Monday, December 7, 2054

Chapter Twenty-One

Well, that stopped me right in my tracks. I turned on my heels. Addie was still laughing quietly; Bolling had a smirk on his face. "What did you just say"?

Bolling looked me in the eye and said slowly and precisely, "Paul, a very small group of people, a group that includes Ms. Rotholz and myself believe that you should be the next President of the United States. What's more, we believe we've got a better than even shot at making it happen. Hell, you've already got eight committed votes and you're not even running yet."

I walked the rest of the way back to the table and sat down hard. Bolling motioned to the waiter for another round of drinks. Bolling and Rotholz watched me while I sat there in stunned silence. My mind was a blank. Before I could even think about what they were proposing, I had to wrap my mind around the idea that this wasn't some revenge thing. Talk about not following the script! My drink came and I slugged it down. The waiter put the bottle on the table and left the room. Smart guy.

Finally, I looked at the two of them in turn and said, "That's the most absurd thing I've ever heard".

Bolling and Rotholz laughed out loud again, Rotholz said, "It is, isn't it?"

My mind was reeling. "You can't possibly be serious".

"As a heart attack, son", Bolling said.

I just stared at him. He's sitting there with a big grin that's coming more from his eyes than his mouth. If you've never seen Reese Bolling in person, let me tell you, television just doesn't prepare you for the man in the flesh. Sure there's the jarring persona he's created for himself. The country and his constituents have long accepted the incongruity of the Michigan senator who, for some reason, chooses to dress like an antebellum plantation owner. We've all seen the white suits, the black string tie and the bushy white eyebrows that look like they could take you three falls out of five. What you're not prepared for is the intensity of the man. He just looked at me, waiting for a response. He didn't blink. He didn't fidget or twitch. His eyes never left mine. Serene as a sculpture, he seemed content to let time pass.

I turned toward Addie and she nodded.

"You're actually serious aren't you", I said.

They both nodded.

For the next half hour, they reiterated that it wasn't a joke; it wasn't a setup; they were completely sincere. In the face of their protestations, I started to believe them. "I came here expecting this to be some kind of revenge for getting you fired", I said to Rotholz. "I'm not sure I like this any better. I mean really, it's crazy. Absolutely batshit crazy. I've never run for anything in my life; not even student council."

Addie replied, "The Senator and the rest of our little committee had the same first reaction. It was only one element of our discussion, but your lack of government service is actually part of your appeal. Voters have been screaming for outsiders for years, but the only choices they've been offered are people like Ross Perot, and Jesse Ventura. Ralph Nader wasn't crazy, but there's no way he was ever going to get elected. By comparison, you're a completely rational candidate."

"Look", she continued, "you've got a solid record of achievement in the private sector. I did a little research and I wasn't surprised to find out how innovative you've been with your company. In the years since you took over the business from your father, you've got a total of twenty-two consumer complaints to the Better Business Bureau...three of which were judged to have any merit; there have been two civil suits filed against you...both of which were dismissed with prejudice; you've never had an employee sue you or file a complaint with any Federal, State, or Municipal agency. In that same time, your company has shown a steady growth rate, never less than four points above the inflation rate; your employee profit sharing program has always paid a dividend, and you've actually increased their total share of profits without any prompting or pressure. You provide a benefits package to a non-union workforce that compares favorably with any business in the country, large or small. All that while consistently growing the business and its profits. Frankly, your company should be a required course for every MBA candidate in the country."

"Second, we all know that this started because you got caught on camera being a hero. I won't make any apologies for the fact that I set out to use your celebrity to help President Harper solidify his place in the polls. In spite of you pissing off Harper and Douglas, I'd still be doing that job if I hadn't been working for a weasel of a campaign manager. Believe me, I could have salvaged that situation and had everyone come out smelling like roses without breaking a sweat, but that's not what happened, is it? Harper made a moronic response based on moronic advice and just pushed you further into the spotlight."

"Third, every time you popped up on another show, I kept waiting for you to stick your foot in your mouth. I wasn't rooting for you to implode, but let's face it; I know better than anyone how you were plucked from obscurity. You just don't have the background or training to go toe-to-toe with the people you've been facing. But what's happened? You've held your own each time. You've been more poised and confident each time you've appeared."

"Fourth, you've made some very perceptive arguments. You're whole take on the "slavery apology"? I made the exact same proposal. It died without ever working its way up the food chain, but I still think it was the correct strategy. I'm a big enough person to admit that I'm inclined to attribute genius to people who independently arrive at the same conclusions as me."

"Fifth, you're riding a wave of publicity right now. All we have to do is give it a tiny nudge and it'll keep right on going. You're tall. You're good looking. You've got a sense of humor that shows up at just the right moment."

"In short, you are presidential material whether you want to believe it or not", she concluded.

I can only speak for myself, but I've always had a little voice inside my head that whispers things to me like,
"Jeez, look at the mess these guys have made. I could do better than that", or "where do they find these idiots?", you know, stuff like that. It might happen at the bank or the DMV or reading about the latest stupidity in Congress. Regardless of the situation, its rare that in my head, I don't think I've got a better way of getting the job done.

Well, its one thing to have your voice whispering to you; hell, mine rarely shuts up. The voice gets to be background noise. But what do you do when a U.S. Senator, the ex-press secretary for a presidential campaign and an anonymous group of fat cats start telling you that you ought to be President? I don't know about you, but I started listening to my voices. Like a buzz behind my eyes, it's saying, "Paul, this is stuff you've always known; they're not telling you anything you didn't already know".

One the other voices that babbles at me a lot of the time chimed in with, "What are you, out of your mind? First of all, there is no way in hell anyone's voting for you for anything! You sell car parts, you putz!"

Voice #1: "You and I both know you can do this. Go for it."

Voice #2: "You've had nothing but trouble since this whole circus started. Walk away! Walk away now!"

Voice #1: "Oh yeah, sure. Like being on Nightline and Letterman is such a horrible thing".

My voices went on in this vein for a while. I have no idea how long. Addie and the Senator just watched me patiently, no impatience discernable on either of their faces. For all I know, this went on for a half-hour with me drooling...slack jawed...the poster child for catatonia. I have no idea. All I know is that when I finally had something to say, I told them I was willing to think about it.

Addie said, "We'll need your answer by Sunday morning. If this is a go, we start putting you out in public again next Monday, and we announce the run two weeks later. While you're thinking about it, I'll be available to you around the clock. I never turn my phone off. If you need the Senator, call me and I'll hook you up. If you need any research done, same deal. Call me. Whatever you need, I'll make it happen."

"Fine", I said. "The first thing I need is for you to arrange a meeting for me. I want to talk to that protocol guy, Wainright over breakfast tomorrow. My house at 7:30." I knew I needed the advice of someone I could trust who also had knowledge of the world these people wanted me to join...or make that the world they wanted me to go up against. Wainright had the knowledge. I'd come to like him during our brief acquaintance. Trust? Who knew? But the multiple choice list of available options seemed to be A) Wainright, B) Wainright, C) Wainright, or D) All of the Above.

"I'm not sure that's such a good idea", she said, "If you decide to run, he's part of the opposing team. Besides, I have no idea whether or not he'll be available then".

I'm not even a candidate yet and she's managing me. No time like the present to find out who's going to call the shots.

I looked at her and said, "Ms. Rotholz, you just told me that you're the one who 'makes things happen'. The two of you have been stroking my ego since I walked in the door, so I'm going to assume you have at least a little faith in my ability to make a simple decision. I'd like to talk to Wainright. Make it happen. If he's not there tomorrow morning, you won't need to wait 'til Sunday for my answer".

She didn't look thrilled, but said, "I'll arrange it. Hell, I'll bring him there myself".

"I'd rather talk to him alone, if you don't mind." I said.

I got up and left, bidding each of them a quiet "Goodbye". On the drive home, my mind was in an uproar, but I kept coming back to the thought that I had left the meeting as the man with all the marbles. O.K., not all of the marbles...but enough that they couldn't play if I decided to take mine home. Voice #1 was doing the Tango.

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