Saturday, January 31, 2009

"May You Live in Interesting Times"

It was a late night. The Mrs and The Kid both had the flu and so went to bed early, but in proof of the truism that no good deed goes unpunished, a bit of pro bono work I'd done for a non-profit last year had come back to sink its little terrier-like fangs into my buttocks one more time. After that mess was cleared up there were bills and bookkeeping matters requiring attention, and so it was well past midnight when I finally shut off the lights in my office and came upstairs.

He was sitting there in the living room, in the comfortable chair by the reading lamp, with a book in his lap, a glass of brandy in his hand, and a scowl on his face. In all, a most remarkable display of solidity for a ghost, I thought.

"Mr. President," I said.

Nixon looked at that glass in his hand, and then turned his scowl on me. "Christian Brothers, Bruce?"

"Sorry. Times are tight. Hennessy is out of the budget. Did you see our latest heating bill?"

Nixon's scowl faded to a frown. "It's been a cold month in Hell, too." He sighed, and then took a sip of the brandy, and grimaced.

"Besides," I said, "I thought you were a tee-totaler."

"Former tee-totaler. That changed. In time I learned to drink even the vilest Chinese firewater, when the occasion required."

"Ah," I nodded. "That famous photo of you and Mao, toasting each other's good health."

"Good health my ass," he said. "What Mao was actually saying at the moment that shutter snapped was, 'May you live in interesting times.' It's a curse, I'm told."

Nixon tried another sip of the brandy. It seemed to go down better this time. "Of course, when I answered him a moment later it was with, 'And may you choke on this most excellent rat poison, you fat commie sonuvabitch.' Boy, the translators were having some fun that day." Nixon smiled at the memory.

I interrupted his reverie. "So how is Mao doing these days?"

Nixon shrugged. "Beats me. I only went to look him up once, and that was nearly fifteen years ago." He considered the brandy a moment, but this time didn't drink.

"Hell is full of special places; you know that. But there is a really exceptionally special place in Hell for leaders who murder millions of their own people.

"Mao's sepulchre is amazing. Enormous, bright red; you can see it for miles. It's made entirely of wrought- and cast-iron, and decorated with these incredible huge, ornate, carved dragons, and bas-reliefs of heroic workers and all that. Very Chinese; very Communist; very Peking Opera. It's just beautiful.

"Except that when you get closer to it, you realize: that's not red paint. It's red hot. And in the very center of it all, underneath tons of red-hot iron and perched right in the middle of the perpetual flame, there is a small, plain, red-hot iron casket, just slightly larger than the body of a man, inside which Mao screams and sizzles in his own body fat for the rest of eternity.

"It's revolting beyond nauseating. The entire area reeks of rancid pork fried rice. And I thought the disgusting syphilitic old bastard stank when he was alive. He had a strange phobia about bathing, you know." Nixon rolled the thought over in his mind for a few more moments, and then rinsed it away with another sip of brandy. The level in the glass, I noticed, was diminishing with each sip. I wondered if I even could refill his glass, or if doing so would violate some psychic ectoplasmic spiritual something or other.

"I guess both of our wishes were granted," he said softly. "Mao died wretchedly just a few years after that, and my life certainly got a lot more interesting." For a minute or more after that Nixon seemed inclined only to muse, sip, and sigh. I was tired and cranky already. It got on my nerves.

"So," I said at last. "To what do I owe the honor of this visitation?"

Nixon seemed momentarily startled to notice me there, and then recovered quickly and offered up a small smile. "Farewell visit? After all, this is how The Ranting Room began: with you, channeling for me." He smiled again, weakly this time, and shrugged. "Word gets around. So when I heard that you were retiring—"

"I am not retiring," I protested. "I'm just reordering my priorities. There's the new blog—"

"You're retiring," he said. "Or at least retiring as the creator and chief writer of The Ranting Room. You're getting onto that big old helicopter, throwing one last great big 'V' to the crowd, and riding off into the sunset.

"Oh, you're not really retiring," he added. "Your type never does. Tomorrow, or maybe the next day, you'll be starting up something new. You can never just relax; never stop to smell the roses without noticing that they need to be dusted for aphids. Even when you're not working, you're thinking about working. You'll be starting up some new project on the morning of the day you die."

That stopped me cold. "Oh? You peeked?"

Nixon shook his head. "I told you: I can't tell you. It's against the rules. I can only tell you about possible futures. I can't tell you which one is the real one."

This time it was my turn to be silent and thoughtful for a minute or more. A good strong whiff of your own mortality will do that to you, I guess. Nixon took the opportunity to empty his glass. When I noticed it was empty, by reflex, I got up, got the brandy, and poured him another two fingers. Only after I capped the bottle did I register that I had not poured it through the spectral glass and onto the chair. A most remarkable display of solidity, indeed.

It was his turn to break the silence. "So," he said at last. "You're telling everyone you're going off to write a novel. Will this be an entirely new one, or are you finally going to finish Nixon's Inferno?"

I shook my head. "Nah. Not that one, anyway. My agent said it was hopelessly unsellable. The only way to make it work in today's market—"

"Is by depicting me as being even worse than Satan, and Philip Roth flogged that one to death back in '71. Yes, I remember." Nixon frowned, and shook his head. "Still, it seems a shame. I mean, I always thought A Conspiracy of Cats was one of the best extended multi-part posts you ever did for this blog. Except that it kind of crapped-out at the ending."

My turn to scowl at him. "Yeah, well, if you'd given me a good ending to work with in the first place, instead of the one you did give me."

He switched back to his disarming smile. "I told you: it's against the rules. Possible futures only." He took a rather larger slug from his glass this time, and then lifted it in a sort of salute. "You must admit, though, as demented as that ending was, it didn't begin to compare to what really happened. Honestly, would you have believed me if I'd told you back in January of '07 that That Woman would lose the primaries, the nomination, and ultimately the election to Zaphod Beeblebrox?"

"What?" Talk about your neck-snapping sharp turn into Dimension X...

Nixon shook his head. "Oh, Bruce, and here I thought you knew Douglas Adams line and verse. Let us now turn to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, chapter 4:"
'The President in particular is very much a figurehead—he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it.'
Nixon finished his recitation, smiled, and then set down his glass and clasped his hands in his lap. "Hence, President Barack Beeblebrox, and Secretary of State That Woman. You are definitely living in some very interesting times now. It was a good decision on your part to close The Ranting Room. You wouldn't have been able to maintain your No Politics rule much longer, and sooner or later you'd have written something that would have gotten you into real trouble."

I was still shaking my head. "President Bee— No, wait a minute, Secretary of State That Woman? In all these years, you've never told me: what exactly is your problem with Hil—"

"SHH!" Nixon shushed me with a warning finger. "Do not mention that foul name in this fair place!"

I blinked in astonishment. Several times.

"Look, it's very simple," Nixon said. "That Woman was a lawyer working for the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate investigation. According to her former boss, Jerry Zeifman—a lifelong Democrat, by the way, and the career civil-service attorney who was general counsel and chief of staff for the judiciary committee—she was put on the staff as a favor to Teddy Kennedy, and then did her best to sabotage the investigation. She violated confidentiality, confiscated public documents, "lost" files, and wrote fraudulent legal briefs, all in an effort to keep me from having the right to legal counsel and to cross-examine witnesses. In the end she was fired, and Zeifman recommended that she never again be put into a position of public trust!"

By this point Nixon's jowls were quivering with anger—and he abruptly seemed to realize that this was happening, and forced himself to relax and lower his voice. He picked up the glass of brandy again. Slowly, carefully, methodically, he took another sip. He swallowed. He chuckled.

"And now, Secretary of State. Oh yes, interesting times indeed."

I went back to shaking my head. "I don't know. This sounds so... paranoid. Oliver Stone paranoid. Jim Garrison-grade paranoid. Why—"

Nixon set his glass down sharply and snapped forward. "Because they wanted to make sure I didn't put E. Howard Hunt on the witness stand under oath!" He caught himself again; forced himself to relax, again. Sighed.

"Before he came to work for me, Hunt was an old-school spook," he explained. "Wartime OSS, postwar CIA, Bay of Pigs. And then he became Kennedy's chief of domestic covert and black bag CIA ops. Hunt had the dirt on JFK like you wouldn't believe. He knew where all the bodies were buried, because he'd buried them himself. He knew things about JFK and Johnson that made Watergate look like a schoolboy prank.

"And if you were, say, Teddy Kennedy, and you were looking at a run for the Presidency in 1976—well, we wouldn't want anything coming out that might besmirch the memory of the blessed Saint JFK now, would we?"

Nixon looked at his glass again, decided against another sip, and then looked at me with a frustrated smile.

"I was a fool," he said. "I thought the nation couldn't stand the shock of knowing any of that. The country was fractured; reeling. You were there; you remember. There were literally battles in the streets. I thought that if the people ever got a good look at what was really going on inside the machinery of government..."

Nixon's voice tapered off.

"And so, for the good of the nation, I allowed myself be talked into resigning. Just as twelve years earlier, for the good of the nation, I'd agreed not to contest the 1960 election, even though we all knew it was the legendary Voting Dead of Cook County that put JFK into office. And now here we are, forty-eight years later, with a first-class product of the Cook County Democratic Party machine—the most provably corrupt political organization since Tammany Hall—sitting in the Oval Office. And I thought my times were interesting."

This time Nixon lifted the glass and took a long, slow, deliberate drink. When he set the glass down again I noticed it was getting low and uncorked the bottle of brandy again, but he waved me off. "Almost done," he said. He paused.

"Do you know what my greatest mistake was?" Nixon asked.

I couldn't resist. "You got involved in a land war in Southeast Asia?"

Nixon barely mustered the energy to scowl at that. "No, that was Kennedy and Johnson's mistake and you know it. Kissinger and I got us out of that mess, and that's what's shaved a couple eons off my time in Purgatory."

I nodded. "Then it must have been all the Keynesianism and wage and price controls."

Nixon shrugged. "The jury is still out on that." He pursed his lips, and drew a deep breath. "No, my greatest mistake was that I gave them a sword."

"Ah," I said, as a tiny dim bulb of recognition lit up. "The David Frost interviews."

Nixon gagged audibly. "Dear God, I hope people aren't mistaking Frost/Nixon for history. You have Frost's book. Why don't you read it sometime?"

"I tried," I said. "I couldn't stick with it. Frost is such a self-absorbed git. A talking head who imagines he's making news, not reporting it."

Nixon nodded. "Too true. But you did recognize the quote?"

"'I gave them a sword,'" I said , quoting Nixon back at himself from memory. "'And they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I'd been in their position I'd have done the same thing.'"

"That's right," Nixon said. "I gave my enemies the sword with which they did me in." He nodded again, and then took one last gulp from the glass, finished it off, set it down, and stood to leave. "But do you know what is an even greater mistake, and one I never made?

"It's not giving them a sword!" he said, as he began to fade away. "Whenever you say or do anything, you put weapons in the hands of your enemies and your critics. But whenever you're so afraid of those hypothetical weapons in the hands of hypothetical critics that you say and do nothing, that is a greater folly still. In fact, it goes beyond folly. It's a crime."

Nixon had become just an outline now, a rippling shape of a man between me and the bookcase. "Especially for a writer! If you are not putting your heart and soul out there on the line every time you sit down to write—if you are not every day putting new swords in the hands of your enemies and critics—then you are not doing your job, and you are not a writer: you're merely some sort of craven, timid creature that looks and smells like a writer and mimics the motions."

All that remained of him now was his voice, and it was fading quickly, as if into a vast distance.

"That is your greatest mistake, Bruce. You always try to play it safe and give no offense. But thankfully, you still have time to correct that."

His voice was just a whisper now, or less than that; the ghost of an echo of a whisper.

"I belong to history. These are your interesting times. You have a lot of good books in your collection. Maybe, now that you've retired, you can read some of them. Maybe you'll learn..."

And he was gone.

Leaving behind a filthy old glass that looked like it hadn't been cleaned in fifteen years, a small wet spot of spilled brandy on the seat cushion of the comfortable chair, and a book from my collection that I'd always intended to read but never found the time to, opened to a particular page. I was almost certain of what it would be even before I looked at it, but I picked it up and read the marked passage all the same.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

—Theodore Roosevelt, "The Man in the Arena"