Authors: Gregg Hurwitz
"He hammered Bilton in the debate last night," I said. "November's gonna be a landslide."
"Debates don't always matter. We have a seven
point lead, but Bilton's just starting to dig into that war chest, and we're waiting for the October surprises."
I kept an eye on our route to make sure we were heading where he'd said we were. "Yeah, but you have to admit. It feels like this is Caruthers's time."
"I agree. I just think it'll be tighter than everyone's predicting. Jasper Caruthers is threatening to a lot of people. Institutions. Corporations. The Pentagon. There are a lot of voter blocks with a vested interest in seeing him lose."
Alan tapped the divider and pointed left, and the limo slowed and signaled. Cops shoved sawhorses back against a dense press corps, and we pulled in to the turnaround under the famous cursive sign--
The Beverly Hills Hotel We stepped out into a dry heat, palm trees nodding overhead, and a woman scurried forward and handed me an impressive
looking laminated pass bearing my DMV photo and a security seal. Before I could acknowledge her, Alan was prodding me through the second security perimeter, magnetometer wands and agents scrutinizing us as an air-conditioned current blew past.
We moved through a number of well-appointed halls, Alan nodding at post-standers as I robotically raised my pass on its lanyard, and then we were through a back door and out at the edge of the dais with a huddle of campaign workers, Caruthers no more than ten yards away, addressing a ballroom filled with rapt listeners. Five agents composed the inner security perimeter, positioned back from the podium and down in front of the dais. Though they were at only a five-foot standoff, you'd barely register them if you weren't looking.
After years of trying to blend in, I felt completely exposed up there before all those eyes and lenses. I took a half step back behind the curtain.
Caruthers turned, noticing me, and winked without breaking cadence. "I made a promise a year ago when I announced my intention to seek the presidency that I would run a transparent campaign. That I would do my best to bring voters inside the process"--he spread his arms to quell the applause--"because I assume that you're as
fed up with smoke-blowing as I am. We've come through a period of unprecedented irresponsibility in the White House. We can't torture to stop violence. We can't disregard our Constitution to promote democracy. We cannot cede long-term environmental strategy for shortsighted gain. It's been said a thousand times, but that makes it no less true: The ends do not--cannot--justify the means. We've seen it over and over again--and nowhere as clearly as in our woeful foreign policy of the past decade--a single decision made for the wrong reasons coming back to bite us in the ass. A single bad decision can open a world of lamentable consequences."
People rose in bunches to clap. I wondered if any of them, like me, were thinking of choices they'd made and aftermath they'd lived with.
"We need to question these decisions. We need to question our leaders. The next debate, up the road here at UCLA, will give students and citizens an opportunity to address their concerns directly to the candidates. Please take advantage of it. Ask tough questions. Call us to answer."
He bent his head reflectively. "My favorite reminder of my years as vice president is my passport. A lot of people don't know this, but the president and vice president of the United States, just like everyone else, have to turn over their passports to immigration control before entering a country. As you can imagine, mine is filled with
stamps. They remind me of the privilege of the post. But more important, they remind me that no man is above the law. Every American, no matter his post, no matter his privilege, can be faced down, called to answer. We must call this president to answer for the blunders he has made. And you can do that most powerfully with your vote."
The dais literally shook with the standing ovation, and Caruthers waved and grinned, then moved toward me, agents rotating around him like electrons. The focus of the entire ballroom seemed to follow him as he strode over, and then he clasped my hand in both of his, his amused eyes snagging on my shirt, which he seemed to sense wasn't my fault, and said, "Nick, thank you for coming. I promised June I'd hurry back to the condo--will you please join me?"
At first I wasn't certain I'd heard him correctly over the noise, but I nodded anyway. He waved again, camera flashes dotting the sea of faces, and then he was gone through the back door.
I was frisked and wanded twice between the lobby and the door to Caruthers's apartment. The limo had dropped Alan and me off before the tallest building along the Wilshire Corridor, L.A.'s stretch of pseudo-high-rise condos where retirees intermingled with pining Manhattanites and Angelenos too rich to live on ground level. I wasn't surprised when the elevator stopped at the
ninth floor--Frank had always said that was the highest story accessible by hook and ladder in case of emergency. They'd spent months trying to convince Caruthers to move seven stories down from his penthouse when he'd been elected vice president. They'd finally appealed to June, and she'd closed the deal in twenty-four hours.
Two more agents in the hall checked out my pass and Alan's face, then opened the double doors leading to the condo. The first thing that struck me was the space. I'd never been in a residence that large, particularly not one in the middle of a building. Several pods of chairs and tables and sofas, a bar, a dining area, wall-to-wall floor-to
ceiling glass--tinted and ballistic--three or four plasma TVs, a treadmill, and at least five doors leading back to hallways or other rooms. The place was alive with voices and movement. As Alan whisked me through different clusters and discussions, I strained to make out snatches of conversation, but as we passed, the volume dropped as if electronically regulated. Instinctively I kept track of the exits, the turns, the routes back out to freedom.
We landed in a conference room with an intimidatingly long marble table, a statue-still Secret Service post-stander, several ominously titled "state operatives," and a heavyset woman with horn-rims and an air of unflinching competence, introduced as the architect of the campaign. Adorning the walls were pictures of Caruthers-- lost in thought in the Yellow Oval Room, on the distinctive trails around Camp David, at dinner sharing a joke with Gorbachev. At the end of the table was the man himself, cocked back in an Aeron chair, facing the window, shirtsleeves cuffed, phone pressed to his ear. Seated beside him and also facing away, June spoke simultaneously into another line. Her willowy form was accented by her sleek outfit, its flaring sleeves and pant cuffs echoing the lines of her sweeping red hair. A former prep-school dean, she was as tall as her husband and widely thought to be even smarter. They'd each been married before and their divorces made much of by the opposition. Even their well-advertised silver anniversary hadn't inoculated Caruthers from pious question-raising about his suitability as a role model.
Alan gestured toward the couple. When I raised my hands in bewilderment, he gestured again. Nervously I walked toward them, passing a number of empty chairs. I sat one chair away from them, past the table's curve, but the senator and his wife were too immersed in their conversations to notice me. Midday light came in through the window, framing their forms. I looked out with them across Westwood, Bel Air, the ribbons of smog caught on the Santa Monicas. Was I really here, pulled up to a table with Jasper and June Caruthers? Or was I still unconscious from the blast and dreaming this?
"I'm sure you could if you wanted to, Governor. I've certainly been made a fool of by lesser men than you." Caruthers hung up, chuckled to draw his wife's attention, and swiveled to face me as if he'd known I was there all along.
"Nick, glad you could make it. I'm sorry to ask you to run around like this."
He was the most important person I'd ever been in close proximity to, except maybe when I'd sat next to Nolan Ryan on a Southwest flight. Caruthers had a shaving nick at the point of his jaw and a fleck of a cherry mole on his forearm. Both inexplicably surprised me. "No problem, Senator."
He removed a box of gum from his pocket and popped a piece through the foil backing into his mouth. "Voters hate smokers," he said. "So I've been addicted to nicotine gum for twenty-five years." He tapped his wife on the shoulder, and she signed off and slotted the phone. "What's all that about?" he asked her.
"The temperature in the auditorium for next week's debate," she said, offering me a disarming smile that said she'd get to me in a minute. Her modest chin added to a deceptively demure appearance, but she was one glance away from sharp or sexy. "We want seventy-three, they want seventy."
"Bilton is a sweater."
"Oh, for Christ's sake. Have it at sixty. I'll make him sweat anyway."
June's attention moved to the cluster of workers at the far end of the table. "We'll need antiperspirant for his forehead." She ran her freshly manicured fingers through Caruthers's hair, pushing it up from his forehead. "Something that won't chalk." As she rose, Caruthers feigned indignation, which she met with an amused grin. "Remember," she said, "this is why you married me."
"No. To save you the humiliation of sweating like a pig on prime time."
"You forget: I have the resilience of a used-car salesman."
"I don't think Vanity Fair intended that as a compliment, darling," she said, even as she shifted her focus to me.
I half rose from my chair and received her feminine handshake.
"Nick, it is such a pleasure. Thank you for what you did this morning, even if the boys in black didn't deal with you entirely on the up-and-up." I followed her stare to the door, but the agent's face remained impassive. She leaned over her husband, kissed him, and headed out before I could stammer a response.
I felt disoriented, yanked out of my quiet existence into a plot I couldn't keep pace with. Everyone was being too damn polite, which told me that whatever I'd fallen into was as lethal as those innocuous-looking bundles of spent-fuel
rods resting at the bottom of that pool. One thing was for sure: I was well out of my depth. I wiggled my sneaker ever so slightly--Charlie's key was still in there, insistent as ever.
Caruthers regarded the crew waiting on the far side of the room. "Anything else?"
The woman in the horn-rimmed glasses said, with barely contained anger, "Please do not ever again say 'ass' on broadcast television."
"Come on. Voters like a little moderate swearing."
"Not in Colorado Springs they don't." She studied his frown, decided to press the point. "Don't make me remind you and everyone else that you stepped in it on the family-values business."
Alan redirected to cut the tension. "We're still waiting on finals, but it looks like the San Onofre thing bumped Bilton's numbers."
Caruthers waved him off, leaning to confide in me, "When people are scared, they cozy up to the incumbent. If nothing else, Bilton is soothing for his consistency. When he dies, his tombstone will read, 'Here lies Andrew Bilton. He was appropriate.' " Caruthers swept a hand in your-name-in
lights fashion, and I couldn't help but smile.
Alan said, "Well, he's up three in the polls this morning. Masterfully handled operation, can't switch horses midstream, blah-blah-blah. They're spinning it as Bilton's idea to direct Secret Service resources to the threat."
Caruthers scowled. "Bilton wouldn't think of that if it was typed out on his teleprompter."
"Well, it's his Service, sir. We're just borrowing it right now." Alan shot an after-the-fact glance at the post-stander, whose face still betrayed nothing.
Caruthers and I were elbow to elbow at the end of the table, like two senior board members. "All right, thank you, everyone. Please give me a moment with Nick." He waved them out. "You, too, James."
The Secret Service agent at the door didn't budge. His even stare took my measure. "I'd prefer not to leave you alone in a room with anyone, Senator."
"I agree wholeheartedly. But this isn't anyone. It's Frank Durant's boy."
"Okay." The agent withdrew, but as he went through the door, I heard him say, "Though we don't want you ending up like Frank Durant."
Caruthers scowled after him before settling back in his chair. And then it was just me and a presidential candidate and the Westside laid out beyond
the broad window.
He eyed me gamely. "Are you a Democrat or a
"Neither," I said. "I didn't vote in the last election."
"Yes you did," he said. "And your candidate won."
It took a few seconds for me to pick up his
meaning. Caruthers seemed to be pithy like Frank, even away from the cameras. He had the same talent for cutting to the heart of a matter, for leaving you reflective rather than defensive.
"Okay, fair enough--" I caught myself. "With all due respect. . ."
He was leaning forward, genuinely interested in me now, or else doing an excellent job of faking it. "Please, by all means, continue."
"The dogma and feigned moral indignation, it just wears at me. In my old job, I saw a lot of policy changes, and God knows Bilton has gutted social services, but I've found that whatever politicians promise, it usually doesn't trickle down to the people who need it."