The White House
President Upton Landers breezed into the Oval Office at the crack of ten, ready to spend a tough four-hour day working to transform the United States of America. He wasn’t really sure exactly how—or into what—America should be transformed. But the promise of national transformation had played well in his speeches on the campaign trail, and he knew better than to question what his teleprompter told him. After all, he had smart people writing those speeches for him. At least, he assumed they were smart. He’d never actually spoken to most of them. But nothing good ever happened when he went off script.
One White House staffer took the president’s suit coat while another handed him a cup of coffee. Heavy with cream, no sugar. Neither received a word of thanks or even a glance. These little people were lucky to be so close to the seat of power. That was thanks enough for them. Landers would start being nice to people again months from now when he launched his re-election campaign, but now was the time for governing. And governing was hard.
After all, it wasn’t easy to transform a nation. But transformed it must be. Because America had been racist. Still was, of course. And some rich people hadn’t paid enough in taxes. And the Indians! Or Native Americans . . . or whatever they were calling them this week. Couldn’t forget about America’s shameful exploitation of the Indians/Native Americans/indigenous peoples.
As president, Upton Landers would fix all of that. Somehow. He’d leave the details to Richard Jordan and all the minions that Jordan had scuffling about. What did all those people do all day? He’d let Jordan worry about that. He, Upton Landers, needed to focus on the big picture, needed to project an image of working hard.
President Landers rolled up his sleeves as he strode confidently to the big desk in the Oval Office. This gesture, he had recently determined, projected an image of hard work, dedication, manliness, and seriousness. Of course, one casualty of this new habit was the fact that he could no longer wear French-cuffed shirts, but even he was intelligent enough to understand that removing gold cuff links in order to roll up one’s sleeves was a bit over the top.
The first time Landers tried the roll-up-the-sleeves-and-get-to-work routine, he dropped one of his cuff links. He then confounded the situation by accidentally kicking the offending cuff link under the desk as he lowered himself into the leather desk chair. An overeager female staffer hurried to his side of the desk, bent low, and reached under the desk to retrieve the missing cuff link. As her head popped up on Landers’ side of the desk, some fool made a wisecrack about it being too early in the Landers administration for this president to have his own Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky moment.
Everyone had laughed. Everyone, that is, except the president. Upton Landers didn’t laugh at the expense of Upton Landers. Couldn’t have some underling think that he had the right to denigrate the presidency. Anyway, Landers was the only one allowed to be funny around here. Hope that former staffer and would-be comedian is enjoying life in the ranks of the unemployed, the president thought to himself as he finished rolling up the left sleeve of his expensive, hand-tailored—but non-French-cuffed—dress shirt. He made a mental note to have Jordan remind everyone out there in the Democratic Party establishment not to hire that wisecracker for anything. Not even the mail room. Some people had to learn lessons the hard way. And sometimes a leader had to send a very clear message to his subordinates.
Richard Jordan entered the office just behind Landers and examined the chair across the desk from his boss. Finding it satisfactorily dust-free, he lowered himself into it, careful not to risk undue wrinkles in his navy-blue worsted suit. The thirty-eight-year-old Yale graduate was the perfect White House operative. He wanted power but not fame, and lusted for control but not adulation. This made him the ideal chief of staff for Upton Landers, who wanted fame, applause, and adulation, and was perfectly willing to let someone else exercise power as long as Landers got the credit for the results.
Unmarried, childless, and seemingly hobbyless, Jordan lived for politics. Specifically, liberal Democrat, left-wing-as-you-can-get-away-with-while-still-winning-elections politics. He was a doctrinaire liberal and could cite chapter and verse from the Democratic Party platform. But he was smart enough to know that much of the current liberal doctrine was worthless at best and harmful at worst.
As a high school junior with dreams of political power, Jordan had carefully analyzed the American body politic. He determined at the ripe old age of seventeen that liberalism might not be great for America but that it had the potential to do great things for his favorite American—himself. Nothing had happened in the intervening twenty-one years to alter that analysis. He smiled inwardly as he relished, not for the first time, the power that he wielded from what others considered to be the wrong side of the presidential desk here in the Oval Office.
President Landers and his chief of staff began each day with a quick chat. They covered the day’s schedule, what mischief Congress was up to, and the latest political gossip. Although conversations like this marked the beginning of Landers’ workday, Jordan had been going strong since five a.m., sipping robust Colombian coffee and wielding power in the name of President Landers.
Today was no different. Jordan had selected Juanita Henderson-Kohn for an open judicial seat on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and prepped his media contacts accordingly. Now, due to a quirk in the U.S. Constitution that grants the power of judicial appointments to the president, rather than to his chief of staff, Jordan had to go through the tedious exercise of convincing Landers to do what Jordan wanted. Life would be so much simpler if this moron didn’t bother coming to the Oval Office at all.
“So what’s on tap today?” the president asked, a trace of boredom in his voice.
“Nothing major.” Jordan glanced over the agenda in his leather-bound notebook. “Glad-handing with the New England Patriots at eleven to celebrate their Super Bowl win. They’ll give you a jersey and cap, you make a few jokes about liking the team even though their owner is a Republican, the usual crap.”
“Can you make sure the damn jersey fits this time?” Landers grumbled. “They usually swallow me whole. Makes me look like I’m wearing a muumuu.”
Jordan worked hard to keep from rolling his eyes as he pretended to scribble an item in his notebook. He decided that now was the time. Might as well get it over with. “Then,”—Jordan continued to describe the schedule for the day—“you’ve got a Rose Garden news conference at noon to announce Henderson-Kohn for the 9th Circuit.”
“Henderson-Kohn? I thought we were going with Andrews.”
Jordan shook his head with disdain. “He went to a public school, remember? Probably a closet conservative. Henderson-Kohn is Harvard undergrad and Harvard law.” Few things swayed his Harvard-graduate boss like Ivy League elitism, especially if it involved Harvard.
Landers sighed. “She probably got in through affirmative action both times.”
“Probably so, but what do we care? She’s perfect. She’s solidly liberal—”
“Like that matters for the 9th Circuit,” Landers muttered. “That bunch is so granola they’re almost too liberal even for my tastes. One more liberal judge won’t make any difference in that West Coast freak show.”
“True.” This wasn’t going as smoothly as he’d anticipated, and he’d already told D.C.’s leading newspaper, the Washington Chronicle, that Henderson-Kohn was the pick. Better play the trump card. “Keep in mind, though, that Henderson-Kohn checks all the boxes. She’s a woman, first of all. And then think of that name: Juanita Henderson-Kohn. It gives the Hispanics, the WASPs, and the Jews all something to smile about.” Jordan was rolling now and picked up speed in his presentation. “Plus, she’s got one of those ambiguous skin tones. You can’t look at her and determine whether she’s black, white, Hispanic, or some combination. We can’t lose on this one, boss. Gotta go with Henderson-Kohn.”
Landers was tired of arguing but not thrilled about giving in—yet again—to his young chief of staff. “Okay, okay. We’ll go with the mixed-race, hyphenated Harvard grad. She certainly won’t be the first person appointed to the federal bench based on her race—whatever it might be—and lack of a penis. But”—Landers wagged an authoritative finger at Jordan—“I want Andrews for the next open seat on the Court of Appeals. He raised a lot of money for me in 2012, and I want him taken care of.”
“Duly noted, Mr. President.” Jordan again pretended to write something in his notebook.
Landers would quickly forget about Andrews, so Jordan didn’t bother explaining that Andrews’ fundraising prowess was exactly the reason why he wouldn’t get a coveted judicial appointment, at least not yet. Landers would need Andrews to raise money again for this 2016 re-election campaign, and Andrews couldn’t do that from the federal bench. At least, not without severely bending numerous canons of judicial ethics. The Landers administration would string him along, let him keep earning millions each year at his Wall Street law firm, milk as much campaign cash as they could from him, and then finally reward him with a judgeship once the president was safely re-elected and didn’t need any more campaign funds.
“Anything else on the schedule after I enthusiastically announce my selection of Henderson-Kohn?” Landers’ sarcasm wasn’t lost on Jordan, who shook his head as Landers continued, “It’s supposed to be a nice day today, a little bit warmer. I’d like to get in some golf this afternoon.”
“No problem, sir.” This was a blatant lie, and this time Jordan actually wrote in his notebook. A last-minute presidential golf outing would, in fact, be a huge problem for a rather large number of people. The Secret Service would have to scramble to make security arrangements, traffic would have to be re-routed, golf course personnel would have to spruce things up to the president’s liking, and members of the golf club would be turned away in order to keep the course clear for the president.
Jordan finished his golf-related notes on his pad and began to stand.
The president stopped him with a question. “One more thing, Richard. Do we need to be doing anything to get ready for the 2016 election?”
“I don’t think so, Mr. President.” That was Jordan’s second lie of the morning to the president of the United States. Did this idiot not realize that everything he did during his first term was geared toward getting re-elected for a second term? Maybe Landers actually believed that the presidency was about running the country or something equally ludicrous. But Jordan’s political instincts quickly kicked in, causing him to realize that the president was simply looking for reassurance that all was well for 2016. “I don’t think re-election will be much of a problem,” he went on to soothe his boss. “The economy is okay,”—this was a generous assessment—“the world is relatively peaceful,”—who cared about a bunch of savages slaughtering each other in various wars in Africa?—“and your approval rating is fifty-eight percent.” But down from 63 percent a year ago, and likely to fall further soon.
“Fifty-eight? Can’t we do something to get it back into the sixties?”
Never having faced the voters with his own name on the ballot, Richard Jordan had no patience with questions like this. Politicians craved approval and adoration like the human body craved oxygen. This was especially true for those sufficiently narcissistic to run for president of the United States. No level of public approval was ever high enough, even though at least 35 percent of the voters viewed the fact that it rained yesterday as sufficient reason to dislike the president. But Jordan knew that a lecture along these lines would be useless. Instead, he tried to give Landers the assurance he needed.
“Mr. President, anything above fifty percent is more than sufficient at this point. Your solid approval rating will keep the main competition on the sidelines in 2016. No rational Republican with any national name recognition will want to risk running against a popular incumbent during a time of peace and prosperity. A candidate is only going to get nominated by his party one time to run for president, so those who are serious about winning will sit out 2016 and get ready for 2020. The Republicans will nominate some dried-up, boring, moderate elder statesman to take the bullet and run against you. Think Bob Dole, John McCain, Mitt Romney, someone like that. If they get really creative, it will be a moderate woman like Senator Hollister, but she’s the last person the Republican base wants. You’ll win with something like fifty-three percent of the vote and then spend the next four years cementing your legacy.”
President Landers suspected, but didn’t know for certain, that similar thoughts were being entertained in the offices of Republican governors and senators around the country. Their aides would research historical precedents, check the temperature of big donors, and wisely advise their bosses to stay relevant, stay in the public eye, but not push too hard for the 2016 nomination. 2020 will be your year, Boss, Landers could almost hear these nameless, faceless functionaries saying to their benefactors, so just sit tight for now.
“Thanks for the reassurance, Richard, but I’ve got to say that this talk about ‘rational Republicans’ has me a bit uneasy. If they were rational, they wouldn’t be Republicans.”
Jordan grinned at that observation. For all of his incompetence with, and disinterest in, actual public policy, Landers was a fairly solid political analyst and strategist.
“I agree with you that the Republicans will likely run a moderate, someone who will try to distance himself from those crazies on the right and be the voice of reason,” Landers continued. “We’ll win a race like that in a cakewalk. Nobody is better than me at governing as a leftist but then talking like a centrist at re-election time. But what if they nominate a true, hardcore conservative? One of those Bible-thumping boobs from the South who wants to turn back the clock on all the progress we’ve made? I want to be sure we’re ready for a challenge like that.”
Jordan gave a devilish grin. “Mr. President, I’d like nothing better than to work with you in a race like that. It would be all-out war, no holds barred, the forces of sweetness and light against the hordes of evil and darkness. And if the Republicans are dumb enough to go down that road, we’ll use the power of the presidency and the overwhelming force of the media to make that guy wish he’d never been born.”
Considering this, Jordan started to really relish the prospect of a campaign between polar opposite ideologies. “And the best thing about that scenario, Mr. President, is that you’ll win that race in a landslide, with something like sixty percent of the vote. A margin like that will crush conservatism for all time. You’ll be the one to put Democrats in power for generations to come. We’ll be in an era like the one described by that FDR aide in the 1930s: ‘We’ll tax and tax, spend and spend, and elect and elect.’”
Upton Landers leaned back in his leather chair and smiled for the first time that day.