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.
Thursday, December 24, 2054
As you must be aware, I said, “Sure, I think I’d like to meet the President”.
Posted by Nathan at 11:16 AM