© 2016 Lesia Daria
After one of the freakiest winters on record, the sun was finally shining over Washington DC, lending an almost cheerful air to the start of February. General Stubbin was not one to exaggerate or engage in much political thought, but trudging along the sidewalk he felt obliged to concede that the slow wheels of government had become unstuck. Over the weekend salt trucks and the odd snowplough had mostly cleared streets of Snowzilla, a blizzard that liberals blamed on global warming, though as ever it tended to end up a municipal problem. In weather and politics the nation’s capital had always been a stage for freak shows. But now it wasn’t the Democratic Party or even the entire planet facing total meltdown. It was the Republicans. Following the Iowa primary the Grand Ole Party didn’t so much possess a field of presidential candidates as an active minefield. Time was running out.
Black ops, black ice. You can’t see it but the danger’s there. Stubbin was just making the connection when he nearly lost his grip on the flimsy railing as he climbed the treacherous steps to the office. He cursed the GOP power brokers who’d brought him out of retirement and simultaneously opted for such a dilapidated, nondescript location. Lodged in a forgotten mini-mall on MacArthur Boulevard, just past the reaches of Georgetown but not quite the Palisades either, the He-Ho complex seemed an unlikely setting for the momentous decisions that lay ahead. Admittedly, top brass could congregate here in secret above the Chinese frame shop and Korean nail salon, as Mrs. Ho, the proprietress of both, turned a blind eye to most things, not least because she had only one working eye. Still Stubbin’s staff had been ordered not to frequent either establishment, Stubbin grumbling why bother with restrictions or lockdown, they hadn’t brought in any females who’d be interested in getting out. It was another classic Republican mistake.
‘Are they here yet? Stubbin accosted the media guy in the corridor.
Bob Toner straightened to attention. ‘We’ve got a decent line-up of possible candidates, sir. Got rid of the Hispanics, evangelicals and Southerners. The current GOP frontrunners still have those areas covered.’
‘I meant the donuts,’ Stubbin snapped. ‘All the same Bush and Rubio look done for. Cruz is in trouble too. Donald Trump’s leading, don’t you read the news?’
Briefly Stubbin wondered if Toner was also dispensable. He’d trickled down from CCTV Networks after being sacked from Fox News, where he’d insulted a top female presenter for incorrectly spelling her own name. Later it emerged Toner couldn’t spell so well himself, but these days blind dedication to the Republican cause trumped any shortcomings. A well placed uncle got Toner clearance and he was sent over to help with the Plan.
‘Keep up, Toner. If Nevada and South Carolina don’t heel, we’ll need a conservative businessman to counter Trump. Someone like Bloomberg maybe, he used to run New York.’
‘Our list of alternates doesn’t have that much variety, sir,’ Toner looked down at his clipboard despondently. ‘We lost the likes of Romney a while ago and other gubernatorials like Huckabee have long gone over to guns, God, grits and gravy.’
‘Any corporate types?’
‘A few, but they don’t seem very bothered about Mexicans. Or abortion. Or their relationship with Him.’
‘The Lord, sir.’
‘Well we don’t know that Bloomberg will ride in to save the day, so we better proceed as if he won’t. Haven’t we got anyone qualified on the issues?’
‘What issues, sir?’
Briefly Stubbin considered ripping Toner a new asshole, but it wasn’t Toner’s fault he’d been born yesterday. Children of the eighties knew nothing about anything because they’d been nursed on MTV and fed cat videos in college. Really no one at the He-Ho could be blamed. The Republicans had never bothered to formulate a coherent set of principles or a campaign strategy.
‘How about defence for starters?’ Stubbin ground his teeth to show he could do patience. ‘Energy security. Infrastructure too. America’s wasting away and all these bozos can do is argue. The president will have to face down these issues sometime.’
‘I’ll spell it out if you need, Toner. Most Americans don’t know the roads are better in France. Or that the potholes in our capital city rival any hellhole in Azerbaijan. But ignorance doesn’t make it less true.’
‘Our citizens have been fat, dumb and happy for too long, letting Congress pork barrel their money away to the delight of lobbyists. We’re turning into a banana republic and now they want to get rid of immigrants? Who d’they think is going to cut grass and flip burgers?’
‘Gotcha,’ Toner pretended to scratch a few notes.
Stubbin watched. He’d outlawed most mobile forms of technology as a hazard for security leaks, so computers and monitors were chained to desks. Without an iPad as a crutch, the clipboard was Toner’s only office prop. He clung to it as if it would make him look busy and smart.
‘We making progress?’ Stubbin growled.
‘Yessir. Defense, energy, security, infrastructure. Noted. Does the last category include domestic roads? How about schools? Another priority?’
‘The candidate’s got to have a decent education, sure,’ Stubbin flipped back to the Plan. He’d been brought in to implement, not get sucked into fruitless political strategising. ‘We’ll need a professional. Someone with a stable background. Money but not too much, a hard worker, a real world guy...’
He watched Toner scribble. It was pitiful, really. He hadn’t had much practice writing either.
‘Someone who can get a deal done but also keep solvent,’ Stubbin continued. ‘Someone who won’t compromise on principles but who can work with people. Got it? No dickheads or politicians. Our unconfirmed candidate needs to be ship shape. He’s going to have to float above a rising tide of shit...’
‘On the Democrat side they do say we’re likely to be up against Clinton,’ Toner ventured. ‘That Socialist guy Sanders appears to be going under.’
‘So much the better then if our man understands health care.’
‘No one understands health care, sir.’
‘Scrap it then, we’ll deal with it later.’
‘That’s the way we tend to handle health care,’ Toner nodded gravely.
It’s the way we handle everything, Stubbin wanted to add, not mentioning Social Security or Medicaid. But suddenly he felt pretty relieved. All of it was someone else’s problem. He’d be long dead before the policies that could reverse America’s decline might take effect, assuming anyone in Washington would ever reach enough consensus to enact them in the first place. If it wasn’t for his only grandson Geoff still stuck in Afghanistan, he’d have no dog in the fight. His pension assured, Stubbin never felt himself a revolutionary by any stretch. A tiny wing of the GOP had concocted this secret plan, because as ever in politics, the angriest bit of the mob was most active. The country needed saving, to be sure, but to Stubbin the Plan sometimes verged on a masochistic coup.
‘You’d better start working on ideas that will distinguish our guy, whoever he is. We need solutions, not slogans.’
Stubbins saw Toner jot down SOLUTIONS, NOT SLOGANS! It took immense energy not to rip the clipboard out of Toner’s hands and thwack him over the head with it. But Stubbin could hear the chief of HR next door in the kitchen. Violence was not an option.
They both watched Boniface Wiggins, Director of HR and Procurement, waddle by with a plate of chocolate powdered rings. A stout Catholic who’d left the priesthood, Wiggins found food remained life’s primary pleasure. Stubbins didn’t normally eat junk food though he admitted to failings now and again. He moved imperceptibly towards the door, ready to pull rank over the vanilla creams.
Toner hovered outside as Stubbin entered the kitchen hopefully. But all he found was the tail end of a rampage: a few glazed donut holes and a mountain of crumbs. Even the stripy coffee capsules were gone. It was going to be a very long campaign.
It was all the Don’s fault. He was a megalomaniac and ordinarily barked at supporters and opponents alike, something about Making America Great without immigrants or even a shred of irony before disappearing into a chauffeured car with his Slovenian wife Melania. Previously no one had taken much notice of Donald’s rants, as the property tycoon seemed to take his cue from pick-up truck commercials, which only ever screamed louder and more hysterically while offering dubious deals.
Television was always sinking to new lows, Stubbin had observed, but over time Trump had exploited public anger so effectively and the media so relentlessly he actually seemed to be running a credible campaign. While the American people had a right to be angry, though, Trump did not. Ensconced in his fake rococo New York apartment, where conceivably walls did count for more than elsewhere, Trump had repeatedly proposed that Mexico pay for a wall to keep itself out of the property next door. Anyone who recalled history might find it curious, as only a century before Mexico itself had agonized over what to do about illegal Anglo immigrants creeping into its territories. But then America annexed Texas, lashed out at the Mexicans, and that was that. Manifest destiny to expand in every direction.
Lately a former Mexican president had entered the fray, telling Trump to pay for his own fucking wall. Stubbin thought that a fairly reasonable response which someone in the GOP should have come up with long ago. But it only inflamed the rhetorical fires, as by then Trump had won Nevada and South Carolina and was heading invincibly towards Super Tuesday, that glut of primaries across several states that would prove a tipping point for candidates’ campaigns.
At the National Security Agency General Lozinsky had gone bananas. The wall had to be defeated! This morning he’d started the weekly meeting at dawn, though as usual the pow-wow ended inconclusively. Released onto the roads of the nation’s capital well before its notorious traffic could swell, Stubbin pleasantly found himself first at the He-Ho when he arrived at 7 am. It was as quiet as the bowels of the Pentagon the day he left.
Feeling relaxed, Stubbin entered the kitchen and hit the floor for twenty because at seventy he still could, then rising refreshed he rearranged the coffee capsule colours in ROYGBIV order, removing the most compelling yellow stripy one. Actually it was always the odd one out and needed to be eliminated. He watched dispassionately as the machine began to spit and whir, finally disgorging a miniscule amount of foam in tiny effortful squirts. He repeated this process until his mug was full and dark, verging on thick and stout, the way he liked his coffee though less so his women. Making a mental note to his increasingly portly wife Sally and the Lord to forgive him his trespasses, Stubbin headed to his desk.
There wasn’t much on it. All week he’d been waiting for Toner to digest the fifty odd resumes and come up with a short list. With a plausible candidate, the Plan might work. Anything might be possible. But also it had been decided much higher up that the media team was initially best placed to vet who might beat Trump, so there was still reason to harbour doubts about success.
Certainly the week had proved a turning point. Although it was hard to pinpoint if it was the threat of Trump actually winning the Republican Party nomination, or the Don’s working himself up until his nonexistent wall was very high. Browbeating reality into submission seemed a misstep even for Trump. The NSA had jumped into panic mode as a few dozy Republicans in Congress finally woke up and unleashed a trickle of rhetoric to try to beat back their own frontrunner:
“We the undersigned, members of the Republican national security community, represent a broad spectrum of opinion on America’s role in the world and what is necessary to keep us safe and prosperous. We have disagreed with one another on many issues, including the Iraq war and intervention in Syria (and here Stubbin wanted to add, and campaign finance reform and fiscal responsibility and taxes and racial equality and gay rights and abortion...) But we are united in our opposition to a Donald Trump presidency. Recognizing as we do, the conditions in American politics that have contributed to his popularity, we nonetheless are obligated to state our core objections...’
Blah blah blah. The only condition in American politics that had contributed to Trump’s popularity were these same politicians. They’d been too dismissive and egotistical and disorganised, and then they’d given Trump too much airtime. Now they were too late. Even top elections analysts like the Virginia professor Larry Sabato were publicly affirming that other GOP contenders were in trouble. The establishment had been incompetent and divided, though the last thing Lozinsky wanted now was for the GOP to organise itself.
But it was more than mere incompetence and disorganisation, Stubbin thought. Talking to Sally late the night before, as he often did when she was almost asleep, he’d ventured that even if the NSA’s secret plan to run an outsider could save the nation, the damage had been done. The Don’s delusions were becoming reality. That was a problem for everyone going forward. Delusions had begun subverting what was really real, and so not-real problems, like the cost of an imaginary wall that would never be built, were pushing out urgent considerations. What were you supposed to do if reality itself was under threat?
Being more of a practical than a political thinker, Sally had rolled over and snored but Stubbin stayed up for hours. He wondered if he was the only one so worried and it made his head hurt to think about all the permutations of trouble. A close observer and erstwhile participant in world affairs himself, Stubbin knew what he saw when he looked overseas. In Russia Putin had become so good at massaging his message he’d not only risen to power but changed his country’s discourse and course of history. It didn’t take a genius to run parallel scenarios. Trump had also begun threatening the media and making threats. He’d turn on them as soon as he was done milking them.
Not that Stubbin cared one whit for the media, but the First Amendment seemed worth saving, and the media – internet, television, whatever – controlled the minds of the American people. Spewing forth fake news programs and reality shows for decades, the networks themselves had obviously helped to dumb down the public and national political debate. They’d allowed and abetted the rise of worthless egotistical celebrities. Of course at at some point the unconfirmed candidate would have to campaign in this airless ether too, though if the NSA had had its way, they’d have stopped the election a while ago, calling a War on Delusion the way they’d done with Terror. Stubbin had pointed that morning at the NSA meeting that after the Iraq debacle the Pentagon wouldn’t follow. Anyway, if you were going to carry on open-ended skirmishes with abstract nouns maybe a War on Absurdity would be more apt. But how do you go about beating absurdity, by being more or less absurd?
Stubbin heard the first stirrings of someone trying to sneak past his office.
‘Have we got them?’
‘The donuts?’ Toner guessed.
‘The final candidate line-up, you numbskull. Lozinsky’s got everyone by the balls because of this Mexican wall fiasco. They’ve decided to speed up the Plan.’
Toner looked down as though he hoped the clipboard might spring an answer. To Stubbin it was clear he hadn’t finished reading the resumes, never mind drawn up a list.
‘Well. . . ’
‘Well what?’ Stubbin gave him a hard stare. This could be the last test of Toner’s capabilities. ‘Who are we bringing in?
Toner closed his eyes as if in meditation then opened them with his finger half way down the page. He look surprised, as if the long list had suddenly become quite short.
‘We do have this one man Bland.’
‘What one man band?’
‘Name’s Bland, and he’s a loner alright. Dunno about musical but he does have some qualifications.’
Stubbin exhaled, Toner following suit rather prematurely. But at least the Bland resume was one they’d both seen. It ran to six pages and documented a huge range of accomplishments from CFO to COO to CEO of various firms. Currently Bland was Head of Initiative at a quasi-governmental company called GlobalAll, whose offices spanned several countries as it had a hand in helping reconstruct Iraq, developing power in Africa and building infrastructure in South East Asia. Previously Bland had also worked at promoting renewable energy alongside fossil fuels and some sort of Arab-Israeli cooperation. In fact there weren’t many tough jobs that Bland hadn’t done. From sorting out construction and legal issues to finance and mega deals, even when Bland was only in his early thirties he had single-handedly managed to keep Russian aggression in check over gas supplies in Europe, meeting practically every minister on the continent in the process. He was obviously paid well enough not to need a presidential paycheck. It must have made Toner feel petulant. He’d put Bland down for mediocre accommodations.
‘Would you like to elaborate, Toner, or shall I call in the reserves?’
‘Sorry, sir. Bland’s already slated for a preliminary. He lives in London but comes to DC often enough.’
‘Perfect. An outsider who can be brought in. The people want anti-establishment these days.’
‘Born in the District too, so technically he’s qualified. A US citizen. But as he’s been gone so many years, I was thinking he might seem like a foreigner. We might need to vet him closely. We could bring him in sooner if you like.’
‘No, don’t think. And keep him out. No one’s to be brought in until we’re sure. The whole campaign’s at stake.’
Secretly Stubbin thought that if the GOP could play brinksmanship for so long, so would he. More Republicans needed to sweat before they’d be grateful for salvation, and that included Lozinsky. Also he didn’t trust Toner and the media team for judgement or clearance. The NSA was always bringing in people with too little of either, and the media guys never had any to begin with. He dreaded the chance reappearance of Toner’s old boss at Fox, Bruce ‘the Dismantler’ Schnellnegger. He’d been brought in on the Plan and always seemed to pop up at the wrong time.
‘Is that all, sir?’
‘No, where’s Wiggins?’
‘Still out getting the donuts, I suppose.’
At least he managed that, Stubbins thought, running his finger along the cracks of his fake mahogany desk. Despite his gargantuan role in He-Ho procurement, Wiggins had managed to procure very little by way of décor. Apart from a few flimsy modern chairs which didn’t match the faux antiques, the office was mostly bare. Individually the big furniture was heavy but sparse and spare, like Wiggins himself. It filled the room without adding any value.
‘When he comes in, send him over. My chair’s broke already. What use is a swivel chair that doesn’t swivel?’
Toner looked like he wanted to reply but didn’t know the answer. The query might be rhetorical, but it could also be a trick question.
Ahead of the March 1 Super Tuesday primaries, what was left of the Republican establishment rallied around Rubio. Or so the media reported. As far as Stubbin could see, though, Rubio and Trump were merely continuing to debase the art of debate, while a handful of timid Republicans came out of the closet to back Kasich. Just in case.
In case of what, Stubbin didn’t know, as he told Sally, fondly remembering her as that spirited stocky Samoan he’d picked up in Manila in 1965 using the same line. He’d told her he’d come to the bar ‘just in case’ he’d have a good time, and she’d laughed in his face or at his joke. And so he’d remained faithful to her all these years, regardless of whether he understood why or liked it or not, much like the Republican Party.
‘Anyway if immigration is the only issue,’ Stubbin said, not sure if she was dozing, ‘then only Kasich is safe. Though some in DC do regard Ohio as foreign territory.’
‘Don’t you worry, it’ll be alright,’ Sally replied in her comforting mid-western accent. It had formed later during one of their tours at Fort Knox, and now it was a perpetual reminder, like a headlock, of the stability of their relationship. ‘They’ll come round.’
‘Who? The only candidate’s who’s come round is Christie, and he’s thrown his weight behind Trump.’
‘That’s considerable weight,’ Sally said, not a bad judge of heft herself. She then rolled over and Stubbin wondered if she dreamt of larger men when she slept.
Studying the cracks on his desk Stubbin brought himself back to the present. Increasingly these cracks resembled lifelines on a palm. Splintering in all directions, if not proliferating then deepening with age. Probably nothing to be done about them but ignore them. Anyway it was show time.
Stubbin switched on the TV monitor and adjusted the volume to hear the preparations going on in the Question Room.
‘Call in Bland. Uhem. Call in Bland. Hrrhhrr. Call in Bland.’
It was Toner, talking to himself. Despite his previous job at CCTV, he appeared unaware of Stubbin’s cameras. Bugging this performance was a mere precaution, of course, as in times of crisis every man’s worth was worth measuring. If Toner could secure Bland, things would start looking up. But Toner seemed more intent on rearranging the chairs.
Stubbin sighed. Apart from confiding in Sally, he mostly kept reservations to himself. Toner was only the beginning of disasters, a mere fly in the ointment. Plan or no Plan, the whole election was a farce. Sometimes Stubbin felt like a heretic, a man fallen from grace, because he actually found himself believing it was too bad the GOP hadn’t picked Hillary Clinton themselves. She was the only one with any balls. She would have cleaned up Libya if Obama hadn’t stopped her, and probably Syria too, and it was only thanks to her previous role heading the State Department that it remained Putin enemy number one. Putin’s fear showed just what a worthy adversary she was. Of course Clinton among her Democrats was no more likeable than Cruz amid his murderous band of brother Republicans. And with Clinton there were still lingering corruption allegations. But she wasn’t essentially worse than the next guy. She was part of the establishment. Except for Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s nemesis in the Democratic Party, all the candidates were in hoc to lobbyists, Political Action Committees and wealthy donors. It was the way the system worked.
Maybe he wasn’t so much a heretic as a living relic, like the Queen of England. Watching impassively as world leaders come and go, doing one’s duty, nodding politely with a smile that says it all, showing good teeth. Stubbin’s memories stretched back almost as far as Lizzie’s, he was sure, somewhere around Eisenhower, and all these johnny-come-latelies knew nothing about leadership. He’d been furious when Trump had tried to deny Senator John McCain his hero status: it’d been the last straw. A contemporary of McCain himself, Stubbin had been disheartened enough watching him go down in a previous presidential contest. McCain had possessed all the right qualities: experience, smarts and bravery; not only long service in the military, but in politics too, doggedly pursuing campaign finance reform for years. But no one had listened, and it had been a famous backstabbing Republican who repeatedly killed McCain’s reform legislation in committee over the years. That much was history, documented fact.
And still, even now, no one wanted to connect the dots and do what needed to be done. In addition to his televised appearances, the good professor Sabato was now producing many excellent Crystal Ball reports concerning the polls, just as previously he’d written many good books about the problems facing the nation and how to reform the electoral system. But no one seemed to have bothered to read them. That’s how Lozinsky had enticed Stubbin and reeled him in. America needed reform. She was a slave to too many elections. The states were disunited, the people trapped in a continuous cycle of Congressional, Senate and White House races, which amounted to nothing but duelling for power which only led to more gridlock. America needed saving from herself!
Stubbin wondered if Lozinky hadn’t drawn the wrong conclusions from the Crystal Ball but presently became distracted watching Toner begin a series of 360 degree turns on his swivel chair. At first Toner attempted top speed, then multiple revolutions, legs akimbo. One of his turns surprised him, though. A man was standing in the corner, watching.
‘Oh, hi!’ Toner dropped his legs.
Stubbin winced and leaned forward to scrutinise. Was this Bland? He was bald. Bald as an eagle! Was that good?
‘Have a seat, we’ll get started.’
Toner looked nervous, as if he’d expected someone else. He pointed Bland to an uncomfortable ergonomic stool that Wiggins had procured expressly for interviewees. ‘I see you flew in this morning.’
Bland nodded somewhat sleepily.
‘How long you intend to stay?’ Toner asked.
‘You arranged the visit. So you tell me,’ Bland said flatly. ‘I have flexibility but need to get back. It would help if you told me what this is about.’
‘Everything’s on a need to know basis,’ Toner replied, ’and right now you don’t need to know.’
‘National security?’ Bland asked.
‘That’s what they told me too!’ Toner gushed, as if this concern placed them on a level playing field.
Stubbin was suddenly glad he wasn’t in the Q room. If Bland was going to pass, Toner was going to have to give him hell. But Toner’s own job also depended on his performance. It wasn’t a great start.
‘You’ve probably noticed some top brass around,’ Toner began again. ’Don’t worry, though. You won’t be meeting any generals until you get past me.’
Bland didn’t appear at all worried, so Toner gave him a hard stare. Bland yawned. Toner lost it.
‘Look, you have no idea why you’re here, do you? Well, let me tell you, the Republicans are in a mess and we’re sorting it out. We’re looking for reliable back-ups. Big guys are behind this. You catch my drift?’
‘You’re casting around for a presidential candidate?’ Bland asked.
Bland had nailed it from the start, thought Stubbin. And he didn’t even look incredulous.
‘You’re practically president of your company, Globbalot, aren’t you? A patriot?’
‘Yes, Global-All, but...’
‘This is a critical mission, you should be flattered. We’re here to save the Party and maybe the nation. The world! You’ve been selected ‘potential’ material.’
Bland looked confused, so Toner continued.
‘You could say drafted, as there aren’t many willing to do the job. But there’s a long list of candidates and it’s about to get a whole lot shorter. Any questions?’
‘Isn’t it too late to field new candidates?’
‘It’s never too late to save America, Mr. Bland.’ A deeper voice reverberated from outside the frame.
Toner and Bland turned. It was Bruce ‘the Dismantler’ Schnellnegger. Stubbin tapped his fingers hard on the desk. It must be a slow news day at Fox if Schnellnegger had wandered over to the He Ho but he’d be damned if he thought he could cause chaos here too.
‘Disaster faces our country every day, Mr. Bland, and negativity will get you nowhere. Whose side are you on anyway?’ Schnellnegger drilled.
‘Don’t be, Bland, just answer the question.’
‘I’ve always thought of myself as a centrist, or more accurately, a pragmatist.’
‘You’ll never get past interviews if you keep that up. The center’s gone, whoosh, collapsed. You’ve been gone a long time if you don’t know that. Left or right, look at Bloomberg, waffling all over with a combo of ideologies, socially liberal, fiscally conservative, a big fat whatever. Actually that was Christie, but he’s backing Trump now. We are not them. This is the GOP’s core, the tip of the iceberg that’s called you in. Compromise is not on the cards. Did I get your name right? Barney, like the dinosaur?
‘I wouldn’t say dinosaur just yet.’
‘Fifty-three, says here. Bit young for president. Unless you’re a Democrat. But at least you’re not purple. The GOP doesn’t go in for gays. You’re not, are you? ‘Unmarried’ is always suspicious...’
‘I’ve never had much time for romance, Mr. . . . ?’
‘Leave it. People have trouble pronouncing. Call me Bruce.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Bruce. I’m unattached because I’ve been busy running divisions and now the company, lots of moving...’
‘I see that, not military, but an American with international experience. We can probably use it, but it does make you a bit of a misfit. Look, I’m not gonna judge, someone else will, but I’ll tell you I’ve been in DC long enough to know what this circus is about, okay? A bunch of monkeys throwing poo at each other. When things get serious, though, panic at the zoo, right? Stuff starts to move. No more monkey cage. We’re behind the scenes, and I don’t mean conspiracy, this isn’t deep state. This is pure establishment. We’ve got to defend what’s left. And before we call in the army, us media guys are in charge. Trump can’t keep taking us for a ride.’
‘So this is about taking down Trump?’
‘Trump, Rubio, Cruz, Kasich. They’re all unelectable. Hasn’t stopped them from running, though, has it? Most of them will drop like flies. We’ve gotta be ready, Super Tuesday tomorrow.’ Schnellnegger paused for a breath, eyed the remaining stool and decided against it.
‘Let’s move on,’ he grabbed papers from Toner. ‘Your resume, pretty full. A bit stiff actually: University of Virginia, Oxford, Wharton. Do you know Sabato? He’s on tv practically every day. Good at clearing up misconceptions. What we try to do at Fox, you know the drill. I see you have languages. French, Russian, Mandarin. Christ, didn’t they tell you this job was US-based?’
‘You’ll need Spanish. Not a lot though.’
‘Yeah, once Rubio and Cruz-In-Fer-Jesus flake out,’ Toner tried to chime in, ‘we’ll be needing someone to bring in the devout and Hispanic.’
Toner now seemed less taken aback by the reappearance of his old boss and more alarmed at how calm Bland remained. Bruce shot him eye bullets, restoring his fear, then resumed a fake pleasant look with Bland.
‘Have you been?’
‘Hispania, Texas, Miami. South of the border. Stay with me, Barn, we’re on the same topic.’
‘Oh, right. I’ve worked and travelled in Mexico and Central and Latin America, if that’s what you mean. I’ve also been to most Southern states, apart from Tennessee.’
‘Okay, can do Cubo-Mexicans, put that down, Toner.’ Schnellnegger turned back to Bland. ‘I’m getting the sense that you’re not especially religious, though.’
‘No, are you?’
‘That could hurt. The party’s God-fearing, you know. And voters are livid. They want answers. Trump’s giving them none but it looks like some, know what I mean? You do at least believe in Him, don’t you?
‘Jesus H Christ on a popsickle stick. Pay attention and make this easy, Barn. At least play along. You look like a nice guy. I’m gonna assume you support God and the Party’s stance on guns, free-for-all, etc?’
‘I am for freedom, of course, but with guns, I think ideas for minimum regulation could include background checks and registration, like licensing cars...’
‘You’re not here for ideas, Barn, you’re here as a party pawn.’ Schnellnegger’s voice rose. ‘Do you see what the Democrats have had to deal with? Who do you think they’re gonna back? Clinton. Correct. Because they made her. Now we’re here to make someone. Maybe you. An independent. Someone untainted and uncorrupted. Someone who understands the world. Who can lead and solve problems. But we’re going to give you the script, you’re not gonna make it up as you go along. And right now you’re unconfirmed, you haven’t got the job yet, so let’s stick to the program, shall we?’
‘I don’t know if. ...’
‘We want someone assertive, Bland, and I don’t want to be distactful but I’m seeing some premature hair loss on you. We’ll have to deal with that.’
‘I would have thought toupees would be a liability...’
‘Ha, everyone’s trying to skewer Trump. But he keeps dodging, keeps combing over. Last laugh’s on him. You gotta think like the Don. He doesn’t let a bit of negativity in the media get him down.’
‘Then why don’t you back him?’
Schnellnegger seemed unable to tell if Bland was being serious or sarcastic. Toner hid his face in his hands.
‘Look, Trumps didn’t even think the race was serious. Got in for fun, can you imagine? But he doesn’t listen. We don’t own him. We can’t control him. I told you, we need someone independent but also someone we can control. Someone smart. You think Donald would make a good Commander in Chief, huh? Finger on the buzzer, panic button, whatever? He’s all Wheel of Fortune, you think he understands foreign affairs?’
‘He’s got Melania,’ Toner piped up.
‘Lucky but worrisome, I agree,’ Bland interjected.
‘Lose the understatement, Barney. You’re the one with a degree in foreign affairs from UVa, never mind who Trump sleeps with. How long you been back from Britain?’
‘A few hours.’
‘Don’t worry, we have time yet to turn you into a blustery blow-hole.’
Stubbin felt pressure in his abdomen but didn’t know if was the urge to relieve himself or the world of Toners and Schnellneggers.
‘I thought you said...’ Toner started in.
‘What we say and want and need are two different things,’ Schnellnegger cut him off and turned back to Bland. ‘If you’re smart you’ll act at least as dumb as Trump to get elected. Though he’s not acting, I promise you. And there’s enough stupid guys out there acting smart, Bush Boy for one and he didn’t last long, even with big daddy. You’ll have to keep a low profile until we’re ready. The American people don’t want debate. They want slice-chop-victory. Like those things that turn squash into spaghetti. It’s a vegetable but not. Think commercials. You’ll have to get out there and...’
‘I’m a bit unclear if you’ve got the right...’
‘Play your cards like Trump and you’ll be fine.’
‘I thought you said….’
‘Look, let’s get off the topic of the Don. We’ve got a lot of stuff to get through. Your resume is like an eighteen wheeler and the last thing we want is an episode of Ice Truckers.’
‘Yeah, well hopefully you won’t need one. I don’t see any criminal activity, though you’ve got a whole lot of anagrams, FBAR, FATCA, these new?’
‘They have to do with filing tax. . .’
‘Don’t worry we’ll run an audit on you anyway, you ready to come clean?’
‘I am clean.’
‘Won’t do you much good, you know. All these guys are on the take. PACS, super PACS, hard money, soft money, Democrats especially. If you start to run, you’ll be on the take too, doing the rounds of K Street, Wall Street, don’t look at me like that. If you don’t catch up you’ll be an outsider forever. ‘
‘I was told you were looking for an outsider...’
‘We’ll see, Mr. DC, do you even know how long it takes to clear a bit of snow?’
Stubbin hit the volume button to emit a harrowing screech in the Q room. Bland would pass, and Toner was merely being his usual pitiful self. But Schnellnegger, like Trump, was a loose cannon. Downright dangerous. He had to cut this off before they lost Bland.
‘Thank you for your time, gentlemen,’ Stubbin leaned into his microphone. ‘I think we’re done.’
Toner looked around bewildered as Bland and Schnellnegger stared each other down. Actually Bland might fare better than he’d hoped, Stubbin thought. And if nothing else came of this campaign he’d certainly relish the last days of the media team. He was really looking forward to pulling a Don himself, trademark scowl and pause, and then, ‘You’re fired!’
Five blocks to go, Stubbin marched with his head down. The word from NSA was to get Bland on board fast. But Bland had been sequestered with computer games and Twinkies in some Rosslyn hotel and was apparently itching to leave and go back to England. Probably Bland had never experienced US government headhunting. Their techniques, Stubbin guessed, were more primitive than those of the private sector. Though it could be other factors, like his accommodations or Super Tuesday, both of which confirmed the bleak choices facing the nation.
The fact was that Super Tuesday’s news had not been at all super. It was the beginning of the end. Trump had led in both Massachusetts and Alabama, the best and worst educated states, and having easily swatted his competitors, he’d also defied experts looking for easy explanations to the Trump phenomenon. Stubbin thought that regardless how much data was applied, electoral theories were suspect at the best of times. Now at the worst of times, they seemed as pointless as the election.
Maybe it was better to keep up with the Kardashians rather than the Economist. Some learned analysts were arguing that ‘The Party Decides’ theory (TPD) had been shattered. Others contended the party had never decided anything, so the theory hadn’t been tested. Election expert Sabato had opined that when it came to selecting final candidates, it definitely wasn’t over until June. Which made Stubbin worry just like how much more of the campaign reality show he and his countrymen could take.
Following his victory on Super Tuesday Trump had stood confidently at his plush Mar-a-Lago, Florida resort waving his magic finger in the air. He called Rubio, that state’s senator, a big loser. That could only mean one thing: Rubio was the next guy to beat. Which, as far as Stubbin could work out, also meant Rubio would definitely be next to fall.
Two weeks to Ohio in the next big wave of primaries, and three more blocks, Stubbin worked it, his arms swinging. Despite Wiggin’s donut count he was determined to stay fit. There was way too much desk time so he’d taken up these neighbourhood lunchtime walks to clear his head. But it only seemed to fill up.
TPD or not, it was another acronym that seemed to have suffered most that week. TTP, the free trade agreement, was on every candidate’s lips and suddenly the election was all about angry white men.
But not about angry white men like himself, Stubbin noted. It was angry white men who backed Trump because he gave them an opportunity to vent. Trump’s men were from America’s white middle and lower classes, also like Stubbin, but they hadn’t joined the army and got on with life. Because of joblessness and stagnating wages – something you never got to complain about in the military, no matter what they made you do – these other men felt cheated out of the American dream. Meanwhile, Trump, who’d clearly cashed in on the dream so well (in part by cheating those still dreaming the American dream), was now busy churning out bluster and bent truths to rile these poor folks up. Trump had achieved what they had not and never would, so therefore they could always look up to him. The angry white men must also be prone to fantasy, and presumably with Trump they could enjoy a shared taste for fist-fights, gaudy furnishings and women who were highly suggestive.
Probably the analysts hadn’t given Melania enough credit, Stubbin decided. Like all wives standing behind strong men but still incredibly visible, Melania was perhaps the uncredited, silent wow factor driving Trump’s success. Besides which she was leggy and the only attractive point in the whole campaign. How could Trump lose if millions of angry white men were imagining sexy photo shoots in the White House? The furniture there verged on gaudy anyway and Melania would certainly put those formal settees to good use.
On the other hand, if the Don looked unstoppable, Clinton might have a problem. She’d also ploughed ahead in her party primaries but didn’t look nearly as good on a sofa. Then again, her bugbear was not angry white men but angry white women. Venting females continued to favour Bernie Sanders, intelligent but marginalised, or marginalised for some kind of intelligence, and in response to Trump’s pandering to men, Clinton had retracted her previous fervent support for free trade. This colossal flip-flop put her closer to Trump and Bernie even as she attempted to distance herself from both. However, since free-trade was originally a stalwart conservative idea, Stubbin was at a loss to understand whether Clinton was trying to woo Trump’s men or Bernie’s women, or if it was a failure of his own intelligence that he could no longer comprehend anyone’s position on anything. At night when Sally was snoring soundly, Stubbin had dipped into back issues of the Economist for relief (his insomnia worsening). When that failed, he found comfort in Sander’s website. The world there was that much rosier.
One last block to the office, Stubbin let his arms dangle, and that final stumbling block to peace and prosperity: the rest of the world. It was falling apart too. In some ways this was perversely comforting: knowing that America was not alone and certainly not always in charge of trouble. Damage limitation was on the cards for Syria, Turkey, Europe, even Britain. Far-right- wing and left-wing and all kinds of wing nutters were exploding or imploding or blowing themselves up. The problem was too many reckless ideologies being served up worldwide. In Britain, as far as Stubbin could see, normally pragmatic Conservatives were tearing themselves apart trying to give people a choice whether to stay in Europe or not. The UK was practically contiguous and could not conceivably be located anywhere else, but that didn’t seem to stop extreme politicians, vying for influence, committing political fratricide. So these were global problems now that extremists were exploiting.
Stubbin wondered if he’d got that right and made a mental note to ask Bland about Britain when they finally met. He wondered what was the Bland view on the ‘special relationship’ between the US and UK. Relations were at an all-time low with Obama, and Trump’s defamatory anti-Muslim language could only make matters worse. It made Stubbin worry, because apart from his own longstanding personal friendship with Hawkins at the UK Ministry of Defence, he felt allies were important. Especially in troubled times, it was unforgivable egotism for politicians anywhere to set policies without regard to history and cooperation.
Yep, it looked like the start of a perfect global storm alright. Inward-looking, nationalistic governments grasping at economic vitality, even as they abandoned the very arrangements that had so long guaranteed security and growth. If Bland had any answers, Stubbin would be glad to hear them before Lozinsky arrived for their first tri-partitite tete-a-tete.
Black ops, black ice, you can’t see it, but the danger is there. Stubbin was just making the connection again when this time the railing gave way. Stubbin felt himself go backwards down the steep steps. The pain was instant, excruciating, neutralising.
For an instant he may have blacked out. Then he came to. The pain seemed to be emanating from his tailbone. His first thought was that if he became paralysed, Sally would never forgive him. She was a fine woman, as fine as Melania minus the leg length, and they both deserved better. At the thought of Melania, his extremities seemed to work. So he wasn’t paralysed. But it served him right for so much thinking. The pain in his butt was spreading.
The door to the building opened. Unluckily it was Wiggins.
‘General! You alright?’
‘Does it look like it? Give me a hand!’
Wiggins hurried down the steps, ponderous movements showing the grounding effect of half a dozen daily donuts. Wiggins was a disgrace, but at least like the furniture, he was there.
‘Easy up. Did you really hurt yourself?’ Wiggins extended his bulbous fingers, trying to get them around Stubbin’s wrist.
‘Ouch!’ Stubbin leaned back, breathing heavily.
‘I’d better call for help,’ Wiggins said, quickly removing himself from the equation. ‘You could be seriously hurt. You’d better not move.’
‘I’m freezing my ass off, Wiggins, and I can’t move. Get me up.’
With more of a pull himself than any effort by Wiggins, Stubbin heaved foward.
‘I was just going out to lunch, Donut Dome’s doing some good salads,’ Wiggins offered.
‘Actually this is a real pain in the ass.’
‘Not at all, sir.’
‘Help me inside, I’m saying, I think I’ve done something.’
Stumbling, Stubbin held onto Wiggins like some mamby-pamby invalid, then thought better of it and tried to feel more generous to fellow veterans like the one he might shortly become himself. He was probably lucky not to have broken anything, but searing shock waves were still running up his spine.
‘There, you sit here,’ Wiggins started in again.
‘I can’t sit. It hurts.’
‘Oh, I see, I’ll get someone.’ Wiggins looked despondently at the stairs and began huffing up.
Leaning against an abandoned bureau that previously had decorated the He-Ho lobby to no purpose, Stubbins made a mental note to thank Wiggins for at least that. He went through his options: Sibley Hospital down the road or an ambulance elsewhere. Army medical cover would have easily sorted it out, but the Plan had been classified non-military for deniability purposes. So he’d been denied the usual generous state coverage and issued private insurance.
Wiggins returned puffed with as much authority as he could generate, besides which, it was arduous exercise going up two flights.
‘General, you’ll have to make the call yourself. You’ll need your PIN and you’ll have to answer personal security questions. And you’ll need to fill out this form WD-6987. New procedure. There’s a deductible.’
Stubbins considered tearing Wiggins’ head off but relented. He was in that much pain.
‘Give it here,’ Stubbin grabbed the form and took the phone.
‘Welcome to the New Plan. Our options have recently changed. So please listen carefully to the following instructions. You have four new options,’ a voice began.
But Stubbins didn’t have time to listen carefully or choose new options because with a vomitus hurl he felt himself crunch to the ground and everything went black.
At his hotel Bland assessed it a rather strange week. From the underserviced American Airlines flight with inedible food from Heathrow to Dulles, to the disorienting first meeting with Toner and Bruce, to repeatedly being told he could go home now, only to be driven back to the Best Western Iwo Jima.
If they were going to keep him under lock and key in a military themed hotel they might’ve stored him at Quantico, Bland thought. Though he would have much preferred the Key Bridge Marriott at the other end of Rosslyn, where hotels were closer to the Potomac and running trails on the other side of the river, as well as the shops of Georgetown. It would have felt more like a homecoming to be situated opposite his old company offices. In its heyday the American global power company AES had frequently called him back to headquarters, as in those days AES had been led by an enthusiastic proselytising CEO, who believed the best way forward was gathering khaki-clad employees to uber-democratic meetings where any good idea could have a turn. Decentralised management, leaving decisions to those closest, forgetting about power, not even worrying about making money unless it went hand in hand with promoting the greater good – these were the only ideologies that had ever shaped Bland. He’d been busy implementing them at GlobalAll and now really wondered why the Republicans had called him in.
In any case today’s urgent meeting with Stubbin had been postponed. Word was that the general had fallen and couldn’t get up. Bland thought it didn’t bode well for the Plan if an interview chain could fall to pieces so easily. He’d think and pass the time, maybe get some fresh air.
Downstairs he couldn’t see his minder so Bland proceeded to the reception desk.
‘Needing a cab?’ the receptionist didn’t look up.
‘No, but if anyone calls for me, tell them I’ve gone for a walk.’
‘A walk? You sure?’
‘Yes, a walk.’
‘Alright then, be careful, huh.’
Outside Bland realised that even without an escort, the Iwo Jima had its own security in place. Some distance from DC, the hotel was in a lock down between 16th Street, Fairfax Drive and the multi-lane Arlington Boulevard. Anything reasonably pedestrian was blocked by aluminium barriers, snarled traffic and spaghetti junction highways stretching as far as the eye could see. He started off past the pizzeria wondering how far he’d get.
‘Whoo hooo!’ A Red Top cab pulled up. ‘You trying to kill yourself?’
‘No, just walking.’
‘Walking? Just like that?’ the cabbie said. ‘Looks like suicide to me. ‘
‘It’s exercise. I need the fresh air.’
‘I’ll pull the windows down and we can go for a ride, Mister. I can take you to a nice park where they got trees. Not far and you can get yourself plenty uh exercise.’
Bland checked for his wallet and found he’d remembered it. ‘Okay.’
‘How much time you got?’
‘The rest of the day it looks like.’
‘There’s a great place overlooking the Potomac then. Great Falls,’ the cabbie continued. ‘That’s where all the fresh air is, none left round here, politicians sucked it all up.’ He chuckled at his own joke.
‘Been there,’ Bland said, primarily to let the cabbie know he couldn’t be taken for a ride. In fact, Bland couldn’t remember much about Great Falls or if he’d been there.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ said the cabbie, extending his hand backwards. ‘Now,’ he paused to tune the radio to T-O-P traffic news. ‘Let’s get you outta here.’
The cabbie swerved to the side and made an illegal U-ie, heading out toward the nearest spaghetti mess of interstates.
Bland realised suddenly he had no idea where he was being taken. Or if he could trust this cabbie. There’d been that time in Karachi. . . then Tbilisi. . . though the Georgians were sometimes honest and always proud. But in Donestsk, and Pisa, never mind Bogota. . .
Bland felt his stomach squeeze at the recollection of so many cab rides ending badly. No wonder GlobalAll forced him to have a private driver. Now in his rush to get away he’d broken his cardinal rule: always know exactly where you’re going.
At Sibley, Stubbin was having none of it.
‘I don’t need more tests,’ he told one of the many doctors there who resembled one on tv, though sadly, for some reason, the nurses did not. ‘In the army we don’t get this much care unless a leg’s blown off. Even then…’
To be fair, his butt still ached and a cracked coccyx would mean months of healing. But there was nothing they could do for him aside from issuing astronomically priced versions of over-the-counter painkillers. He didn’t want to be charged for a thousand dollar pillow and figure out the deductible. Falling on your ass, like not paying closer attention, was a stupid mistake, but as most of the year was shaping up that way for all Americans, Stubbin didn’t think he needed to be too hard on himself particularly. Besides he didn’t want sympathy, only to get back to the office where pragmatic, moderate Republican voices were needed, especially since Lozinsky had been called in to stand in for him.
The bedside phone began its silent ring, a clear plastic square flashing wildly red on-and-off like a movie panic button.
Stubbin expected Sally, who hated mobiles for some reason to do with radiation and only rang landlines. ‘Hello.’
‘General? Senator Jackson here,’ the voice paused. ‘Is this a good time?’
‘Good time? How the hell d’you know I was here?’
‘Pleased to hear you too, General, most of Washington knows. I was just ringing to be first with my condolences.’
‘I’m not dead, you tell them. Just a broken whatever.’
‘I ahm so very sorry to hear that,’ the senator drawled. ‘You see in committee we were just discussing health care and what we might put in place after Obama’s stopped caring. Seeing as you’ve got experience now, your views on Obamacare will be most appreciated.’
Stubbin thought Jackson might be drunk but didn’t say so.
‘As a matter of fact,’ the senator continued, ‘in return we were hoping that you’d like to know our views too, on some not so related issues.’
I’ll be damned, Stubbin thought. He’s doing this over a public phone?
‘You see,’ the Senator continued, ‘it’s come to our attention...’
‘Hold on a minute, Senator. Do you really think this is the forum? A good line?’
‘Perhaps not, General, but time is of the essence.’
‘That’s what we think,’ Stubbin sighed. ‘Alright, when and where?’
‘I hear you have new offices. Or shall we do this over ribeye and Petrus?’
Stubbin thought he heard Petraeus but decided not to pursue it.
‘I don’t think the taxpayer would mind if we dined on this one,’ the senator continued.
‘Give me a week.’ Stubbin winced, less from his injury than the thought of all the decisions between now and then. ‘I am supposed to be resting.’
‘We do mightily appreciate such cooperation, General,’ the Senator drawled. ‘And I hope to have some worthy information by then. A very nice night to you.’
And nighty night to you too, Stubbin hung up.
It was the worst of all possible worlds. Stonewall Jackson wasn’t the most corrupt in the Senate, but he was famous for helping He-Who-Can’t-Be-Named to sink McCain’s reforms. He was influential on all the major committees whether he was on them or not. Assuming he’d found out about the Plan, Jackson was an ally they would need. Assuming you could get him onside, of course. Jackson drove a hard bargain and there was no telling what he was after.
The next twenty four hours were going to be a bitch, Stubbin thought. If the House and Senate Republicans were trying to come up with their own counter-Plan, the NSA would have to get their candidate through fast. So far only Bland looked the part. Bald eagle. That would be the codename. They could fast track him through NSA if Lozinsky made the calls. Beyond that though, there was still the spectre of the electorate. Total pain in the ass. There was simply no way of telling what the American people might do.
TO BE CONT’D……
© 2016 Lesia Daria, www.lesiadaria.com