Breaking news from Offut Air Force Base here in Omaha, Nebraska. The Speaker of the House of Representatives will shortly be holding a press conference on the subject of his...
Morning sunlight was gleaming over a southern city covered by a thin layer of snow. Washington has so many marble entombed buildings that after about an hour your average tourists is wandering about in blurred confusion, unable to tell the difference between the Lincoln Memorial and the White House.
A three car convoy sped through the snow covered streets of the Capitol. A nondescript grey van preceded by a by black Ford Expedition with tinted windows all around. Leading the small caravan weaving its way through Washington was a shimmering black Cadillac CTS limousine.
Brandon Allwhite swallowed repeatedly, his breath a bit shallow. The all black interior of the Cadillac smelled new. Brandon looked about briefly for a drinks cabinet, the kind you were supposed to find in any rich man’s car like this. And Lord knows the Secretary of State was a very rich man. Although it would be more accurate to say that his wife had made him a very rich man.
Brandon couldn’t find one.
This was the Secretary of State’s private vehicle. Everybody smirked about his choice of chariot. They knew he only picked it because it it looked presidential. Everyone figured after his disastrous campaign that this was as close to being President as he was ever going to get.
Seated across from Brandon, the Secretary of State was finishing up on the phone. “Good to hear Marty, I’ll be seeing you in a couple. Okay, now. Bye.”
He sighed and stretched. Making a little much, Brandon thought, of his well known leg injury from Vietnam. I mean he still had a leg. He could walk on it without much of limp or anything Allwhite thought, peevishly.
The Secretary of State looked out at Washington for moment or two off proprietary satisfaction. “Brandon, I want to thank you again,” he said.
“Nothing sir, Really,” Brandon was not at all averse to praise. He usually loved it as a matter of fact. But this time it felt really wrong. What he had done was not a minor betrayal. It was not something any one of his friends would have ever... Brandon stopped for a moment. Were they really his friends. Had they ever been?
“No, this isn’t a nothing. This was pretty fucking important.”
Brandon suppressed a scowl. The profanity like the rest of his military man antics seemed over done. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like anything to do with the military. This mess he was stuck in now was started by a military man...woman...person.
It wasn’t Brandon’s fault, he had wanted nothing to do with General Sertorio. She just got handed to him at the last staff meeting back in...
Really Brandon asked himself. Was it only five days ago?
Five days before:
There is nothing spectacular about the the West Wing cabinet room. An oval table and some very restrained decorations, a few busts, a few portraits. The walls are a dull shade of eggshell and the carpeting is just a little worn. It looks for all the world like a museum's board of directors should be sitting in attendance of a budget meeting. Not where the most powerful man on Earth holds court.
Fashion is what it is.
The President of the United States was hoping he wasn’t looking desperately bored. It wasn’t a big success but no one was likely to call him on it. The meeting wouldn’t last too much longer. After six years everyone knew well enough to keep it brief...Ah, to present whenever possible a helpful, one page overview, allowing the President to focus on the most salient points.
“...all indicators are that our international bond sales will remain stable next month. Despite some down ticks in the following...” A lugubrious twitch of the POTUS eyebrow. “...a few markets,” the treasury secretary was annoyed. Bad staff work, there. They should know better by now.
The Secretary of the Treasury, looked up from his notes, and around the room indicating he was done speaking and was inviting comments and questions.
Neither comments nor questions would actually be welcome of course.
No one at this table felt the need to ask about minutiae just to prove they’d been paying attention.
The President smiled professionally at his ministers and said, “Thank you, George and thank you everyone. As you can imagine, things are going to be more than a little chaotic today. I feel we should conclude today’s meeting with a moment of silence.”
Every member of the cabinet obediently bowed their heads in honor of the late Vice-President of the United States. Eyes closed and hands clasped. Simulating prayer. They stayed in that respectful pose until the photographer was finished taking pictures of them.
“I think that’s all for today.” The President looked over at the Secretary of State. “James, could I have a moment?”
“Of course, sir”.
All eyes flashed to Jack O’Hara briefly, before returning to their regular duties. The meeting breakup was unusually cordial, for such a somber occasion. Anyone who could manage it, more or less unobtrusively, was staying behind to shake the Secretary of State’s hand and, if possible, give him a really good professional Washington arm squeeze on top of it.
A few of other people who didn’t have to be invited, stayed as well. The President's head advisor and his chief of staff, principally.
A few tsars of the kitchen cabinet drifted into the room, before the doors were closed.
A much different looking group than the official cabinet, younger and with better tailored clothes. iPads in hand with very fashionable glasses that were at least fifty years out of date. Most of them gave lie to the adage that Washington was Hollywood for ugly people. A few of course, did not.
When the doors closed, a more casual and rather collegial atmosphere descended. The President’s greetings were genuinely warm, if remote. But then, they were always remote.
Responding to habit, they pulled chairs back from one end of the table into a semi-circle.
The President took his place before them. Leaning, rather than sitting on the table, so as not to break the crease of his trousers. Arms and ankles folded and an almost fatherly smile on his face.
Then he banished the smile when he remembered today's topics. “Two things. The funeral and SOD. I’m going to need to make announcements on both by press time.”
Warren Chait raised a hand. The President gestured, with finger, “go.”
“I think we should go with what we talked about before.” He glanced cautiously at the Secretary of State who had, very unusually, taken up the right hand seat next to the President.
“Quiet funeral. Friends and family,” He peeked at the faintly scowling Secretary of state. This approach wasn’t playing well in some quarters. “‘Old Mike’ was neither a Head of state nor a Chief of Government. Legally, we have no reason and by precedent, we have no need.” He finished just a little nervously.
“Sounds about right to me,” said Brandon Allwhite nodding his head in agreement. “If we go with the quiet approach, the friendly media will give good coverage and even the conservative media will play nice, too.” He paused for a half smile, “for a change.” He continued, “A couple of respectful career highlights. A few passing mentions of past controversies and that will be it.” Allwhite shrugged, the President was faintly scowling now as well, but at that point he had to soldier on, “Probably even a good sound bite from your eulogy, sir,” he tried to meet his boss’s eyes which, for once, were a little unresponsive.
Ely Wallis-Stanford, having a better nose for the wind than his classmates offered, “Not necessarily, Brandon.” He glanced at the President's eyes which briefly denoted approval. Thus emboldened, “after all, the last Vice President to die in office was,” he glanced at his iPad. “James Sherman, in 1912.”
“Who was William Howard Taft’s Vice President,” Allwhite smirked reading his own iPad.
“And was born in 1855,” piped up Liela Cabot-Morrow, “also was a Republican,” she added brightly through slightly pudgy cheeks.
“Yes, my student’s, your Wiki-Fu is strong indeed!” The President stroked his wispy but non-existent martial arts master’s beard. His advisors obediently chuckled at the cool prof’s joke.
“But I would like to hear Ely expand on his comment a bit,” The President concluded.
“Thank you, sir,” Wallis-Stanford smirked to himself in triumph, while Allwhite and Cabot-Morrow quietly seethed. “True, Vice-Presidents’ funerals have always been small family affairs. But the last one was one hundred years ago. The United States wasn’t as import...wasn't’ as prominent among other nations back then.”
The President’s chief advisor cleared her throat, calling them to attention. Whatever her opinion was, it was also the President’s. “Indeed, the Vice Presidency has gained considerably in importance in the last twenty years alone,” the President’s Advisor added. “He’s not just the guy you send to funerals anymore.”
Although in this case, ‘Old Mike’, most certainly was. The God awful truth being that after six years of public gaffs and private screwups, it was only thing left the President had been willing to trust him to do at all. And that was only barely, just.
“The truth is sir, you have a clean slate. You can decide what the precedent is going is to be.”
“Interesting,” the President mused cupping his chin between thumb and forefinger, wearing his thoughtful look..
“Actually, Mister President,” the Secretary of State to interjected himself into the discussion. “A state funeral would be something of a help right now.” It was the TA’s turn to lecture the class himself. The class, of course, became duly bored and unresponsive. “SOD is becoming enough of a problem in the mid-east that oil production is already being affected. Kuwait closed it’s borders, right before this meeting.” That brought a few gasps. Kuwait was one of the most reliable of America’s satraps. “Israel will do the same by tonight. We will be feeling the pain at the pump in a few days.”
Wallis-Stanford added, “SOD has become a much bigger problem in sub-saharan Africa. Riots are breaking out pretty much everywhere from Brazzavile to Cape Town.”
“An official meeting between heads of state would, frankly, not calm things down just now,” O’Hara said. “Look, nothing is out of control, but we do need a sit down and we do need to discuss this. And this meeting has to be very low profile. If not exactly off the books,”
He shifted focus, “Heads of state and chiefs of government don’t need to accomplish anything at a funeral. No one expects treaties or trade agreements from one.” The Secretary of State nodded at his own wisdom “A state funeral is probably the most productive diplomatic setting there is because no one anticipates anything will happen at one.”
“There you are,” said the President. “State Funeral for the Vice President. He was a loyal soldier and a good man.” A few eyes rolled but that was the end of the discussion..
“Sir, do we know anything else about his death?” Joel Boyd asked tentatively, just a voice in the background as usual.
“The gross symptoms described do appear to have been consistent with a Sudden Onset Dementia related death,” the President’s A ndvisor confirmed.
There were no orders to keep this one in the family. Which was the president's way of saying he wanted that bit leaked to their friends and family in the press. The pet poodles had to be fed or they would start snapping at him. Besides, it was going to come out eventually anyway.
“Now on to the matter of SOD,” the President stated. “Brandon, some military people want a sit down with Geena Belmont on the matter. She’d appreciate it if you would see them, (i.e. take that bullet for her), she is up to the gills in the Iraq stuff.”
“Glad to do it, Sir,” Brandon lied with a smile on his face. He loathed assignments like this. He found the military incredibly intimidating and he hated being in the same room with them. He also knew those military types were champing at the bit about something and Geena Belmont, the national security advisor, was ducking them on it. But he also knew his duty. He had to act as a buffer between the military and the President.
“Next, the State Department.”
The room became rather uncomfortable all of a sudden. All eyes shifted to Jack O’Hara, who swallowed thickly. “The position of the Department of State remains unaltered.” Thus distancing himself from his own department.
A few eyes met and fought off a temptation to roll.
O’Hara, raised his hands in supplication. I realize this is not politically popular however the arguements for keeping the border’s open during an epidemic are sound. First we must keep the economy going in these underdelveloped countries. It’s the only way we can end the outbreak at it’s source. If those governments collapse there will be no way to contain Sudden Onset Dementia at it’s source.”
Those governments already have collapsed, Brandon thought to himself. “Mister President, there is a bigger issue here.” Actually there was no bigger issue than SOD but Allwhite knew better than to defy the mandarins of State directly. “Our side of the aisle is likely to bolt.”
“I don’t see that,” Ely said not quite dismissively. “Not yet anyway.”
Allwhite ignored him. “Sir, the election is over. Our side got chewed up pretty bad and, bluntly, they are looking for someone to blame,” Allwhite sped up before he could get interrupted by people rushing to defend the President. “The House Minority Leader and the Senate Minority Leader are barely holding off backbencher revolts.”
“Are they going to blame the President?” Leila breathed indignantly.
Of course they are, you stupid twat, Allwhite raged quietly to himself. If any of you ever left the White House and met them, this wouldn’t be such a God Almighty shock to you. Yes, everyone in the party blames the President. They just can’t bring themselves to say it out loud because he’s black. Which is the only thing the President has going for himself at this point.
“Of course not,” Brandon snapped, as loyally as any of them. “But in two years they are going to be up for reelection again and they know we aren’t going to be here anymore.”
“‘‘Politics is the lively expectation of favors to come,’” the President quoted an old TV show favored by politicians. “And I don’t have anything left to offer, is that what you mean, Brandon?”
The air took on a distinct chill.
Better distract him, Allwhite decided “Sir, right now we can hold them off during the lame duck session. But once the new session starts the opposition will only need eleven votes in the house and six in the senate to override your veto. They will have no trouble finding them from our own party, and you will have been overridden on an unimportant policy issue. That sets a precedent for the important ones.”
Brandon was sweating.
But then he saw the President was genuinely smiling. The rest of the court was leaning in to learn his fate.
“No need to worry then,” The President sighed in relief. “SOD will be a dead issue by the time the new congress convenes,”
The staffers nod in agreement.
The old President was half right. Brandon thought morosely. By the time the new congress is supposed to convene, closed borders and SOD containment will be long dead as an issue.
Old President? Really Brandon? Are you that quick to give up on the man just because Sertorio said so?
The problem was General Sertorio hadn’t been wrong about anything else yet.
“Brandon, you made a decision that has perhaps saved the government of the United States of America,” The Secretary of State stated the obvious.
He knew it, but it didn’t make Brandon feel any better.
In his deepest heart, he knew the dream of hope and change was long over. The last place the dream was being kept alive at all was inside of a White House that was under siege by those who were determined to kill that dream.
And it was Brandon Allwhite who had taken it upon himself to open the rear gate.
He had always been ambitious but not this way. His whole family had always been ambitious for him.
His whole family was really just him and his parents. His folks had met while working for the McGovern campaign in college. They moved in together that summer. They stayed together ever since. While his mother had worked on her graduate degree in Sociology, his father had had to take a job in insurance, courtesy of Grandad. Much to his own disgust, his Dad worked his way up the corporate ladder but it allowed Mom the opportunity to gloriously excel as an activist and professor. Just short of her forty first birthday she gave birth to Brandon.
His parents were a strong and constant influence in his life. They maintained a close scrutiny of his education and leveraged all of his opportunities. They made certain that he was placed in advanced classes (do test scores really matter when a child is this obviously special? And by the way, we heard that your school might be needing a little help with a certain new building project?)
They drove him on relentlessly. Making sure his homework got done every night, even if they had to do it themselves. They demanded excruciating perfection from him for all of his class projects, often requiring their entire departments to correct, proofread, and polish his term papers for him. Naturally, he excelled. His grades certainly reflected that.
After graduating from Harvard Law he had immediately moved into government, taking a position in Health and Human Services that his father had arranged for him. His Dad had thought it was a bad idea at the time, but Brandon had insisted and his mother, as always, agreed with Brandon. It was utterly ludicrous to go into private practice these days. Ninety hour work week for a twenty hour salary. No hope of becoming a partner unless you were unfairly good at your job. No way in hell, Dad. The government was where lawyers were really needed these days.
Brandon wanted to make a name for himself. He wanted to make a difference in the world. Unfortunately, he already had and tragically he would again soon.
Brandon had seen that the tide was finally turning on National Healthcare. President Prescott was done, thank God, and he was taking the entire GOP with him. No one doubted who the next president was going to be.
Senator Blaire, the former First Lady of the United States, had never really given up on health care reform, she had kept it simmering on her back burner for fourteen years. In his spare time, Brandon had worked for her presidential campaign after hours and into the morning. Brandon was realistic about what this was going to get him in the short run...which was nothing. He was playing the long game. Sure, he knew he wasn’t going to be anything major in her administration, there was too much of the old guard in line ahead of him. Too many old timers from her husband’s administration that were way above him in the pecking order. But he would be noticed and he would be marked for advancement. It was a good start. Find the right old timer to be his mentor, pretend you honestly gave a fuck about the Beatles and your skids would be greased.
And then he had met Him.
The future President.
When they had first met, He was still a freshman Senator. Brandon’s heart skipped a beat the first time he saw Him, his breath caught in his throat the first time they shook hands. He looked like he had just stepped out of the march in Selma. His voice was beautifully baritone like a warm, long sip of expensive bourbon, just like a black civil rights worker’s voice should sound. He radiated intelligence and purpose. He was clearly a man awaiting his moment but at the same time a man being catapulted towards his future. A future America desperately needed if it was ever to break with the unjust chains of its past. So much that needed doing and Brandon’s generation was going to be the one that did it. They would finally fulfill the dreams of their parents.
That meeting was it that was all it took. Everything he had been looking for in a man he wanted to believe in had arrived in one package.
He was the clearly The One.
The One the party had been waiting for since Bobby Kennedy had been stolen from them. The One they lost again after the tragedy of John-John’s stupid plane crash. The One they were giving up all hope of ever finding when Edwards had had that ludicrous affair. The One they could only dream about by that point.
But He had come. He was real after all. The One who would change the course of American politics, could change America’s place in the world and would finally change everything.
He was completely untainted by the last Democrat to hold the White House. President Blaire and his backroom deals, his compromises with the far-right and his out of control dick.
Brandon had (much to his father’s rage) quit his job at HHS and gone to work for for the senator full time, nearly that very day. He was noticed again but this time there was no army old farts over his head. Just a lot of other people like him. Young, correctly educated, and with a ton of dedicated excitement. That was all he had to compete against. There was so much energy. It was all so powerful. They were all so strong together.
The President valued loyalty. He had a real eye for it. It was a coin that Brandon was only too happy to pay him. And that loyalty had buoyed him during the Bhenghazi disaster. Caution about drastically increasing security and the negative effect it might have had on the local Arab Spring was quite legitimate. Granted, the results were suboptimal but he was certain he had been right in principle.
Then there was the website launch. Look, Tiselius was the Secretary not him. He was just an advisor, she was the big boss. Okay yes, there were some briefings that didn’t look promising but he wasn't the only guy at those briefing’s. Fine, he wasn’t a software engineer. He wanted to fix it but he didn’t know how to write code. He was a lawyer, not a project manager. This was Washington he wasn’t really in charge, no one was.
Bottom line. He still had his job and it was because of his loyalty to one man above anything else. He wasn’t the only one that felt that way.
The Juiceboxers were all loyal to the President no matter what. Fine, call us Juiceboxers behind our backs, but don’t you dare say it to our faces.
We are the ones in charge here.
Even if no one is.
And Brandon Allwhite had just betrayed all of them. He hadn’t even gotten thirty pieces of silver for doing it.
Sid Kelly, the Secretary of State’s chief of staff, favored Brandon with a fatherly smile. An old Washington warhorse, Sid knew how to read people. “Brandon, I know this this was very, very difficult for you to do. But it was very, very necessary.”
“The first time is always the hardest but the second time will be easier?” Brandon asked morosely.
Jack O’Hara looked a little lost at the comment but shrugged and continued scrolling down his phone’s contact list. Firing out texts to long time friends and important supporters.
“Something like that,” Sid said.
Sid, please don’t tell me I remind you of yourself when you were my age, Brandon thought as he looked out the window at the passing scenery. His breath frosting the window. They were coming up fast on the White House.
“Brandon,” Sid began shrewdly. “I...sympathize with you. Truly, I do. But relationships change with time. I started out working with my friends at RFK’s campaign. They stayed true to the dream of his cause after he fell.”
“He would have been a great president,” Brandon muttered absently. Formulaically.
“Bobby Kennedy was never going to be President,” Sid said coldly. “His fundamentals were terrible. The unions didn’t want him and neither did the Dixiecrats. Even if he landed the nomination they wouldn’t have turned out for him. LBJ would have fucked him somehow if it was the last thing he did. I know all that now. I made adjustments and in the end I helped make a difference. My friends did not and never accomplished anything.”
You should have been a Gen-Xer, Brandon thought to himself. So completely cynical, “The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it,” Brandon said quietly, then added, “The President told me that once.”
“C.S. Lewis,” Jack O’Hara added, distractedly, clearly recognizing the quote.
It was yet another shock for Brandon Allwhite. He had been convinced that that had been an original thought. The President...The Old President had certainly acted like it was.
Sid nodded apparently having read Brandon’s mind.
Okay...Fine...Time to grow up, Brandon Allwhite, he told himself. Time to turn into the old geezer sitting across from you.
“Sir,” Brandon turned from Sid and addressed the soon-to-be President. “You need me as under-secretary at Homeland.”
Jack O’Hara blinked in surprise at that demand. He hadn’t planned on being that generous to his pet turncoat.
“You will need somebody to coordinate between the Military, HHS, Justice and the CDC regarding SOD. You need somebody for that now and you don’t have time to get anyone else up to speed. I’m the only one who can do that. I’m it. It has to be me,” Brandon was creating his own job description.
O’Hara glanced over at Sid Kelly. Who gave a thoughtful nod. Clearly giving an internal shrug he turned back to Brandon. “Welcome aboard son!” He said as the car turned into the White House drive.
Well, the second time was easier, Brandon thought. This time of course, I was only betraying myself.
“Oh shit,” Sid Kelly snapped at something.
Brandon looked over to see the First Lady of the United States rushing out of the White House with tears running down her cheeks.
The cars had come to a halt and Jack O’Hara’s newsies in the Ford van came piling out. The Secretary of State’s press pool hadn’t really known why they had been rousted out of bed by Sid Kelly. They had only been given a vague promise of this being the most important story of their careers. They had believed him at the time but had stopped believing him after the first cup of coffee had kicked in.
Now, there were suddenly wondering if maybe he was right.
Cameras came out and started clicking and beeping.
“Brandon, see to this!” Sid glanced at the very unwelcome figure of the First Lady. They had planned on speaking to her in private about the new realities involved in America’s first coup d'etat.
Brandon swallowed hard and nodded. Exiting the van and buttoning his blue blazer. Trying to figure out what to say to the woman who was now rushing toward him...with arms outstretched?
“Oh Brandon.” She threw her arms around him for the first time in his life. Shocking the hell out of him. “Thank God! Thank God! Thank God!” She wailed. “You found him! You found him and brought him here!”
Jack O’Hara had risen out the car slowly. Having mounted his best concerned face on his craggy features. This was a more promising scene than he had been anticipating. He held out his own arms to the First Lady in silent invitation.
She rushed forward and threw herself into his arms now, her shoulders heaving as she sobbed.
Brandon put his own arms behind his back. That must be it then. He is gone. Brandon felt the tears welling in his eyes. He thought about holding them in and then decided that optics were better if he let them fall after all.
“You don’t need to worry,” Jack O’Hara said in a clear comforting voice. “I’ll take care of everything from here on out.
“We tried to call you. Where were you?” she was almost accusing.
“Uh...Security,” O’Hara offered awkwardly.
She accepted a little too eagerly, “Yes, I get that. Oh my God, I really do get that. Who knows what that man will try next?. Jack you’ve got to move fast!” The First Lady pleaded. “I never would have believed he had that kind of nerve. I can’t believe he did it!”
The Secretary of State nodded, “Of course. Of course!” Masking his confusion well.
Brandon and Sid Kelly exchanged worried glances. What the hell was going on now?
Brandon made the first move, “We should take this inside, Ma’am.” Where we can find out what you are wailing about in private.
“Yes, yes,” The Secretary of State and the First Lady said the same thing at the same time for very different reasons.
Ten minutes later Brandon discovered to his horror that the new firebrand, Republican Speaker of the House had just given a speech at Offutt Air Force Base announcing that due to the President”s succumbing to Sudden Onset Dementia, he was assuming the executive powers of the Presidency of the United States of America.