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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Nixon Interview (Part 5)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4



Nixon savored the thought a few moments longer, and then let out a deep and truly evil chuckle. "Bruce," he asked, "what is the one thing above all others that American Lefties love to fantasize about?"

I thought it over. "Hillary Clinton in stiletto heels, fishnet stockings, a corset and a whip?"

"Close," he said, no doubt wishing he'd never asked. "The answer is, conspiracies. Vast, complex, right-wing conspiracies. Layers upon layers and wheels within wheels; nefarious unseen masterminds pulling the invisible strings of endless legions of fiercely loyal, selflessly silent, and stone-cold homicidal conservative henchmen." He tried his evil chuckle again, but ended with a shrug.

"I don't know where they get it from," he said. "New Age shamanism, maybe. They imagine a world filled with mysterious powers and invisible forces because they don't have a clue what's really going on. Or maybe it's simple psychological projection. The lefties are always hatching up plots but making a botch of them, so maybe they think we're just like they are, only competent. Of course, anyone who's ever actually tried to work with Republicans soon realizes he'd have more luck trying to organize a conspiracy of cats. It never takes them more than five minutes to get back to arguing over the precise number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin."

He paused, and I tried to slip a word in edgewise, but before I could get it out he erupted again.

"And don't even get me started on all their whacked-out paranoid delusions about right-wing Christian conspiracies! What's that verse from St. Matthew: 'Whenever two or more of you are gathered in My name, there's a schism?'"

He caught himself, relaxed, and let his frown flow back into a smile. "So that's the beauty of this one," he said at last. "It looks terribly clever, but only two people actually need to be in on it. Ergo, without further ado," he looked up at me, smiled again —

And vanished!


I was still reacting to that a second later when all the lights suddenly went out, the room plunged into blackness, and a cold and unearthly wind swirled through my office, scattering papers from my desk. About the same time as I registered that the door and windows were closed and even the LEDs on the battery-powered devices had gone out, I became aware of a dim, red, hellish glow rising up from the floor, and along with that, of a tall, gaunt, black-robed and hooded spectre who now stood in the middle of my office, holding a scythe.

"Hello," the spectre said brightly. "Tonight the part of the Ghost of Elections Yet To Be will be played by — "

"You dick!" I said, none too kindly.

Nixon lost the scythe and threw back his hood. "Hey," he said, "I'm a ghost. I don't get many opportunities like this."

I shook my head. "Do we really need to — "

"Yes! But before we get started, there's a disclaimer: I can't tell you that this is the future. That's against the rules. I can only tell you that this is a future." He took my hand; his grip felt most unremarkably normal and lifelike. "Ready?"

"No."

"Too bad!" He swirled his black cape over my head and —

WHOOSH!


I recognized the place immediately: the Capitol mall in Washington D.C. We were standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, looking at the reflecting pool and the biggest crowd I have ever seen. There were gray-haired matrons with bullhorns trying to lead chants but mostly screeching incoherently; young men in face-paint, bad hair, and tie-dyed shirts staggering around obviously stoned out of their gourds; and pretty young co-eds shoving and elbowing each other out of the way in order to get in front of the TV cameras with their signs that read "STOP THE WAR" and "PEACE NOW!" Somewhere off in the distance I could have sworn I heard Arlo Guthrie singing "Coming into Los Angeles," and somewhere nearby, somebody was smoking a primo spliff.

Nixon, still in his grim reaper outfit, stood next to me, drinking it all in. Clearly, we were invisible and immaterial.

"I thought you were taking me to the future," I said. "Not back to 1969."

"This is the future," Nixon said. "Friday, September 19th, 2008. The war in Iraq is still dragging on. The Iranians have nothing to gain by ending it, so they haven't, but Congress has done its best to tie the President's hands and undercut military funding, so the quagmire continues. Last week the House passed Charlie Rangel's bill reinstating the draft — I ended the draft in 1973, you know — "

"I know," I said. "And thank you. I was 1-H."

" — and this week, a hundred-thousand college students have maxed out their parents' Visa cards to come here and protest. There are rallies like this going on all over the country today. Tonight, some of them will turn into riots. In Ann Arbor, they'll set fire to a police station. In Berkeley, they'll storm and trash a Navy recruiting office. In Seattle, some demented anarchists will catch a disabled Iraq war vet on the street and beat him to death with his own crutches."

I shuddered.

"In Madison, they'll completely destroy three McDonalds and a Starbucks. Go figure."

Nixon lifted his arm and pointed across the way. "And yes, that is Arlo Guthrie you hear singing on the stage in the distance. Joan Baez is waiting to go on next, and in two hours, it will give Jane Fonda great pleasure to introduce the headline act, Cat Stevens — excuse me, Yusuf Islam — here to perform his hit song, "I'm being followed by Homeland Security." Nixon grinned. "Would you like to stick around and hear it?"

"No thanks."

"Very well." He swirled his black cape overhead, and —

WHOOSH!


We were standing in the Oval Office, or rather, a set made up to look like the Oval Office. President Bush sat behind the desk, sweltering under the television lights, his hands clenching and unclenching with fierce intensity, while a stage director counted down: "Three, two, one..."

The red light went on. "My fellow Americans," President Bush said. "I come to you tonight with a heavy heart. While I have always worked to uphold the high standards of the office to which you have elected me, the terrible events of the past six days, along with Congress's vote this morning to begin impeachment proceedings, have made it clear that — "

I turned to Nixon. "Resignation speech?"

"Yes."

"Date?"

"Wednesday, September 24, 2008."

"Cheney is still vice-president?"

"Yes."

I nodded. "So the Democrats have about ten minutes of elation coming, and then it's going to hit them: President Cheney."

"Wait. It gets better." Nixon raised his arm, swirled his black cape, and —

WHOOSH!


This time we didn't seem to move, but everyone else did. President Cheney now sat where President Bush had been sitting a moment before, he had the most smug smile in all Creation on his face, and a desktop calendar that I hadn't noticed before said the date was now Thursday, September 25.

"...to begin the process of healing," Cheney was saying, "and put this long national nightmare behind us, I hereby grant President George W. Bush a full pardon for all crimes, known and unknown, charged and uncharged, real or imaginary, that may or may not have been committed before, during, or after the time he served in the office of President of the United States of America..."

"I thought they were going to tighten up on pardons," I said.

"They talked about it," Nixon said. "But Clinton issued too many Presidential pardons, and in the end they decided they didn't want to deny themselves the possible future use of the pardon power. They never imagined this." He positively beamed in admiration at Cheney for a few moments, and then turned back to me.

"But wait. It gets better still." He raised his arm —

WHOOSH!


I didn't recognize the office, and I didn't recognize most of the people in the office, but Speaker Pelosi was unmistakable, as she was the purple-faced woman whose eyes were bugging out of her head as she screamed at the top of her lungs.

"JEB BUSH?! HE NOMINATED JEB BUSH TO BE HIS VICE-PRESIDENT?! HE NOMINATED JEB F@@#ING BUSH?!?!?!"

"Brilliant, isn't it?" Nixon said. "He's nominated the one man in America who absolutely and unquestionably will never be confirmed by the current Senate. They'll be playing pond hockey on the Phlegethon before Brother Jeb makes it through the confirmation hearings. And now, the master stroke." He raised his arm, swirled his black cape, and —

WHOOSH!


I instantly recognized the place, and for the first time, was frozen in fear. Cardiac ICU: been there, done that, never want to do it again. But the man on the gurney was obviously a person of some importance, given the large mob of panic-stricken doctors and nurses that surrounded him.

I turned to Nixon. "Cheney?" He nodded. "Fatal?"

He shook his head. "No, just stress. Or maybe he forgot to take his atenolol. He'll have chest pain and a wildly irregular heartbeat for a few days, and need a few weeks of bed rest, but after that, he'll be just fine."

"A few weeks?" I said. "What's today's date?"

"Sunday, September 28th, 2008."

"And Jeb Bush was never confirmed as VP, was he?"

Nixon shook his head. "Nope."

"Which means we're looking at — "

Nixon nodded. "President Pelosi."

Slowly, I broke into a broad grin. "With just five weeks to go before the election, and Hillary Clinton the official Democratic nominee."

Nixon nodded again. "That's right. Pelosi is in the office; Clinton wants it so bad she can taste it; and the country has entered utterly uncharted constitutional waters. The arena is now booked for The Cat Fight of the Millennium. Prepare your briefs, put your lawyers on danger money, and call the Supreme Court to battle stations." He raised his arm, swirled his black cape, and —

WHOOSH!


We were back in my office, with the normal lighting restored and Nixon back in his blue suit. In the living room, the mantelpiece clock was softly chiming midnight. Nixon checked his watch.

"Whoops. Time's up. Got to go." He faded out.

"Wait!" I shouted. "You can't leave me like this!"

"Sorry," his voice came back, echoing softly across distances unimaginable. "It's the rules."

"Who wins the election?"

But there was only silence.


And so I'm sitting here, at 1 AM, trying to put an ending on this piece. I have no idea how long it will be before I can talk to Nixon again, if indeed I ever can, and no clear knowledge of what happened on the first Tuesday of November, 2008, in that possible future he was showing me.

But I do have a clue.

It's in a sheet of paper that I picked up off the floor, as I was tidying up the mess in my office. At first I thought it was just another printout off my computer, and the blurred and fading letters suggested it was time to replace my toner cartridge. But then I noticed the date-stamp at the top of the page: June 15, 2009.

Could a bit of litter have blown in from somewhen, when Nixon opened the door to wherever it is he is now?

In any case I won't have this clue for long; the paper seems to be slowly sublimating out of existence right before my eyes and has thus far resisted my best efforts to scan or photograph it. Most of the page is already unreadable. But the content appears to be a Wikipedia article about the Supreme Court's decision in Pelosi v. Clinton, and from what I can make out, it appears that Justice Scalia, in the majority opinion, established a new principle in American law, based on a penumbra of emanations from The Tao of Jack Burton. The actual ruling itself is a marvel of conciseness and clarity; to wit: "What the hell and why not? Let 'em both run." As a result, for the first time in American history, not only the majority of the popular vote, but actually the top three vote-getters were all write-in candidates, and animated ones at that: Bart Simpson, Mickey Mouse, and Eric Cartman. To resolve this dilemma, the Electoral College met —

The remainder of the printout is unreadable.

But as I finish this piece up and prepare to tap the Publish button, I can't help but think: perhaps Scalia was on to something. Why not?

As for me, I'm voting for Stan Marsh.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Nixon Interview (Part 4)

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3



I turned that idea over a few times in my mind. As someone who voted for Bush — twice — I didn't much like the image Nixon's ghost was showing me, but I can't say that I had a good argument against it.

"The Reagan Revolution is over," Nixon said. "The Contract with America is kaput. The Republican majority had their chance and blew it, and Junior is just now beginning to realize how much trouble he's in. Take it from someone who's stood in exactly the same spot; he may be talking education, environmental initiatives, and winning the war on terror, but what he's seeing are fins in the water, circling closer.

"Or more accurately, what he's seeing is his future, and it's full of subpoenas, special prosecutors, Senate investigations, and sealed indictments. He's realizing now that there's no way he can win; that his dad and his old school connections aren't going to rescue him this time; and that the best he can hope for is to run out the clock before things get really ugly." Nixon paused, and nodded, slowly.

"Do you know what I consider to be my biggest blunder?" he asked.

"You got involved in a land war in Southeast Asia?"

Nixon frowned. "That was Kennedy and Johnson's war, and you know it. I got us out of Vietnam."

"Oh," I said. "Then you must have made the other one. Did you go up against a Sicilian with — ?"

"Stop it!" Nixon snapped. "Can't you ever be serious?"

"Not if I can help it," I said.

Nixon glared at me a moment longer, then closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and started over.

"My first mistake," he said, ticking it off on a finger, "was that I assumed Congress and the press would treat me the same way they treated FDR, Truman, Ike, and Saint Jack. I didn't realize that Ike was bulletproof, and if he'd been anybody else but Ike they would have gone after him hammer and tongs."

He looked at his left hand, pondered a moment, then ticked off another point. "Second: I trusted the CIA. Truman created the CIA, and Ike had his issues with it, but I made the mistake of thinking I could use it the same way Truman, Jack, and LBJ did. No Republican president should ever trust the CIA."

"That seems unnecessarily cynical," I said. He ignored me.

"Third: I stood behind the people who I thought were my guys. I didn't authorize the Watergate burglary, but I authorized the cover-up, and that was a huge blunder. I should have fed all those guys to the sharks, starting with John Dean." He paused again, took another deep breath, and then snapped his head up and looked me straight in the eye.

"But my biggest mistake," Nixon said, "was to underestimate the venom and vindictiveness of the American left! They never forget, never forgive, and never give up!"

Nixon pounded a fist on the arm of his chair. (An alarming display of solidity, I thought.) "Alger Hiss was guilty as sin, and we had the KGB cable traffic to prove it! Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were caught dead to rights, and we had the KGB payroll records to prove it! When Joe McCarthy stood there waving his list of 205 known Communist agents in Truman's State Department, the sheet of paper he held may have been blank, but we not only knew the names that should have been on it, we knew the names of their KGB handlers!" Nixon caught himself shouting again, forced himself to relax a notch, and then held up his left hand with his thumb and forefinger pinched together.

"That fool McCarthy came this close to blowing the cover on the most important counter-intelligence operation in American history! But to make any of that public back then would have meant admitting the existence of the NSA and VENONA, so Ike made the decision to let McCarthy twist in the wind. We got to keep our intercept program, and the Left got to keep their myth of martyrs, McCarthyism, and most of all, that monster who walks on his hind legs like a man, Richard Milhous Nixon."

He held that point a moment longer, and then sagged back in his chair and let out a long sigh.

"And that is what the Senate Watergate hearings were all about," he said. "History is written by the winners. You can believe the history books if you want. But I was there, and I can tell you it was all about one thing, and one thing only: payback for Alger Hiss. Those bastards waited twenty years to get me, and when they finally got their chance, they got me good." Nixon sighed again, closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened them again and looked at me.

"And now, that's what Junior is looking at. Two years of nonstop payback for the Clinton impeachment. Two years of having every nasty thing in the world flung at him, in hopes that something will stick. Two years of tell-all books by disgruntled ex-staffers, prolonged public protological examinations by every senator who can book him- or herself a hearing room and a CNN crew, and front page articles in the New York Times leaking secret CIA documents proving there were never any WMDs in Iraq in the first place, and Junior knew it all along."

That got my attention. "Really?"

Nixon slammed his fist on the armrest again. "Hell, son, this is the CIA we're talking about! The more likely truth is that the Iranians saw an opportunity here to con us into taking out the Iraqis, and they played the CIA like a cheap accordion. But you can bet your left testicle that if no incriminating documents exist now, they surely will exist by the time Senator Clinton bangs the gavel to call the first impeachment hearing to order!

"But," Nixon said, as he lowered his voice to a crafty and conspiratorial tone, "there is one way that Junior can not only survive, but actually beat the bastards..."



Concluding in Part 5

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Nixon Interview (Part 3)

Continued from Part 2



Nixon smiled as he held that thought a moment longer, then abruptly frowned and shook his head. "Nah. Wouldn't have worked. I'd need a coordinated strike. Take out Harvard and Columbia, too."

"Mr. President?"

"Agnew always said that if I wanted to fix 90-percent of the country's problems and get an instant jump to a 95-percent approval rating, all I had to do was wipe out Yale Law School, Harvard Business School, and the Columbia School of Journalism. At the end there, I was actually starting to give the idea serious thought."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "You're joking, right?"

Nixon stared me straight in the eye. "Do I look like I'm joking?"

He held that stare a moment longer, then cracked up, leaned back, and laughed. "Had you going there, didn't I? Yes, of course I'm joking. That was always one of my strongest assets; a world-class poker face. That's how I financed my first run for Congress, you know; on the bankroll I built up playing poker in the Navy. Man, I cleaned out those swabbies all over the South Pacific!" He allowed himself a last chuckle, then shook his head again. "Can't understand why it didn't work for Kerry." He paused a moment, and let out a long sigh.

"All the same, Liddy was working up a target list for me. But it got too long: UC-Berkeley, UW-Madison, all the Ivy League schools... Kent State wasn't even on the list. I have no idea what the hell happened there." He shook his head.

Nixon pointed at me and fixed me with that stare again. "To this day, people still talk about my enemies list. That was peanuts compared to the enemy schools list. That part of VENONA still hasn't been declassified; the names of the American university professors who were on the KGB payroll — and worse, the ones who were working for the Soviets for free. There was no way to get them all, short of calling Curt LeMay out of retirement and carpet-bombing the entire Atlantic seaboard, and then — poof! — there goes your secrecy."

I was back to hoping that he was joking.

"You know," Nixon said, almost jovially, "there's a special place in the Eighth Circle of Hell for college professors who deliberately subvert and corrupt their students. But any American student fool enough to die while wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt goes straight to the Ninth Circle."

I was really hoping he was joking.

The jovial mood switched off; he pursed his lips and frowned again. "The ironic part is, we could do it now. With the programs Curt LeMay saved from McNamara and Congress, and the programs I got rolling that we managed to keep secret from Carter, we could actually do it now. One executive order, one agreeable Naval commander, three Tomahawks — POW! POW! POW! Columbia Journalism, Harvard Business, and Yale Law. Hell, target Yale with a fourth missile, just to make sure we get Skull and Bones."

I couldn't keep quiet any longer. "Mr. President! I can understand Columbia, but what have you got against Harvard Business?"

He looked at me. "Oh, that's right, your brother is a Harvard MBA, isn't he?" He nodded. "Look, it's nothing personal. It's just that cut-throat capitalists and red-diaper communists are symbiotic." He entwined his fingers together. "Each one produces the other, almost like an immune response. Teddy Roosevelt discovered that. It was his run-ins with the laissez-faire robber barons of the 19th century that turned him into a 20th century progressive, and damned near a socialist. Luckily, he didn't start reading Croly until after he was out of office.

"But in America, in the 20th century, nothing epitomizes that worker-be-damned bottom line ├╝ber alles mentality like the teachings of the Harvard Business School. There is no faster way to produce lots of cranky little socialists than to put them under the direct control of a Harvard Business School graduate!"

It was my turn to nod. "Okay, I'll buy that. So what have you got against Yale?"

"Well," Nixon said, "that brings us back to Bush family, doesn't it? But before we get to that: what was your impression of Junior's State of the Union address?"

I drew a deep breath, blew it out, settled back in my chair, and thought it over. "I couldn't help noticing that he spent most of the speech looking over at the Democratic side," I said at last.

"Like a man in a leaky lifeboat?" Nixon suggested. "Doing the mental arithmetic, and figuring out just how many of his friends he needs to throw to the sharks in order to keep them satisfied until he's rescued?"



Continued in Part 4

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Nixon Interview (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1



Nixon leaned forward and raised his voice, his eyes flashing angrily. "Don't tell me that you've forgotten our deal already?"

"Bet that's exactly what you said to Ford," I muttered.

He didn't seem to hear that. "Pardon me?"

"No, that is what you said to Fo&mdash" I caught myself.

"Our deal," I said with a sigh, "was that you would reveal the truth and nothing but the truth, and I would write it down, publish it, and take credit for it, and in return, I'd become rich and famous, and you'd cut a few eons off your time in Purgatory."

"Right. And you stuck with it barely a week."

"Mr. President!" I protested. "I'm not Daffyd ab Hugh! I can't put out ten-thousand words of bloggage daily. I have a life!"

Nixon scowled. "Go ahead. Rub it in."

"Besides," I said, "I'm a humorist. A lightweight one at that. People get confused when I try to do serious. They can never tell whether I actually am serious, or if I'm just doing some sort of weird black humor in very poor taste."

"There's not much difference," he said. "Remember Santayana: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' And then add Marx: 'History always repeats itself; the first time as tragedy, and the second as farce.'"

I nodded. "So which is it this time, tragedy or farce?"

He scowled again. "I'm not sure yet." Abruptly, he looked up at me and changed the subject. "Why didn't you run that piece I gave you last year? You know, the one about those soldiers I met on The Road?"

I shuddered as another cold chill ran up my spine. "I can barely stand to read it myself," I said. "People aren't ready to know that much about the afterlife. It's too sad; too tragic."

"You're damned right it's tragic!" Nixon thundered. "Every time a young person gets cut down in the prime of life, it's tragic! And I speak with some authority when I say that every time it happens to an American soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine, the President of the United States had better damned well ask himself, what the hell am I doing?

"He should forget his pride. Forget electoral politics. Forget domestic political triangulation and strategery. Every night, before he goes to bed, the President of the United States should look at himself in the mirror and ask one question: did what I did today serve right? Not, 'The Right.' Did I do good today? Did my words and actions serve the everlasting glory of the ever-loving God? And if the answer to this question is not a resounding Yes!, he should damned well drag his sorry ass back down to the Oval Office and make things right!"

"I see," I said. "And that's why you decided to bomb Cambodia."

Nixon's eyes turned cold and steely. "Let me say this about that. I did not take a sudden whim to expand the war into Cambodia and Laos in 1970. You've read The CIA and The Cult of Intelligence. You've read Codename Mule. You've even read The Ugly American, which contains a lot more truth than anyone in the State Department likes to admit. We were up to our armpits in that part of the world ever since the OSS started giving the Japs trouble in 1942. Ho Chi Minh was our guy, until Truman tried to buy off de Gaulle by telling the French they could have Indochina back. The CIA started running their private war against the Pathet Lao in 1957. Fifty-seven.

"Ike tried to shut it down. Right up until his last day in office, he was trying to get the CIA under control. But they just went behind his back to their old friends in the other party, and in '61, Kennedy gave the CIA a blank check. There were American 'advisors' looking through their gunsights at North Vietnamese regulars in northern Laos in 1962, and you know it, and I know it, and the American people should know it, but they're too busy worrying about who's going to be the next American Idol!"

Nixon abruptly realized that his jowls were quivering with rage, and with some effort, he regained his composure.

"No, the Cambodian incursion wasn't the start of anything. It was a gamble, a Hail-Mary pass to try to finish off Kennedy and Johnson's mistake before it went into triple overtime. The Hail-Mary pass is always a desperation play. If it works, you're the hero, but nine times out of ten it fails, and then you're the goat. Ba-a-a-ah."

He leaned back in his chair, stroked his chin, and nodded sagely. "No, if I'd really wanted to strike a blow for freedom and democracy, I would never have bombed Cambodia.

"I would have bombed Yale."



Continued in Part 3

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Nixon Interview (Part 1)

In the end the Mrs. decided to empty her glass each time the camera cut away to a reaction shot from Hillary, so the shiraz was gone quickly, and shortly afterwards, so was she. I toughed it out until the end of Senator Webb's rebuttal, then took the dogs out for one last turn around the yard, came back inside, locked the doors, and went downstairs to my office, to shut down the computers.

He was waiting there for me, in the good chair. "Hello, Bruce."

"Hello, Mr. President."

"Please, call me Dick."

I tried to. I couldn't. "Sorry, sir. I can't. Even Jack Bauer would call you 'Mr. President.'"

He frowned. "Jack who?"

"Never mind. It's good to see you again, sir."

He nodded. "I was hoping you'd feel that way. Not many people do, when it comes to me. Does your wife still have that framed invitation to my '72 inaugural ball hanging on the bedroom wall?"

"She, uh, took it down to dust it." Immediately, I felt cheap for telling such a stupid and obvious lie.

He just sighed. "Oh, well. It had to happen sooner or later. Everything fades away, in time." He started to go transparent and drift away on me.

I quickly changed the subject. "Did you catch the State of the Union address, sir?"

He snapped back into seeming solidity and nodded sharply. "Of course. That's why I'm here."

"How's Reagan taking it?"

"At the moment," he said, "Ronnie is lying on the floor, curled up in fetal position, sobbing over and over, 'That stupid son-of-a-Bush, he's ruined everything I worked for.'"

It was my turn to nod. "Can't say as I'm surprised."

"I knew the old man, you know. George H.W. They tried to stick me with him as a running mate in '68. You like to play around with alternate history; try to imagine that." He pointed to the other chair. "Sit down, Bruce. This is going to take some time." I pulled the other chair out from the desk, spun it around to face the President, and sat down.

Nixon was nodding and smiling as he reminisced. "I almost got him back again after Agnew resigned in '73, but luckily I was able to convince him he was needed more in the RNC. Then Ford very nearly got stuck with him after I resigned in '74, but again we lucked out, and Rockefeller was able to call in just a few more favors and land the veep's job. So Bush Senior ended up running the CIA."

I blinked. "Why are you telling me this, sir?"

"Because history is important," he said.

I nodded, slowly. "I agree. But why tell me, sir?"

"Because no one else will listen."

That caught me off-guard. "Really?"

"I went to my old pal Bill Safire first, but ended up just scaring the Hell out of him. Apparently he thought I was there to take him — " He gestured awkwardly. "You know. To the other side.

"Then I looked up Pat Buchanan — he wrote some great speeches for Agnew, back in the day — but Pat ended up scaring the Hell out of me. And believe me, that takes some doing.

"After that, I made the rounds. Breakfast with David Frost was cancelled two years ago. William F. Buckley is still waiting for his chance to cross-examine God under oath. Barbara Walters and Jane Pauley use my name to scare their grandchildren — ooh, eat your vegetables or Nixon will get you! Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage," he shook his head. "My God, do people actually listen to those babbling lunatics?"

I gritted my teeth. "I feel so honored."

"Besides, Bruce, aren't you forgetting something?"

Suddenly, I was remarkably alert. A contract? Signed in blood? I wasn't 100-percent sure, but I didn't think --

"Next week is the second anniversary of your blog, isn't it? Only you've never been completely honest with your readers, have you? This is your second blog. Your first blog was The Nixon Channel, and that "State of the Union" piece you're so proud of first appeared there, didn't it? Now, do you remember the exact terms of our agreement?"

My sense of preternatural awareness gave way to cold chills, as something remarkably like icy fingers touched the back of my neck...

Continued in Part 2

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

There is an old Vulcan proverb...

"Only Nixon could go to China."

The older I get, the more fascinating I find Richard Nixon. A brilliant man, completely undone by hubris; and if you think certain of the more highly strung folks on the left are driven to frothing lunacy by Bush the Younger, well, the retro-60s moonbats of today can't hold a candle to the utterly bilious naked hatred that was heaped on Nixon by the original barking moonbats of the 1960s.

But never mind that. Two years ago, I wrote what's turning out to be one of my favorite pieces: The State of the Union. If you haven't read it before, you might enjoy taking a minute now to check it out. I am, as I've often said before, a method writer — I have to get in character to tell a story — but for this one, I wasn't just in character, after awhile my wife said I was channeling for Nixon, and would I please stop?

After I wrote this one, I was so pleased with it (which, believe me, does not happen often with my own work) that I briefly contemplated going on to write an entire utterly unpublishable novel, Nixon's Inferno. But when I recontacted Dick, he explained that, first off, he was in Elysium, not Hell; secondly, the book would never sell unless it depicted him as being much further down in the bolgias than he actually was; and third, that Mao's sizzling red-hot sepulchre reeked of rancid pork fried rice, and even Dick Nixon did not have a strong enough stomach to go back there again.

I contacted him again last year at about this time, and he did help me write a piece on the 2006 State of the Union address, but it was so unbearably sad that I chose never to publish it. Tonight though...

Yeah, I can feel his spectral presence. Dick Nixon is in the house. I don't know what I'm going to write tonight, or even if I'm going to write anything at all, but I know that Dick is back, and he definitely has a lot on his mind.

The channel is open...

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Changing Face of Me

I shaved off my beard this morning.

I didn't intend to do that. I intended to do the usual job of clearing the stubble off my cheeks and neck before getting started on this pithy article about John W. Campbell that I've been mulling over all weekend. But instead, I looked into the bathroom mirror this morning and realized: it's not salt-and-pepper anymore. It's gray. With a lot of white. And it doesn't make me look distinguished, or artistic, or cuddly, or any of those things: it makes me look old.

So, as the Crosby, Stills & Nash song "Almost Cut My Hair" echoed through the canyons of my mind, I shaved it off.

Actually, I didn't shave the whole thing off. Right at the moment I've got a sort of walrus / fu manchu / George Harrison on the inside cover of Sgt. Peppers look going, for the simple reason that that's as far as I got before my electric razor ran out of charge. But the fact that the soundtrack for this story is Beatles and CSN&Y reinforces the painful central fact: old.

When I was much younger, my beard always started out red, then darkened to brown. When it got longer, it developed a pronounced fork, like you see in old Civil War era photos. I always thought it looked kind of — well, something interesting, anyway.

About ten years ago, I turned down a job offer from a dot.com. It was for a senior management position with a great title and they were recruiting me hard, but they were offering way too little reward for the risk involved, and the principals were way too short on tact. As the negotiations started to go south, one of the founders felt he could improve the situation by explaining why they wanted me specifically.

"We need a graybeard," he said. "Y'know, an old guy, to be the face who talks to bankers and investors, so they don't think we're all just a bunch of punk-ass kids with ponytails and piercings."

That dot.com is long since dot.gone, of course. And as of today, so is Bruce Forkbeard.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Return of the Son of the Friday Challenge

UPDATE: Just using my awesome site owner powers to bubble this one back to the top, in hopes of drawing a few more entries. For example, off-blog, someone gave me a wonderful idea for a story in which both sides of the global warming debate are wrong: Earth is merely the latest battleground in the ongoing war between the Dolphinoids from Tau Ceti, who want to turn the whole world into a warm tropical ocean, and the Polar Bear People from Ursa Major, who want to cover the planet in glaciers and ice floes. (Gore, as you may have guessed, is actually a Polarbearian secret agent in disguise.)

Unfortunately, only entries posted in the Comments count towards — the prize! That's right, I didn't announce a prize, did I? What do you think it should be? How about, one slightly shelfworn but never read copy of Earth in the Balance? Or maybe something else from the "We're Doomed!" book collection?




H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds first appeared as a serial, beginning in the April 1897 issue of Pearson's magazine. Wells was a solidly Darwinian atheist, as well as a Fabian socialist, and it doesn't take much effort to read this story as an allegory about the coming destruction of genteel 19th-century English society at the hands of the mechanized barbarian hordes of the dawning 20th. In the end, the narrator and his wife are spared, not by anything men can do, but by the dumb luck of the evolutionary draw; the Martians have no resistance to bacteria to which most humans have long since developed immunity, and Wells makes it clear that there is no guarantee that it won't happen again and that the Martians won't be better prepared the next time. (That business about being saved by "the tiniest creatures which God in His infinite wisdom placed upon the Earth" is pure Hollywood. No such line appears in the book.)

As usual, though, the fans ignored the subtext and seized on superficialities. Giant walking mechanical war machines? Cool! Drooling bug-eyed bloodsucking monsters with tentacles? Yeah, baby! Death rays, mass slaughter, and the end of the world as we know it? Give us more!

And for 110 years now, we sci-fi writers have labored to give the fans more, writing variations on the WotW theme time and time again, only usually supplying the one element that Wells inexplicably forgot to include: the two-fisted action hero who discovers the aliens' one weakness and figures out a clever way to exploit it and defeat them.

But, let's face it. It is 110 years later, and the WotW plot is getting a little threadbare. Any aliens sufficiently biologically similar to us to be interested in our planet would probably want to capture it with the ecosystem mostly intact, and any beings intelligent enough to cross space to get here would most likely be smart enough to realize that the whole "invasion" thing is an unnecessary waste. The extermination of the current dominant species could be accomplished much more cheaply and easily from orbit, and if they're really like us, they wouldn't want their tentacle prints on the job anyway, just in case something goes wrong and we survive. No, the best way to wipe out those billions of hairless monkeys on Sol III would be to find some really clever and insidious way to talk them into offing themselves...

Which brings us to today's challenge. Al Gore, it turns out, is not merely a rather stiff ex-VP and former Senator from Tennessee; he's actually an alien robot. Is he from a much colder world, with a mission to con us into triggering a new ice age and preparing the way for his alien masters? Or do his creators want to make Earth a much hotter place, and are they enough like us to understand and use reverse psychology? Or is he simply a tool of one faction, and are there forces even more sinister and Byzantine at work?

Anyway, that's today's challenge. I've spotted you the idea, now it's your turn to come up with a brief synopsis of the story you'd write developing this idea. You have one week; the winner(s) will be announced next Friday.

Ready? Set? Go!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Future Thoughts (Part 3)

Print isn't dead yet; not by a long shot.

Certain aspects of print media are dying. Newspapers, for example, are heading for irrevocable diminution. In the Age of Blogs, the national and international news commentariat are just now discovering the horrible truth that fiction writers, actors, and high-priced hookers have long known: that there are plenty of other people out there who are almost as good as you are, and who are willing and able to do exactly what you do, only for free.

Unless the Internet chokes to death on its own excrement (always a possibility), certain types of books will soon join newspapers in being found only in the fossil record: dictionaries, encyclopedia, pharmaceutical references, most computer reference books, and all other compendia of the sorts of ephemeral information that can be useful in small, random-access doses, and may well become utterly irrelevant tomorrow.

But any information that has a long shelf-life and depends on a linear flow for meaning will remain in printed and bound books, for the foreseeable future. Historical narratives, poetry, any fiction longer than a Richard Brautigan piece — heck, even most cookbooks and how-to books. Would you really want to haul your laptop into the living room to have the ebook chapter on using rag-rollers handy while you were painting the walls?

Not only are printed books relatively portable and durable, they also have the remarkable virtue of remaining readable for decades, or even centuries. One of the reasons why most of my older stories have never been reprinted or posted online is because the original manuscript files reside on 5.25" Apple ][+ diskettes, in a proprietary binary format unique to a long-defunct program named WordHandler. And this is a scant 25 years into the personal computer age!

Some days I indulge in imagining what might happen if some E.T. race actually finds a Voyager and that gold-plated record of Earth sounds it carries. Lately, the story looks something like this:
"Quoxnarg, you mean to tell me that we've spent 30 zorgyears trying to decode that damned disk, only to find that the information it carries is embedded in the scratches on the surface? They don't even understand rudimentary quantum encoding?

"Screw this. Tell the Committee that there are primitive lifeforms there, but nothing that shows any promise of evolving into intelligent life in the next million zorgyears. They can launch the colonization fleet and begin zorgaforming the third planet immediately."

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Future Thoughts (Part 2)

Welcome to The Flat World.

There simply is no overstating the global impact that the Internet has had, and presumably will continue to have, on the book business, particularly in the areas of marketing and distribution. A book is a uniquely suitable product, that way. It's small; lightweight; doesn't require refrigeration; is quite unlikely to spoil in shipment; and won't arrive intact only to have the customer discover that it's incompatible with the local power grid, has the wrong Zone code, or is NTSC when she actually needed PAL.

So suddenly, The Little Bookstore That Went Internet is finding it isn't just selling to whoever happens to wander by the storefront; it's selling to the world. And overnight, the concept of U.S. rights, U.K. editions, Australian distribution, etc., etc., become meaningless. When a single book can be shipped anywhere in the world — quickly — for under $10 USD, there certainly is no point in having a Manhattan retail location, and probably not much more point in having printing shops, binding plants, static inventories, or distribution warehouses located in countries with high labor costs. Instead, the world divides along linguistic lines, and national borders became irrelevant, except in regard to the types of export paperwork that must be filled out. The bookseller who can find an unfulfilled need — say, for a certain book that's not available in an Australian edition, and yet is inexplicably popular on the University of Queensland's Gatton campus — and who can react quickly to meet that need, can be very successful.

As a writer, the positive aspect to all this is that suddenly the market for your writing has gone worldwide, as well. You're no longer restricted to dealing with only the New York publishers. My old friend John Sladek sold most of his novels to U.K. publishers first, then got U.S. reprint deals if he could; in this as in so many other ways, he was just a little bit ahead of his time.

The negative aspect is, as a writer, you're now competing with every other English-speaking writer in the world, as well. And as our young friend Alexandru Lovin proves on a regular basis, there are a lot of intelligent, articulate, and literate people out there, just as eager to get published as you are.

The aspect that scares the willies out of me is the growing and baffling entanglement of international commerce law and its imminent collision with local "hate speech" laws. If a customer in Germany buys a verboten book from an American bookseller, can the American bookseller be prosecuted in The Hague for violating E.U. laws? Can the American author be prosecuted for committing hate speech in Germany? Likewise, if we ship a copy of Ibn Warraq's excellent book, Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out to a customer in Saudi Arabia, might we suddenly find ourselves under fatwa, as the author has? Will we suddenly find that we have to spend the rest of our lives being very wary of possibly coming within the reach of sharia, say, by visiting Detroit, buying something in a 7-11, or getting into a cab at the Minneapolis airport?

One thing is for sure. This new Flat World: it's going to be a very interesting place.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Future Thoughts (Part 1)

Six months into the online bookstore experiment, a couple of ideas are starting to manifest. The first and most obvious is that the small, independent bookstore is doomed to extinction.

But let's be very precise here. When I speak of indie bookstores, I'm talking about actual storefronts that sell only books, of the sort I used to love to haunt. You know, the old curiosity shop sorts of places, with little more than stacks of books piled high to the ceiling, perhaps a few cats on the loose, and a kindly and bookish person behind the counter who was most likely the owner — and who, if asked, knew exactly where that 1952 copy of The Mountains of Allah could be found. I used to love to wander into those kinds of shops, just to browse. You could never tell what you were going to find, and I always wound up finding something I couldn't live without.

But, so sorry. Merchantile dodo. Doomed to extinction. It's the 21st century now, and not only are there no longer enough customers left with the time and patience necessary to keep such shops alive, the only places left where such shops can afford to remain located are urban combat zones, and the kindly and bookish owners are most likely sitting behind sheets of bulletproof glass, quivering in terror every time a new face walks in the door and praying for some developer to tear down the building so that they'll have an excuse for a going-out-of-business sale.

But (three buts here, too many for a short piece) this is not to say that the future of bookselling is all Amazon / Borders / Barnes & WalMart. Those indies that figure out how to make a profitable transition to the razor-thin margin world of online selling will survive, as will those that figure out that what they're really selling is literary atmosphere. So if you want to save the storefront, what you have to do is:

a.) Get rid of 3/4ths of your book inventory. Keep only a short list of vintage literary and how-to-write titles conspicuously on display.

b.) Get a lot of comfy chairs and a prop chess set or two.

c.) Become a wi-fi hotspot.

d.) Get a food license, and start selling upscale coffee, tea, and designer bakery (i.e., scones).

Your thoughts? Anything I've missed?