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Fiction by David Bernstein
The president’s bedroom, the White House
The phone rings. President Barack Obama, still half asleep, fumbles to turn on his bedside lamp and picks up the receiver.
“Mr. President, it’s Jim,” says General James Jones, the national security adviser. “I’m sorry to wake you, but I’ve got bad news.”
“Go ahead, Jim,” Obama says, groggily.
“Well, sir. I just got off with the Sit Room. There’s been a major coordinated terror attack in Afghanistan—gun and grenade assaults at multiple sites around Kabul, including at Bagram Air Base. Intel is sketchy, but the reported casualties so far at Bagram alone are 19 American soldiers, 11 foreign contractors, and a few dozen Afghan laborers. Altogether, 150, maybe 175, fatalities.”
“I see,” Obama sighs.
“Uh, that’s not all, Mr. President. A video was posted on the Internet by what we believe is an Al Qaeda–Taliban guerrilla cell. It shows images of a man the CIA and CENTCOM have identified as Ali Asad, claiming responsibility for the bombing.”
“Asad—are we sure?”
A Moroccan-born former Brit, Asad was detained in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 2003, and accused of plotting a “dirty bomb” attack against the United States. Asad’s lawyer says his client confessed falsely under torture. Since 2005, he had been held without a trial at Guantanamo Bay, even though the military dropped the charges against him in October. When Obama ordered the closure of Gitmo, Asad was one of a handful of prisoners who were freed, deported to England.
“So, what do we do now?” Obama asks Jones.
“Well, Mr. President, we still don’t know all the facts.”
“Get the crew together—I want regular updates.”
Obama hangs up and turns off the light. Michelle Obama rolls over toward her husband. “Is everything okay?” she asks.
“Uh-huh—go back to sleep,” he replies, lying back down, his eyes wide open.
* * *
The White House Residence
After futilely trying to fall back asleep, President Obama gets out of bed. By now, he’s used to these alarms. The so-called “red phone” has rung in the middle of the night at least once a week for most of his first 100 days in office. Obama, a night owl, doesn’t really mind, and he’s grown accustomed to short nights. Now, he pads next door to his private study to check his e-mail and scan the morning’s news.
Today’s crisis couldn’t have come at a worse moment. Although Obama impressively laid the groundwork for his presidency during a smooth 76-day transition, the rollout of his policy proposals after taking office has been decidedly more rocky.
Initially inside the administration, there had been grandiose talk of a transformative presidency, perhaps on par with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. But the president’s first 100 days have been marked more by caution than political audacity. The stalled economy has dominated most of his time, and Congress has quibbled with his bipartisan-themed bailout plan. Other plans and promises have been overwhelmed.
This morning’s e-mails bring more bad news: For one, Christina Romer, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, wrote late last night that the latest national unemployment figures, embargoed for publication later in the week, have topped 10 percent. That’s just for starters. In another message, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke describes the developing mutiny among Arab nations involved in Obama’s much-ballyhooed Muslim summit, the latest breakdown coming over the renewed Hamas-Israeli flareup in Gaza. Three more countries, Egypt, Yemen, and Kuwait, have pulled out, leaving the summit in doubt.
After a few minutes, Michelle Obama pokes her head in the door. “Whatcha doin’?” she asks.
“Just catching up,” he says, sounding distracted, not taking his eyes off the computer screen.
Michelle comes up behind her husband and hugs him around his shoulders.
“That can wait—come back to bed,” she says.
“I can’t sleep.” He points to the screen. “Look at this poll—my approval ratings are down six points from a month ago. The talking heads are already saying my honeymoon’s over—that my best chance to pass legislation is done, until after midterms, at least.”
“Probably the same fools who said in the campaign that you’re not black enough, or tough enough, or that you didn’t have what it takes to beat Hillary.”
She swivels his chair around so that he’s facing her. They lock eyes.
“Listen to me,” she says. “You’re doing good, Barack. Really good.”
The pep talk draws an appreciative smile. Michelle starts to leave, and then stops, turning back to her husband.
“You know, though,” she continues, with a wily grin, “you’d be doing a heckuva a lot better if the last president hadn’t left a dead cat on your doorstep.”
“More like a whole damn litter,” Obama quips.
* * *
4:05 a.m. (Central Daylight Time)
Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood
The cell phone on the nightstand rings: “Here I am-m-m, ba-a-a-by, signed, sealed, delivered, I-I-I’m yo-o-o-urs!” The sleeping man dutifully snaps out of bed and answers it.
“Mr. Axelrod, it’s the White House switchboard. Please hold for the president.”
White House senior adviser David Axelrod rubs his thick mustache with his fingers and waits. He looks at the alarm clock, and seeing the early hour, mutters curses under his breath. Normally Axelrod doesn’t mind pre-dawn work calls, but on this Sunday, he’s back in Chicago with his wife, Susan, who didn’t transplant to Washington with him.
“Good morning, Bar—uh, Mr. President.”
“Still not used to that ‘Mr. President’ stuff, huh?” Obama teases his old friend.
“Not yet—maybe I’ll have the hang of it by your second term.”
Turning serious, Obama says, “Look, Ax. We’ve got a situation—I need you back here.”
Axelrod glances wistfully at his sleeping wife. “Um . . . sure, okay. I’ll, uh, be there as soon as I can.”
“You’ve got other stuff to do today?” Obama says, sensing some reluctance on the part of his longtime adviser.
“Just the Cubs game,” Axelrod says with obvious disappointment.
* * *
White House gym
Jogging on the treadmill, Obama channel surfs, switching back and forth between ESPN’s SportsCenter and CNN. After half an hour, he moves to weights and back exercises. When Obama gets on the elliptical, he flips again to CNN to watch the coverage of the attacks in Afghanistan. Chomping on trail mix, he stares at the television footage of the carnage—a crowded street bazaar in flames, the frantic rescue operations, rows of bodies at the hospital. A few minutes later, the program cuts to Washington correspondent Jim Acosta, standing in front of the White House: “CNN has learned from a well-placed source inside the State Department that a former Guantanamo Bay detainee, Ali Asad, has claimed responsibility for this morning’s attack,” he announces. “Asked directly about the report, a spokesperson for secretary of state Hillary Clinton declined to respond.”
Obama doesn’t bother watching the rest of report. He stalks out of the gym.
The leak must have come from the State Department, i.e. Hillaryland, which has turned into a rich source for reporters. Of course, the news of Asad’s link to the attacks would surely get out. His videotaped avowal would likely be all over YouTube in a matter of hours, probably sooner. But that’s beside the point.
Back in his study, Obama calls his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who’s already en route to the White House. “Tell Hillary she’s gotta plug all these damn leaks coming from her people,” the president grouses.
“Maybe we oughta just call Joe the fucking Plumber?” Emanuel cracks back.
* * *
The West Wing
Dressed in his trademark navy blue two-button suit, the president leaves the residence quarters and heads down to the executive office space. The secret service agents posted along the route talk into their sleeves as he passes. “Renegade is on the move, over,” they report, using Obama’s security code name.
Outside the Oval Office corridor, Reggie Love, the president’s personal aide, steps up. “Good morning, Mr. President.”
Obama holds out his hand in an unspoken gesture. Love frowns.
“C’mon, man, give it up,” Obama says impatiently.
Love reaches into his suit pocket and pulls out a pack of Marlboros. He hands a cigarette to the president, and they step outside to the West Wing colonnade. Leaning against one of the white columns, Obama lights up. Love hands him a leather folder containing the day’s agenda.
“You know what, Reg?” Obama says, as he looks over the document. “After church, clear my schedule.”
“What about your 11 o’clock with your economic team?”
“Geithner can handle it.”
“And the Avon breast-cancer walk with the First Lady?”
“I’ll speak to Mrs. Obama.”
A few minutes later, Obama takes a last drag, drops the cigarette butt on the ground, and stamps it out. Love hands a breath mint to his boss, then picks up the butt and pockets it.
illustration: Matthew Woodson
1 day ago