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"Patriots," The Novel -- Part Five

Posted: 04/ 8/2012 11:41 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, go here. For Part Two, go here. For Part Three, go here. For Part Four, go here.


~ CHAPTER EIGHT ~


THE DAY THAT Daphne recruited me as a co-conspirator was the same day as Valerie's first big party event: the opening of a new lounge.

The Ali Baba bar occupied a long stretch of glassed street front on Pennsylvania Avenue, a dozen long blocks northwest from the Capitol. The sun had already set when I exited the office a few minutes past six. The December wind blew cold flecks of snow into my face as I walked downhill.

Bouncers stood importantly around the door in dark suits and Secret Service earpieces. I gave my name to a haughty young man holding a clipboard and walked inside, into a wall of people and noise.

The crowd looked different from any I'd yet met in Washington: their clothes more flamboyant, their hair sleeked with "product." The slits of the women's skirts showed wide glimpses of thigh, necklaces gleamed in the open collars of men's shirts.

Who were these people? I'd spent almost three weeks living in a village barely one-mile square, surrounded by people who either received a government paycheck or directly serviced those who did. But spreading out beyond the village was a big city, bustling with people who cut hair and sold dresses, who managed restaurants and caught footballs. And here they all were. They were not exactly glamorous. But after all these days of being surrounded by gray and blue suits, at least they were something different.

I pushed deeper into the bar. I pushed too hard, because I lurched directly into a woman holding a bright pink drink. Half the liquid sloshed onto the floor. "Excuse me," I apologized. "Let me get you another one."

She turned her face directly on me: an older face, illuminated by striking blue eyes. The dress more elegant than the attention-grabbing outfits nearer the door; the body inside the dress ... thought-provoking. She assessed me for another minute. Her three friends watched her watch me. Girls' night out.

"No," she smiled flirtatiously. "Let me get you one."

I don't pretend to be a super-reliable guy. I might have said yes. But before I could say anything, Valerie had materialized beside me. "Look who's here," she said and pulled me away.

I shrugged my shoulders at my new friend. She reached out a hand to shake goodbye. Our fingers touched. A card was slipped inside my palm. She lofted her half-empty cocktail glass in a farewell salute.

"Who was that?" Valerie asked, as light and sweet as cappuccino froth.

"I don't know. I tripped over her and spilled her drink. I was trying to apologize."

"I guess she accepted. But come on. Samir is over here."

Samir? Samir! I would never have dared call Samir my best friend. He was just the friend I liked best. We'd lived in the same suite freshman year, had hung with the same groups for the next three years. Well I hung. Samir always led. He was a great athlete, a lady's man with an unequaled won-lost record. Everybody always deferred to Samir. Samir's appeal to the coach saved me from being cut from the squash team at Christmas of freshman year. I heard the story later from the coach. "Samir said if I cut you, I'd have to cut him too."

When I asked Samir, he laughed it off. "Coach is so melodramatic. What I actually said was that if they cut you, they could forget about your family renovating the courts."

It was not so easy for Samir to save me when I was put on academic probation in junior year. He knocked on my door one day, leading in a beautiful graduate student. "Hey Walter, this is Lydia. She's going to coach you through finals, help you with all your papers, make sure you get through this term with flying colors."

"Wow, thank you."

Lydia smiled -- but at Samir, not at me. "Samir's promised that we're going to Europe together this summer if I can save you from being thrown out of Brown. You're not going to disappoint me, right?"

When I think of Samir, I always think of him laughing and of me laughing with him. I remember a visit to New York, just after we'd finished college. We were drinking at the Bonobo Bar in Tribeca. Samir had arrived alone, but had somehow collected three beautiful girls -- and then serenaded them with an obscene impromptu parody of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music.

"Marzipan pigs that belonged to King Tut -- these are some things that I shove up my butt!"

I still laugh when I think about it now. Samir worked for a private equity firm for his first couple years out of college. He thrived, as he always did, gained mentors. Then -- just when he was poised to be promoted, he quit the firm. He moved to Iowa to volunteer on the Monroe Williams presidential campaign. For four months, he shared a motel room with three other volunteers, visited old age homes and churches, selling "hope" and "change." A year later, Samir was writing speeches for the president of the United States. He wrote about the financial crisis, about healthcare reform, about immigration, about war and peace -- and of course, our children's future. And after four years in the White House, it was Samir who wrote President Williams' election-night concession speech.

I'd seen Samir a few times during the past four years: once at a summer weekend house party in Chappaquiddick, again at a wedding in New York, most recently at our fifth class reunion in Providence. But too many other people now claimed his attention for him to waste much time on me.

I'd assumed that with the administration winding down, he might have more time to see me. But every attempt went unreturned. Leave it to Valerie to solve the problem: send Samir a VIP invitation to a splashy party (Samir did love a party), then assign a pretty assistant to wait by the door to pounce the moment Samir gave his name (Samir never said no to a pretty girl). The assistant had dragged Samir to the very back of the room, underneath a giant pressboard genie and lamp, where she had gathered a little posse of her friends for Samir's benefit. I could see them through the throng, laughing merrily. Samir stood as tall and lean as ever, exuding importance and confidence in a once-expensive suit that revealed five years of hard wear.

Valerie walked a dozen rapid paces ahead of me. This opening was her first big event, but Valerie didn't know what it means to be nervous. She nodded commandingly at the wait-staff as we pushed our way through the throng. A cocktail girl in a harem costume carried a tray of mauve-colored cocktails under her chiffoned breasts. I plucked a cocktail from as close up to Princess Jasmine's cleavage as I could reach. It tasted like cough syrup.

Valerie swooped upon Samir, grabbed Samir's arm, and pulled him tight to her body to prevent escape.

"You see," she said to Samir rapidly, "I told you I had somebody you would want to see!"

"Samir! You bastard!" I called. "I called you when I knew I was moving here. I called you when I arrived. I called when I rented my apartment. I called you just this past weekend. I know you are busy with the transition, but the job search can't consume 24 hours a day, can it?" I extended a hand, but Samir couldn't take it -- not with Valerie on one arm, and a tumbler of whisky in the other. No stupid purple drink for Samir.

Samir looked surprised to see me, and not in a good way.

"Hello Walter," he said curtly. I was so happy to see him that the unwelcoming tone didn't immediately register on me.

"Well, now that I've found you, come have some dinner with Valerie and me."

"Sorry, but I have a date later tonight." He was talking over my shoulder now.

"Well let us join you then -- I always liked your girlfriends."

"I don't think that would be a good idea."

"Then lunch? Tomorrow? No wait, not tomorrow. The day after tomorrow? Or any day? Maybe the day after the inauguration? You have to be free then!"

"No, sorry." Samir's eyes moved further and further into the remote distance.

My BlackBerry buzzed. I ignored it.

"You can't?"

"No."

The intern and her girlfriends shots worried looks at each other. "See ya, Valerie," they chimed. "Nice to meet you, Samir!" And off they vanished in a chattering gaggle.

Valerie laid a gentle restraining hand on my forearm. "Isn't this a crazy city? Walter has been so busy too, there's never a chance to see the people we really want to see ..."

"As in ... ever?"

"No."

I was too wounded to be angry. I stepped closer to him, until I was almost shouting in his ear. "Did I do something wrong? You know me, you know I'm semi-autistic, I'll never figure it out for myself. Tell me."

Valerie interrupted again, coaxingly: "Samir is only saying ..."

"Tell me!"

My angry outburst pulled his attention back from over-my-shoulder land, but he spoke as coolly as ever. "We're on different teams now."

"I'm not on any team!" I took a big gulp from my horrible drink and choked a little. Valerie discreetly removed it from my hand, and deposited it on a ledge near one of the cartoon thieves.

"Everybody's on a team, whether they know it or not," Samir replied. "Congratulations, your team is riding high these days. My team? We're in the shit. Someday maybe I'll be a good sport about it. Right now, I can't. That was a fucking ugly campaign your team ran against mine, and I take it personally."

"Samir, I had nothing to do with any of that -- obviously." Valerie squeezed my elbow. I realized I was shouting.

"No, you didn't. You didn't call me a Nazi fascist socialist. You didn't say I was planning to send your disabled nephew to a death panel. You didn't accuse me of wanting to foist Sharia law on the United States." He tinkled the ice in his whisky with a hard little smile to himself. "Well I'm innocent on the Sharia count at least."

He raised his eyes again. "But other people did do all those things -- and they are the people you work with. I want no part of it. Or them. Or anybody connected to them. You hang your hat at the Constitutionalist Institute for the Study of Lying Crap. Oh yes, I know all about it. You may say that Senator Hazen is not the usual Constitutionalist wing-nut. But your new friend Daphne Peltzman will ensure that when it counts, your grand statesmanly Senator Hazen is lined up with Senator Joliette and Senator Bingham and Patriot News. You'll be lined up with them too, you'll see."

"What is this, the Bloods and Crips?" I was raving furiously now. "You can't be my friend any more because somebody neither of us ever met said something you didn't like in an election campaign? That's crazy!"

"You've shown up in the middle of the story," he said. "That's fine, I suppose we all do. But you need to learn what happened before you decided to grace the nation's politics with your attention. Then you tell me what's crazy and what isn't crazy. We're not just two college pals who happen to work for Coke and Pepsi. We're on opposite sides of a wall, we're officers in armies at war. And it wasn't me that decided it was a war either. I believed in 'hope and change,' 'what unites us is more important than what divides us,' 'we live in the United States, not the blue states and the red states.' All bullshit, but I believed it. I don't believe it now. The Constitutionalists decided it was war, they fought like it was a war, and they won. We didn't take it seriously enough, we believed in the system and played by the old rules. We lost. Well, I've learned my lesson. I'm not playing this game by those rules any more. You got a TV network to tell lies about me? I'll get a TV network to tell lies about you. You raise special-interest money? I'll raise special-interest money. I'll fight for what I believe just as ruthlessly as your side did. And I only drink with those who fight alongside."

He place his tumbler on the ledge beside my discarded purple cocktail. He had not taken a sip.

"Well, fuck you too then," I answered.

Not even that provoked a rise in him.

"You're a good guy, more or less. But you're not big enough or tough enough or just give-a-damn-enough to change your team. So they'll change you. Probably started already. Pleasure to meet you, Valerie -- Walter's a lucky man. G'night." He stepped away, subsumed into the crowd like the genie returning to the lamp.

I've had a lot of bad news in my life. I don't usually have a lot of emotion left in me. But what little there was -- it got a decent workout that night in the Ali Baba bar.


~ CHAPTER NINE ~


THE SHERIDAN CLUB occupied an old mansion in the exuberant style of the Monaco Casino, built a hundred years ago by a robber baron to please his socially ambitious wife. The wife kept the house after a divorce, and brought it with her when she remarried a famous American diplomat of the 1930s. I knew the story because the famous diplomat was an uncle of my grandmother's -- and (according to family history) flamboyantly gay.

As I sat on a marble bench beside the tinkling indoor fountain waiting for Frederick Catesby, I thought, That's a good thing about being gay. If you do get married, you can really keep your eye on the ball.

I was hungry. My stomach had adjusted to the early mealtimes of Washington: lunch at noon, dinner at 6:30. Lunch at one would have been tough enough if Catesby had arrived on time. He was very late. Twenty-five minutes past the hour, a vintage Porsche 911 roared up the circular drive to the front door. The driver stepped out, tossed his keys to the doorman, pulled off a pair of tan leather driving gloves, shoved them into the pocket of a short tweed overcoat, and stepped inside to shake my hand.

Whatever I'd been expecting, this wasn't it.

Freddy Catesby was a small, lithe man. He wore the most expensive clothes I ever saw before or since on a male inhabitant of the nation's capital: hand-tailored charcoal suit, shoes cobbled to order for his dainty feet, blue-and-yellow Turnbull & Asser shirt and carefully contrasted blue-and-yellow necktie. It must have demanded all his willpower to resist the temptation to add a pocket square.

The squeaky voice quavered with enthusiasm.

"Walter, Walter, good to see you, Walter. Come in, come in. Have you ever been inside? It's not as lavish as the Gotham, my New York club. But it has more a feeling of belonging, it's more a real gentleman's club. I'm also a member of the Reform Club in London. It strained my conservative convictions to join, but the Reform is the only other club that has this same feeling that there's more to the membership than who can afford the dues. We have to see about making you a member here. I've reserved a window table."

The window offered the grey light of a Washington winter day and sliced-off view of the Estonian embassy across the street. Catesby unfurled his napkin with a snap, laid it in his lap, and immersed himself in a thick vinyl-bound wine list.

"I always have wine at lunch. I live by my friend Saki's rule: I buy the wine, I do the talking."

He beckoned to a waiter.

"The 2005 Beycheville, please. I'll take the veal chop, it's the best thing here. What'll you have?"

"The veal chop sounds great."

Catesby scribbled out the food order on a little pad, then settled confidentially into his powder blue armchair.

"So you are probably wondering: Why has Freddy Catesby invited me to lunch? Freddy Catesby, the founder of the Constitutional Review, Patriot News guest host, and bestselling author! Freddy Catesby: who has known U.S. presidents, who has entertained a British prime minister in his home, and who -- people say -- once dated the Princess of Wales. And it's this same Freddy Catesby who is taking me out to lunch. Why? It's the most natural question in the world! It's exactly what I'd be wondering if I were sitting in your chair."

The waiter filled Catesby's wine glass, then looked questioningly at me. What the hell. I nodded yes.

"To understand why I invited you, you have to understand me. I'm not only the founder of Constitutional Review, although I'm proud of my role in launching the magazine. You know that Time magazine called us the most influential political magazine in the country on our 10th anniversary? I'll put you on the list for our 30th anniversary dinner next month as my guest, I'll put you at my table. No, no, don't thank me -- it's my pleasure.

"All those things I've accomplished, all the awards and accolades -- they mean nothing to me. I live for my principles, not for recognition. What I care about is fighting the Kultursmog. You know I coined the term?"

I'd never heard the term, but I gave no sign. The waiter presented a tray of rolls. Catesby pointed at one, and ripped it roughly in half as soon as it touched his plate. I declined. In Valerie's book, wine at lunch was a serious dereliction, but bread was a capital offense. Catesby dropped one half of his roll on a bread plate, then used the other half like a conductor's baton, waving in rhythm with his words.

"New people arrive in Washington, and the first thing they think about is how to get invited to cocktail parties in Georgetown and Chevy Chase. They ingratiate themselves with the Nationalists instead of supporting their own. Opportunists! Have you ever heard of that jackass Sheraton Feldman? No? Good. He's dead now. He was an art critic for the Washington Guardian, back when the Guardian dominated media in this town. Sheraton one day decided he'd become a Constitutionalist. Oh, we were all so excited. Here was this great media personality, joining our side. That was a big, big deal in those days.

"Then the Guardian offered me a column. I accepted -- not for my own sake, but because the platform represented a huge advance for our movement. This man Feldman appeared on a television show, and the host asked, 'Why'd the Guardian hire Catesby?' Feldman answered, 'Bad taste.'

"Can you imagine? Feldman called me the next day to apologize. He said he was only joking. He said he had huge respect for me and my work. He said his tongue had slipped. I told him, 'I don't care what you say about me, I have no ego. I'm just sad that you would divide the movement.'"

Catesby took a savage bite out of the half-roll in his hand.

"You see, the important thing is for Constitutionalists to work together, to build each other up, not criticize or diminish each other. You should help me, and I will help you. I'll promote you and I'll support you. And of course you'll want to do the same for me."

"Thank you, Mr. Catesby."

"Call me Freddy, please."

Catesby drained his glass of wine and motioned the waiter for a refill.

The food arrived. Kind of disappointing after the buildup: the chop rather dry, dolloped with a too-sweet mushroom sauce that ran into a creamy puddle from the scalloped potatoes. But Freddy seemed satisfied, and his knife lunged into his chop with gusto.

"That's why it's so disheartening to watch our new president at work," he said as he sliced. "He is splitting this party down the middle. Says he wants to move beyond partisanship, build a national coalition behind him. No more principles, just salute the great leader. That sounds like fascism as far as I'm concerned. Progressive fascism."

He motioned the waiter to refill his glass again.

"Most people think George Pulaski is a hero," I ventured.

"That's because of all the Strange New Respect Pulaski is getting from the media. The Nationals lost the election. Now the Nationalists and the media -- but I repeat myself -- now the Nationalists want to steal the guy we elected and make him their president."

"Senator Hazen thinks Pulaski is a hero."

"That's why you are such an important person, Walter! If we could bring Hazen back onside -- as a reliable Constitutionalist senator -- we'd change everything. We could repeal the Nationalist healthcare law. We could pass the flat tax reform. We could see some real budget cutting. And the people who brought Hazen onside -- they'd get the credit. There would be nothing they couldn't ask for." He cast me a meaningful look.

The waiter topped up my half-empty glass, then emptied the remainder of the bottle into Catesby's.

"I want you to meet our board of directors. I want your input: How can we take the fight to the enemy? I've been pressing Patriot News to launch a regular weekly program featuring our writers. I could host it, it would be a great way for me to support and promote our young talent. Of course, all these things require resources ...."

Ah. Here we go. Catesby ordered a cognac for himself. I requested a coffee, then settled in to listen patiently to the fundraising spiel. I'm good at that.

At last the check arrived. Catesby signed with a flourish, then rose, a little unsteadily on his feet. We reclaimed Catesby's coat from the cloakroom, then walked together to the front door. The doorman saluted him, and Catesby reached a hand into his breast pocket. A look of bafflement spread across his face. He whispered in my ear, "I seem to have left my wallet at the office. Can you give the doorman $20 to thank him for watching my car? Be careful, the rules here say, 'No tipping.' But they also say, 'No parking on the circular drive'!"

I paid the requested tip. We stepped outside together into the grey afternoon. The doorman held open the door of the Porsche. Catesby slid into the driver's seat, waved cheerfully, and called out, "You'll be hearing from me!"

ON MONDAY: In the last installment of the serial -- before Patriots is available for download -- Walter receives an unexpected promotion, and now must live up to (or try to) his doomed father's legacy.

 
 
 

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