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"Patriots" The Novel -- Part Three

Posted: 04/25/2012 8:43 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.


~ CHAPTER 5 ~


The next morning, a little before 8:30 AM, I walked through the portico of the Constitutionalist Institute, an exact replica of the façade of James Madison's plantation house, Montpelier. Don't be impressed by my historical knowledge. I am only repeating what I read in a brochure while waiting in the lobby.

I did not wait long. "Mr. Schotzke?" The formal name startled me. The person addressing me was young, shockingly young. I suppose he had to be 22, but he looked 17 in his brand-new discount-store suit and his tightly knotted dark-red bowtie.

"I'm Walter." We shook hands.

"I'm Dr. Kohlberg's assistant. I can take you up to see Dr. Kohlberg now."

The bow-tied boy led me to a pair of glass doors and passed a card over the reader. He held one of the doors open for me, then showed me into an elevator and pressed the button for the seventh of eight floors. Affixed to the interior wall of the elevator was a brass-colored plaque stamped with the words:

THE CI MISSION

Building a free, secure, and prosperous America under God and the U.S. Constitution.

We emerged from the elevator into a hushed blue-carpeted hallway lined with large mahogany-colored wooden bookcases showcasing sober-looking volumes. The tips of their neo-Georgian peaks scraped the acoustic tiles of the hall's low ceiling.

"This is our executive floor," said Bowtie Boy. He pointed at the cases. "These are some of the famous books by CI scholars. Dr. Kohlberg's office is the second door from the end, right next to the office of our president, Dr. Gordon Munsinger."

I reviewed the nameplates on the doors as we walked past.

"Dr. Margaret Hastings"

"Dr. Francis Arnovilla"

"Dr. William Shelby"

"It must be handy to have so many doctors," I said, "if anyone gets sick."

Bowtie Boy did not appreciate the joke. "They are not medical doctors. Dr. Munsinger is a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen in Constitutionalist studies. Dr. Kohlberg is an honorary doctorate from Maxwell College."

"Maxwell College?" I'd never heard of it.

"It's a liberal arts college in Michigan that offers a full undergraduate program based on Constitutionalist principles. It's the only consistently Constitutionalist college in the whole country! I'm a graduate of Maxwell myself, just this past June."

"Congratulations," I said.

"Where did you go?" he asked.

"Brown."

He shook his head sympathetically. "That must have been tough. All those progressive professors!"

The plushly carpeted corridor opened into a kind of foyer in front of the offices of Kohlberg and Munsinger. Three young women, each as well-scrubbed as my young guide, sat at four desks. A fourth desk evidently belonged to the guide himself. "Just a minute," he said, and rapped at a door trimmed in mahogany veneer.

"Come in!" boomed a deep voice. Bowtie Boy opened the door to reveal Kohlberg rising to meet us. A thick neck protruded from a white button-down shirt, adorned by a dark-red tie spun from some industrial fabric and stamped with multiple silhouettes of a man in a Colonial pigtail: James Madison, as I correctly guessed. A round bald head jutted from Kohlberg's neck, the kind of baldness you see on the football coaches interviewed on ESPN, as if the hair had just drowned in the body's surging testosterone.

"Walter Schotzke!" Kohlberg boomed again, clutching my right hand with both of his meaty paws. I'm tall myself, but he loomed over me. His thick body looked to have been fed on a lifelong diet of steak and potatoes. "Glad to meet you! Damn glad! I still remember the day I heard the news of your mother's death. What a terrible thing. What a beautiful woman. Of course, I'm a huge admirer of your late father. We're honored to welcome a member of such a distinguished American family to the Constitutionalist Institute. We'll use your time well, I promise you."

Still gripping my hand, Kohlberg levered me like a wrestler into a thickly upholstered blue wing chair facing a picture window framing a postcard-perfect view of the Capitol dome. His big pseudo-mahongany desk stretched across the opposite side of the room, under a wall of shelves of awards, trophies, books and bright-red binders with years stamped on their spines: 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 .... He ordered his assistant, "Get Walter a soda. What would you like?"

"Diet Coke, please."

I thanked Kohlberg for accepting me. He waved my thanks aside. "Educating rising national leaders is exactly what CI is here to do!"

"Daphne thinks I need a lot of educating."

"Daphne has very high standards. But I said to her on the phone, 'The Schotzke family are patriots. The Schotzke family are wealth-creators. So the Schotzke family are good Constitutionalists already, even if they don't know why. All we have to do is give Walter the reasons for what he already knows.'"

"If you put it like that, it doesn't seem so hard."

Bowtie Boy arrived with two tall soda glasses stamped with the same red-tinted head of James Madison as was stamped in white on Kohlberg's red tie -- and (I now noticed) the bowtie too. Drinks delivered, the assistant backed respectfully out of the room.

"Tell me," demanded Kohlberg in a way that made clear his total confidence that I would answer correctly. "Do you like paying taxes? Do you think the government makes good use of your money?"

Once a year I signed a tax return generated for me in Providence. The return filled dozens of pages. I never bothered to read it. I just signed on the indicated lines, then forwarded it to the IRS in an envelope the accountants provided.

"I suppose not."

"Right! And do you think that if your family were allowed to keep more of their own money, you might start new businesses and create new jobs?"

If I had more money to spend, I'd go back to South Africa and spend the winter fishing off Cape Town. But that did not sound like the right thing to say, so I just nodded affirmatively.

"Right again! And do you agree that it's our Constitution that secures our freedom -- that makes the United States the greatest nation on earth?"

"For sure."

Kohlberg slapped my knee with his big hand. Hard. "Just as I told Daphne! All the rest is filling in the footnotes. By the time you have finished here, you'll be able to qualify for your own doctorate in Constitutionalist studies. I've worked out a schedule for you" -- he slipped me a piece of paper -- "My assistant will email you a digital copy. We've divided your days into sessions with different experts. Your lunches too, right here in our own dining room. We have a terrific chef. Come to me any time you have a question. I mean, any time. I look forward to getting to know you a lot better. You and the whole Schotzke family."

I thanked him once more.

"We'll set you up with a password for our wifi system. And a desk and phone on the eighth floor. That's what we call our Founder's Floor -- where you'll meet some of the greatest minds of our Constitutionalist philosophy. These are men who go back forty, fifty years in the Constitutionalist movement. They are national treasures, and they are all available to you anytime. Just rap on the door -- and ask them anything. Don't be bashful." He chuckled. "That's why we pay them!"

He twisted to the side, toward a little table and hit a button on a phone, summoning his assistant to lead me out again.

We both stood. Another wrenching handshake, another big jovial smile. "Remember - any time!"

Thus my re-education began. I should say, "my education," for what education had I had before I started at CI, despite all those years of schooling? I'd lived my mental life in a blur. Random facts would stick to my memory, but they didn't connect to other facts.

I knew who had won the Civil War, and why the dinosaurs had gone extinct, and the difference between a stock and a bond. I could bluff my way through an art museum and pay a bar bill in Spanish, French, and Italian. The college course I'd liked best had been a junior year seminar in political philosophy: Machiavelli seemed to know what he was talking about. I still feel bad about doing such a half-assed job on the term paper.

But after that? Half a million dollars of tuition over the years, and I was as ignorant as a hillbilly. In all my life, I'd never sat down and read the Constitution from beginning to end. It never occurred to me that I could do it, or that I'd understand it if I did.

"Walter, tell me some of the rights protected by the Constitution." The question was posed by a CI legal specialist, a fierce middle-aged African-American with rapidly receding grey hair and a thick grey mustache. I was told that two decades ago he had headed an important federal agency.

"Freedom of speech, the right to privacy ..."

"Stop! Show me where it says 'right to privacy.'" He tossed me a small paperback copy of the Constitution with the Institute's logo stamped on the red cover.

I flipped forward, then backward. "I can't find it."

He snorted. "It isn't there. It comes from over here." He pulled a big book onto his desk and read aloud:

"The foregoing cases suggest that specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance. Various guarantees create zones of privacy."

"I don't think I understand that."

"Of course you don't understand it! It's gibberish. But that's our Supreme Court talking. The purpose of the Constitution is to enable the American people to govern themselves, to make their own decisions, including their own mistakes. Personally, I think it's stupid to tell adult Americans they cannot smoke marijuana if they want to. The Constitution doesn't tell us what the answer is -- it tells us how we must decide together."

I didn't like everybody I met. One day I made the mistake of wondering aloud, "Was it fair that some people had so much when others had so little?"

I had actually directed the thought to the pretty economist was tutoring me at a long table in the CI library on the difference between the deficit and the debt. She was maybe 40, maybe 50, but still as slender as a girl and with just the faintest air of seductiveness on the tips of her long fingers and in the corners of her smiling mouth. Her name was Celestine, and her accent was as French as her name.

Unfortunately, my question was overheard by a CI scholar standing behind a bookcase full of old government reports. The eavesdropper barged uninvited into my conversation with the French economist: a small whirligig of baldheaded, dandruff-flecked non-stop talk.

"Are you Walter Schotzke? I can't believe you'd ask that question!"

The ferocious little man dropped into a chair on the other side of me. He did not pause for breath.

"Okay," he commenced, his eyes glittering intensely behind smudged metal-rimmed eyeglasses, "let's say they decide, 'Hey -- we'll be fair." "Fair" was pronounced with sneer quotes. "We'll take from those who have, like you, and give to the people who work less hard or don't work at all."

"Actually, I wouldn't say I do work very hard."

The former eavesdropper ignored the comment.

"Maybe they'll say, 'Let's tax the top 1 percent or 2 percent and use the money to benefit everybody else.' That's the morality that led to the Holocaust! They'll say, 'We're not targeting everybody, just a small percentage. What are you worried about? It's not you. It's not you. It's them.' And arguing that it's OK to loot some group because it's them, or kill some group because it's them and because it's a small number, that has no place in a democratic society that treats people equally."

Celestine looked pained.

"Walter and I have an appointment on the Founders Floor." She rose to her feet and motioned to me. I followed -- but so did the argumentative little bald man, talking at the back of my head all the way to the elevator. He was still talking as the doors closed.

She smiled fetchingly. "His heart is in the right place, but sometimes he gets carried away."

"I'll say." As the talk drifted away from economics, my tutor's French accent became more noticeable.

The elevator doors opened. Through a jumble of mostly empty cubicles, I saw my own workspace, ornamented only with the coat I had dropped on the chair three hours before.

"It's strange," I said. "Everybody talks about the Founders Floor, but nobody ever seems to go there. When I sit at my desk up here, I feel like I'm in a ghost town. At like 9 o'clock, a few of the scholars wander into their rooms and close the doors. At 5 o'clock, they wander out again. In between, you barely see a soul up here."

"No?" she asked. I liked her smile, the first sympathetic smile I'd seen inside these walls.

"No."

"Well, why don't we look around then?"

The Founders' Floor was laid out on a very similar plan to the executive floor below, minus the mock Colonial finishings. The doors lacked mahogany veneer, but the names on the doors were blazoned with the same heavy brass plates as on the executive floor below.

"Many of our founding scholars are semi-retired," she said, "so that may explain the quiet. But they still attend CI events and eat in the lunchroom and mentor our younger people. They are such a tremendous inspiration to all Constitutionalists. Just to read these names is to walk into history."

She pointed to the nameplate nearest the elevator.

"Marcus Hanson. Back in the 1960s, he revolutionized the way we think about antitrust and competition. Do you know, they used to punish companies for selling their products too cheaply or producing a product that was too good? Dr. Hanson argued that we should protect the consumer, not unsuccessful competitors. You have him in large part to thank whenever you buy a better and cheaper product at a lower price."

We stepped deeper into the silent corridors.

"Irving Minkstein. He and his late wife Gloria showed that the Great Depression could have been just an ordinary recession, if it had not been aggravated by a collapse in the money supply. You don't need a big public works program to pull an economy out of a deep recession -- just a central bank committed to recovery. We could use one now.

"Julius Wendell. He proved that the most important thing you could do to reduce crime was to hold the hardest-case criminals in prison longer. We call him the man who saved New York City."

I nodded appreciatively. "Thank him for me."

"Oh look," she said. "Vladimir Starkovich is here today!" She rapped on the door, then pushed it open without waiting. "Vladimir?" We caught side of a tall white-haired man hastily stubbing out a cigarette -- apparently in an ashtray secreted inside the open drawer of a big wooden desk. The room smelt strongly of smoke. "Vladimir," said my tutor with the same winsome smile. "You have no need to keep secrets from me!"

We stepped into a room where every inch of the wall was covered with bookcase, and every inch of bookcase was filled with books: books upright and sidewise, books stacked atop books, more books on the top of the bookcase, and then pillars of books rising like stalagmites three and four feet from the floor. Beside them were stacks of file folders filled with papers, stacks of paper as high as the piles of books. The books and the papers hemmed the work area, two wooden filing cabinets on either side of the big wooden desk -- filing cabinets that hung a little open, and that always would hang a little open because they were jammed with too much paper to close shut.

A couple of the books propped open a jimmied window, beside which a little air filtration unit struggled to purify the room of illicit smoke.

"The rules are very strict," said the old man with a shy smile of his own. He had been handsome once. He was handsome still, despite the wrinkled skin and yellow teeth and the ashes on the tweed suit. "We used to be allowed to smoke in our own rooms, but then they stopped the filtration system. The superintendent is a fellow Russian, he helped me improvise a filter of my own. I like to smoke while I read. And it's so quiet up here, I don't think I'm disturbing anybody."

"May we sit for a moment? This is a guest of CI, Walter Schotzke. He's joined the staff of Senator Hazen. We are immersing him in a crash course in Constitutionalist thought."

"Of course," said the old man, rising to his feet and walking around the desk to move files off seats and onto the floor to make room for my tutor and me. "Fortunately, I have exactly two visitor chairs."

"Vladimir has written the definitive history of the Russian revolution. You read it at university?"

I shook my head.

"Ah, American higher education," my tutor said archly.

"Thank you," said Vladimir gravely returning to his own chair and pushing far enough back from the desk to gain a clear view of Celestine's knees, which he visibly appreciated. "But it's not quite definitive yet. There's still the third volume to finish."

"Yes naturally, but I thought the third volume was nearly finished? Forgive me, I don't keep up with the foreign policy side of CI."

"It was far advanced," Victor said. "Now there are ... difficulties." He glanced at me, then back at my tutor. Not in front of our guests.

She ignored the signal. "Dr. Kohlberg told me, 'Answer all of Walter's questions.'"

Victor did not seem impressed by Celestine's confident reassurances. Then my tutor clasped both her hands to her left knee and asked, "Victor, may I share one of your cigarettes?"

The ice cracked. Delightedly, he pulled out his desk drawer, extracted the pack, and proffered it. My tutor tilted her head to accept a light. They both tilted back together to exhale the smoke. Relaxed, relieved, Victor reached some kind of inner decision and narrated his story:

"I had a talk with Mac Kohlberg about two months ago. He came up here to see me, which was generous of him. He had many compliments for my work. He said he had always been my strongest advocate here when others questioned why CI should be supporting research not directly part of our mission. He told me that I was welcome to continue to use the office. CI would keep my wife and me on the health plan. But he said that with a new presidential administration expected, there were going to be many new calls on CI's resources. 'I think we can cross Soviet communism off our list of worries,' he said. So he was going to have to zero out my research support. And my travel grants. And my salary. 'You've had a good run Victor,' he said, 'but we can't provide income support forever for the study of ancient history.'"

"That's impossible!" protested Celestine. "At the annual dinner, Dr. Munsinger made you stand up in front of the whole room! He praised your work as one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the Constitutionalist movement! Does Dr. Munsinger know?"

Victor shrugged. "In the old Russia, they'd say after a Cossack rampage, 'if only the czar knew.' But the Cossacks work for the czar. The czar knows."

"But you could finish the third volume anyway?" my tutor insisted, still visibly shocked. "You must have savings, a pension, Social Security?"

"Yes," said Victor, "I am not in any financial difficulty. But I can't afford to pay my own way to the archives in Moscow. I certainly can't afford the bribes for the archivists. Anyway, I'm not so young, I can't do all the reading myself any more. I'd need assistants, and I can't afford them either.

"But it's not just the money. I've always relied on Mac and Gordon. If they tell me that my work isn't needed any more, maybe they are right. The two finished volumes are my achievement. I've left my unfinished draft for the third and my research notes to Yale University, where I did my Ph.D. Perhaps they will be useful to a younger man. Or woman," he corrected himself. "Or perhaps not. I was angry for a little time. But I'm at peace now. We work to serve the movement, do we not? And if our work no longer serves the movement, then our work must stop."

That sounded sensible to me, but for some reason it only seemed to upset Celestine even more. "I didn't know," she said softly and stubbed out her cigarette. She rose, I rose, and Vladimir rose. He walked us to his battered door. He extended a hand. "Truly a pleasure," he said. "Please come visit me again."

I shook the hand. Celestine kissed Victor on the cheek instead. Her lips lingered a full beat longer than I expected.

"You need to appreciate," she said as we stepped inside the elevator to the busier floors below, "how much CI has contributed to scholarship. Obviously we make mistakes from time to time. But on balance? We have contributed so much!"


TOMORROW: The incoming Pulaski administration faces mutiny in the conservative ranks.

 
 
 

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