Sunday, December 27, 2054

Chapter Four

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.


Shawn Powers said...

Nathan -- don't like, delete your blog or anything. I've forced myself to stay away from this and Jim's story/blog thing too until after all my server work is done.

Oh, and Google is sometimes a day behind in their stats. I much prefer sitemeter, but I'm not sure if you can integrate it into blogger. It reports data in real time, and you can creepishly stalk your visitors. (it records lots of info)


Nathan said...


Sitemeter is now tracking your every move.

Jim Wright said...

Every move?

I just went into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, betcha didn't see that - or did you?

Ah hell, if GWB can track my every move, what's another guy in Brooklyn?

And: You'd better finish this story, Nathan. Because now I need to know where it's going. Frankly, you had me with the title.

Nathan said...

Yes Jim,

Every. Move

And I just finished re-re-re-editing the next chapter. But, you'll have to wait until tomorrow like everyone else.

Also, I haven't written the part yet that gets you into the "War Room", I was just fiddling one day with a bunch of possible titles and really liked that one. Sort of a Dr. Strangelove kinda thing. I think the real quote is George C. Scott saying, "There's no fighting in the War Room."

Lastly, did you get the PM on the 'e' with that link from Jeff H? That's the problem I'm trying to solve.

Nathan said...


I got the character and the quote wrong. Batting 1000.

President Merkin Muffley: Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room.

But still, my disremembering gave me a pretty good title.