “That’s not for me to suggest.”
    The President banged his desk and upset a container of lemon drops.
    Walrus tried another line. “Has there been dissension between President Flawless and Vice-President Noemann?”
    “Oh— Well, they— No. Fred supports the President…But the President hasn’t given Fred the opportunity to….” Mrs. Noemann trailed off and fell silent.
    “Has the Vice-President complained about the way the President has used him?”
    “Vice-President Noemann doesn’t complain.”
    The President guffawed.
    “Mrs. Noemann, you announced only this morning that the Vice-President was missing. Why did you wait so long?”
    “I hoped to hear from him again. Then I thought the President….” She trailed off again.
    The President’s face reddened. He suffered from feeling guilty whenever he had the opportunity to do something wrong, even though he hadn’t done anything, but he couldn’t control the feeling, however hard he tried. He thought there must be something to that guy’s crack about his mother and the cookie jar.
    “I don’t understand, Mrs. Noemann.”
    “I think you ought to ask the President.”
    “What do you think ought to be done about your husband’s disappearance?”
    “The President ought to call in the FBI and the Marines.”
    Addleman walked over and turned off the television. He stepped on the lemon drops. “She’s stirring things up and throwing out suggestions and innuendoes – casting suspicion on me.”
    “You? She didn’t seem to be casting suspicion on you particularly. Why do you feel singled out?”
    “Well, I’m the one you’re suspicious of….”
    “Yeah, sure, I believe the tall and short men work for Tinker.”
    Addleman was contemptuous. “Bah! There aren’t any tall and short men. You’ve got to call a news conference – immediately – before this thing gets out of hand. Tell your side of it.”
    “Oh, that would be just fine. I could tell them my chief aide has been investigating a grave threat to our national security. ‘The Vice-President was engaged in a clandestine plot to get Howard Cosell into the White House.’”
    “Well, you’ve got to tell them something.”

The reporters were gathered in the East Room for President Flawless’s press conference. They were abuzz with apprehension.
    “Did you get the background on the Vice-President?”
    “Hell, there wasn’t much background to get. Just the stuff from the election campaign.”
    “One of the most unassuming Vice-Presidents in American history.”
    “What about the two tall men?”
    “No, a tall and a short.”
    “Has anybody seen a printed statement?”
    “They aren’t giving them out.”
    “The President’s saying be doesn’t know anything about it.”
Ron Ziegler
    Press Secretary Zinger came out. “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.”
    Everybody stood, but they were uncertain about applauding.
     President Flawless looked grim. The reporters liked this. They had had enough of phony Presidential smiles with Dixon.
Richard M. Nixon in farewell
    The President stood behind the podium and focused on a point about thirty feet away. The point repeatedly described a ninety-degree arc as he recited his opening statement.
    “The news of the Vice-President’s disappearance came to you before it came to me. In these moments of uncertainty, when fears and rumors will feed on the nervous, it is incumbent on all of us, me included, to resist the natural tendency to imagine things. I’m not blaming you for picking up on the innuendos of Mrs. Noemann. It is understandable that you would do so. After all, her word is all that you’ve heard. It couldn’t be otherwise, since the events of last night came to me as a complete surprise.”
    The President spoke with a speechmaker’s polish. He didn’t need to underline words or strike punctuation with his finger.
    “It is understandable that Mrs. Noemann would suffer from imagination. I’m sure Mrs. Flawless would too. But let me assure you that, unlike the President, the disappearance of the Vice-President is not that serious – uh, from a practical point of view. But we are not underestimating the disappearance from a symbolic point of view. All appropriate steps are being taken to trace him and determine his whereabouts. The FBI is following the Vice-President’s trail.”
    The President stepped away from the podium and motioned for questions.
    Several reporters raised their hands. The President didn’t motion to anyone of them. He left it to them to decide who would speak. He had no favorites among the members of the press.
    An unidentified voice shouted from the back: “What about the Marines?” But it was ignored in the confusion, in which several male reporters tried unsuccessfully to yield to the feline Ms. Freeperson, who steadfastly exercised her right not to be first.
    Mr. Somewhat took the floor. “Who was bugging the Vice-President?”
    “I’m glad that question was asked – even though it was asked by you.” For the first time in the press conference the President smiled to show his good humor.
    “I do not know who was bugging the Vice-President, if he really was being bugged, which hasn’t been established. The only evidence is a water stain on a rug. I’ve just com¬pleted lesson eight in my law course – I’m studying to become a lawyer, you know.”
    The President grimaced. He didn’t want to get into all of this. “Uh, lesson eight was about evidence. The water stain would be what is called ‘circumstantial.’”
    Ms. Freeperson had been adamant, but she was moved to rise. “What about Mrs. Noemann’s statement? Would you have dismissed it if she hadn’t been a woman?”
    “I haven’t dismissed it, Miss Freeperson. I’m sure Mrs. Noemann had her reasons for making that statement. If the Vice-President was being bugged, I would assume that it may have been someone with possible access to the Noemann’s apartment. Otherwise, I might have to conclude that White House security may be inadequate. I’m investigating both possibilities.”

Dan Rather
    Dan Somewhat took advantage of the ensuing confusion to follow up his first question. “Have you been bugged, sir?”
    The President started. This point hadn’t been covered in the briefing. Uh—”
    “My question includes all forms of bugging, including bugging yourself.”
    “Mr. Somewhat, are you gunning for some orifice?”
    “No , are you?”
    The laughter was tense.
    “Mr. Somewhat, let me make this perfectly clear. This administration does not indulge in self-buggery – uh, self-bugging. And that includes one part of it bugging another part. Quite frankly, I don’t know whether I personally have been bugged. It’s a frightening prospect. I plan to investigate that possibility.”
    Addleman’s plain brown package intruded into the President’s thoughts. “I’ll definitely investigate it.”
    Another male reporter stood up. “Where was the Secret Service? I understand their function is to keep whoever is assigned to them under guard.”
    “The President doesn’t check up on the Vice-President, first of all. The Vice-President isn’t under arrest. Second of all, Mrs. Noemann says the Vice-President slipped away from the Secret Service. You can well understand how trying it is to be someone whose life is so important to the American people that it is necessary for you to have a staff of specially trained bodyguards to watch over and protect you. Of course, this applies to the President more than to the Vice-President. I’ve often wanted to get away from the Secret Service myself – but my sense of duty to the American people has kept me from it.”
    “Are you suggesting that the Vice-President was fleeing from the Secret Service? And have you checked into the possibility that there might be a short man and a tall man in the Secret Service?”
    “There is nobody in the Secret Service matching that description.”
    Ms. Freeperson had another question. “If the Vice-President doesn’t return, would you consider nominating a woman to replace him?”
    “I really don’t want to get into such distasteful speculations – I mean, the distasteful assumption that we may not see Fred Noemann again. But I understand your concern fully, Miss Freeperson, so let me say this: Yes, I would consider not only men, but also other qualified individuals.”
    He extracted his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.The reporters nodded at this human act, so natural, so appreciated after Dixon’s repeated denials of perspiration.
    The President didn’t recognize the next reporter. He was a small, wiry black man, with round horn-rimmed glasses.
    “Is it true that the Vice-President was on a secret assignment for the United States government?”
    The President jerked around to Zinger. He hadn’t been briefed about any mention of this. Why hadn’t anyone told him?
    “The Vice-President had no such mission.” The President punctuated his answer decisively by looking around for the next question.
    “You mean you can’t discuss it, because it’s secret?” The little black man had a beautiful voice.
    “No, I— Now, look here. With that kind of logic , you can suggest any idea whatsoever.”I
    The President imagined a devilish whisper: Precisely! He felt himself borne aloft by a dozen hot little serpent hands.
    “And with that kind of dismissal you can set aside any idea whatsoever. But what are you going to do about the evidence?”
    “Evidence?” The President looked around helplessly at Zinger.
    Zinger came forward and waved an end to the press conference. The President about-faced and stalked out of the East Room.
    “Hey, come on, what about the evidence?” someone shouted from the back. Half of the reporters were on their feet.
    “What evidence?”
    The little black man had already made himself scarce.

Links to earlier chapters:
Chapter 1. “Downstairs at the White House
Chapter 2. “Making It Happen
Chapter 3. “The Muse’s Fee
Chapter 4. “The Game Plan
Chapter 5. “Home Movies (Blue)
Chapter 6. “Keeping Up Appearances
Chapter 7. “Better to Serve You With, My Dear
Copyright © 2016 by W.M. Dean

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