"A State of the Union Carole"
As the room dimmed from the waning light of the setting sun, the man pushed aside the pile of papers awaiting his attention to run his hand lovingly over the surface of his desk. A desk where many great men had performed their business, and he was sure that he would be considered a great man one day as well. In fact he was sure he was considered a great man already. There was no question in his mind that his place in history would be assured. The wood of the historic desk he stroked seemed to glow as the golden light was filtered through the panes of glass at his back. If he believed in God he would see this as a sign of his ordination, but he did not believe. Not really. He pretended to believe because he knew it would cast him in a better light, but the only god he served was his own ego, and it was a jealous god.
His hand bumped the paper on his desk again and he was reminded of the task before him. He retrieved the stack of papers and a red pen and set his self-admiration aside for a moment in order to turn his mind to the task at hand. His lips pursed as he found a particular phrase objectionable and scratched a line through it. In the margins he scribbled in the message he wanted it replaced with. Nearly an hour later the paper bore more red ink than black and the man’s temper was on a fine edge. Setting the pen aside he reached for the phone and called in the unfortunate author of the harshly edited document.
He waited impatiently for the young and idealistic man to appear before him. When the door opened and the once smartly dressed but now decidedly rumpled man appeared at last, taking his stance in the center of the crest imprinted on the carpet in the oval office, The President raised an angry stare in his direction, pushed the pages towards the young man and said, “Is this the best you can do? With all of the changes I made I may as well have written the speech myself. What do I pay you for?”
“I’m sorry sir,” the young man stammered. Having always had a flair for words and a true belief in the progressive ideals, John Alexander had been thrilled to be offered a job as the Presidential speech writer. It was an honor beyond anything he’d ever thought possible, but now, just six months into the job he believed he’d prefer digging ditches. No matter what he wrote, no matter how eloquent or uplifting, it was never good enough. Every speech was written and re-written and then written again. Many times the final comments by the President strongly resembling John’s original text. He no longer felt young and idealistic but beaten down, demoralized and old beyond his years. He had an ulcer, insomnia, a nervous tick and an ever growing desire to stab the president with his fountain pen.
“I have to give this speech tomorrow evening so I expect to have a new version of this on my desk before sunrise tomorrow. Do I make myself clear?”
John swallowed and nodded, but seeing the raised brows of the president remembered his instructions on address. “Yes, Mr President.”
The President stared at the door as it closed behind the hapless young man who had proved to be such a disappointment. A good speech writer was invaluable to a man of his elevated stature, and he needed some time to review the speech before he had to stand in the full House of Representatives and read the speech before the joint houses of Congress. He could read off the teleprompter with a skill and ease that few people possessed, but it helped to feel at least a little comfortable with the text. He already received a bit of flack from those nasty right wing zealots regarding the way he looked down his nose when he spoke, but it was the only way he could read the teleprompter and keep his head up. And everybody knew those crazies on the right were just looking for something bad to say about him, but he had his revenge. He worked in a way to blame them in nearly every speech and, though he had done interviews with Oprah and The View, he still refused to appear on that “other” network. The one he refused to acknowledge as a news program.
He returned to the papers on his desk and worked his way to the bottom of the pile where the communication from his general in Afghanistan resided. He took a deep breath and did what he’d been avoiding for nearly two weeks. He flipped the folder open.
“It’s about time you got to that.”
The President jerked in surprise at the sound of the voice. He jerked so hard that he flipped his chair back, lost his balance, over-recovered and smacked his head on the beautiful desk he’d been stroking just hours before.
At the sound of the ruckus the secret service burst through the door with guns drawn and searched for the source of the threat. “What happened Mr. President? Are you secure?”
Shaking his head slightly, refusing to reveal any weakness, he frowned at the men before him. “Secure? Did you not hear that voice? Where did it come from and how did the speaker get in here?”
The two men glanced at each other for support, but neither indicated that any voice had been heard. “I’m sorry sir, but we didn’t hear a voice, we only heard what sounded like a struggle. Was there a struggle sir?”
The men still stood with their guns drawn, and guns made the president nervous. So nervous that he had promised himself that guns would be outlawed before the end of his second term. That he would have a second term he had no doubt. With the machinations he had going on, he knew that even a third or a fourth term would be possible. He would serve longer than the man he believed to be the greatest President of all time; Franklin Roosevelt. He had ensured, while he was in the senate, that the necessary laws to prevent an economic disaster were not passed so that he could set up a platform which would put him on the level of Roosevelt. He was running the FDR playbook and he was absolutely convinced that he was running it better than old Frank had himself.
In his ruminations, the president had all but forgotten the men in the room. “No, there was no struggle. But there was a voice. Somebody is here.”
“They can’t hear me,” came the voice again.
“There!” The president cried. “There it was again. Did you hear it?”
“No sir,” the agent replied. A well trained secret service agent, his face betrayed none of his feelings. He valued his job way too much to show with even a twitch that the President was sounding crazy. Maybe the president was just having an acid flashback. He had done drugs in his past after all. Wasn’t that in one of those books he wrote before he had ever accomplished anything?
“They think you’re losing your mind you know.”
The President looked closely at the agents, but neither gave the slightest hint that they’d heard the new voice. If he answered it this time there was a good chance that the voice would be right and the agents would fear for his sanity.
“I’m fine,” the President said. “You men can go now.”
“Are you sure, sir?”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure.” The President waved his hand dismissively. “I’m sure it was just the wind that startled me. I didn’t sleep well last night so I’m sure that didn’t help.” He really hated indicating any weakness, but far better lack of sleep than insanity.
The agents holstered their weapons, cast one last glance around the office and strode back through the door to resume their guard.
“It’s the bump on the head,” the president said to himself. “I’m sure it’s just the bump on the head causing hallucinations and they’ll go away in a minute or two.”
“That would work as an explanation,” continued the voice, “except hearing the voice is why you bumped your head. The bump is an effect not a cause. I know you have some trouble with that kind of logic and science but give it a try.”
“Who the hell are you,” he whispered angrily. “I demand you show yourself.”
“OK, you asked for it.”
Before the President’s eyes a thin mist appeared, and then thickened, and then began to take shape. In the space of a single minute, empty air solidified into the form of a man. It was not a man, but only the opaque image of a man. Cast in shades of gray and moderately transparent. The President wondered how this was done and whether it was a new trick from the crazies on the right -- And they wondered why he had them listed as potential terrorists with the Department of Homeland Security.
The milky image of the man stood about two inches shorter than his own six feet and one inch. His hair was slicked back in a style of previous generations. His hooded eyes were crowned with thick brows and ringed with deep lines. His thin lipped mouth was quirked to one side in a crooked smile as he held his arms out in a “ta-da” type of gesture.
“Who are you?” The president asked.
“The man you want to be. Or perhaps the man you want to be better than. Though I’ve learned that’s not hard to accomplish.”
“I don’t understand,” the president replied. “Who are you really? And what are you doing in my office?”
“It was my office too once, though this desk wasn’t in here at the time. It was still up in the study.” The image crouched down before the desk to examine it, his smile one of nostalgia over a pleasant memory. “I see they finally put in the panel over the kneehole with the presidential seal. That was my idea you know.”
“Who gives a shit! Who are you? I demand that you reveal your identity to me immediately.”
“Or what,” the image asked. “You’ll call the secret service in to haul me off. I dare you to try that.”
Frustrated beyond belief at being the most powerful man in the world and yet having no authority over the image before him, the President’s political façade had slipped and the real man underneath the mask was beginning to show. His fists and jaw were clenched as he asked yet again, “who are you?”
Instead of revealing his identity, the man only asked, “How much do you know about this desk?”
Fearing what it said about his sanity to not only engage in a verbal battle, but to lose one, with an imaginary man in his office, he decided to just answer the question. “The desk was commissioned by Queen Victoria from the wreckage of the HMS Resolute. She has a matching one in her office.”
The image waved his hand dismissively. “Anybody who saw the second National Treasure movie could tell me that. Do you have any information that is not held by the average movie goer?”
The President just stared mutely at the image before him.
“This leads nicely into the reason I’m here. How can you presume to be the leader of a nation you know nothing about?”
“I know what I need to about this nation. Which is why I’m working to remake it.”
The image shook its head in sadness. “Bad move my boy, bad move. I attempted the same thing and faced a terrible fate for it. I wish to save you from facing the same shame and embarrassment.”
“What shame,” the president asked. “What shame can there be in remaking this nation into what it should be?”
“It’s the shame of making this nation into what it was never supposed to be. I found that out the hard way. “ The image moved gracefully across the room until it settled behind the resolute desk, its hands hovering over the wood in much the same way the president’s had just hours before.
“When I got to heaven—“, at the gasp, the image looked at the president and grinned. “Yes, heaven exists, as does God. When I got to heaven I was excited to meet the founding fathers of this great nation, and I found they were anxious to meet me as well, but instead of being greeted warmly, I was faced with their censure and dismay. In addition to a verbal tongue lashing the likes of which I had never faced on earth.”
“I can’t imagine what you could have done to deserve that, but what difference does it make? They’re just a bunch of dead white guys who have become totally irrelevant. Their opinions no longer matter.”
The image lurched up and attempted to slap his hands on the desk, but instead of meeting the wood with a resounding bang, they slid right through it. “Those men may be dead but their ideals will never be irrelevant. It was just that kind of thought that got me exiled in heaven and the type of thought you must change if you are ever to be welcomed into their group.”
The president locked his spine to prevent the shudder that racked him as the image floated to him once more from showing. “Why would I want to be welcomed into their group? Why should I care what they think?”
“You really are a misguided young man, aren’t you?” Failing to receive an answer the image continued. “In heaven the leaders of this nation are divided into two categories, those would made free men of slaves, and those who made slaves of free men. What I was shocked to find upon my death was that I was considered a man who had made slaves of free men.”
The president threw his head back and looked down his nose at the image before him. “I will definitely be regarded as a man who made free men of slaves. I’m going to dispense economic justice in this land and free those in poverty.”
The image’s jaw dropped in shock at this statement. “Do you honestly believe that I would be here to warn you if you were viewed in that manner? Right now they’re reserving the head of the free men to slaves table. They already have a plaque on the chair for you. You’re the first president they’ve ever placed before his death.”
“That’s not possible.” He shook his head vehemently, but the image just kept nodding.
“Where is George Bush sitting?”
The image’s brows pulled down in confusion. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“Is George Bush sitting at the good table or the bad table? He has to be at the bad table.”
“Are you serious?”
“I’m absolutely serious. Which table is Bush sitting at?”
The image rolled its eyes, an eerie occurrence with his level of transparency. “If I had to guess, I would have to say he’s sitting at a table at his ranch in Crawford, TX.”
The president looked dissatisfied and slightly confused by this answer.
“The man’s not dead yet. Not much for deductive reasoning are you?” the image asked.
“Don’t speak to me in that insolent manner. I’m the leader of this nation and I deserve your respect.”
“I respect the office, but not the man currently holding it. And your current behavior does not dispose me to change that opinion.”
Now truly angry, a vein bulging in his temple, his fists clenched so tightly they were cramping, the president growled, “I demand to know who you are.”
The image raised his brows at the insolent tone. “If you knew anything at all about the desk behind which you sit then you would already know who I am. I’ve given a hint so obvious that previous presidents would have no doubt as to my identity.” The image leveled an assessing stare upon him and, after a moment’s silence continued. “I suppose I can give you another hint. I hate to do this one though as it is so obvious. Too obvious really.”
The president unclenched one fist and slashed the hand through the image causing it to dissipate and then reform. This couldn’t be real. It was too little sleep. The excuse he gave the secret service had to be the real reason behind this. He couldn’t actually have a ghost in the oval office. It was completely beyond the realm of possibility.
“Forget about it, I don’t care who you are anymore. You’re probably nothing but a figment of my imagination anyway.”
“OK, if you’re going to be a baby about it, here’s my hint. A date which will live in infamy. If you don’t know who I am now then you really have no business being behind that desk.”
“No,” the president shook his head vehemently. “It’s not possible. You can’t be….”
“Can’t be who?” the image asked.
“You’re not Franklin Roosevelt. You’re not. You can’t be. I know for a fact you’re not.”
“Do you really? What’s your proof that I’m not?”
“Roosevelt was in a wheelchair!” This statement was delivered with such pride, such self-satisfied victory that the image had to shake his head once more.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. I appear to you out of thin air, admitting that I’m the ghost of a dead man, and you actually believe I can’t be that ghost because my astral body isn’t confined to a wheelchair as my physical body was? That’s really your argument?”
“Not much for abstract reasoning either.”
“OK,” he shrugged, “But I still don’t understand.”
The image placed his hands on his hips and rolled his eyes. “That’s becoming glaringly obvious. But which particular thing that you don’t understand would you like an explanation for?”
The president started pacing around the oval office, still aware of the secret service outside the door, he kept his voice low. The ghost of Roosevelt didn’t appear to have any trouble hearing him no matter how low he spoke.
“The one thing I don’t understand,” he heard a snort from Roosevelt but opted to ignore it and continue, “you were the greatest president in our history so why would you be ostrasized by the founding fathers? It doesn’t make sense.”
“Doesn’t it? In retrospect it makes perfect sense to me.” Roosevelt’s voice had dropped and sadness radiated from his expression. Sadness and regret.
“But you lifted this country up out of the worst financial crisis it had ever seen. How can that be a bad thing?”
“Did I really do that?” Roosevelt asked.
“Of course you did. Everybody knows that. Everybody acknowledges that you and your New Deal saved the country from total collapse.” The president couldn’t believe that he was actually in the oval office attempting to convince the ghost of FDR that he had saved the nation.
“The founding fathers have a different view of things, and I have to admit that I now agree with them.” His voice was now filled with the regret only hinted at before. He grasped his hands behind his back, dropped his head, floated over to the window and stared. “I put food on the table for many people by creating government jobs for them to do, but what did I really do to stimulate the economy?” He turned, his gaze boring into the current president. “Nothing. I did nothing. I believed that the government was the answer, but the jobs I created could only last as long as the money the government had to spend. When that money ran out, so would the jobs. Looking back now I have to wonder if I did anything but prolong the pain.”
“Of course you did,” the president replied. “Your government spending plan saved the country and brought the unemployment rate from 25% down to 4%. Nobody but you could have done that.”
“No my boy,” the ghost whispered in reply. “I stabilized the unemployment rate at 14% and that with government jobs only. The war did the rest. Yes, it was government spending but all for the war.” He turned and glared through his opaque eyes at the man before him. “Do you really believe that sending millions of young American men to their death was a great way to lower the unemployment rate, because that’s what I did? I didn’t really create more jobs, I simply sent the excess workers to their deaths on foreign soil. That is not a plan that should be emulated by anyone!”
“You did the right thing,” the president argued. “The government was the only answer for the horrible situation the economy was in and you delivered it. The government is always the answer, it has to be.”
“Does it really? You have so much to learn.” The ghost of Roosevelt sighed and straightened his shoulders. “I suppose this brings me to the reason for my visit.” As the president opened his mouth to argue, he was forstalled by the ghost. “I am but a messenger. I precursor to the real events which you will experience this night. My role is to advise you that you will be visited by six ghosts this night.”
“This sounds familiar,” the president sneered, “but doesn’t the story use three ghosts? Not a very original bunch of founding fathers are they?”
“You will not blaspheme the founding fathers!” roared the ghost.
The president looked over his shoulder in fear, sure that the secret service had to hear the bellow which was so loud that it had rattled the window panes and still rang in his ears, but nobody was bursting through the doors to save him.
The ghost took a deep calming breath, though of course air was not required for this astral body, and spoke in a softer, more moderate manner. “I apologize for my outburst, but the disrespect you show for the men who risked everything to create a form of government you now seek to destroy upsets me greatly. I think it best that I deliver my message before all control is lost and I do something I regret more than my actions as president.”
Kept mute by fear at what this ghost could do, the president clamped his lips closed and nodded his head. He would say not a thing.
“Yes what will happen bears a resemblance to Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carole’,” Roosevelt stopped at glared at the president, daring him to make a comment. When the president remained silent, Roosevelt clasped his hands behind his back and paced the oval office as he spoke. “Several of the founding fathers hold Dickens in high esteem, and they have learned something you have not. That much can be learned from the actions and ideas of others. Personally I find Dickens a bit maudlin but this story does suit us nicely.” He looked once more to the president and nodded in approval at his continued silence. “The first pair of founding fathers will appear to you at the stroke of midnight and will show you the state of the union past. The next pair will appear as the clock strikes one and will show you the present. The final pair will appear at the stroke of two and will show you the future that awaits both you and the union you currently lead.”
The ghost flew across the floor until it hovered nose to nose with the current president. “If you are wise, which I question greatly, you will listen to what these men tell you and pay close attention to what they show you. Set your ego aside if you can and learn from an encounter that many in this nation would give their lives experience.”
In the blink of an eye, the image was gone. The silence of the room now pervasive, the president returned to his desk and sat, taking deep, calming breaths. This couldn’t have happened. It didn’t happen. He was sure it hadn’t really happened. And yet, he glanced at the clock counting down the minutes until the first pair of ghosts would appear.
To be continued........
The next installment will be Thursday, Jan 7. If you enjoy the story, please share it.