It takes time until the true nature of the person is revealed. This office tests the fortitude and constitution of its holder in the way that is unknown to any but those who enter into it. The examination starts from the first day, like the opening salvo of a battle, and it builds, like onslaught after onslaught, without relief.
And then the moment comes when the test reaches its extreme. When the stakes are high, the odds unfavourable, the onslaught seems to advance from all sides, and every choice is uncertain, compromised and tainted. And yet out of those choices one must be selected. At that moment, the person’s true colors are seen. It may take weeks, or months, or even years, but at some time during each president’s governorship, it will come. Until then, one can only endeavour to read from the behaviour of the individual what will be finally revealed, one can only guess whether the test of this office will enlarge or defeat him …
On the day after his inauguration, Larry entered at seven in the morning, freshly coiffed. Eagerly he turned on a computer and watched reports of his swearing-in that Toadyin’ had had collated for him overnight. But soon the eagerness on his face was gone. His shoulders hunched, his eyes narrowed, the expression on his face grew in anger. By the time he had finished, his advisors, who had gathered, were watching him with trepidation.
‘They’re making it seem small!’ he yelled, which seemed, from his tone, to be a misdemeanour of considerable weight. Smallness did not seem to be a quality with which Larry relished association.
‘They do seem to be erring on the conservative side,’ began Toadyin’ quietly.
‘Hell, Reince!’ said Brawlin’. ‘They’re making it look like there was no one there at all to watch the swearing-in!’
‘Steve, I think that’s an exaggeration.’
‘We need to do something about this!’ retorted Brawlin’. ‘We need to get a grip on this media opposition right now!’
Larry’s thumbs were flying over his phone. ‘BIGGEST inauguration crowd EVER! Most legitimate president in HISTORY!!! Dishonest media can’t live with it. SAD!!!’
Brawlin’ nodded approvingly, arms crossed. The others watched, as if waiting to see if Larry’s anger had exhausted itself. But exhaustion did not seem to be a quality with which the new president’s anger was acquainted.
‘Brawlin’ Steve’s right!’ he exclaimed, as Brawlin’ threw a glance at Toadyin’ and smirked. ‘We’ve got to get a grip on this dishonest media right now. Everything I do, they talk it down. Very unfair.’
‘Mr President,’ said Toadyin’ cautiously. ‘I’m not saying that’s wrong. I’m just saying … is this necessarily the right issue? The size of the crowd. Perhaps we should pick something more substantive.’
‘This is substantive! Everything I do is big, biggest ever, and they spend their whole time trying to make it seem small. They just can’t bear to tell to the truth. I’m a winner. Biggest winner in history. So many wins. They can’t bear it. This is an exact example, right, Jared?’
‘We gotta send Slippery Sean out there to tell ‘em they can’t get away with it.’
A broad-chested man in a large, ill-fitting suit smiled nervously. It was the type of smile I have seen often on the faces of men before combat, usually when they know the cause is lost. ‘There actually is some solid evidence for what they’re saying, Mr President. I mean, in the footage we just saw …’
‘Slippery Sean, just tell them it was a tremendous, tremendous crowd. Biggest crowd in history. And well behaved too. Very respectful. You go out and tell them it was the biggest crowd at any inauguration ever. Period.’
Slippery stared at Larry, mouth hanging open. ‘On the basis of which facts, Mr President?’ he whispered.
A thin blonde woman laughed. ‘You need to learn how things operate here, Sean.’
Larry turned on a television and watched it for a moment. Then he turned to Toadyin’. ‘What’s next?’
Next was the daily security briefing. An official came in and Larry sat through the briefing impatiently, glancing now and then at the television, which was showing a morning news program. Perhaps, I thought, the question of the crowd size, and the apparent mendacity of the press, was still playing on the equanimity of his mind. But over the next few days, as I watched Larry begin the task of governing, I saw that impatience was not an occasional disturbance that passed across the pool of his equanimity, but rather the pool itself. The surface, never calm, was easily whipped into a raging storm. The lying of the press – which seemed, from Larry’s remarks, to have grown to dimensions never seen before in this republic – was only the start of it.
Larry never missed an opportunity to protest the unprecedented legitimacy of his election. Putting aside the personal implications of his remarks – bearing in mind that historians are wont to quote my own two elections as the highwater mark of presidential legitimacy – but putting that aside, as I say – for after all it is only a minor slight, and I have suffered far greater – so putting it aside, I repeat, after a few days this recurrent insistence on his supreme legitimacy began to seem a little strained, defensive and sore, if not utterly deranged. A photograph of the Inauguration Day crowd appeared on the wall, strangely doctored to show a dense mass of people. And Larry’s impatience seemed especially provoked by the number of documents that came across his desk and the apparent expectation that he would read them. He often suggested to the thin blonde woman, whom he called Stonewallin’ Kellyanne, that various aides required corrective instruction on the matter. I confess that I began to wonder what he had foreseen when he chose to seek the governorship of the republic, if not a multitude of documents. Most irksome to him of all, it seemed, was the daily security briefing, accompanied by a document of six or seven pages, which seemed particularly unwelcome because it disturbed the watching of his favorite morning television news program. At the first briefing, Larry leafed through the document, his eyes glazing over. At the second briefing, he turned one page and then put the paper down. At the third briefing, he didn’t even bother picking it up.
‘Why do I have to sit through this crap?’ he demanded abruptly, interrupting the discourse on which one of the officials in the room had embarked. ‘Toadyin’ Reince, we need to get a couple of things clear. First of all, I’m not gonna sit in a meeting every morning with a bunch of pages I’m expected to read and hear some guy telling me the same old things every day. The Taleban are advancing in Afghanistan, the Russians are hacking our systems, there’s a terrorist cell in California that’s gonna launch an attack, there’s a bunch of guys in Montana who are gonna blockade themselves when it’s time to pay taxes, some African dictator’s just taken another ten billion of our aid money and stashed it away in the Virgin Islands, which, by the way, I think is very smart behaviour if he can get away with it. Yada Yada Yada. Give me a break! You guys,’ he said to the official, ‘if you know about this stuff, don’t keep telling me about it. Do something! That’s what I pay you for. I want to know about the stuff you don’t know about.’
‘Uhhh … I’m not sure how that works, sir,’ said the official who had been delivering the briefing.
‘I’ve had enough! From now on, we’ll do a meeting when you’ve got something new to talk about.’
‘With respect, Mr President,’ said the official, ‘the purpose of these meetings is in part to enable you to decide when something is new and important enough that you do want to talk about it. That’s not an objective judgment, sir. It’s subjective. We can of course give you an opinion, but in the end that’s your call.’
The president raised an eyebrow.
‘And if I may venture, Mr President, taking these briefings every day will help you immerse in the subjects so you can make that judgment more readily.’
I am a painting, and can see and hear, which is extraordinary enough, I think, but Tom Jefferson’s curse did not imbue me with the capacity to feel. And yet I fancy I sensed a chill that half froze everyone in the room.
‘Get out!’ said the president.
The official stared at him.
‘Get the hell out of here!’ he yelled, and he threw the briefing file back at him.
The official got to his feet, gathering up the file and endeavoring to stuff it into his briefcase as he stumbled to the door. The briefcase fell open and spilled its contents. The president and his advisors watched stonily as the official scrabbled around on hands and knees. Finally he got to his feet again and stepped hurriedly out.
‘Mike, I don’t want to see that guy again,’ said Larry to his National Security Advisor.
‘Noted,’ replied the advisor.
Larry grunted and then watched the television for a few minutes. The others waited in silence.
‘Okay,’ he said when the there was a break on the television for an advertisement. ‘Let’s get this clear. I don’t read, okay? Don’t read. Someone wants to tell me about something, they come and tell me about it. I have this amazing brain. Anything anyone says to me, I take in, one hundred percent. One hundred and fifty. It’s way, way quicker than reading a bunch of stuff. One of the things I’m gonna judge you on, Toadyin’ Reince, is how few papers you can make cross my desk.’
Brawlin’ and Stonewallin’ glanced at each other and smirked.
‘But if I do have to put something in front of you …?’ said Toadyin’.
‘Six sentences. I’m not gonna read anything longer than six sentences. That’s enough to get to the bottom of anything, right, Jared?’
‘More than that, it’s a waste. Total waste. Very, very bad waste.’
‘And these sentences, Mr President,’ said Toadyin’ hesitantly, ‘can they be … long?’
‘Not very long.’
‘Seventeen words max!’ said Brawlin’. ‘And no more than two commas.’
‘Occasionally we might need a third comma.’
‘Hell, no!’ yelled Brawlin’. ‘You call yourself Chief of Staff, Reince, and you want to add a third comma? Third commas are for snowflakes! Third commas are for elite Washington insiders who stole all the money from the forgotten people and left them to fend for themselves in the carnage of America! Are you one of those people, Reince?’
‘Okay, okay, Brawlin’ Steve, that’s enough,’ said Larry. ‘Toadyin’ Reince is okay. Now listen, Toadyin’, you’re a smart guy. Why do you think I don’t want to read long papers? Tell me.’
‘Because … you don’t like to read?’
‘Yeah, very smart,’ muttered Brawlin’ snidely.
‘No, he’s right. I don’t. Hate reading. It’s awful. But I’ll tell you the other reason. It’s the wrong thing for me to do.’
‘The wrong thing?’
‘Exactly. Now you get it. My job is to make deals.’ The president paused for a moment and picked up an object from the table. It was about a foot long, thin and ridged. ‘If we’re gonna make America great again, we’re gonna need deals, and I’m the only one who can make them. The only one. No one else.’
‘What the hell is that thing he’s holding,’ whispered the National Security Advisor.
‘It’s a model of Larry Tower,’ whispered Slippery. ‘He likes to stroke it.’
A smile of contentment came over Larry’s face as his fingers moved up and down the Tower.
‘Jesus Christ,’ muttered the National Security Advisor, squirming in his seat. ‘I wish he’d stop doing that.’
‘Here’s how it works,’ said Larry. ‘Your job, you guys, is to find opportunities for deals. That’s what I pay you for. You find them, bring them to me, then I decide whether it’s a good one. If it is, then I decide on the strategy – what my leverage is, how I’m going to play it – and then I execute the transaction. That’s how I’ve always done it. Works well. Amazing results. That’s why I’m one of the most successful businessmen in America, possibly the world. Many, many deals. I have an amazing amount of success. Just amazing. I just need someone to come tell me about the opportunity, or put it down in six sentences or less, and then leave it to me.’
‘But what if you need to … I don’t know … discuss a piece of legislation with Congress or give a speech or-’
‘Toadyin’, Toadyin’ …’ said Larry. ‘You still don’t get it. Politics is the same as real estate. No difference. Everything’s a deal! Everything, right Jared?’
‘Getting Congress to pass a bill – that’s a deal. I want the bill from them, they want something from me, we do a deal. One of us wins – that’s me – one of us loses. Deal! If I make a speech, it’s part of a deal. Why else would I make it?’
Toadyin’ peered at the president, trying to see, I fancy, if he was serious.
‘That’s what politicians don’t get – and that’s why nothing gets done. That’s why I’m going to do amazing things. Many, many amazing things. Already have. I’m putting out the most executive orders for the first week in office of any president ever. Period. And people love them. Every single one. They love them. The whole world’s talking about them. That’s why I’m the most legitimate president in history. Everything’s a deal. Everything. Once you realise that, you can get stuff done.’
‘So let’s say …’ began Toadyin’ hesitantly. ‘Let’s say some kids have been killed in a high school shooting, and you’ve got to go and emote. How is that a deal?’
Larry nodded, his eyes narrowing, one hand gingerly touching his carroty coiffure. ‘That’s a tough one.’
‘Well, it’s a tough situation.’
‘No, that word. Emote. What does that mean I have to do exactly?’
‘It means he wants you to bawl like goddamned Barack!’ said Brawlin’.
‘It means you have to show leadership and compassion for the sake of the country.’
Larry was silent for a moment. He began stroking the Tower again. ‘And you’re saying … what?’
‘Well, you said everything’s a deal.’
Larry nodded again. ‘Look, I’m not saying it’s not a sad situation when a bunch of kids get killed in high school. It’s very sad, although it’s the price we pay for the second amendment. And it’s worth it. Low price. We have many, many kids. But still, it’s horrible. Horrible. So I’m thinking, since it’s so horrible, how does it help me with a deal? See, I’ve got to do that. That’s my responsibility. Big responsibility. Very big. I can’t just be sad, I’ve got to think, okay, where’s the leverage? So, here’s how I’m thinking about it. Right now, I have an election deal with the American people. An amazing deal. Truly amazing. I made a bunch of Campaign Promises, which I don’t have to keep, and in return for that, for four years they let me do whatever I want.’
‘I don’t know if I’d put it in exactly those terms,’ said Slippery nervously.
‘Why not, Slippery Sean? It’s a great deal. I’m totally the winner. And the American people think it’s a great deal, too, because they know that what I’ll do is make America great again while I make extra money for my businesses, but most importantly, they don’t have to worry, because whatever I do is the right thing, just like the Constitution says. The president can’t do anything wrong. It’s a beautiful thing. So I’m saying, that’s the deal, and now the scenario is, these kids get killed in a high school, right? Okay. So here’s how I’m thinking – how does this give me leverage? Because in four years time, I want to do another election deal with the American people. See, I’m thinking ahead. Always thinking about the next deal. So I’m thinking, how does this give me leverage for that?’
‘And how would that give you leverage for that?’ whispered Reince.
‘Good question. Off the top of my head … the leverage I had for the election deal was about all the Mexicans coming to rape us and the Muslims coming to kill us and the Chinese stealing our jobs and the government taking too much taxes. I said to the people, you make this deal with me, and I take those away. So off the top of my head, that’s probably a pretty good place to start. So in this scenario, I’ll make some kind of speech about this killing, and I’ll probably be saying, you know, it was probably a Mexican kid, or the son of a couple of Mexicans, or someone who knew a Mexican, anyway.’
‘We can make a connection,’ said Brawlin’. ‘I’ll call Breitbart.’
‘Exactly, so we show how it was because of the Mexicans, or the Muslims, whichever works better, and that’s why we need to build the wall and keep the Muslims out and stop the refugees who have fled their countries to come kill us. And then …’ Larry paused in thought, stroking the ridged shaft of the Tower. His gaze shifted to the television screen, where a banner said ‘Record trade deficit with China’. ‘I’d point out that the gun that was used in the killings was made in China.’
‘Jesus Christ,’ whispered the National Security Advisor. ‘Let’s hope we don’t get a high school killing.’
‘Sounds good to me,’ said Stonewallin’. ‘That’s why people love you, sir, because you say it like it is. And even if that isn’t like it is, it still is. If the gun wasn’t made in China, that’s just a fact. That doesn’t change the truth.’
‘The truth is the truth, sir. That’s where we start. We start with the truth, then the facts.’
I noticed the sickly smile on Slippery’s lips that I was seeing more and more often as these first days of Larry’s governorship went by. ‘I think that’s the kind of thing we should probably keep to ourselves,’ he murmured.
Larry looked at the television again. A pundit was being interviewed on the Chinese trade deficit. Larry’s eyes narrowed. As he listened, he took out his phone. ‘How many homicides were there last year?’ he asked.
‘Why?’ said Slippery nervously.
‘15,000!’ yelled Brawlin’, consulting his laptop computer.
‘And what you were saying, Toadyin’ Reince, was that these kids in the high school, they were killed by guns made in China? Is that right?’
‘Sir,’ said Toadyin’ slowly, ‘there was no high school killing. That was an example I made up.’
But Larry’s thumbs were already flying. ‘20,000 Americans killed last year by CHINESE guns!!! Including the high school kids. NOT NICE!’
There was a moan.
‘What’s wrong, Slippery Sean?
‘I’m sorry, but … I’m a little confused, Mr President. By that tweet. Have you actually sent it?’
‘Of course I’ve sent it!’
For a moment, I thought that Slippery was going to collapse. ‘Are you saying the Chinese are trying to get us to kill each other by supplying guns?’ he asked hoarsely. ‘Or that the guns we use to kill each other should be made here? Or that we should do something to try to reduce gun killings? When I go out there for my press call today, Mr President, they’re going to ask me what you meant, and what policy you’ve got in mind. I realise this is probably my fault, but I have no idea, so can you help me by explaining what you’re trying to say?’
Larry stared at him in confusion. One could almost imagine that he had not paused even for an instant to ask himself that question before sending out his message.
‘Who cares, Sean?’ yelled Brawlin’. ‘Now the media’s got something to keep them busy for the next few hours. If we’re on the front page, that means no one else is. Great tweet, Mr President!’
‘Do you think so?’ said Larry.
Larry grinned. ‘Now you can see why I can’t afford to start reading any kind of briefing papers,’ he said to Toadyin’. ‘They make you think too much. The more you think, the less you do. That’s a fact. Important fact. Do you think, if I waited to read a bunch of briefing papers, I would have put out that tweet I just did? No way. I’d still be reading them next week. So this is how we’re gonna run this thing. You and Brawlin’ Steve and the cabinet secretaries and everyone else, your job is to find opportunities and come tell me about them. Then I figure out the leverage and go do the deal, and after that, you do whatever you have to do to make the deal work. Something happens, all you do is come tell me about it. I don’t need some long paper. You tell me – that’s enough for this mind to start ticking. It’s an amazing deal-making mind. Most amazing in history.’ He waved his fingers around his ears. ‘Tick tock, tick tock. There it goes. Making a deal.’
Tick tock, tick tock, I thought. The minutes were counting down, and whether it was days away, or weeks, or months, or years, the moment was coming closer, that moment when all choices are tainted and yet a choice must be made, that moment when the true nature of this man must show itself in all its colors.
‘Okay, what’s next?’ said Larry, rubbing his hands. ‘What are today’s executive orders?’
‘The immigration ones!’ yelled Brawlin’.
Toadyin’ frowned. ‘I thought they still need drafting.’
‘Had it done!’ retorted Brawlin’. He pulled out a file and opened it to reveal a sheaf of orders. ‘No time to lose. Immediate effect. Keep the Muslims out.’
‘Important orders,’ said Larry. ‘Very important. They’re going to make this country very, very safe.’
‘Mr President,’ said Slippery, ‘to that point … When I take these orders to the press, you know what they’re going to ask me, don’t you?’
Larry stared at him with the same uncomprehending look he had displayed in response to Slippery’s previous question.
‘They’re going to ask exactly how these orders make us safer. The record shows that refugees who have passed our existing vetting procedures haven’t been responsible for a single terrorist act, not one.’
‘Even if they’re Muslim?’ said Larry.
‘Even if they’re Muslim. Those are the facts. The media knows them as well as we do.’
‘You still don’t get it, do you, Sean?’ said Stonewallin’. ‘We have alternative facts.’
‘Sir, these orders are just theater.’
‘I know!’ yelled Brawlin’. ‘Ain’t it great?’
‘They’re not ready to be signed,’ said Toadyin’. ‘There’s a bunch of agencies who would normally be consulted who haven’t even seen-‘
‘Consulted?’ demanded Brawlin’. ‘Consulting’s for snowflakes, Reince. The minute we start consulting is the minute this administration ceases to be effective.’
‘Has anyone checked to see if they’re constitutional?’
‘The minute you check, some smart-ass lawyer called Rubinstein or Cohen is going to say no!’
‘Has anyone checked to see if they’re operable?’
‘Has anyone checked to see if they’re operable?’ Brawlin’ mimicked him in falsetto.
‘You said they’ll have immediate effect. What if someone’s in the air when the order’s signed? Does that mean he gets turned back when he lands?’
‘And how does that make us look?’
‘Tough as hell! One tough, bad-ass country! The snowflakes are gonna kick up. Bring it on. Let those Muslim-lovers squeal!’
‘There’ll be chaos.’
‘I know! Ain’t it great?’ Brawlin’ set the orders on the desk in front of the president.
Larry glanced over the first one – or the first six sentences, at least – greedily. ‘Get the photographers in,’ he said, and he picked up his pen and composed his features into one of his simpering pouts, ready to sign.
Copyright © Michael Honig 2017