The legal opinion that Larry sought was not immediately forthcoming. Each day Toadyin’ stood like a herald in front of Larry’s desk to vocally abbreviate the matters that would have been put to any other president in reasoned argument on paper, and each day, at some point, Larry, who was usually watching television as Toadyin’ spoke, would cut across him and say: ‘What’s happening with our legal opinion, Toadyin’ Reince?’ Toadyin’ never knew when the question was going to come, and I could see the tension on his face, almost a grimace of anxiety, as he waited for it. I fancy that Larry saw it too, and began to toy with him, eking out the suspense just to watch Toadyin’ squirm.
The answer was always the same: ‘I’m still waiting on it, Mr President.’
‘How can you still be waiting on it?’ Larry would demand.
‘I’m still looking for the … I mean, I’m still trying to find the right lawyer.’
I confess, I could not discern whether Toadyin’ was indeed endeavouring to find a lawyer to affirm that the conquest of Cancun would convert it to a legal territory of the United States – at least for long enough for the president to ink a deal – or whether he was hoping that time would blunt Larry’s desire to open hostilities with our southern neighbor. Perhaps he was doing both, without conviction that either would succeed.
Brawlin’ watched the daily exchange with a knowing smirk. Somehow, whenever Toadyin’ entered the office, Brawlin’ would contrive to appear within a minute or two, usually with the Millerman in tow. Like as not, Stonewallin’ would turn up as well, which inevitably heralded the panting arrival of Slippery. Then Jared would come hastening in. Rather than being irritated by the supernumeraries crowding his office and the bickering which inevitably ensued, Larry seemed to revel in the shambles, as if he were a king who demanded to be attended by a court. He was like a cruel keeper of hounds, setting his charges loose, eager to see the wounds they would inflict on each other.
On the fifth or sixth occasion when Toadyin’ reported that the elusive lawyer the president required was still to be located, Larry snorted and immediately returned to something that was preoccupying him on his desk. Toadyin’ went through the remainder of the day’s issues, his voice growing more dejected with each remark. I fancy he sensed that nothing he said was being heard by Larry – I fancy, from the frequency with which I was beginning to hear such dejection in Toadyin’s voice, that he had concluded that nothing he ever said – or very little –was heard by the president, and that the person who was really listening, making mental notes, and taking action, was a certain bear-like man who stood smirking nearby. But in any event he continued miserably to the end. Larry persisted in his occupation, without showing any awareness that Toadyin’ had finished speaking, or indeed that he had started in the first place.
‘Mr President …?’ ventured Toadyin’.
Larry looked up. ‘Tell me this, Toadyin’ Reince. You’ve got a guy who hates the Jews. Can’t stand ‘em. Worse than Muslims. And guess what? His wife’s best friend is a woman who’s one generation out of Crown Heights, if you know what I mean. Now, both couples are at a function. What do you do? Do you seat them together?’
‘Do you seat them together?’ repeated Toadyin’ slowly, as if to persuade himself that the president had actually asked him that question.
‘Yeah. Put the couples together or keep them apart? Oh, and the other husband, the Jewish one’s, he’s a Pole.’
‘And … is there a problem with Poles?’
‘Not at this table.’ Larry grinned. ‘Plenty of other tables where there are!’
Toadyin’ looked around, nonplussed. Brawlin’ and the Millerman were smiling at him. Toadyin’ cleared his throat. ‘Maybe we should ask Jared. He’s probably got a view.’
‘Come on, Toadyin Reince!’ yelled Larry. ‘Yes or no? What do you think?’
‘It’s a tough one,’ offered Toadyin’ cautiously.
‘I don’t think religion should come into it.’
‘No?’ said Larry.
Toadyin’ frowned, desperately trying to divine what answer Larry sought. ‘Can I ask … is this a state visit we’re planning? Are you thinking of a guest list?’
‘I’m thinking of the Mar,’ replied Larry, referring to the home in Florida to which he repaired each weekend at vast expense to the Treasury for his travel and protection. The Mar, I had gleaned, was open for a fee – a hefty fee – for people to use as a dining club, a practice I found both impractical and disturbing, from a presidential perspective, and I wondered how long Larry intended to continue it. As I was about to discover, curtailing his presence at the Mar was the last thing on his mind.
‘See, I’ve been thinking,’ he began.
Toadyin’ watched him steadily, with the look of a dog that has been beaten once too often and has learned to expect the worst.
‘What if I gave a dinner every weekend down there? I mean, I’m there anyway, right?’
‘Go on,’ said Toadyin’ quietly.
‘We’d call it the President’s Dinner. And what we’d do, we’d guarantee something would happen. Maybe I’m sitting there with a head of state, say, and the North Koreans shoot off a missile.’
‘Sir, you were sitting there with a head of state, last week, and the North Koreans did shoot of a missile!’
‘Exactly! And the crowd loved it. Did you see what they were posting? The Mar got so many mentions, Facebook stopped counting! Most mentions in history. Advertising like that, do you have any idea what that would cost? And it was free!’
‘Except for the three million dollars the US taxpayer paid for the trip,’ murmured Slippery. ‘Mr President, I’ve been meaning to say, I’m getting questions about-‘
‘Exactly, Slippery Sean. Free! Didn’t cost me a cent.’
‘And you think the North Koreans will do this every Saturday night?’ said Toadyin’.
‘No, but-’ Larry paused, then turned to Brawlin’. ‘You think we could get them do it every Saturday night? If we pay them enough?’
‘I don’t know if they’ve got enough missiles.’
‘We could give them the missiles, right?’
Brawlin’ shrugged. ‘Could do.’
Larry thought about it. ‘No, not a great deal. Same thing. Every Saturday. That’s not gonna work.’
‘So we need a new crisis every Saturday night?’ said Toadyin’. ‘That might be kind of hard to organise.’
Larry shook his head impatiently. ‘Give me a break, Toadyin’ Reince! We don’t need anything. That’s why it’s such a beautiful idea. So beautiful. We just make it up. Picture it. Okay? Put this picture in your head. I’m sitting there, having dinner, me, Mel, couple of other couples. Different couples each time. Then some aide comes running to me. Fast. He’s yelling. “Mr President! Mr President!” Bunch of other guys come running. Then we stand around whispering seriously. Then I make an announcement. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me. Something very important has come up.” Then the aides hustle me away.’
‘What about the First Lady?’ asked Toadyin’.
‘I don’t know. Maybe they hustle here away too. I haven’t thought about that.’
‘And none of this is real? I mean, there’s no crisis?’
‘I told you, that’s the beauty of it! They don’t even have to be real aides. They could be actors.’
Toadyin’ glanced at Slippery, who had gone grey.
‘You realise there’ll be questions asked,’ said Toadyin’.
‘Slippery Sean can handle it, right Sean?’
‘Yes, you can handle it, can’t you Sean?’ said Brawlin’ insinuatingly, as the Millerman giggled behind him.
Slippery pulled at his collar, trying to get some air.
‘Easy, Slippery Sean,’ said Larry. ‘When they ask you, just say I said it it’s top secret. I’m the president. Everything I do is top secret.’
‘But …’ whispered Slippery. ‘It’s not …’ He paused. ‘How can I say this? I don’t want to offend anyone in the room, but … it’s not true.’
‘Jesus, Sean!’ muttered Stonewallin’. ‘What is wrong with you? Of course it’s not true! It’s something the president’s said. That’s makes it more than true. It’s truetrue!’
‘Truetrue?’ moaned Slippery.
‘Guys, it’s not about truth, okay?’ said Larry. ‘Let’s get away from that word. It’s a bad word. Very bad.’
‘Never said it!’ snapped Stonewallin’.
‘It’s about what’s real.’
‘And the difference is …?’ said Toadyin’.
‘It’s like reality TV. Okay? Think of it like that. Reality presidency.’
The Millerman pumped his fist. ‘I love this! Reality presidency! It’s like a double forward somersault with a pike that would blow your mind.’
‘Sir,’ said Slippery, ‘again, without offending anyone in the room, least of all yourself, reality TV is … fantasy.’
There was silence. A chill, chill silence.
‘Are you saying my ratings were fantasy?’ said Larry in a low voice.
‘No, sir. Your ratings were real.’
‘Highest ever. Higher than the Superbowl. Higher than when Diana Ross pulled out her nipple at the Superbowl! Are you saying that was fantasy?’
‘It was Janet Jackson, sir. Did you really get higher ratings than Janet Jackson’s nipple?’
‘Way higher! Thirty times higher! Go check. Not now!’ Larry added quickly, as Slippery pulled his phone out. ‘Use your brain, Slippery Sean. If my ratings were real, how can reality TV be fantasy?’
Slippery shook his head. ‘You’re right … I wasn’t using my brain. Moment of madness, sir.’
‘Reality TV is real. It’s more than real.’
‘Realreal,’ said Stonewallin’ helpfully.
‘Exactly. Realreal. Realrealreal. It’s so real I can’t even tell you how real it is. You know why? I’ll tell you. Because they take all the bits of the film – twenty hours, thirty hours, lots of hours, believe me – and they take out of that all the really real bits, and they put it together, and that’s what they show! The really real real real bits. It’s so intense. Very, very intense. And it doesn’t matter if those bits are scripted and they have to do five takes to get them. People say that’s false, but when you put it together, it’s real. So real, it’s unbelievable.’
‘It makes it more real!’ said Stonewallin’. ‘The more false it is, the more real it is.’
‘Exactly. The more false it is, the more real it is. That’s exactly right, Stonewallin’ Kellyanne.’
Stonewallin’ smiled pointedly at Slippery.
‘So here’s the deal. Every Saturday night, down at the Mar, I’ll hold a President’s Dinner, and people will know something’s gonna happen.’
‘You mean you’re going to guarantee to people that something will happen?’ said Toadyin’.
‘Hell, no, Toadyin’ Reince. That would be crass. It’ll just happen. And pretty soon, people will know, something always happens. I’ll do it at different times – sometimes during the soup, sometimes the salad, sometimes the entrée – I’ve got to be careful not to upset the chef, because he’s very particular about the way his food is served – great chef by the way, just in case you ever get a chance to eat there – but there’ll be suspense, there’ll be drama, all the stuff you need in reality presidency.’
‘Sometimes you could shout at one of the aides: “You should have come to me earlier. You’re fired!”’ said the Millerman.
‘Yeah. I like that.’
‘And they could break down and sob and say how they’ve got five kids to support.’
‘No, that happens after I leave. I don’t deal with stuff like that.’
‘But they could do it then, you’re right, after the Secret Service has hustled me away. This could be amazing. The rating’s would be through the roof!’
‘Are we gonna get TV to cover it?’ asked Stonewallin’ excitedly.
‘No, what we say is, no cameras at the President’s Dinners. Not even smartphones. That means everyone brings one, right? Even people who normally have people to carry their phones for them – and I know quite a lot of people like that. And we say, nothing gets posted to social media. Nothing! That way, we get unbelievable coverage. And here’s the best thing. The Mar dining room seats six hundred. I can sell seats to something like this at a thousand a head – and that’s before wine! And at an event like that, you can serve complete crap food, and no one cares, right Jared?’
‘The margins will be unbelievable! So big. And once everyone knows there’ll always be a crisis to see, guaranteed, every Saturday, we can push the price up to fifteen hundred. Maybe two thousand a head. Conservatively – and I’m talking about after costs – we’re talking twelve to fifteen million dollars a year.’
There was silence. To judge from the smug grin on his face, Larry apparently took that for admiration of his business acumen. Perhaps indeed that was what some people in the room were feeling.
‘And if you’re going every weekend,’ murmured Slippery Sean, ‘at three million dollars a time, that’ll cost a hundred and fifty million to the US taxpayer.’
Larry beamed. ‘10% return on investment. Not bad, huh?’
‘Isn’t this a little like …’ Toadyin’ coughed, ‘profiting from the presidency?’
‘Don’t throw the emoluments clause at me, Toadyin’ Reince!’ yelled Larry. ‘I’m not gonna let any foreign government representatives come – not unless they’re heads of state, in which case they get in free. That’ll just bring more people in. I’m definitely gonna charge two thousand a head for everyone else on those nights. There’s no emoluments issue here.’
‘But it’s …’ Toadyin’ couldn’t keep a grimace of distaste off his face, ‘profiting.’
Larry seemed to take Toadyin’s grimace for a clench of approbation at his genius. ‘Sure as hell is!’
‘And that,’ said Brawlin’, ‘is what’s so great about it. Everyone can see it. The 1%-‘
‘70%,’ said Larry.
‘Sorry, the 70% expect to see the president profiting. That’s why they elected him, because he does what he does. Regardless of what anyone says or thinks. And what he does, is make money. They’re gonna love this.’
‘Excuse me,’ whispered Slippery Sean hoarsely, ‘I think I’m gonna puke.’ He rushed out.
‘Wonder what he’s been eating,’ said Larry.
‘So you’re definitely going to do this?’ said Toadyin’.
‘Starting next week! I’ve already made a few calls. Something like this,’ he said seriously, ‘it’s critical to get the right people there at the start. It’s like opening a casino. Get the right people, and the others will follow. And the other thing – and this is very important, maybe the most important thing – you’ve gotta get the seating right. Trust me, the wrong seating will kill you. I’ve seen it happen. This is something I personally attend to. The people I’ve called, they’re good enough to come support me on this. Nice people. Very, very nice. I need to make sure it’s perfect for them. And that’s the problem I’ve got with the guy who doesn’t like Jews. Where do I put him and his wife when she’s gonna expect to sit next to her friend?’
‘Guy like that can always sit next to me,’ said Brawlin’.
‘No problem from my side.’
‘You’re not gonna be there, Brawlin’ Steve.’
‘Just in case it ever comes up.’
Larry turned back to his desk, which was covered with an enormous seating plan showing each of the tables at the Mar. He had cut out small pieces of paper and written the names of guests on them. He gazed at the plan. After a moment he moved one of the slips of paper, shook his head slightly, and pushed it back.
Over the next few days, I fancied that Larry was never happier than when he was poring over his seating plan, shuffling a slip here, a slip there. And perhaps it was not to be wondered at, since so much else that occupied him – the television, principally – was disturbing. Whenever he was not engaged in a meeting with a foreign dignitary, the television was on. His staffers and even his cabinet secretaries did not inhibit him. The television would be playing in the background, and he would often interrupt someone in midflow to watch a snippet that caught his attention, frequently delaying the meeting even further in order to tweet an impulsive message on the basis of what he saw. And what he saw was not encouraging. Even the channels that he watched, which contrived to present an image of the republic that I barely recognised from anything I had seen or heard before, and for whom his inauguration had represented something – if I may take the risk of blaspheming – akin to the arrival of our Lord on a great stomping beast of the Apocalypse with a sword in one hand, a club in the other and a river of cleansing fire streaming out of his mouth, were turning on him. They derided his administration as incompetent, leaky and divided. Larry, who seemed more capable than any human I had ever seen of holding two – or three, or four – mutually contradictory positions simultaneously in his mind, both denied the accusations and took them to heart. He both loved the media – eagerly reviewing each mention of his name and image that they showed – for the attention it paid him, and hated it for the fact that it was beyond his control. It was the enemy he could not bear to be parted from, the foe without which he knew not who he was. And now, it seemed, even the most sympathetic parts of it had turned on him.
Often he would sit in the office late into the night, alone in a bathrobe, obsessively shuffling the slips across the seating plan, with the television playing in the background – the television he couldn’t bear to watch and couldn’t bear to turn off. I confess, it was hard not to feel sorry for him, watching him moving the slips of paper here and there, retreating from the reality of his governorship into some kind of reality fantasy in which artificial crises erupted conveniently every Saturday night, despite the crass, mercenary abuse of the presidency which those slips represented. His wife was rarely present, having chosen to spend her time in New York, I knew not whether to be protected from his pussy-grabbing or for some other cause. Yes, I felt for him, knowing the lack that comes from the absence of one’s wife when shouldering great responsibility, remembering my long absences from Martha during the revolutionary war and the lightening of my spirits when, as she did in the later years of the conflict, she joined me at camp in the spring. Perhaps if his wife were here, I sometimes thought, he would spend less time poring over his seating plan, but then I would see him gleefully calculating and recalculating the revenue to be made, and I would think: No, he wouldn’t.
But in his real presidency, not the reality one, the problems kept mounting. The leaks kept coming. Larry’s national security adviser turned out to be a liar – which, surprisingly, considering Larry’s own proclivities, was considered to be an impediment – and after twenty-two days in the job was forced to resign. The headlines got worse. Eventually Brawlin’ had had enough.
‘The dishonest media is killing us,’ he said to Larry when they were alone in the office. ‘They’re making out like every time we shoot ourselves in the foot, we shoot ourselves in the foot. We’ve got to do something about it.’
‘Shut ‘em down?’ mused Larry. He thought about it. ‘Nah. Who’s going to report how great we do? I could shut them down though, couldn’t I? Sign an executive order …’
‘I think we’d have somewhat of a constitutional issue,’ said Brawlin’. ‘I’m not saying it’s right, but the so-called judges would fight back hard.’
‘Which so-called judges?’
‘All of them.’
‘Damn constitution! They have a constitution in Russia?’
‘Doesn’t make a damn bit of difference to Vladimir.’
‘That’s true. Listen, Larry, we’ve got to do something about this.’
Larry picked up the Larry Tower and stroked it disconsolately. ‘Everyone’s telling me I should back off. Take it slow. Hold off on things for a while. Build bridges.’
‘Have you ever built a bridge?’ demanded Brawlin’.
‘No. Buildings. Towers. I like towers. Very big.’
‘I’ve never built a bridge either. You know why? Because the only thing bridges are good for it so take you away from where you should be! Forget bridges! Fuck ‘em. Backing off is the exact wrong thing to do. You’ve gotta go harder. We need to get you back to you.’
Larry looked at him suspiciously. ‘That sounds like a line in a song.’
‘We’ve gotta get you talking like you used to do. Forget everyone else. Talk to the 1%.’
‘70%. What am I gonna say?’
‘Who knows? Who cares? On the campaign, when did you ever know what you were gonna say before you stood up to speak? It just came out, right?’
‘It just came out right.’
‘Exactly. And that’s what everyone loved. That’s what no one could get enough of. Not knowing what the hell you were gonna say. What claims you were gonna make, what plans you were gonna announce, what lies you were gonna tell. It was entertainment, Larry. It’s what you’re great at. You said it yourself – reality presidency. You gotta get back to that. That’s what people want from you.’
‘That’s not what Reince says.’
‘Fuck Reince. All I care about is the 70%. They may be a tiny minority, but they’re all that matter. Larry, in their heads, nothing you can say is wrong. If it’s wrong, it’s because someone else is covering up the truth. You could tell them the biggest, most outrageous load of crap and they’d swear it was true. You could tell ’em the White House is running like a well-oiled machine and they’d believe you. Hell, you could say there was a terrorist attack in … I don’t know … Sweden, and they’d believe that too. They’d believe the dishonest media was just covering it up.’
‘They probably would cover it up, they’re so dishonest.’
‘There you go! Exactly! That’s how they think.’
‘I might try that out. Sweden, did you say?’
‘We’ve gotta get you out there! Go crazy! Say the dumbest things you can think of. That’s what makes you great, Larry.’
Larry nodded slowly.
‘That’s what makes reality presidency. I’m talking really, really great reality presidency.’
‘I’m a ratings machine.’
‘The greatest ever.’ Larry looked at him. ‘What have you got in mind?’
‘Let’s do a press conference.’
Larry’s face fell.
‘No, what I mean is, a press conference where you say whatever you like. Rave! Rant!’
‘And I’ll tell ‘em I’m not raving and ranting,’ said Larry, warming to the prospect, ‘and if they say I am, it just proves they’re dishonest, like we all know they are.’
‘There you go!’
‘I’ll tell ‘em they’re the opposition.’
‘Go for it!’
‘Enemies of the people.’
‘They are! They’re enemies of America, the dishonest media. And the other thing,’ said Brawlin’, ‘and you’re really gonna love this … let’s do a rally. A big old rally in a hangar somewhere. Just like you did in the campaign.’
Larry nodded, a gleam of desire glinting in his eye. His grip on the Larry Tower tightened.
‘You love that stuff.’
‘I love it.’
‘That’s where the 70% really got to see you. That’s where you’re at your best. So let’s do it. Reality presidency. Let’s do rallies. I love your President’s Dinners idea, but let’s not forget where you came from. You’re a campaigner, Larry. Just because the campaign’s over, doesn’t mean you have to stop. In reality presidency, the campaign can go on forever!’
‘I like it,’ said Larry.
‘I thought you would.’
‘Toadyin’ Reince and Slippery Sean are gonna want to script it.’
‘Let ‘em. Maybe you just conveniently lose the script on the way up the stairs.’
Larry laughed. In truth, it was the most carefree laugh I had heard from him in days.
‘You know, I didn’t want to say this, but Reince and Sean – I’m not saying they’re not up to the job, but … I’m not sure they’re up to the job.’ Brawlin’ let the words hang for a moment. ‘Anyway, at this rally, you go out there and say anything you like. Shoot from the hip. Shoot from the elbow. Shoot from your goddamn balls as far as I’m concerned. The crazier it is, the more the 70% will love it.’
‘I might use that Sweden thing.’
‘Use it. I swear, the 70% will go hunting the dishonest media for covering it up. That’s the power you have, Larry. No one’s ever had it before.’
‘It’s amazing power, isn’t it?’
‘Most power ever. No question.’ Larry leaned back. ‘I feel a whole lot better.’
Brawlin’ nodded. He stood up and looked at the Mar dinner plan on the desk. ‘Still can’t figure out where to put the Jews?’
‘It’s tricky, I tell you.’
Brawlin’ picked up a couple of slips. On the plan was a block marked ‘Bathrooms’. ‘There!’ he said, and put the slips down on the toilets.
That night, Larry didn’t linger over the seating plan. He went upstairs for dinner and didn’t return. But my day had not reached its conclusion. Around midnight, as was always the case unless the president was away from the White House, the lights went on. In came a housekeeper and two secret service agents to accompany her as she gave the office its nightly clean. I knew the faces of the two agents, but the housekeeper was unfamiliar to me. She was a black woman in her forties, small but handsome, with a streak of grey through her hair.
There was something familiar in her face, but what it was, I could not fathom.
She walked in carrying a vacuum cleaner in one hand and a bucket with various cloths and sprays in the other. On entering, she put them down and looked around, hand on hips.
‘What the fuck is this?’ she murmured to herself, spying the seating plan on the desk.
‘Ma’am, just clean, huh?’ said one of the secret service agents, throwing himself down on a sofa.
‘Don’t you go ordering me, you hear?’ retorted the housekeeper. ‘I’ll clean when I’m ready!’
‘Yeah, well, you better be ready now,’ muttered the other agent, leaning wearily against a wall.
She looked around again, ignoring her two guardians. Then she stopped, her eyes gazing directly at me.
I confess, I felt a weird and worrisome premonition. From where it came, I cannot tell, but it ran down the spine I would have had were I a true body and not a mere flat canvas on a wall.
She walked straight at me and stopped no more than a yard away, staring at me with a direct, almost combative gaze.
And suddenly I knew why her face had struck me. There was a likeness, uncanny, to a certain one of my people who had served me at Mount Vernon. Margaret, we called her, or Meg.
‘George Washington,’ she said, drawing out the words as one might do on unexpectedly encountering an old friend – or foe. ‘I know you.’
Copyright © Michael Honig 2017