Thursday, December 3, 2054

Chapter Twenty-Five

There's something about the lessons you learn early in life. If you remember them at all, they tend to be somewhere in your subconscious; you're rarely aware of acting on them. So, I was completely taken aback when I realized I was using something I'd learned in first grade.

I can distinctly remember coming home from my first day of elementary school. I'd been though one year of kindergarten, (we didn't have all that pre-K crap when I was young), so I'd already gotten over the trauma of being away from Mommy for an entire six hours every day. And I'd resigned myself to the capricious whims of Miss Sandiford. (When I was that age, women were either Miss or Mrs. even though they both sounded the same coming out of 5-year-old mouths). Miss Sandiford decided when it was time to paste flowers on construction paper. She decided about nap time, recess, and lunch time. If she said it was time to play musical chairs, then, by God, it was time to play musical chairs. The woman was a drill sergeant in a poodle skirt.

My only triumph over Miss Sandiford was over the issue of finger painting. The first time she introduced the subject, I told her I couldn't do it. She, of course, said I was just being silly and sat me down in the painting circle. I persisted in telling her that it felt oogy...and the smell...erp!

Miss Sandiford wasn't about to have her authority usurped by some little kid, so I found myself smearing oily, smelly purple glop on a large piece of paper. I might have lasted ninety seconds before I puked. On Sharon's painting. She was the girl sitting next to me. I'm not sure if it was the fact that I'd puked or the fact that Sharon just kept smearing paint and puke all over her picture, but I was thenceforth excused from finger painting.

So anyway, at the time, I was used to doing what the teacher said to do. But in kindergarten, once you went home, their tyranny was over. And then, my first grade teacher introduced a new wrinkle to this cruel system: Homework. It had never occurred to me that they might insinuate themselves on my home life. And I was stunned that my mother and father were willing to tolerate the intrusion.

My first day of grade school, I was sent home with a single sheet of mimeographed paper. On the left side was a row of letters A through M. On the right side was a row of pictures; an apple, a dog, a flute. The idea was to draw a line from the letter on the left side to the correct item on the right side; A is for Apple, B is for Ball, etc. Now I don't think there was a kid in the class who hadn't already mastered the basics of reading, and I was no exception; I'd been reading for almost a year by then, so it wasn't like I'd have trouble solving this puzzle. It was just the idea that I could be forced to do schoolwork at home. This was my time. There was television to watch. There was baseball, football, hide & seek, and kick the can to play. Some of my friends had recently discovered a creek (o.k. a drainage ditch), a couple of blocks away and they were going to show it to me for the exorbitant fee of a nickel. The point is, I had important stuff to do. I'd done all the things they said to do while I was at school, hadn't I? The whole idea of homework just seemed horribly unfair.

Mom proved not only willing to tolerate this shocking intrusion, she encouraged it. She patiently explained that when you have to do something you'd rather not do, the hardest part is getting started. She told me I'd been whining about the assignment twice as long as it would have taken to just shut up and do it.

As I grew older, she'd adapt the lesson to include algebra and geometry. Don't say you can't do it when you haven't even tried. Just get to work and get it done.

The point is, I found myself sitting in this new office surrounded by people determined to make me the next President of The United States. I was completely paralyzed.

The two policy guys were sitting across from me trying to feel me out on one issue after another. The younger one, Artie, had his laptop with a checklist on it. He'd say, "Abortion...for or against!"; "Atlantic Fisheries Protection Act...for or against!" Then he'd look at me with this pleading expectation in his eyes and wait for Moses to come down from the mountain and deliver the word of God.

The first thing that went through my mind was that it seemed ridiculous to try and define policy with one word answers. I was determined to follow my mother's advice and just get started, but my handlers and I couldn't agree on where to begin. The second and more dominant thought was that this kid had an awful lot of hair growing out of his ears for a guy of such tender years. He was going to be truly frightening at sixty.

The other guy, Warren, was closer to my own age and didn't display any obvious grooming faults. He seemed willing to let Artie persist in his fruitless pursuit of the "Harkness Platform". I behaved like a defendant of limited intelligence who doesn't seem to understand that he can either tell his lawyers what happened, or they're going to have a hell of a time putting up a defense for him.

Eventually, Warren interrupted Artie and said, "Mr. Harkness, this obviously isn't getting us anywhere. Are you having trouble formulating your ideas?"

"The ideas aren't my problem. Ideas, I've got plenty of. It's just that I don't think I can work this way. You're throwing out one issue after another and expecting some black and white response from me. I could give you forty-five minutes on nuclear proliferation right off the top of my head. Give me a day to read up on it and I'll run a seminar for you. Look, you're asking the wrong questions. Of course I don't want North Korea to have WMD's, but the questions should be what would I do about it. These are complex questions, or at least they should be."

Artie didn't know how to react. How was he supposed to check a box, if I was going to speak in full sentences and paragraphs? Warren was more sympathetic, but held his ground. "I understand your frustration, Mr. Harkness, but you can't run for President on a series of seminars. Our job is to distill your positions so they can be presented succinctly. The people you need to reach don't have the time or inclination to digest comprehensive policy statements."

"But that's just the point, isn't it?", I said, "if a policy isn't comprehensive, what the hell good is it?"

"That's not what I said," Warren replied. Artie was looking at me like a biologist observing a mystifying new specimen. "The policy should be comprehensive but you need to refine your explanations. There just isn't time for long-winded lectures".

"Well, I disagree", I said, "maybe I can't keep their attention for as long as I'd like, but I'm not about to go out there and yell 'Abortions for all, Death to murders, Confiscate all handguns and God Bless America! Vote for me!' If I don't run a different kind of campaign, then what's the point?"

"The point is to get elected", Artie said. Artie had the look of someone having desperate second thoughts about his new job.

Warren didn't say anything, but it was obvious he agreed. As far as they were concerned, a clear list of policy positions that could be expressed in seven second sound bites, was imperative; I, however, was replaceable.

"Let's try it this way", I said, "email me your list of issues and I'll write a page or so on each one. Then we can try to whittle them down together."

Nodding in reluctant agreement, they got up and left, probably making a beeline for Adelaide's office where they'd announce that the candidate was recalcitrant saboteur.

After they left, I sat alone for a few minutes rearranging my pens, notepads and blank post-its. I went through the desk; paper clips, staples, binder clips. Anonymous supplies that didn't require my attention. I went to my office door and, once again, I was amazed at the level of activity Addie had set into motion in such a short time. In addition to the moving men and telephone technicians, there were fifteen men and women moving about purposefully; my staff. I hoped I'd meet them some day. Each of them was occupied with one task or another: supervising the placement of furniture, filing paperwork I wasn't aware we'd generated yet, making copies of name it.

I decided to get myself another cup of coffee. The office wasn't large, but I still had a little difficulty finding the kitchenette which turned out to be located in a small nook found by following a short labrynth off the rear corner of the main room. It was hidden behind a stack of boxed office supplies. When I found it, the woman who had brought me coffee earlier was standing there with her back to me.

Sensing my presence, she turned and smiled, "Oh, Mr. Harkness, I was just getting you a refill." She switched the cup to her left hand and held out the right to shake. "I'm Nicki, by the way", she said, "I'll be serving as your personal assistant until you've had a chance to interview other people for the position."

I shook her hand. "Call me Paul, please", I said. "It's nice to meet you. And since you've already got the job, I don't see any reason to look for someone else. Unless you'd rather have some other job."

"Oh, no", she said. "I'd be thrilled to keep the job. I just didn't want it to seem like I was handed to you without any choice."

"Well, we'll just try it out for a while and make sure we fit. I'm sure it'll work out fine. At any rate, I seem to be the only one around here with nothing to do for the moment, so I thought I'd explore a little".

She handed me the coffee and looked at her watch. "Mr...Paul", she said, "you're break is over. You're scheduled to be working with your speech writers right now."

When I'd been herded back to my office, sure enough, there were two new people waiting for me. Nicki introduced Jen Wilson and Bob Hess.

I took a seat and said, "I know you're anxious to get to work, but we have a little problem there. There's going to be a small delay preparing my policy positions."

Jen looked at me brightly and replied, "That's not a problem, sir. The way this is done is that we start by deciding on the tone your announcement will take. We follow that by telling the voters who you know, what makes you tick. We need to make them identify with you right off the bat. Then we start building a framework of message phrases.

"What are message phrases?", I asked.

"The American way is the Path into Prosperity; America holds the Shining Torch of Freedom up for those kept in darkness; We're carrying on the work of Building the 21st Century...stuff like that.

"You've got to be kidding me. None of what you just said means anything".

"They're not meant to be...oh, what's the word...substantive per se," Bob chipped in. "They provoke an imagery to attach to your candidacy. We see which resonates with the voters and then we use it like a hammer. The key elements are to set the tone, expose you to the voters, and to give them a set of evocative images."

"And we don't need to lay out our policies?" I asked incredulously.

"Of course we do", Jen took the ball. "But that doesn't have to hold up the process. As we decide which policies are likely to register positively, we plug them in. Then we'll tweak the imagery and tone to support those policies. We'll be adjusting constantly, but the framework we start with holds up." She looked like she'd just stuck the landing on a perfect Olympic performance.

I didn't have the heart to burst her bubble. "I need to put some thought into this," I said. "No need for me to delay your work, though. Why don't you two get started without me and we'll meet again tomorrow to see what you've come up with."

Jen was positively electrified at the opportunity to create tone and imagery without any unnecessary interference from me. She said, "I think you'll like what we come up with".

She and Bob left, eager to begin working their magic.

I walked out my door and found Nicki banging away at about 200 words per minute on her workstation. What are all these people all working on, I thought. "Nicki, is Ms. Rotholz back yet?"

"Yes, she got back just a few minutes ago. I'll ask her to come by right away."

I held up my hand. "That's O.K., Nicki. I can walk thirty feet."

I poked my head into Addie's office and knocked on the doorframe. As she looked up from her laptop, I said, "Got a minute for me?"

She smiled and waved me in. "Of Course, how's it going so far?"

I closed the door and slumped into a chair. "That's what I want to talk to you about. I think we've got a big problem".

She looked at me but didn't say anything, waiting for me to explain.

"You've given me policy advisors who seem to think "More" or "Less" is an adequate policy position on Military Spending. I happen to think complex questions sometimes require complex solutions. I've told them they can try to make my positions more succinct after I've worked them out, but I'm not comfortable spouting a bunch of half-cocked statements and non-responses.

"O.K., so we'll see how that works out. Anything else?" she said.

"Yes, Addie. Get rid of the speechwriters."

"Excuse me", she said.

"I don't mean permanently, just for the moment," I said. "I know I'll be too busy to write my own speeches later, but for now, I've got nothing but time. If I'm working out the policy positions, my speeches will just flow naturally from there."

She appeared to be counting to ten silently. "Paul, you really need to trust me and rely on my political knowledge. You have to maintain the big picture. You can't afford to get bogged down in the details. That's just not the way things are done."

"Well, it's the way we're going to do things. At least through the announcement. I'm not going to let some writers package me and try to sell me to America. I've told you I'm in, so if you want me you're stuck with me.

"Of course we want you, Paul. But there are established ways of running a political campaign. You've got access to real pros. You need to use them."

"Addie, You convinced me I could do this. Well guess what? I'm mostly convinced. But I intend to pay very close attention to the established way of campaigning and make sure we're different...every step of the way. If you want all the ideas put across with slogans and imagery, then, by all means get a can of soup and hire an Ad Agency; if you want me, I get a say."

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