“Does anybody watch Bill Maher?” I ask the room, bleary-eyed, mid-conference in the Oval, two hours in.
It’s enough already. Yellen and her drawn-out reports, nothing but caution from the Treasury, and Vilsack with his blessed grain analysis. Buy a little more time and pinch this loaf of a meeting. Barack is visiting today — thank you, Jesus!
“Anyone?” I glance around the sofa. “Bill Maher?”
Klain finally clears his throat. “The comedian?”
Yes, you dolt, the comedian! “That’s the one, Ron.”
Crickets. Confusion. Fear…
Jill refuses to discuss Maher anymore, says it sends me into fits of unpredictable laughter. It’s not the vice-presidency, she reminds me. Damn right, it’s not. I can’t take a piss without a phone on me. Damn phones… that fall the other day… so fucking tired.
“Never mind, folks. Let’s wrap up. Barack is almost here.”
“Fantastic, Mr. President!” they chirp in unison.
Carlos pokes his head into the Oval, “Mr. President, the President is pulling up.”
I grin. Been dying to see him…that energy. “Thank you, Carlos.” I turn back to the couch, “Folks…”
They pop to their feet one by one.
“Do you want me to stay, Mr. President?” Ron pants.
You’re out, Klain! “That’s okay, Ron. Give me the room, and thank you all for your time.”
Where’s my goddamn Binaca?? I speed to the Resolute. My team leaves the Oval.
Breath spray, check. Couple curls with the fifteens, check. Roll up sleeves — forearms look good. Carlos opens the door and in he walks, blue oxford, no tie.
Obama tilts his head and smiles. That smile. We embrace.
He pulls back, “Joe — you look great!”
I could collapse into his arms. “I’ve got iced-tea coming, let’s sit.”
We head to the couches. I glance back, “You want a lager?”
“It’s eleven o’clock, big guy.”
“Ha!” he chuckles. “Tea’s fine.”
He looks so tan; is that possible?? We sit down.
“How in tarnation do you get to surf?” I ask. “I’ve seen you out there…I’m tellin’ ya man, I’m gonna be dead before I’m out of here. And that asshole…all he does is golf.”
Obama laughs again, “You’re gonna make it, Joe. We’re all gonna make it.”
“God, I hope so.”
“How’s Jill?” he asks.
“My rock. Michelle?”
“Completely sick of me.”
I howl. Damn this guy – electric. “Let me ask you something, Barack,” I lean in, quieting my voice a bit, “‘cause I had no issues with this when I was across the way — a nap, did you ever nap?”
He pops up, “Of course, I napped. You gotta nap, Joe!”
The iced-tea arrives and the aide almost trips on the eagle at the sight of Obama. She puts down the tray between us, backs away and finally exits.
“Look,” he says with a lithe movement of his neck, “you’re not going to sleep at night, that’s a given. Chunks of time at best.”
“Study your weekly schedule when you’re up pacing,” the words are sashaying from his mouth. “I mean study it. You gotta find gaps, come up with scenarios — seams in the mayhem.”
“What gaps, man??”
“There’s gaps, Joe. You’re smarter than this. A twenty-minute “call” on the docket, find a copy room, stash a pillow in the middle of the night.
I lean back, “’Cause my body is literally falling asleep on me. Those dopes at Fox, his people, they think I’m frail, horseshit. Who topples over on a bike?? It all just fell asleep.”
“You gotta nap, Joe.
His words are gold! My energy returning…
“Hey, let’s do it,” I say, hopping to my feet off the couch. I pull my hands behind my back.
Obama sighs. “Bad idea, Joe.”
“Whaddaya mean?? You used to love this game. Heck, it was your thing!”
“The country’s a wreck, it’s bad juju. I’ve stopped doing it, ever since Bin Laden.”
“Come on, man, we got that bastard! Juju — what’re you talking about?”
“We lost a Blackhawk.”
“Those SOAR boys live for that crap; they had it covered!”
He looks spooked. People don’t know that about Barack; he has superstitions. He used to love guessing how many fingers I was holding up behind my back, and he could read my face, search my eyes if I was fibbing. Obsessed with the game. Always had me mobilize before a big event – I remember holding up seven digits before the Bin Laden raid. He missed his guess, just before we entered the room, but we still got the bastard!
Cool things down. Gotta get him smiling again.
“You see Maher this week?” I take a gulp of tea.
“I missed it, damnit! Been listening to Stern, though; man, he’s still got it.”
“This author, Barack, this guy Maher had on, can’t remember his name. Wrote a book called…’The Surge’ – no, ‘The Verge,’ that’s it. It’s a play on those horror movies, ‘The Purge.’ You know the ones?”
“I do,” he replies. “That whole genre, though, not my thing. Sasha digs it.”
I lean in, “Me neither, but this book — amazing commentary. The government sets out a rule for the country – one night only, one day a year, for twenty-four hours, all bets are off. But, instead of murder and mayhem, all PC stringencies are out the window. No fear of being canceled, judged, constrained.”
I slap my legs, “Language and censorship gone for twenty-four hours. I’m tellin’ ya, man…no holds barred. For a night, the country is cleansed – some kind of crazy baptism. True comedy comes back, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce style. Maher couldn’t stop raving about it, laughing, you know — his laugh.”
I stop talking. I’m out of breath.
Obama is nodding, following, but not laughing. He should’ve been chuckling a while back. But he isn’t.
“’The Verge’…I think it’s called ‘The Verge.”
“Find a seam in your schedule, Joe,” he says. “Take a nap.”
“Ah hah,” I sigh, draining my glass.
Maybe he’s hungry. I’m about to propose his favorite meal when it happens – the whole damn place comes down!
Two Generals storm into the Oval, Klain on their heels. For a second, they veer toward Obama, then head my way. I’m urgently needed in the Situation Room. The USS Dutch Davis is caught in a precarious situation on the Polish Baltic Coast. A Russian warship has chased down a crippled Ukrainian freighter and the Dutch Davis, stationed in our allies’ waters, is sandwiched in the middle. Tensions are high.
Can I get five fucking minutes?? I tell my team to clear the room; I’ll be right behind.
I turn to Obama, “Come with me; I could use you in there.”
“This is your show, Joe, and I don’t have clearance.”
“I’m so goddamn tired, Barack…”
He levels his stare, “Pull it together.”
“At least…” I straighten up. “Let’s do the game one last time. It’ll give me a boost.”
Obama shakes his head, “You don’t need that. It’s bad juju.”
Why does he keep saying that??
He can see I’m disappointed. “All right,” he concedes. “You want to do this, you need to guess what I’m holding up. You’re the president.”
“Let do it.”
He pulls his hands behind his back.
“Five!” I blurt out.
“Let me get something up.”
I concentrate. I can visualize his long, elegant fingers spread out on his right hand, his left fist closed.
“Four,” I say.
“Holy mackerel!” he stammers. “It is four!”
“No shit. Amazing. Get in there, big guy!”
“Damn straight!” I give him a hug and hurry from the Oval.
The Sit. Room is packed. It’s shoulder-boards and blazers, aides and advisors. The standstill on the Baltic has got everyone sweating. I have the answer – I know it’s the answer! Send the message to the Ruskies to turn back, I tell General Kellogg, but we’ll only wait four minutes. If there’s no response fire exactly four shots over their bow.
The hulking Kellogg furrows his bushy eyebrows, “Fire on the ship, sir? An act of aggression?”
“Warning shots, General,” I reply. “Four warning shots.
“Four…” Kellogg murmurs. “Forgive me, sir, why four?”
“It’ll give them time to process and let them know we mean business. This animal Putin – it’s time we showed him some teeth.”
“Right,” the General says, glancing at his colleagues.
They carry out my orders. One minute. Two minutes. Four minutes, nothing. The General looks at me. I nod. One shot, two shots, four shots over the bow. The Russian ship idles. Collective nail biting in the Sit. Room. And then it happens! That hulking, venomous warship slowly turns tail, leaving a thick swath of white-water in its wake.
“Yes!!” the room cheers. Thunderous hand-clapping from the strategists and Generals.
Kellogg raises a thick eye-brow in disbelief, wow.
I’m about to address the room, tugging the reins on my ego, when someone yells, “Wait!”
Huh?? I glance up.
Everyone is glued back to the screens. It seems the ship is pirouetting, the churning white-water forming a perfect circle. The cruiser aims its nose back at the Dutch Davis.
“Torpedoes in the water!” someone shouts.
“Torpedoes…” Klain mumbles.
“Mr. President, we have incoming toward the ship.”
“Counter-measures deployed,” another person announces.
“Unsuccessful,” someone shouts.
I tear away from the monitors, but a glowing fireball from the transmission pierces my clenched eyelids. A hush falls over the room. Only the sizzle from the flat screens remains.
An aide appears out of nowhere with a secure phone and hands it to me, “Sir, it’s the Kremlin.”
Legs are falling asleep on me…
The Dutch Davis is on fire, images all over the screens. Klain is hyperventilating.
I take the phone, drawing the remaining air in the room. “I’ll be in the copy room,” I say.
Maybe there’s a pillow in there.