Through a Lockbox, Darkly

"Welcome to the Naval Observatory, Mr. President-elect." Al Gore strode in Reaganesque steps over to George Bush as he came up the drive. A postcard-perfect snow added seasonal charm to the scene. Gore uncocked a snowball, which hit Bush in the arm. Bush looked at the snowy mark in surprise and anger.

Gore was laughing his false, forced laugh, one eye on the cameras. "We’ve had a heckuva fight, you and I, but the presidency …(he stepped over and brushed Bush’s coat sleeve off)…but the presidency is more than a popularity contest–it’s a day-by-day fight for the people, and for…."

Bush was looking over the Observatory grounds, and nodding to himself. Flashbulbs lit the falling snow.

Gore was still going through his well-rehearsed greeting: "Sometimes you have to be willing to spend your popularity in order to pick the hard right over the easy wrong." Gore’s aides winced– that phrase again.

Gore grasped the hand of the Texas Governor. "There are big choices ahead and our whole future is at stake. And I do have strong beliefs about it, so I’m hoping we can, you and I, make snow angels, right here, so we can summon the better angels of our nature, to begin today to make America all it can be, true to its…."

Bush ignored him, still gazing around at the property. Giving the Vice President’s hand a quick pump, he turned to his Secret Service escort.

"Would that be the main road over there?" Bush asked, pointing with his hand towards Massachusetts Avenue as though towards some distant arroyo.

The Secret Service men seemed confused. "Er, yes, sir, it is…"

Bush squinted his eyes at the road, as if it might be a rattler, about to spook his horse. "Then let’s throw up some post and wire over there–mark out the perimeter–doesn’t have to be barbwire, either."

The security men looked at each other blankly. Finally, one of them said, sotto voce , "uh, sir, this isn’t the White House…this is the Naval Observatory."

Bush looked back towards the building, and spotted some hydrangeas, withered in the cold. "Put up a pen over there, for the livestock. Also, build a little door at the bottom for Spot."

The Secret Service team leader shrugged his shoulders. This …behavior… had been getting worse, the past few days, ever since it had dawned on the Texas Governor that he really had won the election. "Play along with him," the agent whispered into his headset.

The Secret Service man standing closest to Bush spoke up. "Yes sir, we’ll put up a stockade right over there. How big, sir?" The agent had whisked an official Service notebook and pen out of his pocket.

Bush gave the man an irritated look. "Big enough to hold a prize bull. But not a stockade." The man nodded, pretending to write it down.

Al Gore was still grinning his waxen grin: his skin gleamed orange against the soft white of the snow. "I speak of gratitude, achievement and high hopes for our country. Mr. President-elect, and I do call you that, despite ongoing questions regarding votes not being allowed into the warm sunlight of this great nation, for almost eight years now, I’ve been the partner in a dance which has moved us out of the valley of recession and into the longest period of prosperity in our nation’s…."

Bush was continuing his walkabout. "Over there, I want some mesquite planted. And repaint the place so it looks like adobe. Better yet, ask Laura about that." He pointed down Massachusetts Avenue, to the Sri Lankan embassy.

"Any way we can turn that into a rodeo?"

Gore was droning on, his face moving in animatronic syncopation: one moment he’d duck his chin down, smirk, and roll his eyes up at you; the next he’d jauntily toss his head back and chuckle. Then the forehead would crease, the smile vanishing, and he would arrange his features into a look of great earnestness and sobriety, all in the course of one sentence: "I have one thing to be thankful for (tucks chin) now that I’ve conceded this questionable election: (head back, chuckle) more time to spend with our four children: Kristin, Sarah and Albert, our oldest daughter Karenna and her husband Drew, and the youngest member of our family, who a little over a year ago was born (earnest expression, deepens voice) on the Fourth of July."

Bush grimaced. "Can something be done about him?" he asked an aide, jerking his thumb backwards at the Vice President. Suddenly, seeing a truck parked behind the Observatory, he yelled out "Hey–get that horse trailer unloaded!"

One of the Secret Service agents leaned close: "Sir, that’s the catering truck."

Bush looked at him blankly. "Tell Laura I’m going for a horse ride, would you?" He gave a curt nod.

"Sir, we’re here to meet with the Vice President," the agent began, but Gore interrupted this diminuendo by striding over and grabbing, for the second time, Bush’s hand.

"Together, let’s make great through our common voices our desire and our wish to make sure that our prosperity enriches not just the few, but all working families." His plasticine mien reformed itself continually in a smooth, eldritch rhythm.

Bush took his hand away. "Thank you." He nodded to his agents. "Get this guy off my ranch."

Bush’s Chief of Staff put his head near, and, smiling towards the Vice President, whispered "Mr. President, we’re here to meet with this man."

Bush looked at Gore as if seeing him for the first time. "Oh. Why didn’t you say so? Invite the man in. We got bar-b-que? Did Laura make her potato salad?"

The agents looked helplessly at one another. Gore stood there, grinning like an idiot child. Sensing a break in the social continuum, he began talking again, just as he had been trained to do at St. Alban’s. Silence, he knew, invited uncomfortable thoughts. Always keep talking. "I was an Army reporter in Vietnam. Now, when I was there I didn’t do the most or run the gravest danger, (chin down, chuckle) but I was proud (chin up, stern look, head cocked) to wear my country’s uniform (turn head slightly to left), and proud, too…."

Bush looked at him a moment, then turned to the Secret Service men. "Why don’t you take this man inside and fix him a drink?" He nodded his head curtly to indicate that this was a command, coming from him, their President. The agents reacted, trying to indicate by soft touches that the Vice President should follow them. But Gore was still talking. "…but for generations to come. We must fight together for affordable health care for all, step by step, child by child…."

Bush walked away, giving terse commands to plant cottonwoods and cactus by the side of the building. Suddenly he stopped. "Where’s Spot?"

"Uh, sir, remember, the First Lady didn’t think it a good idea to bring him along…."

"The First Lady-ELECT," Bush corrected. "Well, go get him."

"He’s in Texas, sir."

Bush looked at the hapless man with that withering look he had learned so well from his mother. "I don’t want to hear about your problems, mister. Get my damn dog or I’ll find someone who can." He kept his voice even, like dad had taught him to do.

"Yes SIR!" The agent almost saluted. He began talking furiously into his headset.

Gore babbled on, each new clause accompanied by a different inclination of his head: "…and let’s move toward the day when we, at long last, end the stigma of mental illness and treat it like every other illness everywhere in this great nation of ours…."

"I said TAKE HIM INSIDE" barked the President-elect.

The agents were in something of a bind. It WAS a direct order from the President, but he wasn’t really president, not yet, and they couldn’t exactly be seen jostling the Vice President back into his own house on George Bush’s orders. How would THAT play on the Brokaw show? They took to pleading: "Please, Mr. Gore, could you go inside, just this once? We’ll let you play with your Greenpeace boats…"

Gore was still yammering, like some Debate Club Captain on Ritalin: "…there is more computer power in a Palm Beach ballot than in the spaceship that took Neil Armstrong to the moon, and we will offer all our people lifelong learning skills for the higher-paying jobs that lay in all of our futures…."

Gore was a big man, and it was no light task to manhandle him in a way that wouldn’t look too obvious to the reporters. But these were trained agents, and they got him halfway towards the door before he managed to break free:

"…at last, a new prescription drug benefit under Medicare that will fit ALL our family values. I’ll fight for it and… LET ME GO! They… (a brief scuffle) …give …in… to the big drug companies." (The Vice President throws a right jab at one of the agents) "Their …(uppercut)…plan… forces seniors to beg the HMOs and …(left hook)… insurance companies for prescription…."

Bush watched the fracas for a moment, then turned to one of his Secret Service men. "Give me your gun."

"Sir?!" The agent was horrified.


Luckily, the other agents were beginning to wear Gore down. "…not just the wealthy or the powerful… (agents struggle to hold his arms) …especially those… who need… (the Vice President was clearly becoming winded) …a voice… those who need a champion… (the agents finally got him in an armlock) …those who need to be lifted …up… so they are never left…behind" (Gore is lifted and carried inside the house.) They could still hear his shouts as he was taken into the foyer, adorned with bronze plaques bearing the names of Naval Astronomers who had died, sextant in hand, serving their nation. "…That’s why I’ll fight to add 50,000 new community police who help prevent crime by establishing REAL relationships with…." Finally the door slammed and he was gone.

Bush turned to his aides. "Who was that guy?"

"Nobody, sir. A local. You needn’t worry about him anymore."

"Kinda pesky, wasn’t he?" Bush gave a crooked grin, which telegraphed the message "Agree with me, or I’ll call Dick Cheney and tell him."

"Yes sir, he was. Unfortunate, really."

Suddenly, one of the Secret Service men pointed up into the sky. An Air Force interceptor from Lackland AFB had been scrambled, and had just air-dropped a special package. Bush looked up, to see a parachute wafting gently downwards through the snowy twilight.

"Spot!" A big, goofy grin split his mouth into a boyish rictus, and Bush held his arms out to catch his doggie. Spot was cold, and frightened, but glad to see his owner. He licked the president-elect’s face eagerly.

Up at the top of the observatory, a window was flung open. After muscling the Vice President through the doorway, the agents had tossed him into his padded lockbox. Gore, clever as always, had found a way to shimmy open a window, and shouted down to the gathered crowd: "So to the young people watching tonight, I say this is your time to make new the life of our world and America’s journey westward to the eternal beginning of the New Frontier, to the best America, a new journey on which we advance not by the spinning of wheels, but by the spinning of our minds, the reach of our smiles, the daring grace of…."

But not even his mad shouts could disturb the simple peace of this wintry Washington scene. The president-elect built a snow fort, and pelted the Secret Service men with snowballs, who dutifully stood their ground. The more loudly Gore shouted, the more tightly George Bush hugged Spot to his chest.

It was fun, being President. Just like dad had told him it would be.

December 22, 2000

Charles Davenport is a physician trapped, behind the lines, in New York.