Madam president, p.25

Madam President, page 25

 

Madam President
 


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  Dale opened the envelope and saw inside Craig’s copy of the president’s address for later that night. Her stomach sank. “What? No. That’s ridiculous.”

  “The last administration prosecuted half a dozen journalists. Ask them how ridiculous it sounds.”

  “I can explain. Just stop yelling at me. Please?”

  Lucy leaned back and crossed her legs and stared at Dale as though daring her to speak.

  “You’re right about a lot of those things, Lucy. Maybe you can cut me a little bit of slack today?” It was a cheap tactic, but she needed Lucy’s help, and she’d get it any way she could.

  “Dale, I’m sorry about Warren. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. But somewhere along the way today, you made a decision to stay here, and you also made a decision to allow us to stay. Even before the news broke about the attacks, or Warren, you’ve treated us with disdain and hostility. I should be specific. You have treated me with disdain. It has felt personal for a while now, and my experience today confirms that. You have a problem, generally speaking, in telling the truth to the people who have the job that you used to have. But you have an extra challenge in treating me with respect. Why is that?”

  “It’s not you.”

  “Come on. I saw you rolling your eyes at Brian while Richard and I were doing our phone interview from your office.”

  “You were sprawled out in my office, with your numbered juices on my coffee table, while the rest of the press corps fought for space on the floor.”

  “And you rolled your eyes at the press about what a pain in the ass I am.”

  “I rolled my eyes at your lack of self-awareness.”

  Lucy laughed. “My lack of self-awareness?”

  Dale worried that she was alienating the person she needed to complete the assignment she’d been given by Melanie and the president. “You can take me out back and shoot me tomorrow, but tonight I need to know where you got that speech.”

  “I’m guessing that you already know, so before I answer your questions, I need to know that I’m not a pawn in some sting operation.”

  “Why would you ask that?”

  “We’re totally and completely off the record here, right? There are no recording devices, and you are not going to report what I say to your colleagues, are you?”

  “I swear.”

  “A very good source gave me the speech. He’s someone I’ve come to know very well in the last three years, and his information is rock-solid.”

  “But here you are with it, Lucy. Why didn’t you go on the air with your big scoop about what the president planned to say tonight?”

  “You tell me.”

  “There must be something that gave you pause. Why didn’t you use the speech?”

  “Because it isn’t the speech, is it?”

  “No,” Dale admitted.

  “God damn it.”

  “How did you know?”

  “I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Pity perhaps, but Craig’s been a good source for months. He cultivated us during the impeachment scandal a year and a half ago. He took credit for our selection for the ‘Day in the Life.’ ”

  “He did?”

  “Yes. He said that he told you it was with us or it wouldn’t happen.”

  “That’s not remotely true,” Dale insisted.

  “He gave us a heads-up about the CNN crew earlier today, about the president leaving the PEOC, and about Warren. I told him I’d use anything that I could verify with a second source. He didn’t want me to do that, but I passed some of his tips to our Pentagon bureau to see if they could verify them.”

  “That’s why Melanie got the call about the president leaving the PEOC,” Dale said.

  Lucy nodded.

  “And the speech?”

  “The speech was too easy,” Lucy continued.

  “How so?” Dale asked.

  “He just called us and said he had something for us, and then he kept calling to see why we hadn’t teed it up yet. I told him I was looking for a second source, and he flipped out.”

  “How did you know that it wasn’t the real speech?”

  “Because the president isn’t stupid enough to give it to someone who would even be thinking about us while dealing with attacks as heinous as today’s.”

  Dale contemplated this. “Was the vice president talking to you today?” she asked.

  “She spent five minutes with us. Craig called her and told her that you’d decided to leave us embedded with the staff to record the day’s events for history. She spoke glowingly about the president. She said that she saw a human being in there today, someone you’d want to have as a leader. And then she threw us out.”

  “She said that?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Lucy, I’m not good at this, but I want to apologize.”

  “That’s not an apology,” Lucy scoffed.

  “I’m getting to it. I am sorry about the way I’ve treated you guys. I will make it up to you—as in CBS—and I will make it up to you, personally. I promise.”

  Lucy sighed. “I also know that the president walked into the briefing room so that someone could break the news to you about Warren.”

  “Craig told you that?” Dale gasped.

  “If I’d reported half of what he’s told me over the last year, I’d probably have a freaking Emmy.”

  “Why was he leaking everything to you? I mean, why was he trying to harm the president?”

  “You need to ask the White House shrink. People tell us all kinds of stuff, and it’s never about us. Usually, it isn’t even about the information they’re sharing. It’s usually about their attempts to manipulate their own circumstances to their advantage. Last year, Craig told us that it was Melanie who’d gone to the special prosecutor during the Tara Meyers scandal.”

  “Why was he after Melanie?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “But you knew he was using you to sabotage Melanie? Why did you let him use you?”

  “I understand very clearly now why you have no friends, Dale. Your people skills are shit.”

  “I didn’t mean to suggest that you conspired with him, but you just said that he was telling you things to manipulate the situation. You knew he was lying.”

  “Now you’re twisting my words. You really are cut out for this line of work.”

  “Lucy, I think we’re speaking past each other. I’m trying to get to the bottom of why Craig gave you a bad speech.”

  “I don’t think that’s the case, Dale. Once again, you’re treating me like a fool. I think that someone, maybe Melanie, has suspected Craig for a long time, and the leaks today were the most glaring clue to date, a sign that the suspected leaker is growing desperate and reckless. So someone decided to give him a bum speech and see what happened to it. Right?”

  “I can’t say.”

  “Well, congratulations. You have your leaker, Dale. The day isn’t a total loss.”

  Dale flinched.

  “I didn’t mean Warren. Shit. I’m sorry. Can we pick this conversation up another time? Obviously, we have some unfinished business between us, but before I say something that I can’t repair and before the network replaces me for going AWOL, I need to find Richard and get back on the air. We’re going to report the news about Warren before the president’s speech. I’m sorry.”

  Dale nodded and watched Lucy walk toward the door and hoist her massive bag over her shoulder. “Lucy, one more question.”

  Lucy turned and looked at Dale.

  “You had the White House chief of staff as a source, and you said that you knew some of the information was true. Even without a second source, it was news. Why didn’t you use any of it?”

  Lucy’s eyes narrowed. “I really hope that this isn’t a lecture about my journalistic obligations. That would be so rich I couldn’t take it.”

  “I’m curious.”

  Lucy shrugged. “There are other considerations. Being true doesn’t sanitize the information fr
om the stench of Craig’s nefarious motives. I sat on plenty of things over the last year, and not just from here. I don’t expect you to give me a goddamned medal. My viewers don’t give a crap about how many scandals I reveal. In case you haven’t paid attention to your former profession, there are not a lot of ticker-tape parades being thrown for the great journalists of our times. People are sick of hating their political leaders, and when we give them more reasons to do so, they start to hate us, too. My viewers want someone pleasant who doesn’t take herself too seriously to sit with them at the end of their stressful days and make them laugh a little. They already know what happened. They just want to know why they should give a damn.”

  Dale was speechless.

  “You should get back to work on that speech,” Lucy remarked. Surely she knew from Craig that Dale hadn’t contributed one single word.

  “I didn’t work on the speech,” Dale confessed.

  “I know,” Lucy said, with the faintest of smiles.

  “Thank you,” Dale said.

  “I didn’t do it for you, and I didn’t do it for the president, so there’s nothing to thank me for.”

  Dale nodded again.

  Lucy closed the door behind her, and Dale reached for her phone.

  “Sam, I need to see the president.”

  CHAPTER FIFTY-ONE

  Charlotte

  When Dale appeared in the doorway of the Oval Office, Charlotte had to force the image of Peter and Dale sitting side-by-side with their heads touching in the medical unit earlier that afternoon from her mind. She hadn’t had a conversation with Peter all day about anything other than the whereabouts of their children. Charlotte examined Dale closely. She appeared thinner and paler than usual. Charlotte was overcome with dueling desires. Part of her wanted to throw a comforting arm around her slim shoulders and assure her that everything would be OK. The other part of her, the one that ultimately prevailed, felt compelled to regard Dale with professional coolness, especially after watching her with Peter earlier.

  It was at this moment, however, that she fully understood why Dale served as an inescapable magnetic force for Peter’s affections. Dale was in a perpetual cycle of needing to be rescued, and if Charlotte knew one thing about Peter, it was that he desperately needed to be needed. For reasons she didn’t entirely understand, Charlotte had never been able to muster any animosity toward Dale. She’d never viewed Dale as her competition for Peter’s affections, because she’d always seen herself as the one responsible for pulling him in and pushing him away based on her own limited capacity for intimacy.

  Now she focused on the immediate concern, which was Craig’s role in spreading confidential information to the press. Charlotte waved Dale toward the sofa.

  “Come in and sit down,” she urged.

  “Can I get you something to drink?” Melanie offered.

  “He gave Lucy the speech,” Dale blurted.

  Charlotte and Melanie exchanged a glance.

  “He’s been talking to them off the record for more than a year about . . .”

  “What?” Melanie asked.

  “About a lot of different things,” Dale confirmed.

  “What sorts of things, Dale?” the president probed.

  “She said that going back a year, he was talking to her on deep background about you, Melanie, and how you were the source for the leaks about Tara. She also said that he’d been passing along information all day long—the CNN crew, Warren, the PEOC story.”

  “Did she say why?” Melanie asked.

  “She didn’t know why.”

  “Why didn’t she use any of it?” Charlotte asked.

  “I’m not sure I buy this part of the story entirely, but she said that it was all tainted by Craig’s ill motives and she didn’t feel an obligation to use information that was provided by a disgruntled source.”

  Melanie’s face registered disbelief. Despite the fact that she was married to a network correspondent, she set a very low bar for most journalists.

  “Should I call her?” Charlotte asked.

  “She said that she didn’t do it for you and that we should not ever thank her.”

  “What do you want to do?” Melanie asked Charlotte.

  “I want to think about it.” Charlotte was annoyed that Melanie expected her to make some sort of snap judgment about her chief of staff on the day of the attacks.

  Melanie didn’t disguise her disapproval, and Charlotte could tell that Dale suddenly felt uncomfortable.

  “I’m sorry to ask this, but what should I do about Craig? He’s going to know, or at least suspect, that someone, probably me, waved Lucy off the speech when she doesn’t use it in her next live report,” Dale said, worried.

  “He’s going to get a new draft in about fifteen minutes as part of the staffing process. You can say it was an early draft, and you heard from me that the president went in another direction after her last editing session,” Melanie suggested.

  “Will that work?” Charlotte asked.

  Melanie was about to respond when Sam walked in.

  “Excuse me. You have an urgent call out here, ma’am.”

  Charlotte closed the door to the Oval Office, leaving Melanie and Dale alone, and stood at Sam’s desk to watch the networks announce that Warren had been killed in the attacks on the Air and Space Museum. She stayed until they read her statement in its entirety and then turned slowly back toward the door to the Oval. She felt wearier than at any other point in her presidency.

  “Ma’am.” Sam gently touched her arm.

  “What?” Charlotte said, more curtly than she’d intended.

  “Madam President, your hair and makeup folks are here.”

  Charlotte sank into the chair next to Sam’s desk to catch her breath.

  “How much time do I have?”

  “You have about half an hour until the speech.”

  “Tell them I’ll be with them in five minutes.”

  CHAPTER FIFTY-TWO

  Melanie

  Melanie and Dale both watched Charlotte leave the Oval Office. Melanie could tell by Dale’s reaction to being left alone with her that she presumed that Charlotte was doing something related to Warren.

  “She and I worked on this together,” Melanie revealed. She reached into a manila folder and handed Dale a copy of the president’s statement. Dale sat down on the sofa and read it. She wiped a couple of tears from her cheeks and then looked at Melanie and smiled.

  “Thank you.”

  “Thank the president,” Melanie said.

  “Please thank her for me. I’ve got to get down to the briefing room before her address.”

  Melanie watched Dale push herself up from the couch as though it were as difficult for her in her one-hundred-and-five-pound body as it was for Melanie in her growing form. She walked toward the door that opened to the hallway between the Roosevelt Room and the Oval Office so that she wouldn’t bump into the president, who had exited to the reception area on the other side of the Oval. Dale turned to face Melanie before she left.

  “I know that you and Brian knew him better and longer than I did, but I was falling in love with him, and I always knew how important you and Brian were to him. I’m sorry that we didn’t all spend time together,” Dale said in a near whisper.

  “Me, too,” Melanie admitted, even though she remained skeptical that Dale and Warren ever would have had the kind of relationship she knew Warren yearned for. Even in her grief, there was something unfeeling about Dale that Melanie couldn’t ignore. The news of Warren’s sudden death had undoubtedly shaken her, but Dale’s sadness seemed more akin to what someone might feel at the news that they’d missed out on something exciting, rather than the loss of one’s soul mate.

  When Charlotte returned to the Oval Office a few minutes later, it was apparent that the public announcement of Warren’s death had added a layer of personal loss to the day for her. While it was important that the president appear emotional and connected to the enormous sense of
loss that the victims’ families would be experiencing, Melanie worried that she might be feeling too much.

  “Have you eaten anything today?” Melanie asked.

  “I don’t remember. Have you?”

  “I had a Luna bar when I got here. Sam gave it to me. Why don’t I order you a cheese plate or something?”

  “No. Let’s run through the speech one more time.”

  Charlotte clasped a copy of the speech in her hands. When she went for her black Sharpie, Melanie stopped her.

  “It’s too late for that. If you want to change anything else, I’ll do it myself in the teleprompter.”

  “What time are we doing this?”

  “You’ll go on the air at eleven-oh-two to give the anchors a couple of minutes to set things up and announce that you’re addressing the nation live from the Oval Office.”

  “What time is it now?”

  “It’s ten minutes before eleven, Madam President.”

  There followed a familiar scene in the Oval Office. The president lashed out, and Melanie listened and tried to absorb as much of her negative energy as she could. When the time came for the president to be seated behind her desk in the Oval Office, she seemed to adjust her mind-set and put on a “game face.”

  Now, as Melanie watched the president deliver the address that she’d carefully crafted, she wondered what would happen in the days to come. Surely their collaboration on this most extraordinary day meant that Charlotte still trusted Melanie more than all of her other advisors. However, it was possible that the president simply needed her too much to leave Melanie on the outside of her inner circle.

  One thing was certain: there was no way Melanie would return to the White House if the president allowed Craig to stay on. Other presidents had prosecuted government officials for leaks like the ones he was guilty of. Without an assurance from Charlotte that Craig would face consequences for his actions, Melanie was overcome with an almost urgent desire to flee the Oval Office. But Charlotte had insisted that they be left completely alone for the address to the nation. It was irrational for a president to ask to be left alone without any technical experts, but Melanie had agreed to the assignment. She made sure that everyone she would need if anything went wrong was stationed on the other side of the door.

 
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