I am cursed. I can neither close my eyes nor avert them, nor obtund my ears. I am weary from it. All that which is enacted in this room, for good or ill, I must see. All that which is spoken I must hear.
When this portrait was unveiled, all who saw it marveled at the likeness. Never the art of man nor the power of divine grace, it was said, had evinced an image so lifelike. ‘Now George Washington, the Father of the Republic, as he fancies himself, will watch over us forever,’ quipped Tom Jefferson, more in disdain than approval, and I heard a sigh from his lips. I would have sighed as well, or worse, had I known the truth in his words.
And so I hang here on this wall and observe, as I have hung for two centuries, unable to do otherwise. Every four years, on this day, they come into this room, fresh elected, some for the first time, some for the second. Some enter in solemn awe and stand in silence, thinking such thoughts as a man must think when the mantle of great responsibility is thrown upon him and for the first time he truly feels its weight. Others soliloquise gravely on the purposes to which they intend to put the high office into which they have entered. This one complained about the décor.
‘It’s just horrible,’ he said to the men and women who came with him. ‘Whenever you see shots of Vladimir, those palaces, let me tell you, very, very classy. Lots of class. Believe me, I know about this stuff. I want this place like the Tower.’
‘You mean you want gold?’ said one of them. ‘We already changed the drapes.’
‘We’re gonna have to change a whole lot more than that. And marble. Where the hell is the marble? You know, I’m one of the greatest businessmen in America, possibly the world, and when someone says to me they want to use my name on their building, I say, sure, if the money’s right, do what you like, just promise me two things.’
‘Marble and gold?’
‘Right, Jared. That’s why you’re my senior advisor. Because whatever you think of, I thought of already.’ He rubbed his hands together. ‘Okay, great inauguration! Did anyone see empty bleachers? No. Fullest bleachers in history. So what do we do next? Let’s make this show happen.’
‘The first day executive orders, Mr President,’ said a small, trim, dark-haired man.
‘Bring ‘em on, Toadyin’ Reince! Let’s make America great again!’ He sat down behind the desk. ‘Jesus, this place really is shitty,’ he murmured, looking around the office, as the small trim man produced a pile of folders and laid one open in front of him.
‘Not that one!’ said a bear-like man, springing forward. ‘Mr President, the first one you sign is symbolic.’ He grabbed the folders and looked through them quickly. ‘This one!’
‘No way, Steve,’ said Toadyin’, for such I took his name to be. ‘Not that one.’
They squabbled, the new president watching them in marvelous contentment. Then his face darkened. ‘Hey! Where’s the photographer? I’m not signing anything without photographers!’
‘Yeah, Reince! Where’s the photographer?’ demanded the bear-like one called Steve, taking the opportunity to slip his favored order onto the desk. ‘You’re chief of goddamned staff. This is a historic moment. Can’t you even make sure the photographer’s here?’
‘Let’s get this straight!’ said the president from behind the desk. ‘I want a photographer no more than ten yards away from me at all times. 24-7. Is that clear? This is going to be the greatest presidency in history. Believe me. We’re going to do amazing, amazing things. But if there’s no pictures, the dishonest media will say it never happened, right, Jared?’
‘Well, just because there are no pictures-’
‘And I personally vet every picture that goes out. If any picture gets out that I don’t approve, I’m gonna sue. Understand me? I’ll sue anyone. I don’t care who it is. I’ll sue the CIA if I have to. I’m gonna sue them anyway, those Nazis. That was a good line, right, Jared? Nazis! I bet your people liked that.’
The photographer arrived.
‘Give me something to sign!’ said the president. ‘Doesn’t matter which one it is,’ he added testily as Toadyin’ and Steve began a tug of war over the executive orders. ‘We can say it was whatever we like later.’
For the next few minutes, he signed the orders, interrupting himself to position the photographer at various angles while he poised his pen over the paper and employed his face in diverse expressions: a smile, a frown, a simpering pout, the last of which seemed most to his liking and which he repeated in numerous poses and subtle variations, the differences between which would have escaped all but the keenest of observers.
My attention was drawn to his coiffure, the like of which, I confess, I had never before encountered, except perhaps on the head of some jocular Christmas mummer. A man of seventy – for such I think he is – must surely know that a tincture of grey is not merely seemly at such an age, but inescapable. May as well put a sign on his head saying ‘I am a VAIN IMBECILE’ as adorn himself with such carroty wisps, teased so carefully into place. Not that personal vanity has been absent from the holders of this office, and might even be accounted an unavoidable plank in the scaffolding of the presidential constitution, at least in moderate degree. But imbecility I hold to be a decidedly unfavorable quality in a man in this position, and by extension, for these United States. It is only a lack of imbecility, after all, that can be relied upon to counter the vanity within us.
So the carrot-topped imbec- rather, I should say, the new president, signed the orders, one after the other, pouting, primping, turning his nose this way and that for the photographer. At length he was finished.
‘Okay!’ he said, getting to his feet and clapping his hands. ‘Great start! Hillary wouldn’t have signed those orders, right?’
To this, both Toadyin’ and Steve nodded heartily, finding at last a point of agreement.
‘Now, out! Everyone! Go! Clear up the carnage! Go make America great again!’
Toadyin’ gathered up the signed orders, eagerly snatching them before Steve could get his hands on the folders.
‘Not you, Mel,’ he said to the woman whom, by the connubial proximity with which they had entered the room, I took to be his wife.
‘Well, what do you think?’ he said, when the others had left.
‘It’s like a dream,’ she replied, in an accent that reminded me of one of Mad George’s detestable Hessian generals, with whom, the general having had the ill manners not to be killed in the battle in which I captured him, etiquette required that I must dine on the evening of his captivity. ‘Everything about today has been like a dream.’
‘No, I mean, do you want to do it? Come on. We’ve got time for a quickie.’
Her eyebrows rose in incredulity, as would have mine, had they not been rendered in paint and sealed in varnish these two hundred years.
‘I bet they’ve all done it. JFK, LBJ, Tricky Dick, Jimmy Carter – maybe not Carter. It’s our turn. You and me, right here, right now. On the desk of the Oval Office. This’ll be the best ever, I guarantee. No question. Don’t say you don’t want to.’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘Yeah, but don’t say it.’ He moved closer, a look of fixed purpose in his eyes.
She glanced from side to side.
He came closer. ‘Mel?’
‘Alright! But don’t pussy-grab me. I hate it when you do that!’
‘Then give it up.’
And that, if you’ll excuse the impropriety, is what, after another moment of fruitless hesitation, she did.
Be assured, I had no desire to witness such a sight, and, having witnessed it, even less desire to ever witness it again. I find nothing to savour – and much to dissavour – in the sight of a pair of wizened, dimpled, seventy-year-old unbritched male buttocks working to and fro like a mule at a fence. But that, after all is my curse, or the one Tom Jefferson cast on me with his malignant quip: I can neither close my eyes nor avert them.
At length, thank Heaven, it was over – or so I thought.
He threw himself back on a chair in disconsolation, which seemed to me most unchivalrous after the lady’s complaisance. But then I saw that his discomfiture was not without cause.
‘You should have taken the pill,’ she said.
‘When was I meant to take the pill? Before I stood up to take the oath? Believe me, I wouldn’t have been the only thing standing!’
She knelt beside him. ‘Let’s just see what we can do about this.’
Dear Lord! There followed a series of manipulations, both manual and oral, to avoid the seeing of which I would gladly have surrendered my entire plantation and the plantations of my mother, brothers and dear wife, for having seen them, I will never now be able to unsee them, no matter how many centuries I hang on this wall and how strenuously I try. And yet the ministrations of the lady, no matter how inventive – and inventive she was – were to no avail. The member in question stubbornly refused to attain to that vigor which was the entire aim and glory of the occasion.
I could not help at that moment but feel a tinge of brotherly sympathy for him, for who of our sex would not be disconsolate at such a pass? And yet I also imagined that this might prove to explain much about him. For might not a man, deprived of that virile function that in youth seems to be the very mark of manhood, and which he has celebrated, advertised, even bragged of, fill with anger and hate for himself? And might not then that man – if, let us suppose, he were a vain man, vulgar, petty, self-serving, bullying, vengeful, ignorant, mendacious, greedy, grasping, boastful and incurious – might not that man, filled with anger and hate for himself, find perverse relief by turning it to anger and hate for others?
At length he pushed her away and furiously rearranged his attire.
‘Honey, it doesn’t matter, don’t let this spoil the day,’ said the lady, the soothing nature of her words confounded only by the rasping Hessian accent in which she emitted them. ‘It’s normal for this to happen at your age.’ Her tone changed. ‘Although it didn’t seem to be a problem in Moscow, did it? Maybe we should set up a secret camera. That might get you going.’
‘My age!’ he retorted, ignoring the strange suggestion. ‘Some of these Mexican rapists they keep sending us are eighty, and they can do it.’
‘Well, they’re Mexican.’
‘They’re putting something in the water. I’m gonna call Brawlin’ Steve.’ He picked up the phone. ‘Brawlin’,’ he yelled, ‘are the Mexicans putting stuff in the water to get rid of American virility? Wasn’t there something going on in that place … that godforsaken place I had to visit in the campaign? What was it called again?’
‘Flint?’ said Steve on the phone.
‘That’s right. Flint. What a shit-hole. The water was contaminated, right?’
‘Yes, but I don’t think it was with Mexican virility-sapping chemicals.’
‘Well, the Mexicans are doing it somewhere!’
‘That’s an interesting thought,’ mused Steve. ‘A solid twenty-five percent of voting-eligible American adults would believe that, no questions asked, and as we know, that’s all you need to be elected president.’
‘Totally legitimate president. Totally. Most legitimate president in history.’
‘There must be something about this on the internet,’ said Steve. ‘If not yet, in a few minutes. Just let me call Breitbart.’
The president threw down the phone. ‘See?’ he said to his wife. ‘It’s on the internet. I’m gonna tweet about it right now.’
‘I’m gonna tweet.’
‘Right now. Don’t think – just do!’ He grabbed his phone. ‘Day 1. American virility is on the way back,’ he muttered, his thumbs flying. ‘Stick that up your ASS, Mexico!!!’ He looked at his wife. ‘What do you think?’
‘I don’t think that’s such a good-‘
‘I’ve sent it.’
She sighed. ‘Well, once you build the wall, there won’t be any more Mexicans coming in, so you won’t have to worry about that problem.’
He looked at her blankly. ‘What wall?’
‘The wall you promised to build.’
‘I didn’t promise to build a wall.’
Now it was her turn to stare at him.
‘Oh, you mean that wall? The one I promised to build on day one when I was campaigning? Listen, Mel, there are two things you need to know about being president. The whole constitution, there’s only two things that matter.’ He held up two fingers seriously. ‘The first one, the president can have no conflict of interest. That’s why I can run whatever I businesses I like – I mean, the boys can. The second one, is that any promise a president makes when he’s campaigning, he doesn’t have to keep. That’s why it’s called a “Campaign Promise”. I swear, it’s in the Constitution. The Constitution is very clear on this. It’s a beautiful thing. The Constitution says I don’t have to keep a Campaign Promise.’
‘So when you promised you’d be faithful before we got married, that was like a Campaign Promise?’
‘Exactly. Now you get it.’
‘But you weren’t campaigning then.’
‘I’ve always been campaigning. See, you can think of my life as one long campaign for the presidency. It’s been a tremendous, tremendous campaign. Very long. That’s why I’ve never had to keep any of my promises, not a single one. They’ve all been Campaign Promises. Whereas you, on the other hand, you’ve never been campaigning, so you definitely have to keep your promises. Especially the ones to me.’
‘So you’re not going to build this wall?’
‘I don’t know. Brawlin’ Steve says I should. Toadyin’ Reince says I shouldn’t.’
‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll make a decision, and it’ll be a great decision. One of the greatest decisions ever.’
‘No, I was thinking, don’t you think it’s a little humiliating to keep using those names for your guys? And to their faces? I can understand it for your enemies, like Hillary, but these guys are on your team.’
He grinned. ‘My enemy? I love Hillary! Great public servant! Look, honestly, what could she do about Benghazi? That was a very tough situation. Very tough. I honestly think she did about as well as anyone could have. I was almost going to tell her when I saw her on the podium today, but I don’t know, something about the look on her face … One day, I tell you, you and me are going to sit down with Bill and Hillary and laugh about the whole ‘Crooked Hillary’ thing.’
‘Maybe not just yet.’
‘You want to know what’s humiliating? Offering the guy who said you were a fraud and a phony the chance to be secretary of state and getting him to come begging to you at a “private” dinner and then making sure there’s a picture in the paper of him doing it! Jesus, I loved that! The look on his face when he knew I’d made sure there was a photographer.’ He slapped his thigh, careful not to disturb his coiffure. ‘Like I would ever have made him secretary of state. Give me a break! What a dope. Greedy Mitt. No, Desperate Mitt. No, Sell-out-every-last-damn-principle Mitt. That’s what I’ll call him next time.’
‘That’s kind of long.’
‘True. Greedy … Desperate … Desperate’s better.’ His mind wandered. The sound of a marching band drifted into the room. ‘Jesus, they’re still going out there with that parade! I wonder what bookings are like at the hotel. If we couldn’t fill that place today, someone’s gonna get fired.’ He looked at his watch. ‘How many balls we going to tonight?’
‘We gotta go to all of them?’
‘Obama went to ten.’
‘Yeah, well, those foreign-born Muslims, they love to dance.’ He pulled out his phone. A snarl of discontent came over his face.
‘You’re not going to tweet anything, are you?’
He gazed at the screen of the miniscule device, moving it down from time to time. Then his thumbs started twitching.
‘Don’t do it,’ said his wife, watching anxiously.
‘Mel, you should see some of the stuff on here. There’s all kinds of people out there criticizing my speech. It’s very disrespectful.’
‘Please don’t tweet.’
‘Divisive … Mean-spirited … Shameful … Embarrassing … This one says it was about as uplifting as a stale soufflé. Jesus, this one says I look like a stale soufflé!’
‘You don’t need to-‘
‘Greatest inauguration speech EVER!’ he murmured, his thumbs flying. ‘Anyone who doesn’t think so is a Hillary lover and big time LOSER!!!’
As he spoke, my mind was seized with a deep perturbation. Where had he come from, this man whose bearing was such that, had there been no one but he to govern us in our Founding days, we would have begged Mad George in abject haste to rule us again, and I in the greatest haste of all. And yet, in some fashion as yet to be explained, the people of this republic – at times so wise in their choice of governor, and when not wise, at least not manifestly insane – had contrived to place him at their head.
And four years he would be here in this room, day in, day out, and I would have no choice but to watch. Four years, thanks to Tom Jefferson and his cursed tongue, I must see and hear him.
I must give him a name, I suppose, and it being impolitic to reveal a man’s actions from a vantage of secret observation, and my vantage, despite being in plain sight, being as secret as if it were hidden behind the most impenetrable screen, I shall do him the service at least of using an invented epithet. I shall call him … Larry.
He got up. Suddenly he was standing in front of me.
‘I bet you’ve seen a lot,’ said Larry. ‘But you know what, George, old boy – you ain’t seen nothing yet.’
Copyright © Michael Honig 2017