The moment it was revealed -- in an unanticipated White House press release, sent out by fax while the U.S. bombing campaign entered its second day halfway around the world -- there was the violent shock, very much like a 20,000 lb. bomb dropping everywhere at once, everyone vibrating for a moment before the shrapnel sliced to the core of truth. It made news airwaves within minutes, and people across America and around the world would remember where they were standing or sitting or lying in their living rooms when they found out.
"I had just gotten off the phone with my friend and I was standing in my living room ..."
"I had just gotten out of the shower and I was worried about work and I was sitting in my living room ..."
"I was having sex with my boyfriend and we were lying in the living room ..."
Things seemed darker everywhere, or at least like the strange, fragmented hues seen through a childish kaleidoscope you might win on a carnival midway game.
Some of those watching the news fainted (including one elder Republican senator, who had just met with the president that very morning). Some people called other people and said to each other, "Did you hear that? Did you hear what they said?" Some people dropped or slammed to the ground whatever they were holding and said, "No wonder." Some people ran outside and, for no good reason, looted and overturned cars and broke windows and burned things. One man -- Billy Cottrell, a troubled veteran of the Persian Gulf War and an aloof middle manager for a utility in Dade County, Florida -- experienced a raw shifting somewhere in his groin, an inexplicable and animalistic reaction to the sudden daydreamed image that presented itself in his head: him jackbooting the president's forehead until it splintered into an nebulous mess.
Later, of course, they, everyone, would collectively move beyond anger and disbelief and settle on something in the neighborhood of acceptance, a this-is-just-the-way-things-are bitter resignation not unlike the post-Nixon era of those dreadful 1970s. Because, ultimately, this was just the way things were. Also, there had long been that particular notion in the back of their minds; it had been sitting there throughout the presidency, mocking them every now and again from the television or newspaper, and they had ignored it like one might turn their back with annoyance on a stupid cousin.
"Is he?" they asked themselves, but never speaking the words out loud. "Could he possibly be? No ..."
But now that their delinquent ideas had been validated, it served something inside them, made them reach acceptance a little sooner, because they had suspected it all along.
"You know, I always knew," some would say to their friends. And their friends, who thought the same thoughts, would say, "Oh, please."
These stages, all of them, had been predicted by the White House crisis management team. The team had been called in before it was announced because the president, the president's handler, the Cabinet and staff knew it was only a matter of time before people found out. Someone had finally gotten wind of it in the form of a bizarre rumor. It had gained momentum.
Why wasn't the handler listed in the White House Web site? Why were there conflicting reports on his name and background? Why did he and the president seem inseparable? At every press conference, and despite the looming war, the press had begun nagging for more information. And the president fueled the media fire by saying that questions about his handler were "strictly off limits."
It was only a matter of time. So, the crisis management team made the call: The truth would be revealed on the second day of the already-scheduled bombing campaign. The timing would deflect some of the attention. But there was no denying, there would be tremendous upheaval.
The president was out of the loop. It was his head that would land on the chopping block. Ultimately, it was. But he had no say in the plans. Neither did his handler. After it was announced, they were told they would hold a press conference. Then they would stay out of sight, let the thing die down.
Yes, emergency hearings would be called, the president would be impeached and then, only then, would he resign. But someday it would fade and disconnect from popular consciousness, left merely to the impossible pages of history books and the digital records of countless TV movies.
Many on the White House staff cried before the announcement; some packed boxes and smartly caught the first flight for another country.
And then the plan was in motion, and do you know what the president felt when it finally happened? Nothing but nearly tangible relief. Like water sliding down your shoulders, or better, like a laser burning away the wood-like knots in your neck. There are few things like withstanding the pressure-cooker of trying to pretend you're something you're not, especially when that something is the very human President of the United States. But once the president's press secretary came into his White House bedroom and said to his handler, "It's done," the president felt nothing but light lifting, like he might float at any moment. He looked at himself in the mirror, the fuzzy outline of his handler in the darkened shadows immediately behind him.
"God damn," he clicked into the mirror, vacant eyes almost lighting with life. "God damn."
This was denial at work.
At his press conference later that afternoon, with half the U.S. out rioting and the other half tuned to their living room televisions, the president (sort of) stood before the podium in the Rose Garden and (sort of) chopped his right hand for emphasis as he (sort of) called for an end to all the honest and spastic reactions from the duped and irate American people.
It certainly sounded like him, even though, as everyone now knew, it wasn't.
"I'd like ta, you know, Rodney King, back when Civil Rights meant something different, Mr. King said, 'Can't we all just behave and have some respect and be friends.' And I truly believe Mr. King was onto something and I'd like to ask, we should listen to these words.'"
The president also sort of said, "You know, Mr. Roosevelt, one of the finest presidents to ever walk in these shoes, couldn't stand at his podium by hisself because of a treacherous disease. And I think there's something to be learned by this, because you can stand but that doesn't mean lead. But you can lead and have trouble standing by yourself."
The president felt, wrongly, that his words carried a resounding power with the American people. As he moved away from the podium, his handler helping him, he felt that later this night he'd lie on the cotton sheets of his bed and his handler would kiss him goodnight and he'd pretend to sleep and he'd wait and wait and wait and finally the first glimmer of sun would peek its red and purple greeting through his bedroom window and when he saw it, he'd know that everything was going to be all right, that this was a new day and people would move on. It was going to be just like before.
Again, denial. Because this was not the case. Because in the press conference, the American people had expected an explanation. And all they had gotten was another performance, with the president's handler hiding out of sight.
Worse, the American people heard him talk, heard the way he mangled speech, saw the vacant look in the president's eyes, saw his impossibly shaped ears. And they felt stupid for not recognizing it earlier.
And the media. There isn't a journalist in Washington who suffers fools gladly, particularly when they are the fools. At that infamous, circus-like press conference the day it was revealed, the president's words did not matter. Instead, the media collectively and angrily reported the way the president's wood chin seemed disconnected from the rest of his face as it opened and shut, and the way his eyes never seemed to show any life (and sometimes they crossed when he was trying to make a point). Several columnists noted with caustic clarity how they could see the arm sticking up what should have been his ass. One photographer even dared to push through confused Secret Service agents and snap one shutter aimed behind the purple curtain surrounding the podium. In that picture, it was there for everyone to see: the rather homely facade of the president's handler – yellow and strained in the cheeks, gray and tangled in the hair, turned down at the corners of his mouth to better enunciate incorrectly.
The next morning, the president walked with his handler through the White House corridors to breakfast. He tried to feel yesterday's relief but was distracted by his handler, who had beads of sweat running down his forehead, forming tight strings of dark and sloppy hair.
The handler refused to make eye contact with anyone left in the White House. He was not well. The president knew why, without even asking. He and his handler shared thoughts.
Perhaps that's why the president made the deliberate effort to draw attention away from his handler that day. He looked at his remaining staff and said things like:
"Hey, Dolores, see you at bible study."
"Hey, McDermott. Keep your cheeks up."
These people responded to the president's words with looks of deep fear.
After breakfast, the president had nothing on his agenda. The riots had calmed and most everyone in the United States was hung over.
So, the president and his handler went to the president's bedroom. The handler drew the curtains and they both laid on the bed, face up, next to each other. And the handler cried, huge gulps of emotion that wouldn’t swallow and regurgitated in loud, piteous convulsions, like giant hiccups of despair.
"There, there," the president tried to say. But he found he couldn't talk.
The president's wife left in the afternoon, a formality that still needed to be performed. It was not because she was outraged; she knew from the beginning, had signed her confidentiality agreement like everyone else. Instead, she left because there was no reason for her to stay. The show was over. She only felt foolish that she hadn't been the one to tell.
"I'm leaving," the first lady said to the president's handler, holding thin blue gloves in her hand, which matched her blue dress. She didn't even look at the president. Her cheeks, loose with age, quivered slightly. This encouraged the president.
"I'll never stop loving you," the president said.
The first lady used her gloves to slap the handler flush on the cheek.
"Now you listen to me," the president said. "You leave him out of this. Go on. Take yourself to Hollywood. That's where you belong."
The first lady shook her head with weary comprehension.
When she exited the White House, it was like she had flipped on a giant vacuum. It sucked everyone with her.
By evening, the White House was empty, and it would remain deserted for days, except for the few Secret Service agents, who stayed in the shadows out of some obsessive job loyalty, and the endless ring of a phone somewhere, shrilling, shrilling, shrilling.
It was lonely, to be sure. But the president still had his handler and they watched television together. The president loved watching television with his handler. They sat close on the bed, and it was as if they could read each other's thoughts.
They switched the channel to the televised emergency hearings that took place down the street.
It was like watching a grand play or opera, performed in red-white-and-blue lighting, with the lawmakers pointing and shouting like actors in that patriotic glare. And then they were calling the president's name, demanding that he and his handler appear before them, in the Senate, for the world to see this sick joke.
"We cannot go," the president's handler said. "That would be a disaster."
"No, we must go and face it together," the president said.
"But that's what they want."
"I can't go alone. I need you." This was true, and the handler knew it. "We owe it to the American people," the president said.
In the cool, milky evening, they stood on a balcony overlooking the lights of the city. The president enjoyed hearing the sounds of traffic, but this night the honks and whirs and occasional tire screeches were interrupted by more sobbing from his handler.
"Get a grip on yourself," the president said, cruelly. But his handler had seen something the president hadn't: A red dot on the president's pine-scented forehead, a laser light from the rifle of a Secret Service agent who was hiding in the trees. The president's handler sobbed because he hoped that the agent would just pull the trigger.
The day the president and his handler appeared in the Senate, the hearings took the form of a wild, bloody wrestling match: No one wanted to be connected to the president for any reason, and in fact many of them wanted to smash him over the head with a wooden chair. They stood in the center of the floor, as if they had names like Buster Bomber or Jersey Joe Holocaust; they shouted objections and demanded tortuous punishment, revenge.
Adding fresh insult to the riotous occasion, the president and his handler once again refused to give an explanation. They merely put on another performance, the handler hiding out of sight. And so the senators bullied the president with vile questions but didn't wait for answers.
"Do you even have an original thought in your head?" one shouted.
"Are you related to Mr. Doody, Mr. President?" another thundered.
More fraternal laughter.
Then the hearings reached that pinpoint in time on which modern history spun and spiraled.
That Republican senator -- the one who had fainted upon hearing the news -- stood on the Senate floor just a few paces before the president, a red raspberry on his forehead distinguishing where he met the carpet in his oak-stained office. He was one of the oldest lawmakers, but not even he had seen anything like this. He sensed it was a moment on which to grasp a proper place in American annals. He curled his soft, old lips -- perhaps mocking the president's inability to do the same -- and, with a swaggering conviction powered by the almighty truth, he aimed his bony finger and bellowed, "I demand to see the president's handler before that microphone!"
The other senators cheered with sweaty praise.
The president tried to respond. "I am the president of the U-"
"I demand to see the president's handler before that microphone! I demand to see the man who ordered war! I demand to see the man who ordered the death of children! I demand to see the man who lied to the good American people! I demand to look that man in the eye! For the good of the country, I demand it!"
It was all so unfair. For he could've been talking to anyone in the grand room; he could've been talking to anyone of voting age in the entire country, him included.
The handler, for his part, never showed his face. When this moment unfolded, as the raucous ovation crowded every square inch of Senate air, the handler cowered even further below the desk where the president (sort of) sat. He shut his eyes tight and concentrated on his task at hand -- having the president nonchalantly rub his nose and sigh.
The handler's face was not yellow now, but sallow, wet with perspiration and the first inklings of a biting, late-season cold.
"I demand to see the handler's face! I demand to know his name!"
That night, the president stood before his mirror. He would leave in the morning. But that didn't concern him. He was confused.
Did they see something he didn't see? Who was he?
The president considered this for a long time; his handler supported him in the silence. But no thoughts filled the president's head. Without knowing why, he hit himself several times, slaps across the face that ricocheted hollow and pleasing knocks throughout the empty and dark mansion.
Still, no thoughts. It seemed his source had been cut off, the ideas not even flowing at a trickle. Just a drop here and there: blood red dreams, a note of circus music, a tour to the backwaters of the country, an ax.
He became frightened. In the shadows, his handler seemed to fade in and out, but it was merely the occasional flashing of a red light from somewhere outside the window. The handler's face lit again, and the president saw that he seemed sick with emotion, like a person who had just said goodbye to someone he loved.
But the president couldn't do anything. He couldn't even react. He could only stand there and watch it happen.
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/allenpres.html]
Other offerings by Mr. Allen on this site include:
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Archive of Recent Activities
Area For Textual Encounter
Long-Ass List of Contributors
Last Year Today
LET IT BE WIDELY KNOWN THAT
many in nyc marched to washington square today
there's also this on knotmag.com