Excerpt #1: TO HIGH OFFICE [Hailey Hannagan’s Rise to the Presidency]
“Senator, the White House just called,” one of my aides said. “The president would like to meet with you right away.”
“Whatever for?” I hardly knew the man. Couldn’t stand him even if he was the head of my party. Bluster and demagoguery had got him elected but his presidency had been disorganized and chaotic. The Republican brand was in tatters.
“To what do I owe the honor, Mr. President?” I asked as I was ushered into the Oval Office. President Frederick Forsythe was tall and portly, with a shock of red-orange hair; not a strand of gray.
He remained sitting at his desk, bruskly waving me to a chair. No handshake. “Senator, as you’ve probably heard, the Attorney General is about to indict the Vice President for corruption. The evidence against him is overwhelming. I’m going to demand he resign, and I intend to appoint you to replace him.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had barely even spoken to the president before this meeting. “Why me? I can think of a dozen people who’d be a better choice.”
“The public’s going to be very angry about this,” he said, “and they’re already pissed off at me. I want someone who looks clean and independent, a bipartisan choice. I need a quick confirmation and no more controversy. I’ve got a reelection campaign to worry about.”
“But why me?” I persisted.
He smiled thinly. “The Senate and House minority leaders are demanding a veep that’s outside my administration and outside my wing of the party. Otherwise they intend to oppose confirmation. You turned out to be the only Republican choice they’d all accept. You’re seen as moderate, you’re liked and admired by the public, and you don’t seem to have any major political axes to grind. And, if Congress bucks you, it’ll put them in an awkward position. They’ll look obstructionist and unreasonable, especially if they’re denying the job to what would be the nation’s first female veep. In short, you’re my best shot.”
He stood up. “Think it over and let me know by tomorrow morning. Your country needs you, Senator.”
I suppressed a smirk. “Sounds more like you need me, Mr. President.”
I accepted thinking it would be good experience, but I knew he would dump me before the next election. I was sworn in the next day and quickly confirmed by Congress.
Being veep was a bore. I felt isolated, unimportant, out of my league. The president barely acknowledged me. I had no real responsibilities unless he assigned me something, which was rare. I did manage to worm my way into a few cabinet and national security meetings and learned a bit about how the presidency and executive branch work. I also got a brief introduction to the complicated world of national security and foreign policy. Still, I missed the Senate and its conviviality. It was lonely being an accidental vice president.
But there were two things I didn’t miss: I no longer had to make a dozen phone calls each day from a list of potential donors to finance my next senate campaign in return for my promoting their favorite cause. And I no longer had to meet with lobbyists all day, listen to their spiels, and feign interest in what they were promoting. As veep at least, I no longer had to see myself as a commodity, a vote available to the highest bidder. But feeling like a nobody wasn’t much better. None of it was what I thought I’d signed up for. So much for democracy and serving the people.
A few weeks after my appointment, my world came apart. We’d finished dinner and were watching the president being interviewed on Fox.
“So, Mr. President,” said the pretty blond host, “what are your plans for a second term?”
He’d been doing fine up to that point, but suddenly he was struggling to answer. The left side of his mouth began drooping and his hand came up to the side of his head. The skin on my scalp prickled. Something wasn’t right.
“Shecond… shecond term plants, many… plants, lecshun plants, lecshun-lecshun, lecshooo…” Fred’s face scrunched up as if he was in pain, then his eyes rolled up as he slowly tilted over onto the empty side of the couch he was sitting on. The host ran to him as two Secret Service agents appeared, one yelling for medical help into a collar mike.
“Mom, something’s wrong with the president!” My eldest daughter, Molly said. Erin, my sensitive child, began to cry.
“Dios mio,” said Consuela, my friend and our long-time family majordomo.
“Oh God, Fred. No!” I yelled at the screen.
“Are you OK, Mr. President?” asked the flustered host. He clearly was not. The screen switched to another announcer who began to describe what had just happened in somber tones.
Suddenly there was a loud banging on my front door. My two Secret Service agents appeared before me.
“Madam Vice President, we think the President’s had a stroke. They’re taking him to Walter Reed. We need to get you to the White House. As of now, you’re acting POTUS.”
Someone handed me a coat, but I couldn’t seem to find the sleeve. I was in a daze, trying to fathom what had just happened.
“We need to move,” the other agent said, and my mind cleared enough to get my coat on and begin to compose myself. They hustled me out and into a black SUV. “We can answer all your questions once you’re in the Oval Office, Madam President.”
Madam President? That title hit me like a bucket of ice water. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. I was the Madam President they were referring to, and I was about to take over the most important job in the world totally unprepared. If I’d campaigned for the office, I’d have had years of preparation, surrounding myself with experienced advisors and prospective cabinet members. We’d have discussed all the issues and developed policy papers and positions on each one. I would have debated, given speeches, been interviewed, and only taken office some ten weeks after winning the election. Plenty of time to prepare the groundwork for a presidency. But I had none of that. This was spur-of-the-moment, starting from scratch. I’d gone from an unimportant, unqualified vice-presidential appointee to the highest office in the land in an instant. I did my best to breathe slowly to stem my rising panic.
A few sirened minutes later, there I was at the front door of the big house, Marine guards saluting and opening the door for me. Then I was in the Oval, not sitting at the big desk, that seemed way too presumptuous, but on one of the two facing loveseats in front of it, trying to pull myself together. Hailey Hannagan, the little-known rookie reliever, was on the mound, the manager placing the ball in my glove, the catcher, shortstop, and second baseman hovering, mumbling words of encouragement but with eyes betraying doubt. Their star pitcher had been injured. Bottom of the seventh, bases loaded, one out, season on the line. No pressure.
I felt like sobbing and puking but remembered my father’s advice when I’d suffer a childhood setback: “Suck it up, Pumpkin. Great ballplayers play their best under pressure.” I forced back the panic and tried to focus as the chief of staff updated me on the president’s condition. He’d had a stroke. They’d know more in a couple of hours. Then I was ushered into the Situation Room, where I got the football lecture on how I was expected to order the extermination of the other half of the world if an enemy launched enough nuclear-tipped ICBMs to exterminate our half. I also got a two-hour orientation on what was going on internationally and what I was facing. None of it did anything to calm my anxiety or diminish the adrenaline coursing through me.
After a quick visit to Walter Reed and a glum conversation with the doctors—President Forsythe wasn’t doing very well and was still unconscious—I asked to be left alone with him. I spoke quietly, desperately, telling him he would soon get better, that he must get better. He didn’t blink or speak or move except for saying “Shhhhh, CLUNK, Shhhhh, CLUNK” every few seconds. But that wasn’t Fred. That was the miracle machine breathing for him, keeping him going even though he should have been long dead and gone. I put a hand on his cheek before I left and impulsively bent down and kissed him on the forehead. He was a jerk, but he didn’t deserve this.
I managed to strangle my tears until I was in the back seat of the limousine that would take me to my new home. Frederick lived alone, a bachelor president, abandoned by his wife when his sexual escapades became public. When I got back to the empty White House, I called my daughters, who were in Suela’s safe hands at the veep house, to tell them good night and that all was well, even though it most definitely wasn’t. At the insistence of the Secret Service, I stayed at the White House and slept in the Lincoln bedroom, or tried to. The next day my girls, Molly, age 18, a freshman at Georgetown and Erin, 16, a junior at Sidwell Friends, moved in as temporary guests. Just like me, I thought.
My husband Phillip was off again to his office on the West Coast. He called, but I had an aide tell him I was too busy to talk. Things had been strained between us for months. He’d been avoiding me, and I didn’t feel like filling him in on all the inside details of the last 24 hours. If he’s going to be an absentee husband and father, fuck him.
Two weeks later the doctors declared Fred to be in a semi-permanent comatose state. So, under the rules of presidential succession, I was sworn in as president-in-fact and became master of the big house. Fred died not long after without ever regaining consciousness. The only change had been the gradual appearance of his grey roots. ICU’s are not big on cosmetic grooming. Grey on orange-red. Nice touch.
So I wasn’t to be just a temporary reliever. This was the real deal. Like it or not, I was the new starting pitcher.
We had the solemn lying in state in the Capitol rotunda followed by the long military march to Arlington. The nation paused to absorb the blow, and for a brief few days we appeared united in our grief much as we had over half a century before.
I was eight when President Kennedy died, and I remembered standing on Pennsylvania Avenue with Dad, Mom, and my older brother Jack, watching the parade of somber soldiers, sailors, and airmen march slowly past to the deep, slow beat of the drums, the flag-draped casket mounted on a gun caisson, drawn by a team of four horses followed by a skittish, black, riderless stallion with empty black boots facing backwards in the stirrups. The clip-clop of the horses, the steady beat of the heels of marching feet, and the deep rattling roll of the drums marked the somber cadence. Glistening tears, quiet sobbing, and a three-year-old-son’s uncomprehending salute completed that indelible picture of our time.
Looking back, none of us were the same after that horrible day, that dreadful week in the autumn of 1963. It was one of those turning points in American history, a bursting of our flawed self-image. We had emerged economically strong from a great depression, overwhelming victors in the greatest war in history, the unquestioned leader of the Free World. We had seen ourselves as a near-perfect nation, prosperous, free, even noble. But beneath it all, there were rumblings of trouble. We were in the middle of a great civil rights struggle for black Americans. Only months before, JFK had sent American paratroopers to enforce the desegregation of Alabama schools and allow brave little black girls to walk past screaming white mobs into their new all-white classrooms
Meanwhile the trauma of war was again rearing its ugly head. The Cold War was in full throat. We’d survived the Cuban Missile Crisis, but American military advisors were beginning to die in a far-off place called Vietnam, a country rocked by civil war with a government that seemed to change monthly by coup. Soon President Johnson would plunge us with both feet into that morass. It would take us twelve years, 58,000 American dead, and countless billions of wasted dollars to extricate ourselves. There would be urban race riots, the torching of our inner cities, mass demonstrations against the war, assassinations of major leaders like Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and a breakdown of political cooperation and civility before it was all over. We were one nation, united, after World War II, and we emerged one nation, divided and flawed, after Vietnam.
My family had paid a price for the Good War; my childhood was punctuated by my father’s night terrors, these days known as PTSD. He’d also lost his younger brother in the permanent stalemate of the Korean conflict. The Vietnam War would deal our family another crushing blow. So I was intimately familiar with the toll paid by our nation’s families for our wars, both good and bad.
Now, over half a century later, I was attending my second presidential funeral. But this time I was in charge, and our nation’s wars were about to be in my lap.
BUY THE BOOK: The Exodus Betrayal: A President Confronts Israel