Thirty Two

The Old Ex-President's Press Conference began with a prepared statement.

"Today is a very special day for me. Of course, at my age, every day's a special day." The Old Ex-President stood tall at the dais, basking in the glow of hero-worship. He was idolized by the partisan audience, and he loved it. They roared with laughter over his opening joke.

After all, I was born in 1911. Indeed, according to the experts, I have exceeded my life expectancy by quite a few years. Now this a source of great annoyance to some, especially those in the Democratic party. (Laughter.)
But, here's the remarkable thing about being born in 1911. In my life's journey over these past eight decades, I have seen the human race through a period of unparalleled tumult and triumph. I have seen the birth of communism and the death of communism. I have witnessed the bloody futility of two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Iran, North Korea, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, the Caucasus, the West Bank, Hong Kong, and finally, everywhere. I have seen Germany united, divided, united again, and burned to a cinder. I have seen television grow from a parlor novelty to become the most powerful vehicle of communication in history. As a boy I saw streets filled with model-Ts; as a man I have met men who walked on the moon.
I have not only seen, but lived the marvels of what historians have called the "American Century." Yet, today is not a time to look backward. (Applause.) For while I take inspiration from the past, like most Americans, I live for the future. So today, for just a few minutes, I hope you will let me talk about a country that is forever young.
There was a time when empires were defined by land mass, subjugated peoples, and military might. But the United States is unique because we are an empire of ideals. For two hundred years we have been set apart by our faith in the ideals of democracy, of free men and free markets, and of the extraordinary possibilities that lie within seemingly ordinary men and women. We believe that no power of government is as formidable a force for good as the creativity and entrepreneurial drive of the American people. That is why, even as the world crumbled and crashed around us, with our land mass reduced to this single, small island, we can stand tall, proud as never before that we are still, and will ever remain, an empire. (Prolonged applause.)
Within a few short years, we Americans have experienced the most sweeping changes in all of history: the fall of the Soviet Union (applause), the rise of the global economy (applause), and the total destruction of the planet. No transition is without its problems, but as uncomfortable as it may feel at the moment, the changes of the post-apocalyptic era will leave America more dynamic and less in danger than at any time in my life. (Applause.)
A fellow named James Allen once wrote in his diary, "many thinking people believe America has seen its best days." He wrote that July 26, 1775. There are still those who believe America is weakening; that our glory was the brief flash of time called the 20th Century; that ours was a burst of greatness too bright and brilliant to sustain; that America's purpose is past.
My friends, I utterly reject those views. That's not the America we know. We were meant to be masters of destiny, not victims of fate. Who among us would trade America's future for that of any other country in the post-apocalyptic world? And who could possibly have so little faith in our America that they would trade our tomorrows for our yesterdays?
I'll give you a hint. Just recently they were under padlock; now they're on parole. (Boos and catcalls.)
This woman they follow struts and boasts and acts like she's the new Betsy Ross. Well, let me tell you something. I knew Betsy Ross. She was a friend of mine. And missy, you're no Betsy Ross. (Wild laughter and prolonged applause.)
These economic extremists have gone so far to the left, they've left the island. (Laughter and prolonged applause.)
Now let's not dismiss our current troubles, but where they see only problems, I see possibilities — as vast and diverse as the American family itself. I've said it before and I'll say it again — America's best days are yet to come. Our proudest moments are yet to be. Our most glorious achievements are just ahead. America remains what Emerson called her 150 years ago, "the country of tomorrow." What a wonderful description and how true. And yet tomorrow might never have happened had we lacked the courage in the 1980's to chart a course of strength and honor. (Prolonged applause.)
As we have seen many times in history, our country now stands at a crossroads. There is doubt about our public institutions and profound concern, not merely about the economy but about the overall direction of this great country. Well nothing could be more tragic, after having come all this way on the journey of renewal we began so many years ago, than if America herself forgot the lessons of individual liberty that she has taught to a grateful, if somewhat foreshortened world. (Applause.)
Let us not shackle the entrepreneurial spirit that drives the greatest Americans. Let us harness the competitive energy that built America, so that real jobs can be created and real hope can rise out of despair. (Applause.)
And let us all renew our commitment. Renew our pledge to day by day, person by person, make our country and the world a better place to live. Then when the nations of the world turn to us and say, "America, you are the model of freedom and prosperity," we can turn to them and say, "you ain't seen nothing, yet!"
(Applause. The audience rises to a standing ovation.)

The questions began with a "softball" setup from a sympathetic audience member.

"Mr. President," she asked. "State Department professionals opposed your famous speech in Berlin, where you said, 'Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!' Yet you went ahead with it anyway. What led you to make that decision?"

The partisan audience applauded the partisan question admiringly.

"Well," replied the Old Ex-President with a wink and a grin. "I was mad. I'd never seen the wall before." Cheers swept the theater.

From her place in the wings, the Old Ex-President's wife smiled, directing her husband's attention toward Mary Ann's raised hand.

Mary Ann began with the obvious question. "Before your election you pledged to balance the budget," she said. "Yet in office you oversaw the accumulation of more new debt than all previous American presidents combined. At the time the world ended more than 20% of the federal budget was interest payments on the money you borrowed. Can you explain why you broke your promise?"

The Old Ex-President smiled. He liked answering that question. It was in his script.

"Well," he said, cheerfully. "I wanted a balanced budget, but the Democrat-controlled Congress refused to cut spending on wasteful social welfare programs." A ripple of applause swept the appreciative crowd. "Government is not the solution to our problems," he concluded. "Government is the problem." That was his favorite sound bite, and he delivered it with gusto. On cue the audience roared their approval.

The Old Ex-President's wife smiled, directing her husband's attention toward Gilligan's raised hand.

"During your tenure the number of poorly-paid workers increased significantly as a percentage of the total workforce," he said. "As unemployment rose above 10% you cut job-training programs by 30%. 500,000 people fell into poverty during your first term alone, most of them children. The poverty rate for the country as a whole rose to 18.5%, representing 35 million Americans, while the poverty rate for African-Americans leapt to 33 percent. By the end of your second term nearly 90 percent of black female heads of households under 25 lived below the poverty line. Why?"

The Old Ex-President nodded cheerfully. Another easy question for which he was well-scripted. "The statisticians in Washington have funny ways of counting," he answered with a wink. The audience snickered appreciatively. "Not one single fact or figure supports Democrat demagoguery that my budget cuts hurt the poor," he concluded. Applause swept the theater.

The Old Ex-President's Wife directed her husband's attention to Mary Ann's raised hand.

Mary Ann inquired, "There were homeless people in America before you were elected. But by the end of your two terms homelessness was epidemic. Hundreds of thousands of Americans slept on benches, in parks, on sidewalks. Many were children. Breadlines appeared for the first time since the Great Depression. What happened?"

The Old Ex-President nodded. "Well," he replied with a display of thoughtfulness. "I think some people go to soup kitchens voluntarily. I know we've had considerable information that people go to soup kitchens because the food is free and that that's easier than paying for it. I think," he concluded with a shrug, "that they have money." The audience applauded angrily.

The Old Ex-President's Wife smiled contentedly from her place in the wings. To her practiced eye it was just like old times.

Gilligan changed direction. "Your administration supported right-wing military governments and paramilitary death squads which murdered or 'disappeared' hundreds of thousands throughout Latin America. You created and illegally armed the 'Contra' movement which used torture and rape to terrorize and intimidate Nicaraguans. While you were Commander in Chief the School of the Americas trained the military officers who led the Salvadoran death squads, which murdered tens of thousands, often in peculiarly grisly and sadistic ways. Under your leadership murder, rape and torture became national policy. Aren't these practices in conflict with the democratic goals of our nation, and with Americans' character as a people?"

The Old Ex-President smiled. He enjoyed talking about the Contras.

Firmly he said, looking into the future, "The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers." The audience cheered.

Mary Ann followed-up. "With Central America a major focus of your administration, you appointed a 12-man commission to recommend policy. Why were there no women on that important body?"

The question seemed to surprise the Old Ex-President. For a moment his confident forehead furrowed, and he hesitated. "Well," he replied, in a tone which seemed to imply that he didn't feel the question was very important. "Maybe it's because we were doing so much and appointing so many that we were no longer seeking a token or something."

In the wings the Old Ex-President's Wife frowned. Mary Ann's unexpected question had taken her husband off-script. Many in the audience applauded the answer. But a number of women seemed confused, and there was even a mild ripple of disapproval.

The Old Ex-President's eyes widened. The applause was less enthusiastic than his handlers had prepared him to expect. For a moment his fingers trembled anxiously as they gripped the podium.

Gilligan sensed the opening. "Your administration initiated, armed and trained the 'Jihadi' movement we now label 'terrorist'," he said. "Reportedly, more than $3 billion in U.S. tax dollars went to train Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan and other countries. Textbooks printed in the U.S. taught schoolchildren that holy war was their duty. Isn't it true that your administration shortsightedly sowed the wind, and on 9-1-1 America reaped the whirlwind?"

The Old Ex-President's eyes flickered and dimmed. This was outside his preparation, requiring an answer based on personal knowledge of policy, history, and strategy.

"Well," he said. "I, ah." Smiling, he said, "I can't bring to mind what that is, and, ah, that is, what it stands for." The Old Ex-President's Wife frowned hard.

Mary Ann bore down. "In 1982," she said, "you removed Iraq from the State Department's list of 'terrorist' organizations, despite heated objections from Congress, allowing Saddam Hussein to begin buying weapons on the international market. You authorized sale to Iraq of poisonous chemicals and deadly biological viruses, including anthrax and bubonic plague, assisting Iraq in the buildup of its chemical and bacteriological warfare capabilities. Aren't these additional examples of your administration's short-sightedness?"

The Old Ex-President swayed slightly behind the podium. "Well," he said, with difficulty. "I'm all confused now..." His hands trembled. The audience was restless.

Gilligan made it personal. "You were noted," he said, "for your ability to illustrate your views with simple anecdotes conveying strong emotional resonance. Some people called you 'The Great Communicator'. Yet your stories were often fictional. There are many examples, of which I'll quote just a few:

These lapses with the truth led critics to label you 'The Great Prevaricator'. My question is, are you unclear about the difference between fantasy and reality, or are you a pathological liar?"

A spasm of confusion swept the Old Ex-President's troubled face. His fingers clutched the podium.

"Well," replied the Old Ex-President. "If you tell the same story five times, it's true." The Old Ex-President's Wife frowned very hard.

The Old Ex-President wiped beads of sweat from his forehead.

Mary Ann pressed on, asking, "Your administration illegally mined Nicaraguan harbors. You traded arms for hostages with Iran. When it ruled against you, you withdrew recognition from the World Court. Yet on many occasions you repeated that the United States stands for the rule of law. Isn't it hypocritical to say one thing and do another?"

"Well," the Old Ex-President smiled unsteadily. "Hypocrisy is a question of degree." Scowling angrily, the Old Ex-President's Wife signaled to someone backstage.

Gilligan closed in. "Your administration was one of the most corrupt in history," he said. "More than 200 of your appointees faced allegations of criminal or ethical violation of the law. One of your National Security Advisors pleaded guilty to four counts of withholding information from Congress. Another was convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of Congress and making false statements. Your friend and Secretary of Defense was indicted for obstruction, perjury and making false statements. Your Deputy Secretary of State pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress. Members of your National Security Council were found guilty of accepting illegal gratuities, destroying evidence, and obstruction. Your SEC chief resigned after admitting he beat his wife. Another National Security advisor resigned after admitting he charged $1,000 to allow Japanese journalists to interview your wife. One of your White House Counselors and a ranking CIA official resigned after being accused of illegal insider trading while in office. Your Secretary of Labor was indicted for defrauding the City of New York of $7 million. Your head of the Veterans Administration resigned after being caught spending $54,000 to redecorate his office. During your first election campaign, your operatives filched debate preparation papers belonging to your opponent. The former President of Iran said many times in public that your campaign staff negotiated with Iranian government officials to delay the release of American hostages until after your election. My question is, does the concept of the 'rule of law' apply to all Americans, or is it your view that Republicans are exempt?"

"Beltway bloodletting?" shrugged the Old Ex-President.

Mary Ann asked the final question. "When you were President you appointed fewer minorities to cabinet-level or policymaking positions than your predecessors. Your Justice Department and Civil Rights Commission were noted for lack of commitment to enforcement of civil rights and voting rights laws. Your rhetoric often targeted African-Americans as criminal or anti-social. You approved tax-exempt status for Bob Jones University and other schools which practiced racial discrimination. You began your first election campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town best-known for the murder of three civil rights activists in 1964; there you endorsed 'states' rights', a code-word for resistance to African-American advances clearly understood by white southern voters. You once suggested that one cause of the decline in public education was the schools' attempt to comply with court-ordered desegregation. You opposed extension of the Voting Rights Act. You unequivocally supported the vicious Apartheid regime in South Africa. My question is, why are there no black people on the island?"

The Old Ex-President cleared his throat. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He looked to the wings, looked blank, look at his feet. He smiled, shrugged, smiled again, as if to say, "aww, shucks" with his body.

"Well," he said, smiling his nice-guy smile. "I guess there wasn't room at the back of the plane."

From her position in the wings, the Old Ex-President's Wife intervened. As she'd done so often throughout her husband's political career, she brought theater to the rescue. She wheeled out Gilligan's little bamboo wheelbarrow, which held a massive white-frosted birthday cake, tall as the Old Ex-President himself. The Old Ex-President's birthday wasn't for four months, but that wasn't the point. The point was to stop the questions in a plausible way.

The Old Ex-President was surprised, and delighted. A wave of applause swept the audience. Mary Ann frowned, arms crossed, foot tapping the ground.

Vicki, that is, Ginger, emerged from inside the cake, radiant in a white strapless ball gown with rhinestones and elbow-length evening gloves.

"Happy biiiiirthdaaaay to yooooooouuuu," she crooned in her sultry, sexy voice. The Old Ex-President's dim eyes visibly brightened.

"Happy biiiiirthdaaaay tooooooooo yooooooouuuu," she sang, blowing kisses. The Old Ex-President licked his trembling lip.

"Happy biiiiirthdaaaay Miiiister Preziiiiideeeeeeent," she sang, smiling voluptuously. The Old Ex-President grinned lecherously.

"Happy biiiiirthdaaaay tooooooooo yooooooo-a-oooooo," she finished, kissing him tenderly on the cheek. The Old Ex-President's spotty, shaking hands clutched her convulsively. "Vickie!" he beamed appreciatively. As the Old Ex-President's smiling wife helped him into his wheelchair, Ginger waived, bringing the cheering and whistling audience to its feet. The first press conference was over.