Madam President, page 8
“Don’t worry about Secretary Kingston,” Marguerite remarked, before she even made it through the doorway. Dale eyed the camera crew and then looked back at Marguerite to make clear that they should not speak openly with the cameras rolling. Marguerite was wearing a tight black skirt and jacket with a lacy camisole underneath and open-toe heels.
Marguerite smiled warmly at the camera crew. “Please don’t use that, guys.”
They nodded their heads and assured her that they would not.
“Do you mind if I talk to Dale alone for two seconds? I promise I’ll let you back in for the good stuff.”
Miraculously, they exited the room without objection. Dale shook her head in amazement. Marguerite had a magic touch with the press.
It helped that she was a beautiful Cuban from Miami who dressed like one of the female stars of a Spanish-language soap opera. She was smart and unflappable, and when she was angry, she swore in Spanish. Half of the press was in love with her, and the other half wanted to look like her. More important, she was hardworking and shameless when it came to advancing the president’s agenda. Dale found her indispensible. When Dale was first appointed press secretary, she’d elevated Marguerite, who’d worked in the press office as a spokesperson for the two major Spanish-language networks.
“What did you hear about Melanie?” Dale asked.
“That she was furious that Lucy and Richard asked questions.”
“It was the president who turned over the floor to them.”
“I know. Don’t worry about it.”
“Whatever. Did all of the morning shows lead with today’s speech?” Dale asked.
“The other nets are feeling left out today, so I thought I’d get the vice president to do a round robin and talk to ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN.”
“Good thinking. Five minutes with each of the White House correspondents, right?”
“Good. What else?”
“Do you think we should have the president call in to Rush or Hannity or one of the other conservative talkers, to show that she still cares about the base and understands they won’t agree with today’s speech, but she honors all points of view, or something like that?”
“It might make things worse. Maybe Melanie can do those. DOD could pitch it as an update from her visit to the troops.”
“I’ll wait a couple of hours before I put in that request with the DOD press office. Oh, and the New York Times wants to know if their request for their own ‘Day in the Life’ is still alive.”
“I’ve said no three times. What is wrong with them?”
“They are the New. York. Times,” Marguerite said, with feigned indignation that made Dale laugh out loud.
“I will call them again today,” Marguerite promised.
“Anything else breaking?”
“We have a stack of requests for San Francisco that we need to go through. The local press thinks that the president should talk to them while she’s out there this summer.”
“She’s going there for vacation,” Dale objected.
“I know, I know, I will handle it,” Marguerite soothed.
“Did anything important happen in senior staff?”
“Does anything important ever happen in senior staff?”
“Did anyone complain about the camera?”
“Everyone seemed to like it. Larry gave an extra-long presentation on the expectations for Friday’s job number, and Bonnie gave the longest report from the White House counsel’s office that I’ve heard since I’ve been attending senior staff meetings.”
“You have dinner with the parents tonight, right?” Marguerite asked.
“I’m sure they already hate me. Midwesterners don’t usually approve of commitment-phobic New York women as mates for their only sons.”
“Warren knows that he is a lucky man. That’s all that matters.”
“I work all the time, I can’t cook or make a bed, and my idea of getting serious is sharing frequent flier miles. He won the girlfriend lottery with me,” Dale quipped.
At that moment, Clare burst into Dale’s office.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry, but Sam called to see if either of you were planning to join them in the Oval.”
“Join who in the Oval?” Dale asked.
“Apparently, the president invited Lucy and Richard up to the Oval Office after the videoconference, and she’s waved Sam away every time she’s tried to break it up.”
“Crap. That wasn’t on the schedule. How long have they been in there?”
“According to Sam, they all came up from the videoconference together.”
“Jesus. I’ll go get them. Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“I thought they were in their hold,” Marguerite said.
“Gather the entire staff, please, and find out how it is that we lost a network anchor team inside the West Wing,” Dale ordered.
After the meeting in the Situation Room, Charlotte invited Richard and Lucy to the Oval Office to visit with her for a few minutes. She thought it would help the piece if she spent some off-the-record time with them. Even Charlotte had to admit that Richard and Lucy knew how to stage a clever charm offensive.
Lucy would say something outrageous, and Richard would fall all over himself to apologize for her crassness. They’d talk among themselves for a minute or so, and she’d promise him that she wouldn’t offend their guest again. Then Lucy would ask the same probing question in a more polite and politically correct way. Richard would feign outrage, as if to suggest that he simply couldn’t control her even if he’d wanted to, but it was clear that their routine yielded the exact results they were after.
Charlotte watched them put on a fairly entertaining show for the waiter from the White House Mess who came in to take their coffee order. Lucy pretended to be insulted by something Richard had said, and Richard kept apologizing to the waiter for Lucy’s bad manners (she’d stuffed a stack of cocktail napkins into her purse and was asking about taking home a coffee cup and saucer). Charlotte could see how it could all become a little too much, but she was impressed that they didn’t seem to take themselves too seriously. So far, they seemed genuinely interested in her views about presiding over a bipartisan White House staff. They’d likened it to The Brady Bunch, and the comparison wasn’t too far off. Maureen had brought her “kids” to the family, and Charlotte had hers. They couldn’t supervise all of their interactions, but they both hoped that everyone would learn to get along. Dale had proven, once again, that she had excellent judgment when it came to doling out Charlotte’s interviews.
Charlotte sat across from them and asked Lucy about her twenty-month-old twins. She spoke enthusiastically about juggling motherhood and a high-pressure job. While she was talking, it was clear to Charlotte that Lucy didn’t suffer from the sort of guilt that Charlotte had struggled with for nearly two decades for abandoning her young children and her husband to pursue elected office. It was at once impressive and startling.
Charlotte wouldn’t admit it to anyone on her staff, but she was actually enjoying herself.
“That’s the private dining room and your private bathroom over there, right?” Richard asked.
“Ooh, can I use it? I have had to pee since before the meeting in the Sit Room.”
Before Charlotte could answer, Richard stood to block Lucy’s path to the bathroom.
“I can’t take you anywhere,” he scolded. “Madam President, I’m sorry. I bought her one of those books about acceptable social behavior, but she refuses to read it,” Richard joked.
Charlotte told Lucy to go ahead.
The president’s assistant, Samantha, wasn’t accustomed to seeing her boss hold court with reporters, so she poked her head in every few minutes to see if anyone needed anything. On her fourth attempt, she flung open the door and cleare
“Madam President, you have a call with the president of Brazil in ten minutes. The translators are here to set up.” It was a lie. The call was in thirty minutes, but Sam was trying to protect her from the anchors. Charlotte smiled.
“Yes, of course. Richard, Lucy, I’m sorry. You’ll have to excuse me, but I will see you shortly at the Women’s Museum, and I am looking forward to our interview afterward.”
Richard and Lucy reluctantly stood to go. Dale appeared suddenly in the doorway to the Oval Office with a look of alarm on her face.
“There you are, Dale.” The president smiled.
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry I’m late. I had an urgent call from Secretary Kingston after the teleconference.”
“Is everything all right?” Charlotte asked. She suspected that Melanie was peeved about Richard and Lucy’s participation. It wasn’t that Melanie wouldn’t appreciate the gesture. It would have more to do with the fact that she hated surprises and liked to be the one doling out favors to the press.
“Yes, ma’am,” Dale assured her.
“Good to hear. I’ll see all of you later.”
Charlotte stood in front of Samantha’s desk and listened as Dale quizzed the anchors about how they had ended up in the Oval Office. When Charlotte was confident that Dale had herded Richard and Lucy far enough along toward the press office that they were out of earshot, she sat down in the chair next to Sam’s desk.
“Sometimes it makes perfect sense to me that the public thinks everyone in government is an incompetent boob,” Charlotte said, more to herself than to her assistant.
“Do you think anyone in the press office had any idea that they were in here?”
Sam stared at her keyboard and tried to conceal a smile. She never ratted out the staff, but the president was pretty good at figuring things out for herself.
“I couldn’t tell if you really wanted them to stay, ma’am.”
“Usually, I don’t want anyone to stay, but they were amusing. And you were equally amusing with your persistent efforts to free me,” Charlotte teased.
“I am, if nothing else, persistent, ma’am.”
“I realized after ten minutes went by without Dale or Marguerite bursting in that no one had any clue that they were in there alone with me.”
“I’m sure they just thought it was good for everyone. You know, to let the reporters feel like they have unfettered access, and it’s not like you need press handlers around all the time, ma’am.”
Charlotte smiled. Sam was too good at her job sometimes. “Sam?”
“Do I have time to walk over to the residence?”
“Yes, ma’am. The translators need time to set up anyway. Is twenty minutes enough time, or do you want me to move the call back?”
“That’s perfect. I’ll be right back.”
Charlotte walked out through the door behind Sam’s desk and nodded at the Secret Service agent who met her on the colonnade to walk the short distance to the residence with her. They passed the Rose Garden, and Charlotte noticed that all the flowers she’d seen the day before were gone. That happened all the time. Just a few weeks earlier, the park service pulled up hundreds of gigantic red tulips. Dinner-plate-sized blue hydrangeas had replaced the tulips, and now they were gone, too. A dizzying mixture of multicolored sunflowers had been installed in their place. The roses, which were the mainstay of the garden, were in bloom. The entire South Lawn smelled almost sickeningly sweet. Charlotte wondered what they did with all the perfectly good plants they ripped out.
She waved at the nurse who stood up to greet her when she passed the medical unit. Charlotte preferred the stairs, but she didn’t have much time, so she popped into the elevator. She slipped out of her heels and walked toward the Lincoln Bedroom, which Peter used as an office. She didn’t intend to eavesdrop, but what she heard stopped her in her tracks.
“I don’t talk to Dale on a regular basis anymore, sweetheart.”
Charlotte couldn’t have moved if she’d wanted to.
“I know she works here. I watch the news, and I see her on television . . . Look, it wasn’t my decision, it was your mother’s, and I have to believe that she chose her because she was the best person for the job . . . She’s your mother’s press secretary. I’m sure she talks to Mom every day . . . No, Penny. They have more important things to talk about than me . . . Dale would love to get an e-mail from you. Her old e-mail address should still work. Are we done with this subject for now? I am calling with an important message from your mom about her speech today . . . No she didn’t ask me to do her dirty work. I need you to keep a low profile today, for my sake, kiddo, got it? . . . You know exactly what I’m talking about . . . Yes, I will get Dale’s new e-mail address, but repeat after me: I will not step out of line today after my mother’s brave and important speech.”
For the first time since Charlotte had been standing there, Peter laughed.
“Yes. Yes. I know, I know. She’s a little uptight about that stuff.” He laughed again and listened to something Penny was saying.
“Oh, God, that’s a terrible thing to say about your mother. She was actually a lot of fun when she was in college. Yes, I’m serious. I don’t know what happened. I guess she decided that what the public thinks of her is more important than what we think, and as much of an imposition as that might feel like sometimes, we need to keep in mind that this time in all of our lives will come to an end. In a couple of years, she’ll just be your neurotic mother again.”
Penny said something else, and Peter laughed again.
She felt ill. They were commiserating about how miserable she was. She knew she should turn around and head straight back to the Oval Office, but she was frozen in place. She’d never asked Peter if he stayed in touch with Dale. Her assumption was that he’d cut all ties to her, but she had no idea if that was the case. They could still e-mail or talk on the phone. She was pretty sure he never saw her. How could they get together without her knowing? The moment the question crossed her mind, she wanted to smack herself in the head. Peter and Dale had carried on an affair for more than two years behind her back. Not entirely behind her back. She’d known about it, but that had been different.
And Charlotte understood that Peter had a special relationship with Penny, but she didn’t know that complaining about what a drag she was and discussing his ex-mistress with his college-age daughter were among the topics over which they bonded. Charlotte was so hurt. She needed to get out of the residence immediately.
“What are you doing here?”
It was Mark. He was wearing Lululemon workout clothes and looked as though he’d just run several miles in the humidity.
“I came over to change my shoes,” she explained, pointing at the heels in her hands.
“Did you see Brooke?”
“No. Is she up?”
“I doubt it. She said she had to sleep off my shitty cocktails.”
“I need to sneak back to the office for a call with the president of Brazil. I will catch up with you guys at dinner.”
“I’d kiss you good-bye, but I’m a little sweaty.”
“Hey, Char, what are you doing up here?” Peter asked from the doorway to the Lincoln Bedroom.
“I came up to change my shoes,” she repeated.
“I caught Penny on her way to the gym. She isn’t going to do anything to embarrass you.”
Charlotte was speechless. “Great,” she practically whispered. She had trouble maintaining eye contact with Peter. “All right, then, I’ll see all of you tonight.” She started walking back toward the elevator.
“Char?” Peter called after her.
“Weren’t you going to change your shoes?”
“Aren’t those the ones you wore when you left this morning?”
“I changed my mind.”
She put the shoes down and stepped into them and then walked straight toward the elevator. Once inside, she reminded herself to breathe. Charlotte could handle political upheaval, public disapproval, and the ire of her staff. But it stung terribly to realize that her husband and daughter had developed a greater capacity for intimate conversation with each other than she had with either one of them. When she got off the elevator, her agent reminded her that the CBS film crew would be setting up on the South Lawn to film her departure to the Women’s Museum. She thanked him and pasted on a smile as she walked back down the colonnade toward the Oval Office for her call with the Brazilian president.
After spending forty-five minutes longer than her schedule had allotted on good-byes to troops, Melanie boarded the giant C-17 aircraft that would transport her and her entourage of press, handlers, and military aides the nearly seven thousand miles back to Washington, D.C. She settled into what was referred to by Pentagon insiders as the “silver bullet” for the first leg of the thirteen-hour journey. The silver bullet was a giant trailer that had been inserted into the middle of the plane to ensure that the secretary of defense rode in relative comfort. Members of the press and a handful of policy advisors and other staff sat in seats surrounding the giant installation. The plane was built for function, not comfort, but she’d managed to make her private cabin a sanctuary. She had a bathroom and a comfortable bed that she found herself using more and more. As soon as one of the military aides dropped off her lunch—tuna salad with crudité, Wheat Thins, and a large bottle of water—Melanie closed the door and collapsed into the oversized chair behind the desk. The bed was inviting, but she had a few calls to make while it was still early in Washington. She piled a forkful of tuna salad onto a Wheat Thin and was about to take a bite when she remembered that tuna had mercury in it, and mercury was to be avoided during pregnancy. She was starving, so she ate it anyway. As she wondered just how much mercury was in canned tuna, she thought about the teensy being inside her. Most of the time, she refused to believe that she was actually growing a baby that she’d ever get to hold and kiss and love. She’d had two miscarriages, and they’d both devastated her. One had occurred at seven and a half weeks and the other at eight weeks. It sounded like such a short time, but to believe for two months that you were pregnant and then to find out suddenly and without warning that you were not was like having your heart ripped apart. Twice. Melanie had once been described as Washington’s version of an “iron lady,” but the two miscarriages had reduced her to dust. The first time, she’d just begun to tell a few close friends and family that the invasive IVF procedures she’d endured had finally worked when she learned that she’d lost the baby. People who were otherwise kind and intelligent had said the most idiotic things. Things like “Oh, you’re so lucky it happened so early,” and “It’s God’s way.” She vowed not to tell anyone ever again until she absolutely had to. She and Brian had muddled through the disappointment and sadness of the second miscarriage privately. Melanie had refused any further IVF treatments, and any discussion of pregnancy, fertility, and motherhood was strictly banned. Nearly six months went by, and Melanie was just starting to feel normal again. She tried to rationalize that perhaps motherhood was one blessing too many. Perhaps God only handed out a finite number of blessings to each person, and Melanie had used all of hers up on her charmed career and the sweet, handsome man she’d found to spend her life with. Maybe motherhood was a dream that would go unfulfilled.