Madam President, page 3
“Char, please say something.”
She covered the phone with her hand and cleared her throat. She waited until she was sure that her voice would come out steady and strong. “You don’t have to do that. I don’t know how long the NSC meeting will go—or the calls, for that matter.”
“If you change your mind, let me know.”
Charlotte hung up the phone and stood with her back to her desk. She felt bad about being short with Peter, but other concerns quickly overtook her guilt. She watched the helicopters above make patterns on the South Lawn with their searchlights. How could she convince people that they should go about their lives and not worry about threats if terrorists could hit targets less than half a mile from the West Wing of the White House? The enormity of her failure to protect the country from harm was hitting her in waves. How could she ever make things right? She had made more than her share of mistakes in five and a half years as president, but this one felt unrecoverable. How had this happened? How had she let this happen?
Twenty-four hours earlier
If I had half a brain or a scrap of integrity, I’d resign. Effective immediately,” Melanie grumbled.
“You’re in Baghdad, Mel. That seems slightly irrational, especially for my levelheaded wife,” Brian gently teased.
“If Charlotte thinks I’m going to let this go on indefinitely, she’s out of her mind. Does she seriously think that I’m going to be able to pretend that nothing happened and continue to put my ass on the line for her? I mean, after her White House threw me under the bus and left me for dead?”
“We’ve had this conversation a thousand times. You have every right to be mad.”
“I can hear the ‘but’ from ten thousand miles away, even on this crappy satellite phone.”
“Actually, that was my call-waiting.”
“It’s after eleven.”
“It’s probably the Today show. I have a piece on Charlotte’s abortion speech that’s supposed to be leading the show tomorrow. Hang on for one second.”
“That speech is a really stupid use of Charlotte’s political capital,” Melanie griped.
“I know, honey. I’m sure you’d rather see her squander her remaining political capital on your unpopular wars.”
“Exactly.” She laughed.
As Melanie held for Brian, the White House correspondent for NBC News, she thought about how, for the first time in her life, her personal life was in a relatively blissful state, while her career had careened into the realm of the ridiculously dysfunctional.
Melanie was working out of an office inside the heavily fortified green zone. She would be meeting with troops involved in training the Iraqi army and a handful of local leaders to thank them for their ongoing service and cooperation. Later in the day, she’d host a video town hall between Baghdad and Washington. For the town hall, the Pentagon press folks had been ordered by the White House to round up a diverse group of military trainers, USAID workers, and local elected officials and cabinet members in the new Iraqi government who would illustrate the collaborative effort under way to solidify recent gains in the political and security situation in Iraq. What Melanie understood as a veteran of three White House staffs was that the West Wing had added an event in the war zone to showcase the commander in chief as a strong and competent wartime leader for the benefit of the TV production under way in the White House today.
It was bad enough that she’d been roped into participating in the “Day in the Life” special. She’d persuaded every president she’d ever worked for to do the same thing that Charlotte was attempting. She’d made the case that by allowing a single network to film every detail of life inside the White House over a twenty-four-hour period, viewers would gain a better understanding of the numerous problems the president had to deal with. The “Day in the Life” was a good idea as part of a larger White House effort to refocus the press on Charlotte’s agenda, but Melanie had no interest in being part of the West Wing’s public relations apparatus anymore. For nearly six years, Charlotte’s image had been her central concern. Enhancing and protecting it had been her purpose in life. But as the country’s secretary of defense, she felt a far greater obligation to the men and women who served in far-flung places and to their families who raised children, ran households, and nursed their wounded and traumatized soldiers. Melanie made a point to visit Iraq and Afghanistan as often as she could, and it had served her well in her eighteen-month tenure. The appointment capped a decade-and-a-half career in government that spanned three presidents. Melanie had served as Charlotte’s first chief of staff and her closest advisor for the entire four years of her first term as president, but on the eve of Charlotte’s reelection, she had resigned. Charlotte had enticed her to return to the administration by offering her the Cabinet post commonly referred to as the SECDEF. In her new post, Melanie had earned praise from both sides of the partisan divide for her management acumen and for her understanding of the impact that the never-ending deployments were having on soldiers and their families. At thirty-nine when she was sworn in, she was the youngest secretary of defense in history, but in an era when soldiers took to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to communicate with family, friends, and reporters, Melanie’s youth wasn’t held against her as it might have been a generation earlier.
Now, while Melanie waited for Brian to return to the line, she scanned her page of notes about the increase in benefits for the families of former combat troops that she’d lobbied for on Capitol Hill and tried to calculate what time it would be when she landed in Washington.
“Mel, are you still there?” Brian asked.
“Who was that?”
“The executive producer wanted to go over my piece for the morning.”
“They’re leading with the speech?”
“Yes, but it was touch-and-go for a while between the speech and Taylor Swift’s surprise album drop.”
“Did you see Warren tonight?”
Warren was Brian’s best friend. They had met four years earlier, when Brian was covering the war in Afghanistan and Warren was the public face of the military’s effort to train the Afghans to handle their own security. Even though they were predisposed to view each other with a healthy degree of skepticism, the two had formed an instant bond. Warren had become one of Brian’s most helpful military sources, and Brian had become a trusted peer and resource when Warren planned his move to Washington after he left the military.
“Dale agreed to meet him for a drink, so he canceled on me, which is just as well. I had a ton of work to do tonight.”
“I can’t believe those two are together. Is she treating him well?”
“He seems exceedingly happy.”
“We know what that means.”
“At least they’re compatible in that department.”
“It’s amazing that Dale manages to stay in Charlotte’s good graces while sleeping with every man in her orbit.”
Warren also happened to be Charlotte’s most senior political counselor, the person she’d turned to the year before when her political “brand” needed rehabilitating. His duties were varied, but he was the person responsible for giving her straight talk when no one else in her inner circle was willing to do so. Melanie had never served as a political advisor, but she’d had the role of delivering unwelcome news to the president, and she knew that Warren was the rare person who wasn’t afraid to give Charlotte the unvarnished truth.
Of course, Melanie was suspicious of Dale’s motives in seeking out Warren as her first serious relationship after her explosive and disastrous public affair with the president’s husband during Charlotte’s first term, but Brian insisted that Warren and Dale were good for each other.
“Honey, I don’t think Dale is exactly the president’s closest confidante.”
“She’s the goddamned White House press secretary.”
“And she knows just enough to keep us id
“Whatever. I don’t care anymore. Charlotte can get advice from whomever she wants.”
“Mel, Dale has not replaced you. Neither has Craig. In fact, Warren said that she always asks him how you’re doing.”
“I doubt that. Warren is just trying to make me feel good.”
“He wouldn’t do that.”
They both knew that he would.
“You should go to bed, honey,” Melanie said.
“Take care of that baby of mine. Drink lots of water, and don’t forget to eat,” Brian urged.
“I am guzzling water by the gallon and peeing every ten minutes.”
“I’ll talk to you in the morning, my time. Stay safe.”
“You stay safe, too,” Melanie said.
“You’re the one in a war zone.”
“You never know.”
Melanie hung up and studied the seating chart for the town hall later in the day. She was almost twenty weeks pregnant. She and Brian hadn’t shared the news with anyone. Melanie was excellent at keeping secrets, and this one felt as though it was worth keeping as long as her body would permit. She looked down at her stomach and was pretty sure that it had grown since the day before. The loosest tops in her wardrobe now failed to cover up her rapidly expanding midsection and chest. No one in town would suspect that Melanie had gone for a boob job. For at least a few more weeks, they’d simply conclude that she’d gained weight with all of the travel required for her job. Melanie smiled and turned back to her work.
She liked to do all of her meetings without using notes, but with the delay from the D.C. satellite hookup, the town hall would go smoother if everyone spoke from a couple of notecards. She thought about calling the White House chief of staff to go over the logistics, but since she suspected him of playing a key role in trying to sabotage her with the president the year before, she decided not to. She jotted a few notes for herself and read her briefing materials about the soldiers who would be in her morning meeting. Melanie was always struck by how young they were. She had pictures to accompany the short biographies, and after reading the briefing materials a couple of times, she covered the text and quizzed herself until she had the soldiers’ names and the basic facts of their military résumés and personal lives memorized. She felt that knowing their stories was the least she could do.
She glanced at her BlackBerry and saw an e-mail from Dale confirming her participation in the town hall and asking if she wanted to talk about any aspect of the line-by-line before the event. A line-by-line was basically a script that was crafted by the government official responsible for briefing the president and other participants for an event. It didn’t preclude spontaneous conversation, but it was designed to ensure that everyone was able to make a different point so that the conversation covered all of the desired topics. Dale had also arranged for a crew to be inside the town hall meeting in Iraq to provide footage from both sides of the conversation for the “Day in the Life” special. Dale was thorough. While Melanie was surprised that Charlotte had tapped her because of their complicated personal history, the selection showed that the president was still shrewd enough to place a candidate’s qualifications ahead of her own preferences. If nothing else, the selection of Dale as her official mouthpiece projected bigness, which had always been Charlotte’s strong suit as a politician. Melanie had served two of Charlotte’s predecessors from the podium as White House press secretary. She still thought it was the most important White House post, other than chief of staff.
She picked up her BlackBerry and typed back: “All set,” to Dale. No one could accuse Melanie of not being a team player. She couldn’t think of anyone else in Charlotte’s Cabinet who would have tolerated the beating that her reputation had taken the year before when someone deep inside the West Wing had run a whisper campaign blaming Melanie for leaks about the mental condition of Charlotte’s then vice president, Tara Meyers. Charlotte had placed Meyers on the ticket as her running mate during her reelection campaign a year and a half earlier to shake up the race. She transformed the political landscape by plucking a Democrat out of relative obscurity and running on the first-ever unity ticket, where a president is a member of one political party and the vice president is from the other. While the bipartisan experiment was celebrated as the first truly postpartisan move by a modern president, Charlotte’s political advisors had hastily selected an unvetted and untested politician in Tara Meyers. Tara had suffered a mental breakdown soon after she was sworn in and had resigned in disgrace less than a year later.
From the moment Melanie had first met Tara, she had warned the president about her lack of experience and deficient knowledge base. As the vice president’s gaffes went from being seen as minor embarrassments for the White House to a serious indictment of the president’s judgment, Melanie had grown increasingly concerned.
But she had not been the source of any leaked information. She’d never spoken to anyone other than the president about Tara. Melanie had considered resigning when the rumors about her alleged disloyalty started showing up in the papers. Brian had persuaded her to stay in the job she loved, and the Pentagon was a world away from the gravitational pull at the West Wing. Charlotte had eventually made several public statements of support for Melanie and even urged her to stay on for the duration of her second term in an interview. Charlotte’s backing had quieted the sniping, but the real leaker had never been outed.
Now Melanie pulled out her briefing materials one last time. These trips were always built around meetings with the foreign leaders, but Melanie came for the visits with the troops. They were the reason she was still in government at all. She’d promised Brian that she wouldn’t travel around Iraq now that she was pregnant, but she planned to spend as much time with the troops inside the green zone as she could. When she was satisfied that she had committed all of their names and faces to memory, she stood and walked into her first meeting.
Put down that BlackBerry and eat something, or I’m going to make a scene that you’ll have to read about in Politico tomorrow,” Warren warned.
Dale flashed him a horrified glare and then finished typing her e-mail as quickly as her fingers would press the keys. She hit send and then shoved the device into her purse. “There. I’m done.”
Warren took the purse out of her lap and put it on the ground next to him.
“Take it easy with that bag. It cost more than my monthly mortgage payment.” He moved it from the floor to the empty chair next to him. Dale heard her phone ringing.
“Whoever it is can wait a few minutes. I’m going to leave it on this chair for fifteen minutes so you can eat something and tell me about your day, and then I will give it back to you.”
“Five minutes,” she countered.
Dale acquiesced and took a long sip of her wine. When she looked back at Warren, he was smiling at her and holding up his wineglass. “What?” she asked.
“A toast to your big deal of a day tomorrow. Everyone is already talking about how the press office is the newest power center in the West Wing.”
She got a tremendous amount of satisfaction from what he was saying, but she wasn’t sure if it was true. The one thing she did know was that she should not have agreed to have a late dinner with Warren on the eve of a make-or-break day for herself and the president. She was staring longingly at her purse, with all of her electronic devices inside, when she realized that Warren’s phone, which was on the table between them, had rung several times.
“That’s the third call you’ve had in the last two minutes. Aren’t you going to answer it?” Dale asked.
“They will call back.”
“What if it’s urgent?”
“It can wait.”
“For the love of God, please answer your phon
Warren laughed and answered it. He rolled his eyes immediately. “She’s right here,” he said, handing Dale the phone.
“Your work husband.”
Dale grabbed the phone from Warren and covered her mouth with her hand to speak to the White House chief of staff.
He was calling to pass along Charlotte’s request that the camera crews not be allowed to loiter in her reception area in the afternoon, because the Israeli ambassador was stopping by for a social visit and Charlotte didn’t want more to be made of it.
“That’s fine. I’ll let them put an extra crew in my office while I prep for the daily briefing,” Dale said to Craig. “I’m not on a date. We’re just grabbing a glass of wine. Come meet us,” she urged. Warren shook his head in protest. “OK, OK, I will see you bright and early in the morning,” Dale said. She hung up and handed Warren his phone.
“You’re lucky that I don’t mind sharing you with him,” he said.
Dale smiled her best “Don’t hate me because I work all the time” smile and tried to pay complete attention to what Warren was saying. He’d commissioned a new poll that had Charlotte’s approval ratings at an all-time high. The only downside was that her vice president’s approval rating was ten points higher. Dale was about to ask a question about the history of vice-presidential approval ratings when waiters placed half a dozen bowls of Spanish tapas on the table in front of her.
“I thought we were just going to have a drink,” she said.
“I didn’t order the food. I guess they thought we looked hungry.”
Dale nibbled at a piece of cheese and looked around at the boisterous young crowd crammed into the dining room at Jaleo in Penn Quarter.
“Are you still up for dinner with my parents tomorrow?” Warren asked.