You may notice that the date of each post appears to be about 50 years in the future. I wanted to have the chapters show up in order and Blogger doesn't have any easy way to make it show up that way. It always wants the newer posts to show up at the top. A couple of different people pointed out that the easiest way to trick the system was to fake the posting dates and place it far enough into the future that they don't start reverting. You'll probably find this site easiest to navigate from the archives beginning in "December 2054". The posts are labeled by chapter number. Read more!
Thursday, December 31, 2054
This is a book I started writing toward the end of the Clinton Presidency. At the time, I was working toward an ending where the hero of the story would win the popular vote but lose in the Electoral College. It seemed like such a far fetched idea that it could never happen in real life. Real life mocks the best of us.
I put the book aside, pulling it out periodically to update the social references, but always got bogged down somewhere around the 40,000 word mark. I've never gotten past there.
Eventually, I decided to stop trying to update the story and to anchor it in the year 2004, but in a very different 2004 than you remember. In this version of 2004, MacKinzie Harper has been President since 2000. Within four months of taking office Harper ordered the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit into Afghanistan where they quickly ousted the Taliban and took custody of Osama bin Laden and most of his top lieutenants. The original charges related to the bombing of the USS Cole, but further charges were added later. At first, there was great deal of disagreement in America about whether or not this had been overly aggressive and heavy-handed, but then when documents were found linking bin Laden to plans for attacks on NY and Washington, most people applauded the action. Further arrests were made as more people were linked to various plots. All defendants are in the custody of the U.S. Justice Dept. and awaiting trial.
Saddam Hussein continues to be a thorn in Harper’s side.
This is not an alternate history. It is fiction which requires a fictional and somewhat nicer 2004. So, briefly, let’s forget all that unpleasantness.
I'll be posting chapters daily (yeah right)until I get to the end of what I've written. Hopefully, having this out there for all to see will spur me to finishing the damned thing. I like much of what's there. Some parts, less. I'll leave comments open so you can express your admiration or loathing of me and/or my story. Real critiques from any of you who fancy yourselves writers will be greatly appreciated.
Those of you who know me (in an intertooby kinda way), know that I am pathologically unable to stay on-topic in other people's blogs, and I completely expect you to abuse my comments as well. Just be entertaining.
Lastly, I'm putting this out there for free and have no intentions of getting paid for it, but if I see The Movie come out and I haven't been paid, I'm gonna sue someone's ass. Just sayin'.
So, without further ado, heres... Read more!
Posted by Nathan at 3:30 PM
Wednesday, December 30, 2054
There's No Crying in the War Room
Copyright © 2007 By Nathan Gendzier
Unless you live under a rock, you know about the year I’ve just experienced. You’ve seen all the T.V. show, news reports and ads. There’s been enough ink wasted on me to float a super-tanker. What you don’t know about is my side of the story.
Before I start, I just want to say that the story you’re about to hear could have happened only in America. There’s really nowhere quite like this country. It’s corny and hackneyed and you’d never catch me saying this out loud, but it really is true that in America, even the poorest immigrant mother can dream that her child will grow up to be President. More than any other idea, America has embraced the radical idea that every citizen has a voice and every voice should speak up. I suppose the problem with that with that is that you end up with 250 million or so people talking and nobody listening. Democracy has been called a “grand experiment”. We’re still waiting for the results.
Anyway, it all started exactly a year ago today. I’m in my car on the Capitol Beltway headed toward one of my stores. I own a regional chain of auto parts stores: 23 shops in four states and D.C. I inherited all of this from Father, who had inherited it from his dad. Actually, Father, (never Dad), only got two stores from Grandpa. Grandpa was a real pioneer but he wasn’t very ambitious. Opening the second store was more or less a charitable affair. Grandma Manya’s brother needed somewhere to work, and providing a job for a member of the clan was fine….as long as Grandpa didn’t have to actually see him every day. So, he opened the second shop halfway across town in Falls Church and hired Uncle Herschel to run it.
Grandpa only went over there once a week or so to repair the damage. Herschel meant well, but he was either lazy or stupid; the family was always too polite to say which. Myself, I always thought it would have been the polite thing to go ahead and say which; that way at least we’d be able to remove the onus of one of the two things. But instead, the best we could tell ourselves was “Hey, that Herschel, he may be stupid but he’s sure not lazy….or is it the other way around.” Whatever.
When Father came into the business, he was just a ball of fire. Grandpa was proud of him and all, but I think he was a bit bemused by the whole thing. Within a month of going to work there, Father was talking about expanding the business. As far a Grandpa was concerned, things were just fine the way they were. The two stores provided the family with a very comfortable living. There was money in the bank…enough that he could make a big donation to the schul every once in a while and be a “Macher”. (That’s a geometric progression over “Mensch”, and being a Mensch isn’t half bad.) Grandpa took Grandma to one of those resorts in the Catskills once a year; they had two new cars, and the house had been paid for years ago. Father was a married man with a 17-month-old daughter, a second child on the way (me as it would turn out), a college education (business and accounting), a great job and a beautiful house. Why should we fool with the business?
Well, Father was never exactly a shrinking violet and he badgered Grandpa mercilessly. Finally Grandpa gave in. Father could open one new store. If he could make a go of it, he could do all the expansion he wanted from the profits and any loans he could get on the new properties. They formed a new company, Harkness Automotive, Inc., so that the original company wouldn’t be affected if Father tanked.
A brief moment to address the issue of names. My name is Paul Harkness. I was born in Falls Church, Virginia in 1958 to Abraham and Lucille Harkness. You may have noticed that names like Manya, Herschel and Abraham mix a little oddly with a good WASP name like Harkness. Grandpa making donations to the schul might have been another red flag. The story is (and I don’t know how true this is), that my great grandfather Artimus (go figure) came to America from Lithuania in 1892. The original family name was something that started with an “H” and the rest of it sounded like an old woman preparing to hock up a huge gob of spit. The guy at Ellis Island wrote down “Harkness” and Harkness, we remain. Incidentally, Great Grandpa Artimus worked as a door-to-door typewriter salesman. Now, picture this guy tromping all over Dixie, schlepping a 40-pound typewriter around. He’s dressed like the Hassids you see in New York in the Diamond District trying to sell typewriters to a bunch of illiterate dirt farmers who mostly keep big mean dogs in the front yard. To my knowledge, he never made it past the front door, much less made a sale. My Great Grandmother must have been one hell of a woman. But that’s probably another story.
Anyway, Father turned out to be such a success, that within five years, ha had opened four more stores, all of them going like gangbusters, and Harkness Automotive bought up control of the two original stores. Everybody was pretty happy with the deal. Father became a Captain of Industry, Grandpa went into semi-retirement (he came in one day a week ‘til he was 86), and Herschel was kept on for the sake of family peace.
Father kept building on his success. My sister Rachel and I each went to a nice private school, Jewish summer camps, and eventually college. Rachel majored in Music at Julliard and is actually the 2nd chair violin with the National Orchestra here in D.C. I majored in Poli-Sci at B.U. and came home to take up my rightful place in the family business. Father never forgave me for taking such a useful Major. Which brings us back to the events of a year ago.
--One year ago, today—
So, I’m in my car on the Capitol Beltway headed for one of my stores. I like to pop in unexpectedly now and then. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to catch them with their pants down. I just like surprises. The fact is I’ve got a bunch of great people working for me and I may be the most superfluous part of the operation. When I first came to work for Father, one of the first jobs he entrusted to me was to make periodic checks on the different stores (to catch them with their pants down). Not that I was supposed to take any action if I found something amiss. My job was to call Father and rat out the offenders.
After performing this miserable task for about five months, I started a little conspiracy with the various store managers. We’d start keeping all misdemeanors between ourselves if they’d stop hating me. I’d pretend to discipline them and they’d pretend to have reformed their evil ways. Well, little by little, they started to feel sorry about the position they were putting me in with Father, and the mischigas mostly disappeared.
Just so you shouldn’t get worried, you should know that I’ve about exhausted my Yiddish vocabulary. The way it works is…..Grandpa and Grandma used to speak Yiddish whenever Rachel and I weren’t supposed to hear what they were talking about. Father and Mom understood all of it but they weren’t about to deign to actually speak the language…..”Pop, we’re American ferChrissakes”! Rachel and I ended up picking up about as much Yiddish as your average Catholic kid growing up in the Bronx.
Anyway, flush with my success, and with my New England educated idealism, I started to make suggestions to Father on more liberal ways to run the business. I reminded him what he had told Grandpa when he started in the business; that “you can never rely on the previous generation’s ways of operating; You’ve always got to try new ideas if you want to succeed; New blood equals progress”. Father reminded me to shut up and maybe I’d learn something.
So I mostly shut up for the next ten years. In 1991 Father had a minor heart attack. Most of the family suspects he was faking, but it was enough for him to justify retirement. After all, Father was never in love with the business for it’s own sake; he was in it for the money. And he had piles of the stuff by then. He signed over 60% of the business to me and basically told me I could run it into the ground for all he cared. He had enough money to play golf three days a week, take month-long vacations with Mom and to take week-long vacations without Mom, which is what he proceeded to do until the day he died last year. (This time the heart attack was real, brought on by hitting 12 straight balls into the water at the 17th hole, island green at Sawgrass.)
Mom has started dating again, and what with the
16 million dollar estate Father left, she’s not short on suitors if you know what I mean. Rachel and I are a little concerned about all this, but Mom pointed out that she spent 49 years with Father (God rest his soul), and she had earned every dime of the money, and she could piss it away if she wanted and she deserved a little fun, and she could date anyone she wanted and……..I don’t know how Rachel feels, but, as far as I’m concerned there are some things about your mother you don’t need to hear.
So anyway, I’m in my car on the Capitol Beltway on my way to one of my stores. During the years since Father retired, I’ve been able to institute most of the ideas I had for reorganizing the business. Some of them worked out fine, some not so great, and some were clearly the rantings of a lunatic. I’ve managed to weather the storms, and the company’s doing pretty well. You should have seen Father’s face when I set up a profit sharing program for all of the employees in 1993. He never managed to acknowledge that it was a success, but, on the other hand, he didn’t complain when the net profits went up 27% in the first two years.
O.K. I’ll get to the point. I’m tooling along doing 70 and this tractor-trailer goes screaming past me; must be doing 95. It really scared the crap out of me because I wasn’t paying such close attention to my driving. I was flipping around the radio trying to find something worth listening to and I practically drove off the side of the highway. Well, about 3 miles further, I came around the bend in the road right before the bridge that crosses the Potomac into Maryland. The truck that had passed me is overturned in the middle of the highway with the ass end hanging over the guardrail. It’s completely blocking all but one of the three lanes and there’s smoke coming out from behind the cab.
Most of the other cars on the highway were just coming to a complete stop while a few morons were trying to squeeze by in the one open lane. As flames burst out behind the cab, even the morons stopped. Since traffic had been light, I was only about five car lengths back from the truck. Like everybody else, I got out of my car and edged forward for a better look.
I could see the driver through the crazed windshield. He wasn’t moving, just sort of hanging limp in his seatbelt. Well I don’t know what got into me then. The flames started getting higher and I took off like a bat out of hell toward the truck. Somewhere in my subconscious, it registered that everyone else was running the other way.
With the way the truck had come to rest, I had to climb up onto the passenger side of the cab, which was now the top. I kind of climbed down into the cab, undid the seatbelt, and pushed/pulled/dragged the guy out of there. From the door/top of the truck, I had to push the guy over to the ground, a fall of about 8 feet….Sorry, Pal. I jumped down and dragged the guy away from the truck as fast as I could.
I got no more than fifty yards when the tanks blew. The explosion mostly deafened me a little and I guess the shockwave did something to bring the driver around. So there I am with flaming shrapnel dropping all around me, a 190 lb. maniac who thinks I’m the source of his problems, and I can’t hear a fucking thing.
I ended up lying on my back, sort of dazed and staring up at the sky. I noticed that there was a traffic helicopter circling overhead, presumably taping the mayhem, probably going out live to the whole metro area, isn’t that nice. At this point, some kind soul ran over and rolled me across the pavement. Apparently, my shirt had caught fire. Scraped the shit out of my elbows and knees, but hey, what’s a little road-rash compared to roasted Paul?
I came to rest facing the guardrail. My hearing was starting to recover and I could hear a bunch of people at the rail yelling about something. They were all leaning out over the rail and pointing at something. Curiosity overcame caution (and pain) and I made my way over to the rail. When I got there, I saw what the commotion was all about.
There was an SUV (Suburban families seem to think you need to be prepared to take on a Serbian tank at the drop of a hat, I guess.), in the water that must have gone over the side in the accident. I searched the water for people. I couldn’t see any evidence of rescuers in the water. What I could see was two little kids pounding on the inside of the rear hatch window. The forest green behemoth was still mostly afloat, but that was obviously not going to last forever. And no one’s doing a damn thing but yelling and pointing.
Look, you’ve got to understand; pulling the truck driver out was pure instinct. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. And now that I’d had a moment to think about it, I was shaking in my Timberlands. Not to mention singed, pierced and scraped raw. I am not jumping off a bridge. I am not diving into that water. I better see someone in that water pretty damned fast, ‘cause I’m not jumping into the fucking river.
I shucked my boots and dove. The first thing I noticed was that the water was cold. I mean melted snow, down from the mountains, knock your breath out cold. Then I realized that the SUV had come to rest on sort of a shallow sandbar. I didn’t have to worry about it sinking any further, which was good. Then again, the sand bar made for one hell of a current, which was not at all good.
The two kids were screaming their heads off and it took a minute or so to get them to pull up the lock knob so I could pull open the hatch. One at a time, I pulled the kids out and swam them over to the ledge at the bottom of the bridge supports. As I started to swim back for a third time, it occurred to me that this must have been going on for at least an hour and WHERE THE FUCK ARE THE COPS?
No cops, but two news cameras are already set up and shooting from the bridge. It’s good to know the important stuff’s covered.
When I got back to the SUV, I took a deep breath and dove under. The kids’ mother was conscious and panicked, her face poking up into a small air pocket where the windshield met the roof. I couldn’t pull the door open because of the way the car had come to rest, so I went back to the surface. The car wasn’t going to sink far, but the rear
Had started to take on water and settle below the surface. I dove again and swam in through the rear hatch. I had to slap the lady to get her to shut up, explaining that the air pockets would be gone soon. She said she couldn’t swim. Great. I told her to just hold her breath until we got to the surface and relax; I’d do all the work.
She did and I did. When we got to the surface, I saw that some cops and an ambulance had finally showed up. Thanks for the assist, guys. I swam to the shore with the lady in tow. As I hauled us up onto the shore a paramedic ran up to us. She put one of those space blankets over my shoulders and started helping the lady up the embankment. I could see that some cops were swimming out to where I had left the two kids perched. As I took my first step up the embankment, I guess the adrenaline ran out and I collapsed. “Hello….little help?”
O.K., so the next thing I know, the paramedics have got me on a stretcher and they’re hauling me up the embankment. As soon as we get to the top, the T.V. cameras and microphones are in my face.
They’re all shouting questions at the same time….”Who are you?”….”What’s your name?”…..”Why did you do it?” My answer to the last question was replayed on every news program, news promo, news magazine, tabloid show and God knows what else over the next three days…… "Someone had to help those people”, I said. The end of the sound bite was always the same: one of the paramedics caught on tape, thinking aloud, “But you’re the only one who did.”
Posted by Nathan at 3:27 PM
Tuesday, December 29, 2054
A few hours later, Rachel Harkness walked into Paul’s hospital room, a bedraggled bouquet of flowers in her left hand and a small duffel in her right. Paul was sitting on the edge of the bed looking slightly ridiculous in a hospital gown that barely covered his crotch. At 6’5”, he was lucky the gown covered more than a tee shirt. Paul wore his dark brown hair close-cropped and on close inspection, there were the beginnings of crow’s feet forming at the edges of his almost black eyes. His face lit up at the sight of his sister.
In contrast to her brother, Rachel stood only 5’4”, with long auburn hair and a slight build. Ever since the age of 12, when Paul hit his first growth spurt, he had towered over his parents and sister. His mother told him that her father’s side of the family had been mostly tall, but Paul was the only one who seemed to have dipped into that part of the gene pool. As children, Rachel had often teased her younger brother that he had really been switched at birth and was actually the offspring of a thoroughly inbred Appalachian clan.
She approached Paul and gave him a peck on the
cheek. Then she punched him in the arm with all the strength she could muster. “Are you out of your mind?”, she cried. “I’m having a cup of coffee and watching The View, and they break in live with that footage from the helicopter. Then they zoom in on the face of the guy lying in the middle of the road and its you! Next thing I know you’re running and diving into the river. What on earth were you thinking?” The pain was visible in her eyes.
Paul, doing his best to look sheepish responded, “I wasn’t thinking at all.”
“Well, that’s typical for you, I suppose.”
“I’m fine”, he said, “They just wanted to keep me for observation for a little while.” Motioning toward the duffel, he said, “Thanks for the dry clothes”. Suddenly, in an attempt to move the conversation to safer ground, Paul said, “You won’t believe this one. On the way here, the paramedics asked me what kind of car I drove so they could have a state trooper pick it up for me. I left it in the middle of the highway with the keys in the ignition and it turns out someone stole it. I guess no good deed goes unpunished.”
Rachel laughed. Even though she had grown up with it, she was still always surprised at her brother’s ability to laugh off practically anything. Nothing seemed to ruffle him. “Get dressed, hero. I’ll give you a ride home”, she said.
A short time later, Rachel and Paul were exiting the hospital and ran straight into a phalanx of reporters, cameras and microphones. Every news outlet was represented, the networks, the cable news stations, local radio and T.V., newspapers, magazines, even a few who were obviously foreign press. As they all shouted the same questions at the same time, Paul stopped and held up his hands, signaling for quiet. “I’ll say one thing and then I’d appreciate it if you’d back off. I’m more than a little shocked at what a big deal you’re all making out of this. I really didn’t do anything so special. If I hadn’t jumped in, someone else would have. Now, if it’s O.K. with you, I’d like to go home, put my feet up and have a couple of stiff drinks. Thanks”.
Having said that, he tried to lead Rachel away, but the reporters had no intention of giving up so easily. One of them pushed a microphone toward Rachel and shouted, “Are you proud of your husband”?
Rachel laughed and said, “First of all, this schmuck’s my little brother, and second, it took a while to get my heart rate slowed down, but yeah….I’m real proud of him”. She took his arm and led him toward the parking lot, the Press seeming to be temporarily satisfied. Read more!
Posted by Nathan at 1:28 PM
Monday, December 28, 2054
When we were little, Grandpa used to take Rachel and I to a Jewish nursing home a few times a year to visit the old people. Nowadays, no one is old, crippled, mentally retarded or any other distasteful thing; they’re all variously challenged. I’m not going to pass judgment on whether or not that’s a good or a bad thing but I sure as hell think it sounds dorky. Anyway, I always thought it was really strange to visit a bunch of people I didn’t know and who didn’t know me but they’d just grab us, plop us on their laps and read us stories like we were next of kin. The fact is, I dreaded these visits. Getting sloppy wet kisses from strangers who smelled funny was not high on my list of how to spend a sunny afternoon. Grandpa tried to explain that it didn’t matter whether or not we enjoyed the visit; we were there to do a “mitzvah”, a good deed. Most of the residents had little or no contact with their own families and the only thing that mattered was that they enjoyed the visits.
As I was getting into the car with Rachel for the ride home, the memory of that talk came back to me so clearly I stopped in my tracks for a moment. I guess somewhere along the line, the lesson must have sunk in. I realized that all I had done was a mitzvah, although on a somewhat larger scale. I had the clearest vision of Grandpa I’d had in years and had a small private smile, thinking He would have been proud of me.
Before I had the chance to get too smug, Rachel started the car and the radio came on, tuned to one of the A.M. talk stations. The conversation was about me; some guy saying, “That man’s selfless act is an example of the best America has to offer”.
I reddened and punched the “seek” button as quick as I could reach it. The next station was talking about me. And the next. And the next after that.
The next one had a commercial for one of those mortgage loan companies that sign up people with horrible credit and then take their homes 8 months later when they can’t make the payments. Surprise, surprise. When the commercial finished, the host came back on saying, “Well, we’ve got the latest on the ‘Beltway Hero’, Paul Harkness, who was released just moments ago from Sibley Memorial Hospital. Randi Mansfield is standing by live”.
“Thanks Reggie”, the reporter replied. “Yes, I’m here at Sibley Memorial Hospital where, as you say, just moments ago, Paul Harkness was discharged and left the premises with his sister. Here’s what he had to say”.
Then I listened blankly to Rachel and myself from just moments ago. I said to Rachel, “This is the most bizarre thing ever. Guess I better exercise some real self control. If I fart in public they’re liable to break in with a special report to play it back”.
Rachel smiled and said, “It’ll all die down in a couple of days. They’ll forget all about you as soon as Brittney Spears takes another drive to the coffee shop”.
As I flipped though the stations, I remember feeling some relief at the thought and hoping Brittney was, at that very moment, jonesing for a ‘Grande double caffe, half & half, latte'. And don’t forget the kids, dear.
I turned to the right, partly to watch the scenery going by, mostly to avoid Rachel’s gaze. The day had begun so normally. The usual routine. And there are few things quite so enjoyable as carrying on your usual routine on one of the few spring days D.C. is allotted. When winter finally gives up its grip on this part of the country, we’re rewarded with, at most, a week of beautiful spring weather. Then, the weather, having no respect for what the calendar says, closes in with our own version of summer. A D.C. summer is a physical being with weight and substance; close, sodden, relentlessly hot. It occurred to me that I had just lost one of those precious spring days. Having little hope of enjoying the next few days, I eagerly settled into a childish pout.
I went back to scanning the radio and settled on an oldies station playing the Stones. You can’t always get what you want. Well, you can say that again. Read more!
Posted by Nathan at 10:01 AM
Sunday, December 27, 2054
Paul knew the attention was going to be overwhelming, but in his wildest nightmares he wouldn’t have dreamed the reality. At that very moment “The Insider” was pestering Paul’s mother for copies of home movies from Paul’s childhood. The managers at Harkness Automotive had each been contacted in search of background information and juicy tidbits. The Falls Church Police Department had requested assistance from the nearest State Trooper barracks because of the number of satellite news trucks converging on Paul’s neighborhood. The feeding frenzy was on and Paul was the blue-plate special.
A few miles away, in a Georgetown townhouse, Adelaide Rotholz was watching the evening news…plural. As Press Secretary for the president’s reelection campaign, she made a habit of watching NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, and CNBC simultaneously on a panel of monitors. She would sit, remote in hand, bringing up the sound on whichever broadcast caught her interest.
Usually, she did this chore in her office, but today, she had finally surrendered; not so much to her flu symptoms, but to her boyfriend’s badgering. Truth be told, Tim Pratt had been getting on her nerves for the last few months, but there never seemed to be an opportune moment to break up with him. She was much too busy to go through the melodrama of a breakup, not to mention the fact that they were living at his place. Given the alternative of trying to find a new place to live with the campaign in full swing, living with Tim seemed downright idyllic. In hindsight, she was glad she had called in sick. Being at home had given her the opportunity to watch the Paul Harkness drama unfold throughout the day without any other distractions. At first, she had been sucked in like any other person watching at home.
Until recently, Adelaide had worked as second in command for the White House Press Secretary, Alan Gardner. When she’d graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Broadcast Journalism, she had dreamed of one of the few coveted spots anchoring a national news broadcast. She knew she had what it took. She was blessed to be both attractive to men and non-threatening to women. She had excelled in college and came equipped with glowing recommendations from professors and her immediate supervisors at two high-profile internships. She also had a talent for writing and for research that she thought the networks would welcome. She viewed herself as a throwback to the golden age of news anchors, before the age of the coiffed “reader”. Having grown up in rural Louisiana, she was also exceedingly proud of the neutral mid-western speech she’d struggled to master.
She quickly discovered that her skills and talent weren’t enough to overcome a flaw that no amount of hard work would ever correct. Standing 5-foot-nothing in heels, there wasn’t a producer in America who was going to put her on the air. Sure, she’d be fine hidden behind an anchor desk, but the only way to get that seat was by paying her dues first. And paying your dues in T.V. journalism consists of doing stand-ups in the field. Stand-ups….what a joke. She had the knowledge and confidence to stand nose to nose with any interviewee on a seemingly endless list of topics. But you can’t stand on a box while you’re trying to pin down the latest disgraced federal official trying to sneak out of his office without commenting to the press. Someone had left that bit of wisdom out of the Columbia curriculum.
However, with her education and an innate knowledge of her chosen field, she quickly found her niche. Resigning herself to a life working behind the scenes, she found that it suited her. She had come to Alan Gardner’s attention three years ago and since then had become an invaluable addition to the White House Press Office. Gardner himself had recommended her for the post with the campaign. Officially, Adelaide had had to resign her post at the White House to take the new job, but that was mostly a formality. She continued to work closely, if quietly with the White House. At 31 years of age, she was on the fast track and everyone knew it.
More often than not, Addie was able to predict precisely how the press would cover a story. In her office, on a specially reserved white-board, she kept mockups of the front pages of the Washington Post, The New York Times and USA Today. Each day at about 5:00 p.m., she’d mark up her prediction for which story would occupy which portion of the page and how much space it would be allotted. The rest of the staff ran a daily pool for or against her accuracy at $5.00 a head. Participation in the pool was waning because few people were willing to bet against her.
For the Harkness story to dominate the news during the day was to be expected. In a world where local stations interrupted their daytime programming to cover a car chase, a story like this couldn’t be denied. It had everything; danger, drama, bravery and a handsome protagonist.
What surprised Adelaide was the amount of airtime devoted to the story on the evening broadcasts. Of course they’d cover the story, probably as one of their lead stories. Then, considering themselves to be serious journalists, they’d move on to the latest suicide bombing, or the bad news coming out of the Far Asian stock markets. They’d give lip service to the presidential race, which was being covered only grudgingly, due to the foregone conclusion that President MacKinzie Harper was going to be reelected by a landslide. And news of Senator Wyman’s problems with the Robertson Dam Contracts scandal was hardly played out yet.
But it didn’t happen that way. In an age when the average story got 15 seconds of air-time, and 2 minutes was considered “in depth” coverage, the “Beltway Hero” story got an average of 6 minutes on the Networks. CBS was the stingiest with only four minutes, while ABC practically devoted their broadcast to the story, weighing in with a full eleven minutes of airtime. The last story to receive this sort of coverage was SARS “epidemic”. Earthquakes didn’t rate this treatment. Astonishing.
As the news shows ended, (and the tabloid shows took their place covering, guess what), Addie placed a call to Elgin Carmichael, the President’s campaign manager. Carmichael was an unimaginative drone, but somehow, he and the President had maintained a deep friendship since rooming together their freshman year at Yale. Harper’s force of personality, added to the formidable track record he’d managed to rack up during his first term were more than enough to overcome Carmichael’s deficiencies. Addie would have put even money on the President being reelected even if the enemy camp were running the campaign.
Addie was put on hold long enough to listen to the canned pitch for re-election to play through twice. “Pompous ass”, she thought as she waited for Carmichael to come on the line. She knew from experience that it wasn’t uncommon for Carmichael to sit staring at the phone for minutes at a time before answering, the better to create the illusion that the caller was imposing on his valuable time.
Finally, a curt “Carmichael here”, came through the receiver and jerked Addie back from her thoughts.
“Have you been watching this Harkness story on T.V?”, she asked.
Sounding even more officious than usual, Carmichael answered, “I’ve caught snippets here and there. We’ve been quite busy today, you know. Hell of a time for you to call in sick. We’ve all had to take up the slack”.
Addie knew that when she returned to work the next day, she’d find her desk exactly as she’d left it, only there’d be a new mountain of paper on top of what had already been there. She’d be left to wonder exactly what slack anyone had taken up. With an effort at keeping any annoyance from her voice, she said, “Mr. Carmichael, I think we can use this story to our advantage. This story is sizzling and we’re in a perfect position to exploit it”.
“What have you got in mind, Adelaide?” Carmichael adhered strictly to his own sense of the petty privileges of rank. Anyone below him, or perceived to be below him on the food chain was addressed by their given name, and chastised severely if they committed the sin of calling him Elgin. Conversely, he was visibly unhappy about having to extend the courtesy of calling even a Senator by his title. Only “Mr. President” was uttered with no sign of duress.
“I think the President should award this Harkness guy the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He should do it at the earliest possible opportunity”, Addie said.
Carmichael, in his usual fashion didn’t take a heartbeat to stomp on the idea. “We don’t go handing out the Medal of Freedom to every Tom, Dick and Harry who comes along”, he said, as if he was key vote in deciding who received the award. “The Medal of Freedom is this nation’s highest civilian award, not a string of beads at Mardi Gras.”
Being accustomed to Carmichael’s condescension, Addie went on as if he hadn’t said anything. “What Harkness did today would rate the Congressional Medal of Honor if it had been done by a soldier in a war zone. First, he pulls the driver out of a flaming truck. That alone makes him uncommon. But then, what he does next, is what makes him superlative. While no-one, I repeat no-one, manages to pull their thumbs out of their collective ass, he disregards his own injuries and dives into a freezing, dangerous river to save a mother and her two small children. Fighting hypothermia, exhaustion and pain, he swims back and forth three times to rescue them: Live, On Television. You and I both know that everyone in that car would be dead now if he’d waited for the “authorities” to arrive. They would have done their jobs, but it would have been to late. He’s a goddamn hero and we need pictures of the President telling him so.”
Carmichael's silence stretched uncomfortably. Addie was familiar with the tactic. He’d been won over, but now he had to figure a way to convince Addie that this was his own idea. You could almost hear him console himself that even though he couldn’t convince Addie that day was night he would be able to pass off the idea to the President as his own. And there wouldn’t be a thing Addie could do about it.
Finally Carmichael responded, “Solid thinking, Adelaide. I’ll run it by the boss right away. We’ll do it in the Rose Garden before the week is out. Great photo-op. Great publicity. I guess you’ve earned your pay today after all. See you in the morning”.
Addie found herself listening to a dial tone and wondering why she even bothered. “Asshole”, she muttered. Read more!
Posted by Nathan at 8:21 AM
Saturday, December 26, 2054
Its been my experience in life that there’s no such thing as a person who’s purely good or bad. People like Ghandi come pretty close on the good side and Hitler tips the scales pretty hard on the bad side. Martin Luther King; great guy, but he had his bimbos in the closet. JFK? great guy, ditto the bimbos in the closet. Conversely, I bet Stalin bought his wife some really thoughtful anniversary presents. Other than that, thoroughly evil guy.
My point is that everyone’s only human. Now I may have given the impression that my Father wasn’t such a terrific guy. That’s not completely accurate. I remember lots of wonderful times with my Father. He taught me to fish, play golf, and we tossed a ball in the backyard every once in a while. He’d help me with homework sometimes. The fact is that he was driven by the need to be a success and to amass profits. He considered that his duty as a father and husband, and anything else he did was for Brownie points. He wasn’t actually neglectful, just preoccupied.
On the other hand, there was all of the wisdom he imparted to me. Well, truth be told, approximately 25% of that wisdom was a crock of shit. He didn’t trust his employees and he assumed all of his customers were trying to steal from him. Any returned merchandise was given the highest level of scrutiny before being accepted. He claimed he didn’t have a racist bone in his body, but the term 'Those People’ was used an awful lot in the Harkness household.
By the time I turned 16, I had decided that the 25% bullshit factor justified disregarding the rest of my father’s advice. I was 32 before my father began to make sense on any issue again. Unfortunately, I chose to marry during the period when my father was always wrong.
I met Denise Bostwick during my senior year at B.U. I was waiting tables at Crossroad’s, a saloon type joint near Kenmore Square. Denise was majoring in some obscure Fine Arts specialty, and used to come in with some of her friends a couple of times a week.
She was tall, gorgeous and highly intelligent. (Eventually I discovered that there’s a huge difference between actual intelligence and loudly stated opinions, but by then, it was too late.) Of course, I was smitten. We had a whirlwind romance over the next few months. At spring break, I took her home to meet the family and we announced our engagement.
Mom was gentle, but against the marriage on the basis of Denise being a shiksa and all. Dad, on the other hand was practically apoplectic. “I looked into her family”, he said. “She may try to act like some Boston blueblood, but she’s just trash from Dorchester. She’s only after you for my money.”
With a ringing endorsement like that from Father, what else could I do? Denise and I left the house in a huff and got married that very night by a Justice of the Peace in Maryland. Turns out, Father had hit the nail on the head. How could I have known? How was I to detect the one time he knows what he’s talking about?
We remained painfully married until 1992; about a year after Father had passed control of the business to me. Coincidence? Anything’s possible. The judge gave her 23% of Harkness Automotive in the divorce settlement.
I’ve accepted the way things worked out, and honestly, I’m not bitter about it. Her share of the business frees me from paying her alimony, and she’s never tried to play an active part in running it. Grandpa had Uncle Herschel; Denise is my cross to bear.
What’s my point? She’s only human. On the negative side, she mostly sucks as a person; on the positive side, I almost never have to see her.
Unfortunately, today proved to be one of those rare days when she chose to inflict her personal suckiness on me. As Rachel slowly inched the car through the mass of reporters camped out in my driveway, I witnessed a most unwelcome sight: Denise in My Spotlight!
Now this is one of those moments where, I was doing my bit to preserve the notion of “only human”. I was furious that Denise should be getting any benefit from the circus my life had become today. I had no idea what she expected to achieve, but there she was…standing in my spotlight! I wanted the press to leave me alone; to turn off the damned spotlight, but if that wasn’t going to happen, I certainly had no intention of sharing it with Denise, of all people.
I got out of the car and, with a smile plastered on my face, I took Denise firmly by the upper arm and led her into the house. I dropped my keys twice, trying to open the door and I didn’t respond to any of the reporters other than to wave to them with my “key” hand. Neither my smile nor my grip on Denise’s arm faltered. Her smile never faltered. Later that night, one of the local stations played back the footage of my arrival. My smile made me look like a coyote in a claw trap.
Of course, the phone was ringing when we walked in. Rachel answered it, said, “No Comment”, and disconnected the jack. She looked at the counter on the answering machine and asked me if I wanted to hear the 42 messages it had saved? (There would have been more, but the tape had run out.) I asked her if she wouldn’t mind screening them for me and let me know if I should care about any of them.
A few minutes later, I returned to the room with a healthy glass of Jameson’s in one hand and the bottle in the other. Motioning toward Denise with the glass, I said, “Sit”. I guess my tone was a little severe because she dropped into the chair like a grade-schooler reporting to the principal’s office.
As I said before, she was tall and gorgeous when I met her, and age had done little to diminish her looks. Seeing the contrite look on her face was enough to mostly deflate my anger. Suddenly, I just felt tired. “What, exactly are you doing”, I asked quietly.
“They called me at home to ask me some questions and next thing I knew, they picked me up in a limo and brought me over here for an on-camera interview. They wanted your house as a background.”
“Denise, We’ve been divorced 12 years. What could you possibly have to say to the press?”
At this, she brightened a little. “On no, Paul. They didn’t call me because we were married. They wanted to interview your business partner.”
I didn’t say anything immediately. Denise had the sense to read my mood and quickly reverted to the contrite pose. Eventually, with a defeated air, I said, “Go home, Denise…now. Just walk out the door, smile and wave to the reporters as you get back in your limo. And go. Don’t speak, just go”.
To her credit, she went. See? I don’t ask for much.
After Denise left, Rachel started reading off the list of who had called. When she got to Mom, I panicked. “Shit, I haven’t called her at all today. Shit, shit shit. She gonna kill me.”
I plugged the phone back in and started dialing while Rachel continued reading off the list. When she mentioned “Nightline” wanted me for that night, I put the phone down. I grabbed the piece of paper and scanned it for the “Nightline” producer’s number.
Rachel said, “What about Mom”?
I found the number and started dialing. The spotlight was a little warm for my taste, but, hey, Nightline wanted me. How cool was that? I wondered who would interview me.
“Mom knows I’m fine. Hell, there’s nothing else on T.V. She can wait a few more minutes to talk to me”.
Hey, I’m only human. Read more!
Posted by Nathan at 7:05 PM
Friday, December 25, 2054
Paul did, in fact appear on Nightline. Chris Bury did the interview. Paul tried to look humble and serious, but hell, this was Nightline. He had always been something of a news junkie and Nightline had always been one of his favorites. You could watch the Sunday morning political talk shows, but they were full of well-prepared politicians, economists and press secretaries. Dateline, 20/20, and 60-Minutes were all fine, but they were pre-produced. It might be fun to watch the hidden camera catching security guards sleeping on duty at the nuclear power plant, or to see Mike Wallace jump out of the bushes yelling “Where did you hide the money?” at some schmuck trying to get to his car, but you knew that these stories had been edited.
But Nightline, that was a different story. First of all, its live. They convince a bunch of authorities on some subject or other to come in and beat each other senseless over whatever the day’s hot topic is. The story may have only broken a few hours ago, and no-one’s had a chance to prepare. That’s where the excitement is. You get to watch these guys soar or crash and burn. And then, there’s the rare incredible show you never forget. How about the time Koppel’s got Al Campannis on in what should have been a fairly softball discussion of race in Major League Basball? Campannis sticks his foot in it, big time. Koppel gives him such a chance to extricate it; he’s practically pulling on the guy’s leg. Campannis sticks by what he said. Munch, munch, swallow. End of career. This is a show Paul thought was worth watching.
And now he had his chance to be on it. And he couldn’t think of any downside. “Hell”, he thought “They just want to parade out today’s hero. I can live with that.”
As it turned out, they took up the first segment of the show recounting the day’s events and interviewing Paul, who once again tried to downplay his heroics. This was followed by a panel discussion on the psychology of a hero. The next segment was about some similar events in the past; the guy who dove into the Potomac after the Air Florida plane crash, and Richard Jewel (Hero then Bomber, then “O.K., not a bomber, but you can’t be a hero anymore either”). The show finished with more softball questions from Chris and more humility from Paul.
Throughout the show, Paul thought his face would crack from trying to keep the shit-eating grin off of his face. “Nightline”, he thought, “this is just too cool”.
The interview had been conducted via satellite with Chris Bury in New York and Paul in the local affiliate’s studio in D.C. When it was over, a technician came over and disconnected Paul from his lapel mic and ear-whig. The makeup woman gave him a towellete to mop off the makeup and sweat. One of the producer types walked over and said, “Great show, Mr. Harkness. I’ve gotta tell you, we get a lot of big names coming through here, and I meet them all, but meeting you, it really is an honor. What you did today… that was special. It helps restore your faith in your fellowman, well mine, at least. Anyway, I just wanted to say that and to shake your hand”.
During the course of this speech, Paul had been looking around the room. He was extremely embarrassed; trying to look anywhere but at the producer. Its one thing to be praised to the hilltops on national T.V. Its something else entirely to have to endure this sort of thing face to face.
In the course of his visual wandering, Paul’s attention was drawn to a man and woman standing nearby. Both were immaculately dressed and both appeared to be in their mid-thirties.. The woman had the sort of brown eyes that normally made him lose track of time. She carried herself with an obvious sense of authority and you could see that the guy was careful to follow her lead. The guy looked like any other totally normal guy….just shy of 6’ tall, hair cut very short, skin a shade lighter than coffee, expensive suit off the rack…..totally normal….except that he appeared to have been impaled on a broomstick.
From a few feet away, Adelaide Rotholz, standing with one of the White House Protocol Officers, listened to the producer’s comments. Oblivious to Paul’s attention, she thought, “Jeez, if a Nightline producer is getting all choked up over this guy, the rest of the country is just going to eat him up.”
She approached Paul and stuck out her hand. “Mr. Harkness, my name is Adelaide Rotholz. I work for President Harper. Its my pleasure to inform you that the President would like to formally express the nation’s gratitude for your actions today. The day after tomorrow, we’ll be holding a ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House. During this ceremony, you will be presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian award. Congratulations.”
Paul stood there, dumbstruck. “I’m sorry, who did you say you are?”
Addie laughed. She and the Protocol Officer each showed Paul their White House credentials. “This is real, Mr. Harkness. No Joke.”
Paul realized he had just dropped into an entirely different universe. The attention from the press was one thing, but this was just inconceivable. This was way too much.
“Why would the President give me a medal? I’m just some guy.”
Addie looked at Paul and responded sincerely. She was rarely in a position to speak so forthrightly so her sincerity was obvious, even to Paul who had just met the woman. “Paul….do you mind if I call you Paul? Did you hear what that producer just said to you? Five nights a week, its his job to hype some guy, to puff him up to the audience and to himself. And nine days out of ten, the guy’s just the flavor of the week. He’s some bloviating politician or movie star confusing fame with depth of knowledge. Maybe he’s some hack scientist talking about how the auto industry is preventing him from producing his zero-emissions car.”
“That producer knows that most people who appear on this show are either pushing some agenda or just full of shit, sometimes both. I just watched him practically bow and kiss your feet. And that’s real. I’ve also watched you on T.V. all day being humble, and that’s also part of why you’re getting this medal. Everyone in America watched you do something truly heroic today and you’re response has been, “Oh, anyone would have done the same thing”. The fact is everyone wants to believe they would have done the same thing in your place, but they know that no-one else did. And they have serious doubts that they would have. Face it, pal, what you did today is something everyone wishes they’d have done, but they know they would have just stood at the guardrail pointing with the rest of the crowd. And the most incredible thing is that you honestly don’t see anything special about it. So, do you want to meet the President, or not”? Read more!
Posted by Nathan at 9:02 PM
Thursday, December 24, 2054
As you must be aware, I said, “Sure, I think I’d like to meet the President”.
The Press Babe and the Protocol Officer sat me down and started to fill me in on how the next couple of days would run. “You’ll be picked up tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. and brought to the White House. We’ll do a complete walkthrough of the ceremony. Don’t accept invitations for any more interviews until after the ceremony. Don’t tell anyone you’re getting the medal; the White House will announce it at tomorrow morning’s press briefing…”.
I stopped paying attention. I could hear her, and apparently most of what she said registered somewhere in my subconscious because I was able to dredge it up when it was needed. This was the moment when it finally struck me. My life had spun completely beyond my control. And there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it. I had done a good thing. Hey, I’m not a moron; I know I’d admire someone else if they’d done it. As thanks for my moment of do-gooder-ness, the press was harassing me mercilessly and now, I was about to be singled out by the President for even more attention.
Don’t get me wrong; I felt unbelievably honored to be receiving the award. Hell, how many people get to stand up next to the Freakin’ President of the Entire Freakin’ United States of America and listen to him tell the WORLD, “Paul, you Da Man?” This was definitely a good thing. Having every representative of every form of media (now known or hereafter devised), camped out on my front lawn wasn’t my idea of fun, but you take the good with the bad. The point that was drilling itself into my pointy little head was the fact that, for the foreseeable future, the course of my life was going to be directed by a whole lot of people other than me.
For the moment, I figured I’d ride out the storm and then fade back into oblivion in a couple of weeks. No, actually I was thinking about the new ads I’d tape for the stores. I was figuring on cashing in fairly big time. Something tasteful, of course. “Hi, I’m Paul Harkness president of Harkness Automotive. We’ve got a store near you, and we’ve got parts for every American and foreign car currently in production. We’ve got a huge stock of antique and hard-to-find parts. And if we don’t have it in stock, we’ll find it and have it in your hands in no more than two business days. When you leave Harkness Automotive, you’re gonna say ‘Paul, you’re my hero’.”
O.K. maybe a little over the top. I’d find some high road to take. But, hell, this situation was gonna pay!
I’m not proud of it, but I promised to give you an honest account and this was what was going through my head at that moment. Remember that “only human” thing? Mea Culpa. Mea Maxima Culpa.
Now believe me, I’ve given this subject a lot of thought in the last few months. The question is, when your life moves completely beyond your control, how do you get it back? The answer is, Beats me! Consider the possibilities. You could refuse to speak to the press; They’re gonna hound you anyway. You could try to disappear for a while; say, to Jamaica. They’re gonna get pictures of you with 1000mm lenses from helicopters if they want them and the reporters will pay the cleaning staff at your hotel for a chance to inspect you garbage. You can turn down Nightline; you can decline to meet the President, but the only result will be that everything said or printed about you will come from someone other than you.
So, my advice to anyone who finds themselves in a similar position is to enjoy the ride as much as possible. Do your best to control what’s said about you, and understand that its impossible. Keep in mind, Roger Ebert may say a movie is “an incredible waste of film”, and then the ad for the picture comes out with the Ebert quote: “…incredible…film”. What are you gonna do?
The following morning, true to their word, there was a White House limo waiting for me right on time. I hadn’t gotten much sleep, so I was a little bleary. The announcement about the award had been made about an hour earlier, so the media hordes had new things to shout at me. I ignored them as I was ushered into the car; just like cattle are ushered into the slaughterhouse.
The ride to the White House was quick and I felt a little like a kidnapping victim. Granted, I wasn’t blindfolded or gagged or anything like that, but I still didn’t have any real idea what was going on. My keepers were polite and efficient, but refused to answer any questions. The car moved so fast, I don’t even know which gate we went through. The next thing I knew, I was in a small ornate office on the ground floor of the West Wing.
Rotholz was there with the same Protocol Officer who’d been with her the night before and another man who looked vaguely familiar to me. The Protocol guy introduced himself as Darrell Wainright and then the guy behind the desk stood up. Reaching across the desk to shake my hand, he said, “I’m Tom Douglas, it’s an honor to meet you”. Douglas looked to be in his early 60’s, obscenely healthy, but with skin like leather, as if he was an old cow-hand who’d spent his life on a horse during the 19th century. To add to the image, he stood close to 6’5” and looked like he could have been on the Chicago Bears front line. The only flaw I could see was a pair of tiny mis-shaped ears that made me work hard to avoid staring.
Shit, this was the President’s chief of staff. His reputation was that of a land shark. It was common knowledge that no-one ever managed to cross the guy because he had so many spies you couldn’t take him by surprise. King of the preemptive strike. And when he got you, he got you good. So good that you couldn’t scratch up the juice for any kind of retaliation. So good, you couldn’t pin it on Douglas even though everyone in town knew who got you. And more important, no taint of a Douglas hatchet job ever touched the President. This was his legend and he never said or did anything that might have dissuaded people from believing it.
I was smart enough to be nervous.
Douglas said, “I just wanted to meet you before the ceremony tomorrow. Adelaide and Darrell will fill you in and take you through the paces. The important thing is to stick to the script. The President operates on a very tight schedule and if we go even a minute or two over, it throws the rest of the day completely off the rails. That’s my job here; making sure the trains run on time.”
I stood there feeling a little dumbstruck as Douglas picked up a folder of papers from his desk, our signal that the royal audience was concluded. Rotholz took me by the arm and led me down the hall to another office with Wainright bringing up the rear. With the door closed, Wainright suddenly became human.
“Douglas is scary as hell, but don’t worry, you won’t need to deal with him anymore. You want a cup of coffee or anything”?
I accepted, more from being completely off balance than from actually wanting the coffee. First, one of the most ruthless and powerful men in Washington treats me like I’ve been putting the moves on his teenaged daughter. Then the man in the iron mask starts acting like an old high school buddy. I decided it would be a good idea to do a lot more listening than talking.
Wainright handed me the coffee and said, “Like I said, you don’t have anything to worry about, but as Douglas said in his highly diplomatic manner, the script is the important thing. We’ll walk you through the whole thing, and then, tomorrow, it’ll be a piece of cake. Douglas notwithstanding, you’ll enjoy the show”.
Rotholz said, “I’ve gotta get back to Campaign Headquarters and excavate my office. You’re in good hands with Darrell here, and as you’ve probably noticed, he’s not the tightass he seems. There’s even a rumor that he’s been seen laughing, but threatened violence to the only witnesses.”
I admired the view as Rotholz left. In spite of being a tiny woman, she was clearly used to being in charge. Also, very nice to look at.
I spent the rest of the day learning my lines for the ceremony. After a tour of the impending crime scene, Darrell took me to lunch in the White House commissary. Watching Darrell turned out to be one of the more interesting studies I’ve undertaken. When we were behind closed doors, he was relaxed and affable, a regular feet-on-the-coffee-table, kind of guy. The second we ventured out of his sanctum, Darrell became D.A.R.Y.L. We visited a couple of other functionaries during the day, and depending, apparently, on his relationship with them, he either pulled the plug out or maintained his Marine Corps poster persona.
At about 3:30, Darrell ushered me into another official car. Before shutting the door, he leaned in and said, “I know I haven’t said anything, but I just wanted to let you know I was real impressed with what you did. You’re gonna do fine tomorrow. There’s no reason for you to be concerned, but you need to be aware that there’s a subtext to everything that goes on at the White House. Tom Douglas told you to stick to the script for his own reasons, but that doesn’t make it bad advice. If you deviate from the script, you’ll just be giving some of the people here an opportunity…and it won’t be one that benefits you.”
I looked him in the eye and said, “What are you talking about. I’m just a show here. Why should I even register on anyone’s radar?”
“Listen carefully. Some of these people are ambitious to the level of having forgotten what scruples are. Since they’ve got such a warped view of the world, they’re naturally suspicious of everyone else. If they’d do anything for the sake of climbing one more rung up the ladder…and they would, they assume everyone else would too. Douglas, for instance, considers anyone who gets the slightest access to the President to be a threat to him personally. He doesn’t like it when anyone has a closed door meeting with the President that he isn’t there to monitor. Hell, he doesn’t like the idea that the First Lady has unsupervised visitation. So, the thing you need to keep in mind is that even though you have no aspirations, and even though you just think you’re just here for a party, there are a whole lot of people trying to figure out what you’ve got up your sleeve. They are completely unable to comprehend that someone might be here without a hidden agenda. That said, I’ll pick you up at 8:00 tomorrow morning. Get some rest; you look like shit”.
I rode home wondering what the fuck I’d stepped into. Read more!
Posted by Nathan at 11:16 AM
Tuesday, December 22, 2054
Paul woke early the next morning and tried to follow his usual routine. He had a queasy feeling about how the day would go. So far, the day had sucked. The shaving cream had run out, so he had to shave with soap. When he went for his first cup of coffee, he discovered that he had put the grounds directly into the basket and forgotten the filter, thus brewing a strong pot of silt. And stepping out the front door to retrieve the morning paper, he could see that the rain from the previous night was beginning to steam on the sidewalk. It was going to be a hot one.
Most of the serious press figured they’d get their fill at the White House ceremony, but the tabloids still had their cameras parked in front of the house. They were there to record the major event when Paul walked from the house to the limo a short while later. Paul leaned into the back and said to Darrell, “You’ve seen this stuff before, right?”, motioning to the cameras. “How long before they get bored and go away”?
Darrell said, “They’re not going anywhere as long as you keep giving them such a lovely shot of your ass. Get in the car”. Darrell handed him a Starbuck’s Grande as the car pulled away. “So, are you ready for your adoring public”?
Paul responded, “I think I’ll be happy when this is all over with. I never realized being famous could be such a ball buster.”
Darrell laughed. “Enjoy it while it lasts. Believe it or not, you’re going to miss it when its over”.
The limo entered through one of the less visible White House gates, Darrell explaining that it would make his “entrance” more dramatic later in the Rose Garden. They had an hour to kill before the ceremony and Darrell used the time to walk Paul through the script one more time.
When the time arrived, Darrell led Paul to a doorway, and there, in the flesh, stood the President. He shook Paul’s hand, and seeing his expression, smiled and said, “Don’t worry. This won’t hurt a bit”.
President Harper led Paul out to the Rose Garden. There was a podium with the Presidential Seal on a rostrum. Seated behind the podium were a number of dignitaries, including the Vice President, a couple of cabinet members, one Supreme Court Justice, and Tom Douglas looking rather smug. Also seated with the VIP’s were Rachel and Paul’s mother. The audience consisted of a troop of Boy Scouts, a group from a Catholic girls’ school, (identifiable by matching plaid uniforms), a small number of other groups and individuals whose presence was most likely payback for some minor donations or deeds in favor of the present administration. And, of course, there was the press pool. They seemed to outnumber the civilian audience by a fair margin.
Adelaide Rotholz was standing discretely off to the side watching events unfold.
As Paul and the President came into sight, the audience and dignitaries all came to their feet. The applause was significantly more than polite. Paul was in a daze and the President was visibly eating it up.
After waiting a short interval, Mackinzie Harper raised both hands, palms out, signaling for quiet. When the crowd finally took their seats, the President began, “Two days ago, an ordinary citizen like any of you here before me, found himself faced with an extraordinary circumstance. Driving to work, like he does every day of the week, he came across a scene of hellish proportions; a truck overturned on the highway, it’s driver unconscious, with flames threatening. Without hesitation, and with utter disregard for his own safety, this man, Paul Harkness went to that man’s aid.” As he said this, he gestured toward Paul, standing beside him. The crowd broke out in its first interruption of applause.
As the applause died down, the President continued. “Mr. Harkness was able to rescue that man, Jordan Anderson, who is here with us today.” President Harper gestured to a man in the front row and he rose for a moment, greeted by polite applause.
Unbelievable, Paul thought. The guy drives a truck 40 mph over the limit, almost takes out an entire family and gets invited to the White House. Wacky world.
President Harper went on, “Alone, this selfless act would be worthy of our admiration. But what occurred next is what truly elevates Mr. Harkness in the Nation’s Conscious. In spite of his own injuries, Mr. Harkness undertook yet another rescue. And not just any rescue. This was a rescue in the freezing, swift currents of the Potomac River. Robert Jessup has his wife and two children with him here today because of the courageous acts of the man we are here to honor”. At this, the Jessup family stood from their seats in the front row of the audience. Paul hadn’t recognized them until now. The entire family rushed over, Mr. Jessup shaking Paul’s hand furiously, Mrs. Jessup planting a shy but emotional kiss on his cheek. Judging by Tom Douglas’s facial expression, this demonstration was not part of the script. Oh, well. So much for the President’s schedule. They’d just have to knock 38 seconds off the National Security Advisor’s briefing to get back on track.
When the spontaneous applause died down and the Jessups had returned to their seats, the President continued. “Paul Harkness’ actions reflect the grandest image of America, of people willing to sacrifice for their neighbors, even at great personal risk. The Fire Department, Paramedics and Police arrived on the scene in a timely fashion, the first officers arriving within 9 minutes of the first report of the accident. There is no question that those officers would have acted valiantly had there been anything left for them to do. But there was little remaining for them to do by then. Mr. Harkness had already acted. And all of the authorities are in agreement; if not for Mr. Harkness’ quick actions, the outcome of that day would have been tragedy. And so, we are gathered today to bestow on Paul Harkness, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award our government can confer on a civilian. This award is not lightly given, nor was it lightly earned.” Turning to Harkness, he held out the medal, removed it from its jewelry style box, and draped the ribbon over Paul’s neck. He said, “Paul Harkness, I am honored and humbled at the opportunity to present you with this medal.”
This time, the applause was loud and sustained. After a brief round of hand shaking, the press began to shout questions. A Q&A was definitely not in the script, so Paul was surprised when the President began to respond to some of the questions. Harper obviously felt like the event was serving him well and had decided to milk the good will for all it was worth.
One of the reporters addressed Paul. In keeping with the tone of the event, it was a seemingly softball question. “Mr. Harkness, can President Harper count on your vote in the fall”?
Laughing lightly, the President steered Paul to the podium and took a step back.
On any other day, what happened next would not have happened. But at that moment, Paul was overawed by the event. Truth be told, he was a little full of himself, having just been presented to the world as the best thing since sliced cheese. Then again, on any other day, he would have been just bullshitting with the guys at one of his stores and no-one would have given a damn what he said. But this wasn’t any other day.
Paul, without giving it a thought, said, “I haven’t actually decided yet. I usually wait until I can look at one of the candidates and say, ‘that guy’s way more qualified than me.”
Stunned silence followed. Douglas was so pissed off, you could practically see the froth at the corners of his mouth. Rachel was hiding a grin behind her hand and seemed to be bouncing slightly in her chair. Paul’s mother looked like she’d have crawled under her chair given half a chance. Addie’s jaw nearly hit the floor. Paul took in all of this in an instant that felt like an hour.
Breaking the silence, he turned to the President and sheepishly added, “No offence intended”.
President Harper’s face looked as if it might crack from trying to maintain the requisite smile. Leaning into the mic, he said, “None taken, I’m sure”.
At this point, the event ended quietly to polite applause. The President shook Paul’s hand with the least bit of enthusiasm necessary, turned his back and strode back into the White House. Tom Douglas glared daggers at Paul and then quickly followed the President. So much for the script, Paul thought. Darrell came to Paul’s rescue, ushering him into a room where a small reception would take place.
Turning to Darrell, Paul said, “Guess I screwed the pooch on that one, huh”?
Quietly, Darrell said, “They could hear the howling in Tacoma”. Read more!
Posted by Nathan at 9:08 PM
Monday, December 21, 2054
The contest is over and done, but you can read about it if you like.
Here’s the deal. Since Paul fucked up his Rose Garden appearance so badly (in the previous chapter), who do you think wants him as a guest now? David Letterman, of course. After all, you can’t embarrass a president to his face without having Dave want to get in on the joke. Here’s where you come in. On the night Paul appears, Dave’s Top Ten list is:
Top Ten Things Not to Say When You’re Invited to the White House.
I’m having trouble coming up with ten of them, so I need your contributions. Enter as many times as you like, but please make each entry a separate comment.
-This story takes place in the Spring of 2004 so keep it appropriate to the period.
-Do your best to inject Letterman’s particular brand of snark.
Update: Also remember that George Bush isn't the President in this book, so references to him won't work.
I need winners by the time I post Chapter Thirteen (or Chapter Thirteen will be woefully inadequate).
This contest will have one GRAND PRIZE winner who will get to graze through my LibraryThing library and choose one of my books. (Once again, I’ll be asking the winner to mention a few books they’d like since there are some books I’m not willing to part with). The other winners will be Honorable Mentions and have they’re submissions included in the book. I'll, of course, be the sole judge (but you guys can tell me if you love someone's contribution), and if I like them enough, I may even replace the ones I've already written.
C’mon you guys. I know how funny you all can be. Try to make us all pee a little. Read more!
Sunday, December 20, 2054
The reception was mercifully short. Most of the VIP corps ducked out early. A few stayed and introduced themselves, but their bearing indicated that they thought I might be contagious. Andrews, the truck driver had the good grace to at least be embarrassed at his own presence and kept to himself in a corner. The Jessups, naturally, still loved me and gushed appreciatively. The President had pressing business and didn’t attend.
About five minutes into the reception, Rachel, with mother in tow, approached me. Rachel was still trying to rein in her giggles as Mom said, “Paul, in a single moment, you’ve managed to make me, the most incredibly proud woman on earth, and at the same time, I’m mortified that anyone knows we’re related. I always knew you’d grow up to be special.”
Rachel finally lost it and collapsed, giggling hysterically into my arms. At that moment, I looked across the room to see Tom Douglas entering. He brought to mind a charging rhino, the guests fleeing to clear a path for him. Before this vision had firmly registered with me, I felt a hand take my arm in a vice-like grip. Darrell propelled me across the room in the opposite direction and quickly out to a waiting car.
Speeding out of the nearest gate, I turned to Darrell and said, “Thanks for the save. He looked like he could have killed me. Is this going to get you into trouble”?
Darrell said, “No, and you’re welcome, but I did it to save Douglas from himself. I’ve been in the White House since this administration first took over and I have never seen Douglas so pissed off. When he clams down, he’ll realize I saved him from being tomorrow’s headline above the fold. He won’t thank me for it, but he won’t hold it against me either. In the meantime, I think I’ll just take the rest of the day off.
“How about lunch...on me?” I asked.
“Sounds alright by me”.
We ended up at a little pub in Georgetown. It was one of the last working class joints in the area and Wainright said he’d been going there since first coming to Washington. The bartender welcomed him like an old friend as we took a quiet table near the back.
The food was great, shepherd’s pie for me; bangers and mash for Darrell. The beer was served warm, English style, and it complemented the food perfectly. It also suited my mood. The conversation was friendly but punctuated by long silences. I found myself studying Wainright. I was intrigued by the contradictions in him. He couldn’t have been older than 30 or 31, at most. He was a tall black man with a distinctly WASP name and two distinct personalities, one open and friendly, the other formal and forbidding. He was young, but obviously had an excellent understanding of Beltway personalities. In spite of his youth, he seemed supremely confident, but without the ego to go along with it.
I must have been staring because he looked at me and said a simple, “What”.
“I’m just trying to figure you out. What’s your story”?
He laughed easily and said, “Well first of all, once they get the balls, the first question everyone asks is where I got the name. My great grandfather’s mother was a slave on a Kentucky plantation. The Massa was his father, so he adopted the name. It was fairly common in those days. I’m sure it served me well when I was applying to the Ivy League.
“That’s not what I was wondering about. We’re sitting here having a very comfortable conversation, but I can see you checking the door constantly. You do this thing where you pop to attention even though I never hear any screaming ‘Officer on Deck’.”
He smiled and said, “I was a marine. Spent 4 years in after graduation to help pay my college loans. As far as lapsing into that mode, its instinctive. I’ve got a pretty good nose for hidden agendas, so whenever I pick up a bogey on my radar, the Marine comes to attention. And nobody fucks with the U.S. Marines”.
I digested that for a moment and then he asked me, “So what was that all about at the ceremony? Didn’t anyone ever teach anything about self-preservation, not to mention tact? Couldn’t you have just gone with the flow and popped out a little white lie? It’s not like someone’s check up on how you end up voting.”
“I guess I was just caught up in the moment, you know, blinded by the lights….but mostly, I’m just stupid that way sometimes. I’m a sickeningly honest person.”
Darrell said, “What, you’re so innocent, you’ve got no skeletons in your closet”?
I laughed. “Plenty of skeletons, Darrell, I just let ‘em out to dance every chance I get. I’ve made plenty of questionable moves in my life, but I’m not really ashamed of any of them. At least not ashamed enough to try to keep them under wraps. Too much effort for too little reward.”
“Look, it’s not something I came to consciously. When I was in High School, I had a friend who abandoned me over something he couldn’t accept about me. I figured, I’ve got as many friends as most people do; not a lot, but more than a few. And every one of them knows pretty much everything there is to know about me, warts and all. For some reason, either they’re not bothered by my blemishes, or they don’t think there’s anything wrong there; whatever the case, they’re still my friends. Eventually, I decided that friends aren’t really friends if you have to constantly keep track of which friend knows which secret”.
Darrell looked at me like I had just stepped out of a spaceship. “That’s a pretty unique attitude. How’s it working so far?”
“Usually a lot better than today.”
We finished lunch and then Darrell had his driver take me home. We shook hands fondly in parting, neither of us expecting to ever see the other again. Read more!
Posted by Nathan at 9:12 PM
Saturday, December 19, 2054
The ride home was a wild mix of emotions for Paul.
He regretted embarrassing the President. He didn’t regret what he’d said in particular; he just thought he should have maybe kept his mouth shut.
On the whole, though, he was rather pleased with himself. He’d been riding a rocket of publicity and he thought he’d held his own, (mostly). He’d met some really powerful and interesting people and got to hang out at the White House for a couple of days.
Last, but not least, the reason all of this had happened was that he’d saved four people’s lives. On balance, he felt pretty good about everything.
And now he could go back to his ordinary existence. The way he looked at it, he figured he had 100 positive points on the hero tally sheet and 100 negative points on the Presidential Pariah tally sheet. Doing the math, he assumed 100 minus 100 equals zero, zip, nada. The two things would cancel each other out and now everyone would leave him the hell alone.
On the other hand, he was honest enough to admit he’d miss the attention. A little. Read more!
Posted by Nathan at 9:19 PM
Thursday, December 17, 2054
William Goldman, for those of you who don't know, has written a bunch of terrific books and screenplays. In Stephen King's novel It, he is said to be the only good writer ever to go to Hollywood and remain good. Its been said that Goldman had a rocky relationship with Hollywood. He once said, "Nobody knows anything". He was referring to the fact that the geniuses at the studios through ridiculous amounts of money at pictures like Ishtar and Howard the Duck and then nobody is willing to shell out ten bucks to see them. On the other hand, some nobody (at the time) has a bake sale to finance his movie and...Voila...American Grafitti; ...Shazzam...Blair Witch Project!
The heads of the studios are constantly making Grand Pronouncements about what the public wants to see, and guess what...if they're right two times out of five, they're actually doing really well. For a while, they might even convince themselves that they possess superior insight...but in the end, the fact remains; Nobody knows anything!
Which, coincidentally, is the point of this part of my story. When I got home from my lunch with Darrell, there was an even larger crowd than before. I ducked into the house aided by a flying wedge of State Troopers and a string of "No Comments".
The answering machine was overflowing again, and I was amazed to discover that most of the interview requests had been left after the Rose Garden fiasco. Apparently, one-hundred minus one hundred equals three-hundred in the new math. Who knew?
I've had a lot of time to think about the nature of celebrity over the last year. To me, the most interesting point of debate is whether the media covers celebrities because the public clamors for it or if the coverage itself is what creates the celebrity and thus, the public demand. And I'm talking about all of the media. The serious guys like to claim the high ground, but they're in it knee deep, just like The National Enquirer.
Example? Explain to me the cult-status Princess Diana's death created. The public claimed they were watching every minute because it was the only thing on the air or in print for a week solid. And they had a point; you couldn't avoid it. The media claimed they were only giving in to public demand. Considering the millions of people who got out of bed at 3:00 a.m. on the east coast to watch the funeral live, apparently the media had a point, too.
Or consider our year of All Monica, All the Time! The media spent a year apologizing while the kept trying to come up with better euphemisms for blowjob and dildo. The public said "Enough already", and ate up every minute of the coverage anyway. Monica spend a year running to limos in her sunglasses and ball-caps trying to avoid the cameras and then she showed up on Saturday Night Live. Way to dodge that spotlight, girl!
Anyway, the point is when the coverage of my story began, it was a legitimate news story. At some point, it had become self-perpetuating. As far as I could see, my fifteen minutes should have been up. The original story was about something I'd done. Now, they were covering everything I said. Who the hell was I that anyone should care what I had to say?
So here's the questions I was asking myself. Was he media creating my blip of celebrity or just catering to the public's curiosity? And more importantly, when was it all going to end?
I sure as hell didn't have any answers and I doubt, I could find anyone, even now, who's got a clue, because the fact remains; Nobody knows anything! Read more!
Posted by Nathan at 8:24 PM
Wednesday, December 16, 2054
The general attitude at the White House that afternoon was,
"This too shall pass".
The President was pissed off about the whole affair
and he certainly didn't have anything pleasant to say about
"…that ungrateful fucking bastard", but he figured, at
worst, he'd just inherited a small footnote on his legacy.
Clinton had Monica-Gate (far worse); Bush
had Iran-Gate (also worse); Reagan proclaimed
ketchup to be a vegetable and solved homelessness in
America by inventing "Urban Campers"
(nothing stuck to that man); and Jimmy Carter
got attacked by a rabbit. Hell, Ford couldn't take two steps
without falling down…usually on camera. If they could
survive those stories, Harper shouldn't have any problem
getting re-elected in spite of Paul Harkness, (may he rot in
The White House staff steered clear of the President
for the rest of the day when they were able to. They were
strictly business when they couldn't. A few people made
jokes about the whole thing (very quietly), and one or two
staffers thought there was a kernel of truth to what
Harkness had said. That opinion, though, was not
expressed out loud.
Tom Douglas, however, was not a man to let things
slide and he'd started his revenge machine about three
minutes after Harkness had left the reception. He'd quickly
seen Wainright's wisdom in getting Harkness out of the
building. His first reaction had involved visions of
Wainright on the janitorial staff, but that had been quickly
replaced with resignation. The President's chief of staff
can't strangle a man who's just gotten the Medal of
Freedom, no matter how richly the guy deserves it.
(Douglas never considered actually thanking Wainright for
saving him from himself; absolution was the only reward
that ever entered his mind.)
He strode angrily through his office's reception area
and directed his secretary, Anne, to get "that moron"
Carmichael on the phone. He didn't even spare a glance
toward the freshman Congressman from Wyoming who
was sitting patiently in the anteroom. (Congressman
Redmond was there to ask for an audience with the
President to solicit support for a pet project he'd brought
with him to Washington. Even he realized he'd have to get
a lot more senior before he could expect any deference
from Tom Douglas.)
Douglas's phone was ringing as he slid behind his
desk. Anne was very efficient. He picked up the phone
and in a growl recognized throughout Washington, said, "I
hope you're happy with how your brilliant fucking photo-
op turned out".
As usual, Carmichael was way behind the curve. He
had been "taking a meeting" with a team of creative
directors from BBD&O Worldwide Advertising. They had
some very exciting ideas for when the campaign heated up.
Thirty-seven minutes after the fact, Carmichael had no idea
what had transpired in the Rose Garden. Oblivious, he
said, "Tom, whatever are you talking about"?
"Your boy Harkness cocked up the whole show. He
stood right there in the Rose Garden and told the whole
damned world that he's as qualified to be President as
Harper is. Right to his face! On TV, Goddammit!"
Carmichael said, "Well, that's just terrible, Tom.
What are we going to do"?
Douglas exploded, "We are not going to
do anything. You are going to have your letter
of resignation on the President's desk by the end of
It finally sank in to Carmichael that this was not a run
of the mill set back. Heads were going to roll and he had
only one chance to get his own off of the chopping block.
"Now wait a minute, Tom", he said, "This wasn't my show.
This whole thing came from Adelaide Rotholz; you know,
that pipsqueak Alan Gardner stuck me with".
Before Douglas had a chance to respond, Carmichael
added, "If you doubt me, I've got the conversation on
Douglas was silent for a moment as he considered the
fact that Carmichael might be a moron, but he was a
paranoid moron who probably did
tape all of he conversations. He'd have covered his ass as
usual. Quietly, with a large dose of the menace he was
known for, he said, "One: Rotholz is out. Now.
Immediately. Have security escort her off the premises.
Tell her you'll clear out her office and send her her
personal crap. Two: From this moment on, you don't so
much as take a leak without clearing it with me. Do you
Almost a whisper, "Yes."
Douglas continued, "And three: As far as you're
concerned, my name is Mr. Douglas, Sir, you
Before Carmichael could respond, Douglas had hung
up the phone and was politely asking Anne to contact the
F.B.I. and I.R.S. for additional background on Paul
Harkness. Anne had long ago grown used to her boss's
Douglas was starting to feel much better. Read more!
Posted by Nathan at 10:34 PM
Like I said, the contest is over and done. But go ahead and read the results. I know you want to.
I really like you guys and I'm not sure how to say this, but many of your efforts here...ahem...lacked luster. Steve had a couple of great ones for the chapter at the airport and Janiece is writing for ER. Jim and Jeri get points for shear volume. I already had a version of Jim's "First Daughter is hotter in person" and Jeri's "red button" joke.
So, without further ado, there is one Grand Prize winner and one Honorable Mention that will both be included. (That'll leave 3 slots open on the Top Ten List, so feel free to make further suggestions later.)
Grand Prize: I'm altering Todd Wheeler's line slightly to read, "Are the kids home from school? I have a great drinking game we could all play."
Honorable Mention: Jim Wright's "Bill Clinton, Margret Thatcher, and the Pope walk into a bar...stop me if you've heard this one."
Todd, send me an email (its linked on my profile) and I'll send you back a link to my LibraryThing account and you can pick your prize.
And remember everybody, there are no losers here, only people who neglected to win.
Thanks for playing! Read more!
Tuesday, December 15, 2054
So, like I told you, I got home to find that the crowds were crowding, the masses massing and the throngs were thronging. My front lawn would never be the same.
The state troopers had been sent to keep the Press in line and the traffic flowing and I guess they decided it was part of their mandate to get me through my front door unmolested. I think I’m like most people when it comes to cops. I don’t actually have an adversarial relationship with them, but whenever I see one, my first reaction is to make sure I haven’t done anything wrong. Having cops there specifically to help me was a new experience. I thanked the nearest one for the help and he said, "No problem at all, Mr. Harkness. We've got your back." Yup, this was different.
Also, like I told you, when I got inside, the answering machine was overflowing. I was either going to have to shut the damned thing off or get a new one with a much longer tape. I poured myself a drink and sat down, resigned to an hour listening for the one or two calls I might want to return. I was amazed, in turn, by the sincerity, ineptitude, and audacity of the media requests. I had no difficulty ignoring them all. Until one message caught my attention.
You'll notice that so far, in this account, I've been fairly quick to acknowledge when I mishandled the situation. Sometimes I've stood by my judgment. Other times I've admitted I could have handled things better. On this subject, you may accuse me of naiveté, but I'll deny it to my grave.
I rewound the message and listened again. Twice. I returned the call. How could I not?
Every call on my machine had been from a producer, secretary or some other flunky...except for this one. E-Entertainment News?...Buzz Off. Barbara Walters?...Not my style. Jerry Springer?....Yeah, right! Nightline again?....Been there; Done that. Extreme Makeover, Home Edition?...WTF?
And then, the one that got me. This was a voice I knew. David Letterman. Himself. Not his booker, not his producer, not even Paul. Letterman himself. The voice said, "call my direct line or you can reach me at home tonight". He left both numbers. How cool was that? Hell, the White House didn't even give me the switchboard number and Letterman gives me the hotline. How could I not return the call?
Before you get the idea that I'm completely star-struck, I want to point out that there was a legitimate thought process going on in my head. I figured, Letterman...He'll show the tape of the rescue, flash a Stupid Human Tricks graphic. We'll laugh. I'll get a chance to apologize to the President. This is a good thing. Softball. Homerun. A few more days and back to oblivion.
Call me stupid but this is what I figured. Since then, I've figured out that I should do a lot less figuring.
So the next day, I found myself in a car the size of Rhode Island, moving through mid-town traffic on the way to Letterman's studio. While I was on the shuttle to Laguardia, there had been a Presidential press conference. They were playing back some sound bites on the radio. I heard Harper telling the world that I've got a past. He doesn't actually say anything slanderous but he closes the subject by saying, "I will say that the opinions of such a man have to be taken with a grain of salt". I found myself rethinking my apology.
So anyway, a little later, I'm hanging out in the greenroom waiting for the show to begin. There's plenty of snacks and I'm thinking "So far, so good". Actually, better than good.
I'm schmoozing with the other guests and they're treating me like I'm the biggest star in the room. Eric Clapton is there. He only has time to shake my hand and tell me its nice to meet me. He's going to sit in with the band, so he has to go.
Tom Selleck is there to plug his new movie and I'm actually sitting there chatting with Magnum P.I. I told him I mostly disagree with his views on gun control but I'm still burned up over the way Rosie O'Donnell treated him on her show a few years earlier. He thanked me. Sincerely. Like what I think makes a difference.
There's four 12-year old kids from some science fair. Their parents are there and they've got these Rube Goldberg contraptions they've invented. Two of the kids and their parents are all over me. One kid is having a meltdown because part of her machine has fallen apart. Dad's trying to console the kid while Mom unwinds a roll of toilet paper all over the room. Apparently, the cardboard core is the required part for the repair. The last kid is completely oblivious to everything else going on. His parents are taking turns holding up flash cards for him. A little Latin here; a little trigonometry there. I feel like asking his Dad why he's so determined to make his son into a locker room punching bag...but I'm not one to meddle.
Regis Philbin comes in. He's there to make one of his ubiquitous cameos. I'm a little tired of him but its still cool.
So, the show begins. There's a big monitor in the greenroom and we're all watching the intro. My first clue that I might have made a mistake? The opening titles run and the announcer reads off the list of tonight's guests. Mine?......"The man who dove into the Potomac and found himself swimming with sharks at the White House...Paul Harkness!"
Cute, but not exactly what I had in mind. A downhill moment.
Dave makes his entrance. Short monologue. Banter with Paul. Introduce Eric Clapton. Banter, Banter. Instrumental version of Layla. Cut to commercial.
Letterman tapes his show in the afternoon, so there's no need to worry about the real length of a commercial break. They just start taping again when the music's finished. Clapton and Paul trade riffs on Layla for about 10 minutes. I'm wishing I was on stage for this. Hey, I'm here with Eric Clapton performing 40 feet away and I'm still stuck watching it on T.V.
Clapton winds it up and we come back from commercial. The crowd goes apeshit. I feel a little foolish when I realize I'm applauding a T.V. set, but I feel a lot better when I notice Tom Selleck doing the same thing. An uphill moment.
Then Dave launches into his Top Ten List: Top Ten Things Not to Say When You're Invited to the White House.
Oops! Downhill moment coming. Truly subterranean.
Number 10: So, is being Vice-President as crappy a job as it looks like?
Number 9: Go ahead without me Mr. President. I'm gonna stay here and talk nuclear non-proliferation with Vladimir.
Number 8: What does this button do?
Number 7: Jeez, the First Lady's much hotter in person!
Number 6: Bill Clinton, Margaret Thatcher and the Pope walk into a bar...stop me if you've heard this one.
Number 5: Are the kids home from school? I have a great drinking game we could all play!
Number 4: [ INSERT FUNNY]
Number 3: [INSERT FUNNY]
Number 2: [INSERT FUNNY]
Number 1: Cuts to tape of me saying, “I haven’t actually decided yet. I usually wait until I can look at one of the candidates and say, ‘that guy’s way more qualified than me.”.
I have stepped into the abyss. Tom Selleck is going to be the first guest, so he's headed out of the greenroom. His shoulders are shaking as he tries to keep from laughing out loud. I must look shell shocked because he gives me a thumbs up and a sympathetic look as he leaves the room. A real gentleman.
I'm the last guest scheduled so I'll have to watch the whole show from the greenroom. Tom is on. He and Dave talk about Tom's new movie. Dave wants the inside dirt on Tom's co-star, a busty newcomer who's on the cover of half the magazines in America this week. "Come on, Tom; you can tell Dave". He leans over with his hand cupped to his ear like it'll be just between the two of them. This gets a big laugh.
Dave asks Tom if he'd like to hang around for the rest of the show and Tom says he wouldn't miss it for the world. Cut to commercial.
The next segment is a sketch out on the side street. Dave is dropping melons on the street while Regis is dodging them and yelling one-liners up at Dave. It's a lame bit, but Dave and Regis are goofy enough to pull it off. Cut to commercial.
We come back for the science project segment. I'm alone in the greenroom by now. This segment goes well, too. The little girl's machine (it sorts and rolls coins automatically), disintegrates. Change rolls all across the stage and Dave gets into a free-for-all with two of the kids trying to scoop up the money. One kid's machine is an automatic bacon flipper. Hot grease flies everywhere. Very Funny. I kid you not, the next kid's invention is a Doggy Diaper. No need for Pooper Scoopers anymore. We actually get to see a great dane take a dump on cue, shuck his own diaper and deposit it in a trash can. Dave's horrified reaction is priceless. Next up is the Poindexter with the flash cards. He's invented a machine that detects some sort of toxic mold that forms in air conditioning systems. The machine detects a huge amount of the stuff in the studio. The audience is looking worried until the kid explains that the mold he tests for can only occur in a Rain Forest environment and he thought it would be boring for the machine to detect nothing so he's adjusted it to react to oxygen. Ha-ha. You're all safe. Someone is definitely gonna kick this kids ass someday. Cut to commercial.
So, we're back from commercial. My moment of has arrived. I'm standing in the wings waiting for the Stage Manager to cue my entrance. The thing that's running through my mind is how different this is from Nightline. When you do Nightline, you sit in a basically empty studio with a few technicians. Chris is on a monitor in front of you and the whole thing is just a video conference. Easy. Now, I'm about to talk to Dave. Live...with a huge audience. I came back to myself as I heard Dave saying, "And now, a man who last week warranted no introduction, and this week needs no introduction.....Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Paul Harkness.
It all felt like a dream. Not in the really good sense, and not like a nightmare either. It just didn't feel real. I can see the whole thing now. I walk out calmly, like I do this four shows a week and twice on Saturday. The audience is on their feet applauding warmly. I'm waving to them. All very confident and self-effacing.
Dave shakes my hand. Tom shakes my hand. Hey, we're old friends; good to see you again. I sit.
Dave says, "So, Paul, it's great to have you on the show. How ya feelin'"?
I started to say, "Very well, thank you." Instead, I quacked.
The audience giggles.
Dave says, "Can I get you a refreshing beverage"? He's rummaging around on the desk as if he's searching for where he left all the beverages. The audience loves it. Dave looks off-stage and hollers, "Will somebody get this man a damn beverage"?
A page runs in with a glass and pitcher of water. The audience is rolling in the aisles. I take a sip, clear my throat and take another sip.
Dave chastises the page. "If Mr. Harkness here had this much trouble finding water he wouldn't be famous. Let that be a lesson to you young man".
The audience keeps laughing as the page beats a hasty retreat. I laugh politely.
Dave gets down to business. He says, "O.K., so we all know about that little hero thingy you pulled the other day. I want to know, what's the deal with you raining all over the President's garden party. What was that all about"?
Here's my chance. I said, "Well, I've heard what President Harper had to say about me today, and I have to admit to being more than a little surprised. However, regardless of what he may have said today, I still owe the President and all of you an apology for my behavior yesterday. I should have accepted the medal graciously and said 'thank you', Period".
Dave said, "Whoa, Nellie. You're not getting off the hook that easy. That was a lovely speech and all, but did you mean what you said or not"?
I could have said, "I was just running off at the mouth". I could have said, "Hey, I sell car parts. Who cars what I think". I could have said a lot of things.
What I did say was, "Dave, have you been listening to those guys. I mean, give me a break. Do any of them inspire you with all the crap their shoveling"?
Dave said, "Give me an example".
"O.K., I'm being too glib," I said, "Real issues are boring and they take too long to explain. So, every election degenerates into each candidate proclaiming himself America's Messiah with the other guy cast as Evil Incarnate. It's a system that panders to the least common denominator. But the candidates have no option but to campaign within that system. That and they let themselves get talked into some pretty stupid corners".
For lack of any better follow-up, Dave said "Such as"?
We could both see I was losing the audience.
I said, "Well President Harper would certainly be happier if he'd never met me".
The audience liked that. I had them back. Apparently I can go Hollywood with the best of them.
Dave said, "No really, give me a real example.
I hesitated a moment, glanced over at Tom, who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying this. Paul and Eric Clapton and the band seemed genuinely interested.
"O.K.", I said, "Here's one. Remember a few years back Clinton got caught up in that whole thing about a national apology for slavery? I mean, who thought that one up. It got a whole lot of people pissed off for nothing. You had one bunch of people saying they weren't about to take the blame for something their ancestors did a hundred odd years ago; and a bunch of other people were saying "Don't look at me. My family got off the boat last Tuesday". Last, but not least you had a whole lot of Black people asking what good an apology was. They wanted to talk reparations."
"And the biggest shame of all is that it was a fine idea if it hadn't been packaged and marketed so stupidly. How many people do you think would have objected to a National Day of Celebration to commemorate the men and women who suffered under slavery, and to honor those who had the courage to abolish it? Anybody with any objection would have either had the sense to stay quietly under their rock or be dismissed as a wing-nut".
The audience hooted.
Dave wanted to end the interview on a high note. For Dave, a high note is either a laugh or bit of confrontation. He said, "O.K. Paul, one more chance. At the beginning of the interview you apologized to the President and that was all warm and fuzzy and all. But I can't let you leave without telling us what you really think of the President's press conference today.
Few people can look back on their lives and pick out the one instant that changed the rest of their lives. I can. I'll admit I was caught up in the moment. I'll admit that having an audience in the palm of your hand and having David Letterman hanging on your every word is a very heady experience. I'll also admit, that in spite of trying to hold the high ground, I was seriously pissed off about being attacked by the President. All of those things conspired to change the course of my life from that moment on.
I responded in a poor yet recognizable imitation of President Harper. "I will say that the opinions of such a man should be taken with a grain of salt".
The audience was dead silent and then exploded into thunderous applause.
I was a hit. Read more!
Posted by Nathan at 3:30 PM