Shall We Tell the President?

BOOK: Shall We Tell the President?
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To Adrian and Anne
20 January
12:26 P.M.
“I, Florentyna Kane, do solemnly swear …”
“I, Florentyna Kane, do solemnly swear …”
“ … that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States …”
“ … that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States …”
“ … and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.”
“ … and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. So help me God.”
Her hand still resting on the Douay Bible, the forty-third President smiled at the First Gentleman. It was the end of one struggle and the beginning of another.
Florentyna Kane knew about struggles. Her first struggle had been to be elected to Congress, then the Senate and finally four years later when she had become the first woman Vice President of the United States. After a fierce primary campaign, she had only narrowly managed to defeat Senator Ralph Brooks on the fifth ballot at the Democratic National Convention in June. In November she survived an even fiercer battle with the Republican candidate, a former congressman from New York. Florentyna Kane was elected President by 105,000 votes, a mere one percent, the smallest margin in American history, smaller even than the 118,000 that John F. Kennedy had gained over Richard Nixon back in 1960.
While the applause died down, the President waited for the twenty-one-gun salute to come to an end. Florentyna Kane cleared her throat and faced fifty thousand attentive citizens on the Capitol Plaza and two hundred million more somewhere out there beyond the television transmitters. There was no need today for the blankets and heavy coats which normally accompanied these occasions. The weather was unusually mild for late January, and the crowded grassy area facing the east front of the Capitol, although soggy, was no longer white from the Christmas snow.
“Vice President Bradley, Mr. Chief Justice, President Carter, President Reagan, Reverend clergy, fellow citizens.”
The First Gentleman looked on, smiling occasionally
to himself as he recognized some of the words and phrases he had contributed to his wife's speech.
Their day had begun at about 6:30 A.M. Neither had slept very well after the splendid pre-Inaugural concert given in their honor the previous evening. Florentyna Kane had gone over her presidential address for the final time, underlining the salient words in red, making only minor changes.
When she rose that morning, Florentyna wasted no time in selecting a blue dress from her wardrobe. She pinned on the tiny brooch her first husband, Richard, had given her just before he had died.
Every time Florentyna wore that brooch she remembered him; how he had been unable to catch the plane that day because of a strike by maintenance workers but still hired a car to be sure he could be by Florentyna's side when she addressed the Harvard commencement.
Richard never did hear that speech, the one
Newsweek
described as a launching pad for the Presidency—because by the time she had reached the hospital he was dead.
She snapped back into the real world of which she was the most powerful leader on earth. But still without enough power to bring Richard back. Florentyna checked herself in the mirror. She felt confident. After all, she had already been President for nearly two years since the unexpected death of President Parkin.
Historians would be surprised to discover that she had learned of the President's death while trying to sink a four-foot putt against her oldest friend and future husband, Edward Winchester.
They had both stopped their match when the helicopters had circled overhead. When one of them had landed a Marines captain had jumped out and run toward her, saluted and said, “Madam President, the President is dead.” Now the American people had confirmed that they were willing to continue living with a woman in the White House. For the first time in its history, the United States had elected a woman to the most coveted position in its political life in her own right. She glanced out of the bedroom window at the broad placid expanse of the Potomac River, glinting in the early-morning sunlight.
She left the bedroom and went straight to the private dining room where her husband Edward was chatting to her children William and Annabel. Florentyna kissed all three of them before they sat down to breakfast.
They laughed about the past and talked about the future but when the clock struck eight the President left them to go to the Oval Office. Her Chief of Staff, Janet Brown, was sitting outside in the corridor waiting for her.
“Good morning, Madam President.”
“Good morning, Janet. Everything under control?” She smiled at her.
“I think so, Madam.”
“Good. Why don't you run my day as usual? Don't worry about me, I'll just follow your instructions. What do you want me to do first?”
“There are 842 telegrams and 2,412 letters but they will have to wait, except for the Heads of State. I'll have replies ready for them by twelve o'clock.”
“Date them today, they'll like that, and I'll sign every one of them as soon as they are ready.”
“Yes, Madam. I also have your schedule. You start the official day with coffee at eleven with the former Presidents Reagan and Carter, then you will be driven to the Inauguration. After the Inauguration, you'll attend a luncheon at the Senate before reviewing the Inaugural Parade in front of the White House.”
Janet Brown passed her a sheaf of three-by-five index cards, stapled together, as she had done for fifteen years since she joined her staff when Florentyna had first been elected to Congress. They summarized the President's hour-by-hour schedule; there was rather less on them than usual. Florentyna glanced over the cards, and thanked her Chief of Staff. Edward Winchester appeared at the door. He smiled as he always did, with a mixture of love and admiration, when she turned toward him. She had never once regretted her almost impulsive decision to marry him after the eighteenth hole on that extraordinary day she was told of President Parkin's death, and she felt for certain that Richard would have approved.
“I'll be working on my papers until eleven,” she told
him. He nodded and left to prepare himself for the day ahead.
A crowd of well-wishers was already gathering outside the White House.
“I wish it would rain,” confided H. Stuart Knight, the head of the Secret Service, to his aide; it was also one of the most important days of his life. “I know the vast majority of people are harmless, but these occasions give me the jitters.”
The crowd numbered about one hundred and fifty; fifty of them belonged to Mr. Knight. The advance car that always goes five minutes ahead of a President was already meticulously checking the route to the White House; Secret Service men were watching small gatherings of people along the way, some waving flags; they were there to witness the Inauguration, and would one day tell their grandchildren how they had seen Florentyna Kane being inaugurated as President of the United States.
At 10:59 the butler opened the front door and the crowds began to cheer.
The President and her husband waved to the smiling eyes and only sensed by experience and professional instinct that fifty people were not looking toward them.
Two black limousines came to a noiseless stop at the North Entrance of the White House at 11:00 A.M. The Marine Honor Guard stood at attention and saluted the two ex-Presidents and their wives as they were greeted
by President Kane on the Portico, a privilege normally accorded only to visiting Heads of State. The President herself guided them through to the library for coffee with Edward, William and Annabel.
The older of the ex-Presidents was grumbling that if he were frail it was because he had had to rely on his wife's cooking for the past eight years. “She hasn't dirtied a frying pan in ages, but she's improving every day. To make sure, I've given her a copy of
The New York Times Cookbook;
it's about the only one of their publications that didn't criticize me.” Florentyna laughed nervously. She wanted to get on with the official proceedings, but she was conscious that the ex-Presidents were enjoying being back in the White House so she pretended to listen attentively, donning a mask that was second nature to her after nearly twenty years in politics.
“Madam President …” Florentyna had to think quickly to prevent anyone noticing her instinctive response to the words. “It's one minute past midday.” She looked up at her press secretary, rose from her chair, and led the ex-Presidents and their wives to the steps of the White House. The Marine band struck up “Hail to the Chief” for the last time. At one o'clock they would play it again for the first time.
The two former Presidents were escorted to the first car of the motorcade, a black, bubble-topped, bulletproof limousine. The Speaker of the House, Jim Wright, and the Senate Majority Leader, Robert Byrd, representing the Congress, were already seated in the second car. Directly behind the limousine there were two cars filled
with Secret Service men. Florentyna and Edward occupied the fifth car in line. Vice President Bradley of New Jersey and his wife rode in the next car.
H. Stuart Knight was going through one more routine check. His fifty men had now grown to a hundred. By noon, counting the local police and the FBI contingent, there would be five hundred. Not forgetting the boys from the CIA, Knight thought ruefully. They certainly didn't tell him whether they were going to be there or not, and even he could not always spot them in a crowd. He listened to the cheering of the onlookers reaching a crescendo as the presidential limousine pulled out, on its way to the Capitol.
Edward chatted amiably but Florentyna's thoughts were elsewhere. She waved mechanically at the crowds lining Pennsylvania Avenue, but her mind was once again going over her speech. The renovated Willard Hotel, seven office buildings under construction, the tiered housing units that resembled an Indian cliff-dwelling, the new shops and restaurants and the wide landscaped sidewalks passed by. The J. Edgar Hoover Building, which housed the FBI, still named after its first Director, despite several efforts by certain senators to have the name changed. How this street had been transformed in fifteen years.
They approached the Capitol and Edward interrupted the President's reverie. “May God be with you, darling.” She smiled and gripped his hand. The six cars came to a stop.
President Kane entered the Capitol on the ground
floor. Edward waited behind for a moment as he thanked the chauffeur. Those who stepped out of the other cars were quickly surrounded by Secret Service agents and, waving to the crowd, they made their way separately to their seats on the platform. Meanwhile the chief usher was taking President Kane quietly through the tunnel into the reception area, Marines saluting at every ten paces. There she was greeted by Vice President Bradley. The two of them stood talking of nothing, neither of them taking in the other's reply.
The two ex-Presidents came through the tunnel smiling. For the first time the older President was looking his age, his hair seemed to have turned gray overnight. Once again, he and Florentyna went through the formality of shaking hands with one another; they were to do it seven times that day. The chief usher guided them through a small reception room on to the platform. For this, as for all Presidential inaugurations, a temporary platform had been erected on the east steps of the Capitol. The crowds rose and cheered for over a minute as the President and the ex-Presidents waved; finally they sat in silence and waited for the ceremony to begin.
“My fellow Americans, as I take office the problems facing the United States across the world are vast and threatening. In South Africa, pitiless civil war rages between black and white; in the Middle East the ravages of last year's battles are being repaired, but both sides are rebuilding their armaments rather than their schools,
their hospitals or their farms. On the borders between China and India, and between Russia and Pakistan, there is the potential for war among four of the most populous nations on earth. South America veers between extreme right and extreme left, but neither extreme seems to be able to improve the living conditions of their peoples. Two of the original signatories of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, France and Italy, are on the verge of withdrawing from that pact.
“In 1949, President Harry S. Truman announced that the United States stood ready with all its might and resources to defend the forces of freedom wherever they might be endangered. Today, some would say that this act of magnanimity has resulted in failure, that America was, and is, too weak to assume the full burden of world leadership. In the face of repeated international crises, any American citizen might well ask why he should care about events so far from home, and why he should feel any responsibility for the defense of freedom outside the United States.
“I do not have to answer these doubts in my own words. ‘No man is an island,' John Donne wrote more than three and a half centuries ago. ‘Every man is a piece of the continent.' The United States stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Arctic to the Equator. ‘I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'”
BOOK: Shall We Tell the President?
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