The State of the Union
I won the coin toss and so got the honor of escorting the new guy. He seemed very surprised when I knocked and he opened the door.
"Dick? Dick Nixon?"
"Hi, Ronnie. Welcome to the pantheon."
"But what — why — ?"
"State of the Union address, my friend! Don't you want to see how the kids are running our country? You know, just because we're dead doesn't mean we have to stop caring — well, except for Ike, he's off playing golf somewhere. And Washington, he just sits in Mount Vernon and weeps. But all the rest of us shades of past presidents are getting together to watch the show, and we'd really appreciate it if you'd come join us."
Ronnie's twinkling smile fell. "I don't know. It seems so soon. To return to the capitol now..."
I laughed. "Oh, we don't actually haunt D.C. anymore! No, Jefferson got so furious one year he tried to turn into a poltergeist, so what we do now is rent a ballroom, put the cable feed up on the big screen, and have a nice little buffet! Adams and his kid supply all the beer you can stand. Come on, it'll be fun!" Ronnie still looked unsure of himself, so I went for the closer.
"Abraham will be very disappointed if you don't show up."
He blinked in surprise. "Lincoln? Lincoln was asking for me?"
I nodded. "Seat of honor, my friend, at the table with Abraham and Teddy. Grant, too, if he sobers up. Like I said, we'll all be there — except for Ike and Washington. And Jefferson, you can never tell when or where he'll show up. And LBJ, well, he still has a few more eons to go in Purgatory, so he probably won't be there either. But everyone else will be!"
Ronnie's famous twinkling smile returned. "Including Mallard Fillmore?"
"Millard," I corrected. "He's very touchy about that."
The seating arrangements were oddly familiar. The Democrats sat over on the left side of the ballroom, the Republicans were off to the right, and the Whigs were in the center-back area, closest to the beer. Nice bunch of guys, the Whigs, but hopelessly out of touch. Ronnie and I made the rounds and shook hands. Jack Kennedy was there, to my surprise; they'd let him out of Purgatory on a 24-hour pass but handcuffed him to Bella Abzug to ensure his good behavior, so he wasn't talking much. There was a brief commotion at the door when Gerald Ford tried to enter and the bouncers had to remind him, once again, that he's not dead, just forgotten. We made it back to our table — Lincoln always sits at the far right side of the room, with his back to the wall and a good view of the exits — at just about the same time as the big screen showed the cabinet walking in.
Lincoln was watching the TV and absolutely beaming. "Condi Rice. Well I never — I mean, I knew that Emancipation thing was a good idea, but I never dreamed..." Teddy stood up and pulled out a chair for Ronnie. Grant was there, but passed out face-down in a bowl of either bean soup or vomit, I couldn't tell which. Lincoln broke away from the TV and offered Ronnie a handshake. "Good job, son, we're all proud of you. Wish I'd had eight full years myself."
The Great Communicator took the handshake but was struck nearly speechless. "Sir, I — "
Someone at the front of the room shouted, "No, not George Stephanopolous! Change the channel!" Dan Rather's somnolent voice filled the air. "Again!" Whoever was controlling the TV started flipping around the dial, but then the Republicans took up a chant of "Fox! Fox!" and it was settled.
Ronnie turned to me. "Is it always this rowdy?"
I nodded. "Usually worse. Have a beer. Relax. Get into the — heh, heh — spirit of things. Look, there's Junior now." I pointed to the big screen.
For a few minutes, we all held silent and watched and listened as Junior started into his speech. Then Lincoln let out a heavy sigh.
"He is a Republican, right?"
Teddy shrugged. "At least he knows which end of the horse to talk to."
"But he over-enunciates so badly. And what is he doing with his hands? C'mon, Junior, loosen up, don't fidget. It's pronounced ish-you, not iss-you. And what on earth is 'nukular' power?"
Ronnie began to get the idea. "Hey, somebody nudge McCain, he's dozing off!"
Lincoln went on, frowning. "And what is this 'income tax' he keeps talking about? We managed to run the country for 130 years without any such thing as an 'income' tax — except during the Civil War, and then we repealed it as soon as the war was over."
Teddy shook his head. "I told Taft it was a bad idea."
"Did not!" Taft shouted from the next table over. "It's Wilson's fault!"
On the other side of the room, Wilson jumped up and shook his fists in the air. "Yeah! Taxes! More taxes! Bring it on!"
Teddy could only shake his head again. "Idiot."
"The only two certainties in life," Lincoln observed, "are death and taxes. And the only good thing about death is that Congress never tries to make it more fair." Our glasses were empty, so I went and got another pitcher. When I got back, Junior was talking about Social Security.
"I can't believe it!" FDR shouted from across the room. "You're still trying to maintain that mess? For crying out loud, it was an emergency measure we rammed through in the middle of the Great Depression! It was never supposed to last this long!"
"Y'know," Ronnie said, "much as I hate to admit it, I've always kind of admired FDR."
"Apparently, so does Junior," Lincoln said. "He's quoted him three times so far." Lincoln turned and looked at Teddy. "Are you sure he's a Republican? He's sounding more like Wilson or your little cousin Franklin every minute."
Ronnie, meanwhile, had begun giving Junior's performance a professional's scrutiny. "Look at the camera, kid," he muttered. "Stand up straight. Don't look at the Democrats in the room. Talk over them. Look straight at the camera and talk directly to the American people."
The camera cut to a reaction shot from the Senate, and Teddy asked, "Is it true you can't see Senator Clinton's reflection in a mirror?" We all got a cheap laugh at that one, refilled our glasses, and when we got around to paying attention again Junior was talking about the trade in human embyros and body parts.
"'Make sure human life is never bought or sold as a commodity?'" Lincoln repeated. "What is wrong with you people? Wasn't the 13th Amendment clear enough?"
"Things have gotten a bit complicated since then," Ronnie offered. "Er — "
Teddy interrupted. "You had to create a new government agency for Homeland Security? Why? Don't you still have Winchester and Colt?"
Before Ronnie could answer this as well, Lincoln thumped his fist on the table. "And what is this pledging to end tyranny and install freedom everywhere business? I swear, he sounds more like Wilson with every word."
Across the room, Wilson leaped to his feet again. "Yeah! Intervention! Nation-building! Bomb 'em 'til they love democracy! BRING IT ON!"
"And now he's quoting little Franklin again. 'Each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.' Well, duh!"
On the big screen Junior was saying, "The fall of imperial communism was only a dream — until one day, it was accomplished."
Ronnie finally frowned. "You're welcome. Sure, mention FDR all over the place, but do I get a word of credit?"
"And the speech is over," Teddy observed. "He's off the podium, moving into the crowd, shaking hands, and — My God, did he just kiss Senator Lieberman?"
Ronnie looked at me. "Should we stay for the rebuttal?" I looked across at Abraham.
"We'll need more beer," Lincoln said.
Grant woke up during Reid's rebuttal. "Who is that little pencil-neck?" he slurred. "Orville Redenbacher?" He appeared to listen intently for a few minutes, then stood up and staggered off, to mistake a decorative plant for a chamber pot.
Teddy lasted a little while longer, but when Reid said, "America is still the land of the open road," he leaped to his feet.
"And Democrats will make you drive it in a goddam hybrid!" This brought a few glasses flung in our direction from the left side of the ballroom, so Teddy rolled up his sleeves and stomped off, to do some big stick work on the Democrats. Reid finished, Nancy Pelosi started talking, and Ronnie's jaw dropped.
"Doesn't that woman ever blink?" he asked, not taking his gaze off the screen. "And what's with her eyebrows? Are they like, tattooed on? Oh, my God." He turned to me. "She's got Simpson eyes!" My confusion must have been evident, because he explained. "Her pupils don't converge. They diverge — they point in different directions. That's the way Matt Groening draws the Simpsons, to make them look psychotic." This cleared up exactly nothing, so Ronnie added, "I'm sorry, that came after your time. Never mind." We went back to watching Pelosi after that, but I was completely unable to hear her words because I was too busy concentrating on her eyebrows. Teddy returned, with a bloody nose, bruised knuckles, and a big grin, at just about the time Pelosi was complaining that Iraq had become a magnet for terrorists.
"Of course it has, you dimwit!" he shouted at the screen. "That's how you hunt predators! You put out bait, lure them in, and shoot them dead!" He turned to Lincoln. "I've seen enough. Ready?"
Lincoln drained his glass. "Absolutely." He stood up and shook Ronnie's hand. "Well, son, it's been fun. We'll meet again." He gave me a nod and a smile. "And good to see you again, Dick. Later." He and Teddy made a beeline for the door. I stood up, and Ronnie followed.
"I don't know," Ronnie said, shaking his head sadly. "Maybe it's too soon. Maybe coming here tonight was a bad idea. My poor country. Oh my poor, poor country."
Grant staggered back to us then, and threw a companionable arm around Ronnie's shoulders. "Aw, cheer up, kid," he said. "The nation will be okay. After all, it survived us, didn't it?"