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"Patriots," The Novel -- Part Two

Posted: 04/24/2012 11:24 am

Huffpost readers have an advance, exclusive peek inside David Frum's much-buzzed-about new Washington political satire, "Patriots," which will be serialized this week -- the first novel ever serialized on the Huffington Post.

Chapters from the book will be posted daily for the coming week, with the full novel available for downloading on April 30, or in paperback form on May 7. You can read Frum on why he decided to write fiction here. For Part One, click here.


~ CHAPTER THREE ~


THE OFFICE OF Senator Philip B. Hazen, Constitutionalist of Rhode Island, was located in the middle -- and least imposing -- of a row of three Senate office buildings. The building to the left spread its neoclassical pillars across an entire city block. The building to the right gleamed bright white in its ultra-modernism. Hazen's budget-conscious Depression-vintage building was wedged almost apologetically in between.

I passed through a metal detector and took an elevator to the third floor. I emerged into a long clattering corridor and spotted the entry from a distance, framed by the flags of Rhode Island and the United States.

One of the office's three receptionists greeted me cordially.

"Welcome! Daphne isn't here yet. She asked me to show you around." Daphne was the name of the chief of staff, Daphne Peltzman. Still wearing my overcoat, I followed the receptionist out of the suite.

Teresa was the name of my guide. A recent graduate of a Catholic college back home in Rhode Island, she wore a small bright silver cross around her neck and a tight black turtleneck that showcased not only the cross but also the voluptuous body underneath. A little too plump for me, but she would definitely call somebody to Jesus.

At the end of the building tour, Teresa said, "Now let me show you the subway."

Yes, the Senate has its own subway. On foot, the trip from the remoter offices to the Senate chamber could easily take half an hour, even for a brisk walker -- and "brisk" is not always the first word you'd apply to a U.S. senator.

We rode the elevator to a sub-basement and walked toward a pair of doors marked "subway." I was telling her about my trip to South Africa. An amazed look spread across her face.

"You were away for the election?"

She halted abruptly just before the doors. People stepped round her, muttering.

"October is the best month for seeing the animals. After that the brush gets too thick. Then we spent a few days in London on the way home."

"So you voted absentee?"

"Um, no -- well, actually, I forgot."

Teresa wasn't amazed any more. She was offended. Her fingers tugged at the little cross in irritation.

"But look it didn't matter, right? General Pulaski won by a landslide! He didn't need one more vote from me. Anyway, I'm fairly sure my girlfriend is a Nationalist, so our votes would have canceled each other out."

I heard the sound of rubber wheels. Teresa walked fast away from me, her temper worse than ever, leading me toward a little platform on which stood three small, vaguely futuristic cars linked together atop a metal monorail. Teresa stepped into the last car without a look back. I hurried to catch up, entering the car just before the door whooshed close.

We were the only passengers, but she still lowered her voice. "This was the most important election of our lifetime. Our country was at stake -- our freedom, our Constitution, our way of life, everything we believe in. We wouldn't have recognized this country after four more years of Monroe Williams! And you forgot." She shook her head in disgust.

The train raced quietly into a surprisingly bright tunnel.

"Was President Williams really so bad?" I asked. "He seemed like a decent guy, trying to do his best."

"A decent guy!" Teresa was most definitely not cute when she was mad. "He sent goons to attack our rallies. His gangs shut down speakers on university campuses. His lawyers sent intimidating letters to our donors. My God, it was like living in a Third World dictatorship. It would be a Third World dictatorship if Williams had managed to steal the election. I'm sure he would have tried too, if it had not been such a landslide."

She simpered triumphantly. "But when it's not close, they can't steal it."

We pulled into the platform of the adjoining Senate office building, the oldest and grandest. A couple of staffers stood waiting. When the doors opened, they hopped into the car just ahead of ours.

"I don't see Williams as the kind of guy who'd employ thugs and goons," I said. "Image consultants maybe. Are you sure that's what really happened?"

"If you're too" -- she paused theatrically -- "busy to vote, you are probably too busy to watch Patriot News. You probably get all your information form the comedy shows."

I allowed that this might be so.

"So, no wonder you have no idea what's going on."

The mood in our car of the little monorail sank toward the chilly as we rode the route to the Capitol and back. As we exited onto the platform we had started from, Teresa sneered at me. "I suppose you don't need to care. It's middle-class people who need the Constitutionalists to stand up for them against the spread-the-wealth crowd. You're rich, your family is famous, your accountants watch out for you. Nobody's looking out for me."

"Will Pulaski look out for you?"

"He'd better," she answered. We returned in silence to Hazen's suite, where Teresa deposited me in a medium-sized room claustrophobically crowded with padded cubicles, three facing each wall. Teresa pointed me to one of the six cubicles. On a small desktop there stood a not-new computer. A user name and password had been handwritten on a sticky note affixed to the monitor's upper rim.

"Wait here until Daphne can see you," said Teresa, her voice frozen cold. She huffed out to return to the front reception room.

The other cubicle dwellers gathered for quick handshakes. One lingered for a while longer than the others. I made a special effort to remember his name, Jack Campozzo.

Jack was a classic Rhode Island mutt: long Italian name, pointy Irish face, blond Polish hair. He would have measured five inches shorter than me in his stocking feet, but when he stood on his cocksureness, he reached just as tall.

I liked him right away and gave him a full description of my gaffe with Teresa. He laughed hard. "You're in the shit now! Teresa was like a Pulaski maniac. She thought President Williams was the anti-Christ: Stalin and Hitler and Malcolm X all rolled into one. She took three months leave without pay to canvass for Pulaski in Pennsylvania after the convention."

I said: "If she wore that sweater, I bet she won him some votes too."

"Careful, dude. No rude remarks where Teresa can hear. She's a virgin you know -- okay, a secondary virgin."

"What's that?"

He stepped close and raised his mouth to murmur into my ear. "It means that after three years of fucking everything in pants in Capitol Hill -- every Constitutionalist, the girl has some standards -- Teresa has returned to Holy Mother Church and pledged chastity until marriage."

"Seems kind of too late doesn't it?"

"Careful again, you sound like a heathen."

"What if I do?"

"Word of advice in that case: keep it to yourself. You'd be surprised how many people keep score of things like that. But hey, I've got a question for you."

"Go ahead."

His voice resumed a more normal volume.

"So we all know your story: the heroic dad killed in action, the movie-star mother and the tragic plane crash, the mustard millions. With a background like that, how come you're here and not in the fucking south of France -- or the psych ward?"

"Don't speak too soon."

We took our seats, and I started to play around with the computer. Moments later, a clatter of chairs and feet announced the arrival of somebody important: Daphne.

I know we live in an age when professional women feel no need to deny their femininity. But -- whoa! Daphne had come to work today in ultra-tight black jeans and knee-high boots. Her hands glittered with bright red nail polish; her white teeth gleamed through even brighter lipstick. The effect was the opposite of alluring. Every man in the room tensed with apprehension at her entrance, as if a very dangerous shark had slipped into the lagoon.

"Welcome, Walter. I hope everybody has helped you settle in?"

"Yes Ms. Peltzman, thank you."

She smiled a sharky smile, then began talking -- almost purring -- in an exotic, non-specific foreign accent. "You may call me Daphne; we're a team here. Now, Walter, here's something I need you to understand. Senator Hazen has won three terms in a Nationalist state for two reasons: because he's the only honest politician in Rhode Island and because we run the best constituency service operation in the Senate. Everybody in the state knows that if he or she has a problem with the U.S. government, Senator Hazen will fix it. Every problem starts as a piece of mail, so you are the first line of response. If you mess up, you lose the senator a vote, and probably a whole family's votes. There's a second chance for everything except losing mail. You lose mail, we lose you. Got it?"

She exited, and the room relaxed.

"Tough lady," I said to Jack.

"Oh, man, you have no idea."

Jack wheeled his chair around, hushed his voice, and then told me this story.

Hazen had decided he needed an on-staff expert on electrical grids. He found the person he wanted, a lifer in the Department of Energy. An offer of more money and more clout on Capitol Hill lured the lifer away from his secure civil service berth.

Not 48 hours after the lifer started work, Daphne began complaining that the new hire was an incompetent disappointment. She would send the new hire on the road, and then schedule him to brief the senator. When the new hire inevitably missed the appointment, Daphne would poor-mouth him for his irresponsibility. Daphne would call the new hire's phone, start screaming at "hello," then deny that the conversation had ever occurred. After six weeks, the man quit. He never did get back his civil-service job.

Jack glanced over his shoulder as he finished his story. Our four officemates continued hard at work. I asked in a low voice, "Why would Daphne do a terrible thing like that?"

Jack stood up suddenly. "Let's get a soda."

I followed Jack out the reception room and down a flight of stairs to a vending machine.

"It's awkward to keep whispering," he said in a more normal voice. He fed quarters into the machine. "Let me sport you, Mr. Mustard King." Two cans rolled out the bottom. We clinked in mock-toast.

"Senator Hazen," Johnny continued, "is the last of the New England moderate Constitutionalists. He got along with President Williams, even sometimes cast a vote or two his way. That enraged all the other Constitutionalists. And it made Daphne very nervous."

"Why would Daphne care? And what's any of this got to do with the electrical guy?"

"Jobs are temporary, even chief of staff jobs. Networks are forever. Hazen is probably retiring when his term ends in four years. What happens to Daphne afterward? She wants to move downtown. But a lobbyist is only as valuable as her connections inside her party. If she is going to earn the big seven figures, she needs to prove that she is a 100 percent solid reliable Constitutionalist. Which is tough when you work for a so-called squish like Hazen. So when Hazen hired the electrical guy, Daphne panicked. She guessed that Hazen was thinking of working with the Williams administration on the president's smart grid project. Man, the Constitutionalist leadership in the House hated that project! They thought it was Washington run amok, big government interfering with state sovereignty, our constitutional liberties in jeopardy. Plus the local power companies are huge contributors to state Constitutionalist organizations. Daphne decided she had to shut down any possibility of Hazen cooperating with the president on the grid. And she needed to make sure that everybody knew she had shut it down."

"So she destroys a man's life?"

Jack shrugged and swigged his soda. "It's a tough town, as I won't be the last to tell you."

"Why does Hazen tolerate Daphne? She works for him, right?"

"The Hazen you see today isn't even the Hazen I saw when I started here 18 months ago. He lost his wife three years ago. He had a bout of stomach cancer last year. He's fading right in front of our eyes. Daphne makes his life go smoothly. He doesn't want to know the rest."

My new government-issue BlackBerry pinged.

"It's Daphne," I said. "She wants to see me in 15 minutes."

"That can't be good."

It took me fewer than 15 minutes to reach Daphne's door. Through the door reverberated the angry sounds of a ferocious one-sided argument:

"This is outrageous, Hannah, absolutely unacceptable. Just once -- just once! -- I wish you could think about a human being other than yourself. The answer is 'no.' I said, NO! Mommy is very busy, and I cannot possibly do it. And I don't care what you say Daddy said. If your father wants to tell me something, let him say it to me!" I heard a handset slam hard into its cradle.

I looked at my watch. I counted off the time to 15 full minutes, then waited 60 seconds more before I knocked.

"Come in."

The room was not designed to impress. A small window framed a view of a bleak interior courtyard. Inside: a long desk surmounted by an outdated computer monitor and a scuffed desktop phone. Facing the desk were two side-by-side televisions, both muted, one set to the Senate floor, the other to Patriot News.

"You wanted to see me?"

Daphne straightened herself in her high-tech office chair, the one new-looking item in the place. There was only one other chair in the room, alongside her desk. Too close. There was a battered blue couch along the wall. Too far. I stood in place.

"Yes," she said. "I spoke to Teresa this morning after your orientation tour. She told me something I could not believe. She told me that you had not voted in November's election."

It was not a question. But speaking of things not to be believed -- had Teresa ratted me out on a personal conversation? I stammered a quickly concocted excuse.

"I was traveling ..."

"I had an intern look it up, and you're not even registered to vote in Rhode Island."

"I've been living in New York."

"Or New York. Of course we checked that too."

"I'm not?" I faked my most convincing look of surprise.

Daphne's voice seethed with contempt. "You have never worked on a campaign. You have no consistent work history. As a student, you were twice put on academic probation. At Brown! As if going to Brown isn't academic probation all by itself!"

"I did graduate on time."

She fixed me with an accusing glare. "Have you processed any constituent mail today?"

"I am still familiarizing myself with the office organization."

"But you spent an hour exchanging dirty gossip with Jack Campozzo?"

Was this office full of spies?

"I'm sure it wasn't an hour."

"Honestly, if Jack's uncle weren't the mayor of Pawtucket, I'd have fired his ass long ago. On the other hand, at least he knows who the mayor of Pawtucket is. Do you?"

"No," I admitted.

"Mm," she said, half-disgusted, half-satisfied. "Can you name the governor of the state?"

"Give me a second, and I'll have the answer for you."

"The day I need you to tell me that answer is the day I fire my own ass."

She folded her hands on the desk. I could feel a lecture taking form. Might as well be seated. I took the side chair uninvited and pulled it to a safer distance. Daphne did not object. I suppose she had more urgent complaints. Her voice hissed again, "Can you tell me the names of some important Constitutionalist politicians other than General Pulaski and Senator Hazen?"

"I think we're out of luck there too, sorry," I said with what I hoped was a winning smile.

No smile in reply. Instead Daphne said, "I know that the senator has a special connection to your family. When he asked me to find a role for you, I expected the usual preppy numbskull. But either you are spoofing me -- or you are like some superstar preppy numbskull. If it were up to me, I'd put you on the next train back to New York. Lucky for you, your hiring is one of the few things in this office that wasn't up to me. If you continue to act as dumb as you sound, I promise you that your firing will be up to me. But I know the senator wants you to have your chance. So here's what I'm going to do."

She paused theatrically, like the boss in a gangster movie.

"I'm sending you to boot camp at the Constitutionalist Institute. It's ten days until Congress resumes and Senator Hazen returns from his trip to the Far East. I've spoken to my friend MacArthur Kohlberg. He's the vice president of the institute. He'll put together an educational program for you, based on the program for freshman members of Congress. Don't take that as a compliment, it's not meant as one. As ignorant as the typical new member is, at least they have done something with their lives."

Unlike you, she meant me to hear.

"You'll attend the program at the Constitutionalist Institute every working day for those next ten days. You'll read what they tell you to read, you'll do what they'll tell you to do. If you can learn something, good, we'll put you back on the mail. If not -- well there are plenty of other preppy numbskulls who'd like a job on Capitol Hill. Clear?"

"Loud and clear."

The chief unmuted her TV. Time to leave. On Patriot News, a young blonde woman in a sleeveless dress was leading three ugly old men in a discussion of George Pulaski's military career. Was he our greatest soldier since Ulysses S. Grant?

I walked out of the office, and kept walking: out the building, down the street, headed home. You never get used to being a disappointment. I felt tears sting my eyes. I blinked and swallowed. My throat rasped. I passed a row of empty storefronts on E Street. The last storefront held a Starbucks. I entered to buy an ice tea. A sandwich too, why not? It was nearly lunch.

I sat down at a little table to check my office email. No messages.

At the next table, there sat a light-skinned black man at an antique-looking laptop. Maybe ten years older than me, wedding ring, hair beginning to turn grey. His Brooks Brothers blazer looked like it had seen a lot of wear. A broken eyeglass frame was held together at the temple with yellowed Scotch tape. At his elbow was the smallest container of iced tea Starbucks sold. All the ice had melted a long time ago. I glanced at his computer screen. He was scrolling through the listings on a job site.

He caught my glance. He shrugged, embarrassed. "They keep telling us things are getting better."

"And?"

"Nah. No bailout for me."

"Live near here?"

"I used to work over there," he said, pointing to a stone office building on the opposite side of the street. "We don't have internet at home any more, so I come down here a couple of times a week. It gets me out of the house. But it's six bucks here and back on the subway and another couple of bucks for the ice tea, so I can't make a habit of it."

"You've been here all day?"

Another shrug.

"That's OK with the management?"

"They're not so busy."

I contemplated my sandwich. I noticed he was contemplating it too. I felt a pang of embarrassment. I said, "I'm trying to lose weight. You want half?" The little plastic knife did a surprisingly good job slicing through the wrapper. I offered the larger slice.

He shook his head -- no, no, he was fine. I pressed. He accepted.

The sandwich vanished in three bites.


 
 
 

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