Madam President, page 10
“I’m sorry, Char. I told you I would handle her.”
“I thought she was smarter than this.”
“She made a mistake,” Peter insisted.
Charlotte spun around and faced him with all the fury that had been building since Craig had handed her Penny’s statement.
“Are you seriously defending this stunt? Because if you are, we have even bigger problems than I’d thought.”
“I’m not defending her at all. I think you should send her to Gitmo if you want. But when the press no longer gives a damn about anything you say or do, she will still be our daughter,” he said tightly.
“She is trying to punish me, and she knew that it would have the effect of driving us farther apart. You can let her know that she accomplished both missions.”
Peter was about to say something when Brooke and Mark barged into the Oval Office. Sam followed close behind and tried to redirect them into the Cabinet Room next door.
“It’s fine,” Charlotte assured Sam. Brooke and Mark wouldn’t have stayed out even if she’d asked them to.
“Char, it’s not that bad,” Brooke offered.
“You saw it?”
“It’s on the Internet,” Mark confirmed.
“Anyone who has ever had a teenage daughter will totally sympathize with you,” Brooke added.
Charlotte smiled ruefully at her friends and recognized that their arrival had guaranteed that the simmering tensions between her and Peter would have to be addressed another time.
“Sam?” she called.
“Please ask Craig, Dale, and Marguerite to come back in here.”
They appeared instantly, and Charlotte wondered if they’d heard everything that had transpired.
“Craig, I think we should be as blasé as possible about Penny’s statement. Say that she’s a young adult with her own opinions about politics and policy and everything else. Maybe we wrap it into a larger statement about just how difficult it is to be the child of a president. We could touch on the fact that the debate around reproductive rights can divide, and sometimes unite, families. Have the press office say something about how I appreciate Penny’s feelings about this issue and the other issues she raised on Facebook.”
Dale and Craig looked at each other.
“What’s wrong? That covers everything, doesn’t it?” Charlotte asked.
“Madam President, the first thing the press is going to want to know is whether you’ve spoken to Penny,” Dale said.
“Oh. Right.” She glared at Peter.
“We’ll call her now,” he said.
“I need to do this alone,” Charlotte told him.
She walked into her private dining room. The call went straight to voice mail, and Charlotte dialed again. This time, Penny picked up.
“It’s your mom,” Charlotte said calmly.
“Before you say anything, I didn’t mean for this to happen. I thought the Secret Service would keep my page private. I didn’t think that anyone other than my friends would see it.”
Charlotte resisted the temptation to scold her for blaming the Secret Service. It was something a ten-year-old would say, not a college student.
“Are you ready for the media attention that’s about to come your way?”
“What? No. That’s not why I did it!”
“Well, you should turn on MSNBC or CNN in a few minutes, because it will be all over the news. You will be the big story today.”
“That’s not what I wanted.”
She sounded panicked, and Charlotte was starting to feel sorry for her. She rubbed her forehead and listened to Penny’s pathetic excuses as her mind played through all the instances in which she’d ignored her responsibilities to the twins to do one more thing at the office. She felt a hundred years old all of a sudden.
“Listen, Penny, the press will move on to something else by tomorrow so let’s not lose perspective.”
“I’m really sorry, Mom.”
“I am, too, for whatever I did to deserve this.”
“It’s been building up,” Penny confessed.
They were both quiet for a moment, and it sounded like Penny had started to cry. Charlotte felt herself soften a bit.
“Do me a favor, and stay off Facebook today.”
Charlotte felt her heart twist into a different shape inside her chest. She desperately wanted to rewind the last ten years and get a do-over with Penny. Charlotte would change everything. She’d be there each day when Penny got home from school to hear about her day. She’d be the mom who drove the carpools so she could listen to Penny and her friends talk. She’d be the mom who took all of the kids skiing or to the beach. She’d be the mom who all the other kids knew they could talk to. She wondered which mom had been there for her daughter when she wasn’t. Despite her anger at Penny for taking her hostilities public, she felt a dam break inside her chest.
“Don’t blame Dad. He asked me not to write anything.”
“It’s not his fault.”
“I’m not mad at Dad. I’m still mad at you.”
“I’m really sorry,” Penny said.
“You’re not a little kid anymore. You can’t just say sorry and move on.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“For starters, a lot of reporters are going to write stories about what you wrote, and they are going to want to talk to you about it. They will find your e-mail address, and they will figure out how to reach you through your friends. Some might even show up at Google or outside your apartment. I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t talk to any of them.”
“I’m going to have someone from the press office call you in a few minutes. I’d like for you to do exactly what they tell you to do.”
As she uttered the words, Charlotte realized that Penny must have suspected that it was possible her post would receive attention from the press. Most likely, it was also why she’d overheard Peter explaining to Penny earlier that morning that Dale’s e-mail address was the same as it had been. It made Charlotte wonder: Had Dale had an e-mail relationship with her daughter while she’d been romantically involved with Peter?” The thought had never entered her mind, but upon reflection, it was possible. Charlotte felt nauseated by the thought, but she did her best to sound the perfect combination of disappointed and forgiving as she hung up with Penny. Even though she was already late for her speech, she allowed herself to wallow for an extra moment about the fact that Penny had become so distant. She wondered exactly when and how it had happened.
Charlotte was racked with guilt about the huge chunks of her children’s lives that she’d missed. Where had all the years gone? It felt like just yesterday that she’d brought the twins home from the hospital. They’d been so tiny, but even as a newborn, Penny had demanded so much of Charlotte’s attention. She would use her teeny fingers to grab onto Charlotte’s hand, and she’d cry whenever Charlotte put her down to take care of Harry. Penny did everything before Harry. She walked first. She talked first. She was the first to join in with other kids at the playground. Harry liked to watch his sister. He watched Penelope walk around their small Pacific Heights apartment for weeks before he took his first steps. And he let her do all of his talking for months before he opened his mouth to say “Mama.”
Where in God’s name had eighteen and a half years gone? Charlotte wondered.
She was already late for her speech at the Women’s Museum, but she wanted to make one more call. She dialed Harry’s cell phone. He was probably still asleep.
“Hi, sweetie,” she said.
“Hi, Mom,” he said groggily.
“Can you call your sister today?”
“Go online when you wake up.”
“OK.” He yawned.
“I’m going to be out there in a few weeks. We’ll have lots of time to visit, if you can make time for your boring old mom.”
“Go back to sleep. I love you.”
He was still sweet. He didn’t get straight As like his sister, and he didn’t do a dozen extracurricular activities like Penny did, but everyone loved him.
Charlotte retouched her lipstick and smoothed her hair with her fingers before she returned to the Oval Office. Peter was sitting on the sofa with Brooke and Mark, and Craig, Dale, and Marguerite were huddled near her desk.
“How’d it go?” Peter asked.
“Fine.” She didn’t want to rehash the conversation in front of her staff.
“Dale, you can tell the press that Penny and I spoke and everything is fine. We plan to spend some time talking politics when I visit later this month. I also spoke to Harry.”
Dale was scribbling furiously in her notepad. “Do you want us to address whether she intended for the post to be made public?” Dale asked.
Charlotte thought for a moment. Penny had said that she intended the post for her friends, but certainly, she must have known that it would get out. “You’d better not,” Charlotte said.
“Madam President, would it be all right with you if we touched base with her to make sure that she and her friends know how to send every inquiry from the press to us, no matter where it comes from?” Craig asked.
“Yes. I told her to expect a call from the press office. Peter, maybe you can hold her hand through the process?” Charlotte asked.
“Sure,” he said.
“Mr. Kramer, we’ll need you to make clear to her that she needs to be highly suspicious of every e-mail, text, and Facebook message she gets today. The press will be relentless in their efforts to engage her. Perhaps Dale can jump on the line for a quick second just to assure her that the press office is here to field all of the calls on this today,” Craig suggested.
Peter nodded and looked at Charlotte.
“That’s fine,” she said.
“Madam President, Marguerite and I will come with you to the speech. We should leave as soon as possible,” Craig said.
Sam handed Charlotte a fresh copy of her speech, and a Secret Service agent held the door open. Brooke and Mark headed straight to the president’s limo, affectionately called the Beast, for its size and weight.
As Charlotte walked toward where her motorcade had been idling for the last forty-five minutes, she resisted the temptation to look over her shoulder at Peter and Dale. She couldn’t believe that an eighteen-year-old with an overactive social media habit and a grudge against her mother had managed to screw up the most carefully scripted day on Charlotte’s schedule in months and reunite her father and his mistress. Charlotte would have laughed if the thought didn’t sicken her.
Melanie was in a deep, dreamless slumber when the sound of a gentle but persistent knocking and a vaguely familiar voice calling her name woke her.
“I’m coming. Give me one second,” Melanie mumbled. They’d be landing in Turkey soon. It was difficult to fly straight home without making a stop to either change planes or refuel. She popped a mint into her mouth and wrapped her favorite long sweater coat tightly around her body before cracking the door open.
“Sorry to bother you, ma’am. We’ll be taking off for Washington from the other plane in about twenty minutes,” her military aide reported.
That would mean they’d already been on the ground for close to an hour. The C-17 was what she preferred to fly into Iraq, but they’d be making the trip home to Washington on the “Doomsday plane,” a flying command center that could refuel in flight if it needed to. She wondered who’d suggested that no one interrupt her while they made the switch. Perhaps she wasn’t keeping her pregnancy as secret as she thought.
Melanie brushed her teeth, dabbed concealer under her eyes, and applied lip gloss before tossing her personal items into a large canvas tote bag that her aide would move from her private quarters on the C-17 to her more comfortable cabin aboard the modified 747. She proceeded out to the air base’s lounge, where the press and a few members of her staff were assembled. Most of the reporters had their laptops in front of them, either to file stories or check the latest news. A few of them were chatting on cell phones.
“Did you see the first daughter’s f-you to her mother?” Sandy Malkin, the AP reporter who always traveled with them, asked.
“I missed that. What happened?” Melanie reached for an oatmeal cookie from an oversized tray of baked goods.
“I’d send my kids to one of those boot camps in Utah if they pulled this crap,” she added.
“I don’t think you can send college kids to boot camp. What did she do?”
“She took to Facebook to point out that her mom’s pro-choice speech today is the first thing she’s ever been proud of and a bunch of other snarky crap about how Kramer has always backed choice but never had the guts to say so,” Malkin reported.
Melanie grimaced. “That doesn’t sound like Penelope Kramer.”
“Do you want to put that on the record?”
“Of course not. I was tied up on calls about the Pentagon budget for the entire flight. I haven’t seen any news out of Washington.”
“Here it is, if you want to read it.”
Sandy moved her laptop in front of Melanie. The Huffington Post had posted the story under the headline “President Takes Incoming Fire from First Daughter.” Melanie’s heart sank as she read the story. Despite the fact that their relationship had chilled, she and Charlotte had been close enough to talk about nearly everything during the years Melanie had served as Charlotte’s chief of staff. Charlotte had often confided that her greatest regret in life was putting a political career into motion that she knew would leave all of the parenting of her then very young children to Peter and the small army of nannies, tutors, and housekeepers they’d employed.
“I knew that I could be in this place if I said yes to running for governor of California. I knew it was possible, Mel,” Charlotte had said during one of their late-night talks during the first year of her first term.
It had struck Melanie as supremely confident at the time, but Charlotte hadn’t said it in a boastful manner. In fact, it was the first time Charlotte had ever opened up to Melanie about her decision to take the leap from the governor’s office to the race for the Republican nomination for president.
“I knew that the national media would focus on our tax reforms and our budget overhaul, and not just because California has the sixth-largest economy in the world but because we were doing it faster and with bipartisan support,” she’d said. “And I knew that if I picked my issues carefully and made sure to keep my foot on the gas in terms of rebooting California’s economy, I could get away with being more liberal, or, as I liked to say to the press, ‘aligned with the party’s libertarian wing’ on issues like gay marriage and choice.”
Melanie had been fascinated by Charlotte’s bluntness in discussing her political calculations. It went against everything Melanie had ever heard or read about Charlotte Kramer. Melanie realized that the narrative about how Charlotte had reluctantly agreed to dip her toe into the presidential waters simply for the good of the party, out of a sense of obligation to the party elders who had supported her and permitted her to break barriers, had been carefully manufactured.
“Here was my mistake, Mel. Here’s where I was just as arrogant as every other human who thinks he or she can be president: I actually thought that I would be strong enough to take the trips to New Hampshire, Iowa, and Michigan and attend the Gridiron and Alfalfa dinners and revel in all of that adulation without taking the next obvious step. I thought that I could just flirt
Melanie remembered thinking at the time that if she could be a good enough friend, a good enough chief of staff, she could unburden Charlotte from what was obviously a mountain of guilt.
“You know what, Mel?” Charlotte had continued that night. “I was like every other ambitious big-state governor. I fell for the whole thing—the praise from the press and the pundits, the excitement of the crowds, the meaningless polls in the early states. And at that point, the kids had been too little to know what was happening, and if Peter understood what was happening, he didn’t let on. He was my biggest supporter in those days, my partner. Can you even imagine that now?”
“Excuse me, Madam Secretary, are you done reading?” Sandy Malkin snapped Melanie out of her nostalgia. The AP reporter looked desperate to get her laptop back from Melanie before they had to board the plane for Washington.
“I was just thinking back to when the president’s twins were younger. They grew up so fast.”
“It happens. Listen, if you decide to comment, you know, as the former White House chief of staff or something, you’ll come back on the plane, right?”
“Don’t hold your breath. I’m out of the Kramer family psychoanalyst business.”
Melanie boarded the bigger plane and settled into her cabin. She picked up the phone and asked to be connected to her personal assistant at the Pentagon, Annie. Annie had been with her since her days as White House chief of staff.
“You saw the news about Penny?”
“Sandy Malkin just showed it to me. Is the press making a big deal out of it?”
“It has knocked all the abortion protests off the air.”
“Can you see if you can get the president on the phone for me?”
“Sure. Hang on. Do you want me to tell her it’s urgent?”
“No, it’s not urgent. But I don’t want my call returned by the chief of staff or the national security advisor. Just tell Sam that I called to check in about Penelope. Actually, don’t say that. Just tell Sam I called about a personal matter. Not personal related to me, just personal. No, not personal. You know what? Just tell Sam I called, and the president can call me back anytime if she’s busy right now.”