Larry demonstrates the art of driving a mule without knowing its head from its ass (with predictable results)
I am a painting. Granted, thanks to Tom Jefferson’s curse, a painting with powers such as those which no other painting boasts. I can see. I can hear. I can think. But other than that, I am a painting, and not even Tom Jefferson could render me omnipotent. I cannot move. I cannot talk. I remain, when all is said and done, a painting, hanging on a wall above a fireplace.
I reflected long and deeply on Shauna’s question, and finally came to the same answer to which I had come initially: What else could I do? She asked whether I was just going to sit here and watch as Larry tore the country apart. I confess, in the end, I knew not what was the alternative.
That Larry might tear the country apart, to use Shauna’s words, did not seem inconceivable to me. Once before the republic had been torn apart, over the shameful subject to which Shauna had alluded on the very night we met. That dreadful institution, slavery, which even now I shudder to call by its name, was a festering sore left to grow into a putrid abscess through the political necessity of forging a republic, but that it would grow, that it would putrify, that one day it must be lanced, no matter how painful the process, or else poison and kill the republic itself, many of us knew even as we made the compromise. And so eventually the republic threatened to tear itself asunder across its middle, separating North from South, and only a bitter and bloody struggle brought the two pieces back together, imperfectly, resentfully, and with reverberations that echo still until this day.
Each day of that struggle, had I but tears, I would have shed them. Instead, I watched silently as Abe Lincoln strained to hold the pieces of the republic together. But then, at least, there was a cause, the sore that we had left to grow into an abscess. For the failure of our generation – or pragmatic compromise, if that is what you will call it – the great grandchildren paid. And how they paid! If Brawlin’ could have seen but one day of that terrible conflict, he would not so flippantly have spoken of fights. He would have sought a way to heal divisions, not deepen them.
For what is a republic? A will o’ the wisp, a gossamer, delicate thing. Oh, powerful, yes, fierce, resolute, determined, capable – it can be all of these things, and at its best, better than any monarchy or other autocracy ever was or could be – and yet, all of this rests on the slightest, tenderest, most easily dissipated foundation: the belief that each member of the republic is a vital part of the whole, and no matter what dispute may arise or what interests may conflict, each member has more in common with the others than that which divides them, and throws in his lot wholeheartedly with all. Dissipate that belief, let it but fall into doubt, and there is nothing left.
I saw that belief dissipate, when the South said that its lot was not that of the North, but for that, at least there was a cause, the open sore that I and my generation had pragmatically – evasively, if you will, unmanfully, you might say – left to fester. Since then, since those terrible dark days, I had not seen such division again. There have been other dark days, yes, there has been division, but there has never been a time when I felt that the republic might pull apart again. Always, I felt, that belief was there. But never had I seen someone such as Larry and his cohorts take possession of this office.
He seemed to me to be a man who wanted division, who thrived on it, who gained satisfaction, perhaps, from fomenting it. And in Brawlin’, the Millerman, Stonewallin’ and their ilk – too powerful, it seemed to me, for Toadyin’, Slippery and others of a less militant nature – he had advanced those who loved and idolised it, who seemed to think that if they had gained control of the source of power in this republic, they must use it like an axe on a log to drive again and again into the fibre until the wood split. They seemed either ignorant or boors – ignorant of the fragility of the foundation on which our republic rests, or, if not ignorant of it, boorishly uncaring of the consequences of dissipating it.
The first and foremost task of the president of this republic – to make stronger this union, to bolster and perfect it – seemed forgotten. Let it fall into division and strife. Let the rick grow richer and the poor poorer, let the native son turn against the adopted, man against woman, white against black, older against younger. Let every point of difference become a rock of contention, and let those rocks be lifted and hurled in anger by the stronger against the weaker.
But what could I do? What could I do, Shauna, but hang on the wall and watch, and hope, perhaps, that incompetence would deflect what ill-intent conspired?
For in a way, they were clowns, Larry, Brawlin’, the Millerman, Toadyin’ and the others. Fearsomely dangerous clowns who had somehow contrived to seize the keys of the mansion and were now marauding through its corridors and rooms. If it was only a mummer’s play, if Larry with his orange mummer’s coiffure was but the leader of a prankish turn, it would have been a salutary reminder – by being its opposite – of what good government must be. For not only did they thrive on division, they seemed clownishly inept at harnessing the government machinery of which they had gained control to translate their lust for division into law.
For his first foray into legislation, Larry, with typical bluster, chose not a skirmish, but a major set piece battle such as that by which an army may be decimated before its campaign even begins. He chose to reform the great bugbear of the republic, the health care of the nation.
I confess, although I have watched over this republic since the very day of its birth, I do not understand why it is the health care of the nation that has proven to be a problem of such intractability. Over the centuries that I have watched, other human needs have been recognised and fulfilled. That every child must have an education – paid for in last resort by the government – has long been settled and agreed. That every person must have food, shelter, some mean measure of support in times of extremity – paid for in last resort by the government – has long been settled and agreed. But that a person must have the care of a doctor in time of illness – which seems no less necessary to me than education, food, shelter or support – this alone our nation deems unnecessary. Or part of our nation, for others cannot see the difference between health care and the other necessities aforementioned. Between these two parts of the nation has grumbled a never-ending conflict, sometimes flaring into confrontation, sometimes quiescing for a time, but never settled. That Larry chose this ground on which to stake his first legislative claim seemed rash, if not utterly insane.
His decision was the more puzzling since he had already broken his chief Campaign Promise, as he would have called it, on the issue, which was to repeal and replace the existing legislation – passed with great struggle by the previous president and known by his name as Barackcare – on his first day in office. Why then the rush, since that vow, like so many others that he had made, had gone by the by? Added to which, other promises he had uttered on the matter were contradictory. He had said that all citizens of the country would be assured health care – a great expansion of the institution, going far beyond even what Barackcare had achieved – yet its demands on the Treasury would be less. Provision by the government would be reduced, but people would have more choice. How these things were possible, he had not explained. One set of promises for those on the conservative flank of his party, one for those on the moderate flank. As is the nature of these things, each flank believed the promises they wanted to hear and ignored the others as distractions that only a fool would credit. But it seemed to me – and I am but a gentleman farmer by nature, and so perhaps unsubtle in these things – but it seemed to me, that these were promises that could not be mutually kept, and what must be given on one side, must be torn away from the opposite. I watched with curiosity – not untinged, I must confess, with trepidation – to see how this operation could be achieved.
The great bill that was to undo the so-called disaster wrought by the previous president was prepared not by Larry’s advisors, but by the party leadership in the House, and in such secrecy that, as the county waited to see what would ensue, not even the president knew what would develop. Some amongst Larry’s advisors grew anxious at the course of events. Larry irritably dismissed their fears. ‘I’m a deal maker,’ he said, ‘one of the greatest deal makers in the world. Possibly the greatest. Big, big deals. Doesn’t matter what the hell bill they come up with, believe me, I can sell it.’
Toadyin’ could not suppress a twitch of his eyebrow. ‘Healthcare’s complicated, Mr President,’ he said.
‘It’s a deal, Toadyin’ Reince. Doesn’t matter if it’s healthcare or condomoniums. If you want a deal, you come to the Larry. You wanna know how many condominiums I’ve sold?’
‘Actually, sir,’ said Slippery, ‘I’d rather know how many healthcare systems you’ve sold.’
‘It’s a deal,’ growled Larry. ‘Believe me. It’s a deal. It’s not complicated.’
Two days later, the new bill was made public. Three days later, it was under attack from all sides. Four days later, Larry tweeted. ‘Healthcare’s complicated. Who knew?’
I fancy most people who saw the tweet thought the question was rhetorical.
In seeking to combine the votes of the two extremes of Larry’s party, the bill had struck a middle ground that satisfied neither. It was too profligate for the conservatives – a brand of hard-hearted, stony-faced moralists which had mushroomed in the Congress over the past three or four elections, and who seemed to revel in the thought of the ill and indigent exercising their free choice in health care by dying in the streets – yet it was too austere for the moderates, who were themselves hardly the exorbitant gladhanders portrayed by their opponents, and in truth could be described as moderate only by contrast with their conservative peers. Unless the opposition party, which Larry had ridiculed, lambasted and derided for eighteen months or more, decided out of some unfathomable generosity to vote for a bill they opposed, in support of a president they detested, either extreme of his own party was sufficiently large to prevent the bill passing. And any compromise to gain the votes of one must naturally further alienate the other.
Larry, in other words, was in a bind of such stringency that I, for one, could see no way by which he could extricate himself. I fancy that he too had begun to sense the reality – although I had learned by now that Larry’s connection to that particular aspect of life was tenuous, at best, and rarely persisted.
‘This is a good bill, right?’ he asked in a mewling, plaintive tone, gripping the Larry tower tightly for comfort.
Brawlin’ and Toadyin’ stared at him, united, for once, by surprise. Larry had shown no particular interest in the nature of the bill previously, nor what effect it would actually have on the health of the nation, merely wishing, it seemed to me, to have some kind of legislation passed for which he could take the credit.
‘It’s … a bill,’ said Toadyin’ cautiously. ‘Some people like it, other people don’t.’
‘It’s the closest we’re gonna get to replacing Barackcare,’ snapped Brawlin’. ‘So does that make it good? Hell yes!’
‘So I should really try to sell it?’ said Larry.
‘You’re the only one who can,’ replied Brawlin’ jauntily. ‘The 1% are gonna love it when you do.’
Larry gazed at him, the sickly look on his face growing sicker. For once, he omitted to remind Brawlin’ that the 1% was supposed to be called the 70%, perhaps because polls were showing that it really was only 1% who supported the new health care bill.
‘And what happens …’ Larry began, and then coughed, and lowered his voice. ‘What happens if we lose?’
‘That would be a disast-‘ began Toadyin’.
‘We’re not gonna lose!’ yelled Brawlin’. ‘We’re gonna win. And you know why we’re gonna win?’
‘Why?’ whispered Larry, gripping the Tower so tight that his knuckles were white with the strain.
‘Because we don’t lose!’
‘Steve, that’s not a reason,’ said Toadyin’.
‘You’re damn right, Reince! It’s a fact. We don’t lose. Fact!’
‘It’s not a fact. It’s an assertion. Look, this is our first major piece of legislation. If we lose-‘
‘You saying we’re losers?’ yelled Brawlin’. ‘Is that what you’re saying, Reince?’
Toadyin’ glanced cautiously at Larry. ‘I’m not saying we’re losers.’
‘Then what the hell are you saying?’ demanded Brawlin’. ‘You can’t have it both ways, Reince. Only snowflakes have it both ways. You a snowflake, Reince?’
‘I’m not a snowflake! You know I’m not a snowflake!’
Brawlin’ watched him with a long, mistrustful glance.
‘I’m not a snowflake!’
Brawlin’ looked at the president. ‘We’re gonna win. We’ll just cut a bunch of snowflake shit out of this bill and make it a whole lot more American.’
‘And lose a whole lot more moderate votes,’ murmured Toadyin’ under his breath.
‘And then dare any Republican to vote against it,’ said Brawlin’, casting a stern eye on Toadyin’.
‘And what if they vote against it anyway?’ said Toadyin’.
‘What if they do?’
‘They won’t, because the president here is gonna sell them the deal.’
Both men looked at Larry, who stared back at them, eyes wide, the Tower clutched to his chest.
‘Mr President,’ said Brawlin’ in a quiet, measured tone. ‘That’s why the 1% elected you. Because you can do deals. And frankly, if you can’t do deals, they’re gonna ask what the fuck they did elect you for.’
Larry was silent for a long time. Finally he said: ‘I never said I can close every deal.’
‘You should have said that before someone leaked to the press that you’re gonna back this deal one hundred percent.’
‘Someone leaked that?’ yelled Toadyin’. ‘Who? Who the hell leaked that?’
Brawlin’ shrugged insouciantly. ‘Beats me. The media’s attributing it to an unnamed White House source. But you know the media – they’re so dishonest.’
Perhaps Larry believed that he could deliver the deal, as he referred to it. Or perhaps over the next few days he came to believe it. I found it hard – no, almost impossible – to tell which of his boasts, exaggerations and outright lies Larry believed and which he knew to be falsehoods. Considering that most of his lies brought more lies, and these lies even more lies, all designed to substantiate the original lie that he had told, the geography of his world was marked by gigantic constructions of falsity, layer upon layer, and one might have supposed that if, within one of those layers, was an element that Larry knew to be false, the entire edifice might crash. And yet, as I sought to understand him, it occurred to me that Larry might know something to be false, and yet at the same time consider it to be true, or, to put it more bluntly, that the notion of falsehood and truth being opposed, mutually incompatible – an understanding seemingly instinctive to the rest of humanity – was not natural to Larry, for whom falsehood and truth stood in an entirely different relation – a relation, I confess, that I do not profess to understand, but merely to recognise, a relation in which they could be both exclusionary and yet compatible – and so the question whether Larry ever saw his lies as false, was not particularly important, because even if he did, it did not imply that he did not at the same time also see them as true.
In any event, whatever he believed, he proceeded to do the deal, as he described it. And so I saw for the first time, in all its glory, the much vaunted art of Larry’s deal put into practice.
After I had heard about it so many times, from the television, from Larry’s advisors, and above all from Larry himself, I was expecting to witness some fantastic conjuring consisting in equal parts of subtlety, insight, intelligence and guile, against which the resolve of no man or woman could stand. Instead, what I saw reminded me of nothing so much as a mule driver armed with a carrot and a stick – the same mangy carrot and the same broken stick each time – a mule driver who in his crass self-confidence did not even bother to determine first in which direction each mule was pointing and thus to which end the carrot or stick should be applied.
Into this office they trooped, members of congress of Larry’s party, some supporting the new bill, others opposing it, as if Larry thought that the mere sight of this august room– now more august in Larry’s mind for its gold drapes and other gold tinctures that he had introduced since his inauguration – might deepen the supporters in their conviction and sway the opponents from their qualms. Then, once they were seated, began what I fancy must be styled his sales pitch.
First he cajoled each of his interlocutors with such charm that the snake oil seemed to be visibly oozing out of every pore in his orange-hued face. It was fortunate indeed that, as a painting, I am unable to puke. To people he had ignored for the length of his campaign, whom he had implicitly insulted in his primitive inauguration address, and whom he had studiously ignored again in his first weeks as president, he now averred that he had for long admired their honesty, commitment, integrity and grit. They were all working in the same cause, he said. They all needed a win, as he put it, to demonstrate their ability to govern. And when they gave him that win, he promised, he would acknowledge them – whoever happened to be sitting in front of him – as the true hero of the victory, more essential to it than any other person, including Larry himself. So great would be his debt to them, he vowed, and so eager would he be to honor it, that he would personally appear in their district in the month before the next election to support their cause.
This promise I heard made to so many people that I began to consider it mathematically impossible for Larry to fulfil it, but then I said to myself: George, for Heaven’s sake, when will you stop measuring Larry’s promises against his ability to fulfil them? For such speculation was a wasteful as measuring Larry’s self-aggrandising rhetoric against the paltry reality of his achievements.
So the promise was made, again and again, and each time it elicited from Larry’s listener a queasy look of anxiety – or was it fear – at the thought of Larry coming in person to their district to support them. A number went so far as to politely demur, saying they were sure, even twenty months in advance, that the president had more important things to do.
But Larry wasn’t finished, even when he was talking to a supporter. ‘But I’m going to tell you this, Bill,’ he would say, or Ed, or Jack, or Margaret, or whatever name he thought belonged to the person who happened to be sitting in front of him – which on some occasions was the name that did belong to them, but just as often was not, in which case Toadyin’ had to quickly correct the error, often five or six times in the course of a single conversation – ‘I’m going to tell you this, Bill,’ he would say, ‘if you don’t support me, I’m going to destroy you. Believe me. Totally destroyed. Nothing left.’
And Bill, or Ed, or Jack, or Margaret, or whoever it was, would look at him with just a hint of scepticism creeping into their eyes.
‘I’m gonna come to your district, and I’m gonna tell your people what kind of a Republican you are.’
‘So you’re going to come and tell my voters I opposed this dog’s breakfast of a bill,’ they ventured, or words to that effect.
‘Absolutely,’ said Larry.
‘This un-American heap of crap that’s going to keep entitlements going that we should be tearing out by the roots?’ said the conservatives, or ‘This un-American heap of crap that’s going to tear out entitlements we should be preserving root and branch?’ said the moderates.
‘You got it,’ said Larry again.
By now, most of them were smiling.
‘I’m gonna come in there and tell ‘em just what you did. I’m talking primaries. You won’t even get on the ballot paper.’
By now, many of them were suppressing laughter.
‘But it’s not gonna come to that,’ said Larry. ‘Is it?’
Their faces fell. ‘Really? It isn’t?’
‘No, because you’re gonna vote for this bill, aren’t you?’ Larry fixed them with what I fancy he considered to be an imperious stare.
‘Let’s say … I’m gonna think about it,’ came the response.
Larry stood up. ‘Good,’ he said, and sometimes he even gave a wink, as if there was an understanding between them.
Somehow Larry’s efforts to sell the deal resulted in congressional support shrinking from day to day.
‘That’s a lie,’ said Larry dismissively. ‘It’s the dishonest media. They said I’d lose to Hilary, and look what happened. Greatest victory ever. Would have been even greater if not for all the fraudulent voters.’
Slippery coughed. ‘It’s not ummm … the dishonest media. Our support’s slipping away. That’s the private polling from the republican party whips.’
‘They’re just as dishonest!’ retorted Larry. ‘The whole party. Right, Jared?’
‘They’re scum!’ yelled Brawlin’.
‘The Republican party’s scum?’ said Toadyin’, his eyes bulging out of his head. ‘Is that what you said?’
‘We double down!’ yelled Brawlin’. ‘We double down right now!’
Toadyin’ grimaced incredulously. ‘Double down on what?’
‘On the scum! It’s the whole MICC! We double down.’
Larry nodded. ‘I like it. Double down on what? Who are we talking about?’
‘We tell ‘em, it’s this bill or nothing. The House passes it tomorrow or we move on. Done. We’re finished with health care and we’ll go on to other things.’
Toadyin’ put his face in his hands. ‘Steve,’ he said from between his fingers, ‘it doesn’t have to be passed tomorrow.’
‘It does now!’
‘We can’t just move on. This is the single biggest promise the president made in the campaign. We’re gonna repeal and replace Barackcare. We have to find a way. We can’t just pretend we never said that.’
There was silence. A long, pointed silence, like a lance. With a tip, from the look on Slippery’s face, that seemed to be pressing straight into his gut.
‘I never heard the president say that!’ said Stonewallin’ at last. ‘We were gonna repeal and replace Barackcare? Nuh uh!’
‘Thank you, KellyAnne,’ said Brawlin’. ‘At least someone here tells the truth.’
Larry was frowning, as if something in what was being said conflicted with a memory he had – however dim – of the campaign.
‘Mr President, you may have said words that could have been interpreted – could have been interpreted – to mean that you were gonna repeal and replace Barackcare,’ said Brawlin’.
‘Like “I’m gonna repeal and replace Barackcare”’ said Toadyin’.
‘But we can’t be responsible for the way the dishonest media interprets things you say, right?’ continued Brawlin’. ‘That’s what you’ve said yourself, many times.’
‘That’s true,’ said Larry. ‘Many times.’
‘Almost as many time as you said you were going to repeal and replace Barackcare,’ said Slippery. ‘Sir, it’s on record. It’s on film. It’s on tweets. It’s on-‘
‘DISHONEST MEDIA!’ yelled Stonewallin. ‘For crying out loud, Sean, which of those two words don’t you understand?’
‘But it’s the president’s tweets!’ cried Slippery, his face going grey.
‘And who believes anything they read on Twitter?’ yelled Stonewallin’ triumphantly, as if that were the final proof of her point.
Slippery stared at her, then slumped against the armrest of the sofa.
Larry watched for a moment, then shook his head, his lip curled in disdain. ‘Why does he keep doing that? Is there something wrong with him?’
‘Plenty,’ growled Brawlin’.
Larry turned away from Slippery’s inert form. ‘So, I double down, right? Say this is the only deal in town, and if they walk away, so do I.’
‘I like it. That’s the only way to do a deal. At some point, you’ve gotta say that. If you don’t end up doing that, you’re leaving money on the table.’
‘Sir, we’re not talking about money here,’ groaned Toadyin’.
‘Exactly. And I’m damned if I’m going to leave any on the table!’
Slippery stirred. He sat up, blinked, and looked around. ‘Have I missed anything?’
Two hours later, Larry watched on his TV as Slippery stood in front of the press and announced that the president expected the health care bill to be passed the following day and that if it wasn’t, he would forget about health care and move on.
‘So you’re saying he’ll forget about his promise – his signature promise – to repeal and replace Barackcare?’ asked a journalist.
‘I don’t know if I’d call it a signature promise,’ said Slippery.
The press room erupted in laughter.
‘I don’t if he delivered that line so well,’ said Larry.
‘I don’t know if he delivers any lines well,’ muttered Brawlin’.
‘Don’t laugh!’ Slippery was yelling at the journalists. ‘Just … get a grip! Don’t laugh! Stop! Stop laughing!’
Larry put his head in his hands, being careful not to displace his coiffure.
‘Is that what you’re really saying?’ said the journalist as the laughter subsided. ‘He’ll forget about that promise?’
‘He’ll have given it his best shot,’ replied Slippery. ‘The president has a very full agenda and he’ll move on to another priority.’
‘But he must have promised this a hundred times.’
‘Eighty-four actually, but that’s the number of times you guys reported it, and we know how much you lie.’
‘Why should anyone believe he’ll be able to deliver on anything else if he fails on this?’
‘He won’t fail on this,’ said Slippery. ‘This is the only shot. One and only. There’ll be a vote tomorrow and we’ll win.’
Ten minutes later, the Speaker of the House was ushered in to meet Larry. ‘There’s not going to be a vote tomorrow,’ he said. ‘We’d lose.’
That night, Larry sat at his desk for hours, playing with the place names for his next presidential dinner at the Mar, for which he planned to stage a mock response to an attack by Mexico across the Caribbean from Cancun, introducing into his reality presidency the casus belli for an attack on the Mexican resort town that he longed to launch. But fiddling with the place settings and getting the Jews out of the way of their detractors, which was his perennial problem – one which had peaked with the Saudi king and his prostitute-concubines had come for dinner – wasn’t sufficient.
Around 3 am, the tweets started.
First he blamed the Democrats for not cooperating with a bill they unanimously loathed. Then he blamed the Speaker of the House for producing a bill that only an idiot would have thought could pass. Then he blamed the moderate wing of the Republicans for not sacrificing their principles and in all likelihood their seats. Then he blamed the conservative wing for the same sin. The only person he didn’t blame was himself.
When Shauna finally was able to come in, after Larry was gone, she was almost dancing. ‘This presidency died today,’ she crooned, and when she was by the desk, and the agents who accompanied her weren’t looking, she flipped around a few of the place names, putting the Jews back by the people who hated them most.
But this presidency wasn’t dead, I knew. It was merely wounded. And if by now I understood anything of Larry’s nature, it would be wounded like a grizzly: angry, spiteful, lusting for revenge.
Copyright © Michael Honig 2017