By Stephen W. Simpson
"Stop messing with him. Itís almost time."
"Donít worry, everything will be ready. I just want to get more of Reaganís cadence in his speech. Focus groups vote his voice the most trust-inspiring of all the twentieth century presidents."
"Just hurry up. We canít afford to screw this up the first time we go on the air."
Connie was chain-smoking, not paying attention to where she flicked the ashes. George rolled his wheelchair forward so she wouldnít burn his shoulder.
"Weíre dead if another campaign finds out that you smoke," said George.
"Itís only a misdemeanor. Besides, no one will ever see me."
"Iím just saying--"
"I donít pay you to say anything. We only have ten minutes left, so finish him up."
George tapped in a new line of code and hit "Enter." The American flag filled the screen of his laptop. A man walked in from the side and stood in front of the flag. He wore a charcoal grey suit, tailored to show off his broad shoulders. His hair was dishwater blonde and grey at the temples. His eyes were blue with crowís feet at the corners.
"I love that smile," said Connie. "It looks familiar. Oh no, donít tell me--"
"Yep. The Mona Lisa. I just made the lips more masculine. Looks great, doesnít it?" said George.
"Someone might figure that out."
"No oneís going to catch it. You worry too much."
"Can you put some red stripes on his tie?"
"The research says voters prefer solid blue."
"I want red stripes."
"Youíre the boss." George pulled up the clothing interface and punched some keys. Diagonal red stripes appeared on the manís tie.
"Can I talk to him? Can he hear me?"
"Ask him anything you want."
Connie pulled up a chair next to George and leaned toward the screen of the laptop.
"Hello, Mr. Bradbury. Iím Connie Hicks, youíre campaign manager."
"Itís great to finally meet you Connie," said the man on the screen. "Youíre doing a wonderful job. How are Howard and Calvin?"
"Growing up fast. Calvin started football this year."
"Thatís so cute," said Mr. Bradbury. "Iím sure William wants his son to play for Virginia Tech, just like he did."
Connie laughed. "Yes sir. The poor kid is only twelve and Bill has his whole athletic career planned and-Ė"
"Whatís the matter?" said George.
"How does he know so much about me?"
"Connie, Iím hurt. I thought you had more faith in me than that. When I told you that heís linked to a broad database, I meant every database in the world that we could hack into. He doesnít just know foreign policy, history, and economics; he knows something about every person heíll ever meet.
Mr. Bradbury broke in. "You did an incredible job getting all those signatures on the petition. I think weíll really be able to turn some things around on Capitol Hill and do some good for this great nation. I appreciate your help."
"It was my pleasure. Itís an honor to be working for you, sir." Connie said. Then to George, "Oh my God, I just called him Ďsir.í"
George laughed. "I told you he was good. He inspires deference and trust at the same time. It comes from the personality traits I threw in from Kennedy and Clinton. He makes you feel like his best friend. People will be tripping over themselves to vote for this guy."
"Cut that out, George," said Mr. Bradbury. "Youíre embarrassing me. Besides, we have to get out there and earn every vote. We canít take anyone for granted."
"Iím sold," said Connie.
A red light flashed on the corner of Georgeís laptop.
"The videophone is ringing," he said. "Itís Nightline. Are you ready for your first public appearance, Mr. Bradbury?
"Iím ready and I think the people of the United States are ready for things to change."
Connie sighed and lit another cigarette. "I hope to God this works. These are our first steps toward creating the perfect politician."
"Iím patching us in," said George.
George rolled to a desk and turned on another video monitor that displayed polling data from test subjects watching the show. He created a wireless link between his computer and the one showing the polling results. Now Mr. Bradbury would know how he was playing to the audience and adjust his performance in response.
Connie collapsed into a recliner and picked up a remote control. She pushed a button and a plasma screen descended from the ceiling. She flicked ashes from her cigarette onto the floor and flipped the channel to ABC.
"Good evening," said the anchorman. "Iím Mack Gibson. Welcome to Nightline."
"I canít believe weíre doing this," said Connie.
"Relax," said George. "This is going to be fun."
"Tonight, we have an opportunity to meet a candidate that has created the biggest stir in American politics in the last thirty years. His name is Jonathan Bradbury, the most recent entry into the 2020 Democratic primary. Tonight, heíll be speaking with us by videophone from his home in Manassas, Virginia. He built his reputation by answering every e-mail interested voters sent him. Heís also known for returning their phone calls. Itís important to point out that he doesnít delegate these duties to his staff, he does it all himself. Those who have communicated with him describe him as highly intelligent, personable, and responsive to their needs. Mr. Bradbury, welcome to Nightline."
The video screen cut to the image Jonathan Bradbury in a charcoal grey suit, standing in front of the American flag.
"Hello, Mack. Itís great to be here tonight. This is a real treat for me. Iíve been a fan of yours ever since you did the local morning news for ABC in Cincinnati. I even followed your baseball career when you played third base for the Bear Cats. "
Mackís face lit up at the mention of his alma mater, but he soon regained is journalistic composure.
"Mr. Bradbury, letís get right to the question on the minds of most voters this year. Itís a question that speaks to the issue of your popularity."
"The terrorist bombing of the White House in 2017 and the assassination attempt that injured President Thomas have resulted in politicians all but disappearing from public life. Congress now meets in a secret, secure location and elected officials have ceased direct contact with their constituents. How do you account for being known as Ďthe personal candidateí in an age where there is so much distance between voters and the leaders they elect?"
"This is a new era in American Politics," said Mr. Bradbury. "This is an age of fear and our leaders have reacted by hiding. But I try to live by the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning--"
"We just shot up ten points with college-educated women," said George.
"Shh!" said Connie.
"íIt is but to keep the nerves at strain/To dry oneís eyes and laugh at a fall/ And, baffled, get up and begin again.í Itís time for us to begin again and laugh in the face of fear. But I will remain prudent. With the frequent terrorist attacks on public officials, Iím not so foolish as to make public appearances." He laughed. "I need to stay alive if Iím going to change things for people all across this great nation. But I will respond by e-mail, and in some cases videophone, to anyone who asks for my time, even after Iím elected. Thatís my number one promise of this campaign."
"A bold promise indeed," said Mack. "Now, Mr. Bradbury, onto the issue of the United States closing its borders--"
"These are my wifeís underpants."
"Excuse me, Mr. Bradbury?"
"Male and female barely legal bi-curious teen sluts bare all."
"Sir, thatís hardly appropriate for--"
"Big beautiful men in leather and sexy mature Asian amateurs perform for your pleasure."
Connie sprung to her feet. "What the hell is happening?"
"I donít know," said George. "I think I can fix it."
"Fat bottomed girls let it all hang out," said Mr. Bradbury.
"You idiot! Itís too late," said Connie. "Weíre ruined."
The television cut to a shot of Mack Gibson, his face calm but his eyes filled with panic.
"Thank you for your time, Mr. Bradbury. Weíll be right back after this commercial break."
Connie smacked George in the back of the head so hard that he fell out of his wheelchair.
"You stupid gimp!"
"Ow! You didnít have to hit me."
"Youíre lucky I donít kill you. Iíve spent a year and almost two million dollars getting this campaign ready and you screw it all up in less than a minute."
George climbed back in his wheelchair, checking himself for bruises. "It might not be so bad," he said. "Maybe we can say it was a joke. Younger voters might like that."
Connie slapped him again, in the face this time. "A joke? Did that car accident paralyze your brain too?" Connie grabbed Georgeís laptop and walked to the window.
"Donít Connie! Thereís data I havenít backed-up yet."
She ignored him and jerked the window open. She peered over the edge and looked past the seven floors beneath her to the bike path running next to the Potomac. She flung the computer into the air. It sailed over the bank and plummeted into the dark water below.
"Now get out of here before I throw you into the river with your computer."
George gave a pull on his left wheel, spun around, and propelled himself toward the door. On his way out, he put his hand up in the air and stuck out his middle finger. He slammed the door behind him.
George took the elevator down to the lobby and pushed himself out the door. He found the silence on Seventh Street unsettling. Though most of the federal employees fled Washington three years ago, he never got used to the empty streets, especially at night. But he liked it. It was easier to get around when he didnít have to maneuver through crowds and busy streets.
He got on the Metro at L'Enfant Plaza and took it to Dupont Circle. There were more people here, mostly college students lured to the deserted city by its still prestigious universities. He steered his way through groups of Friday night revelers until he reached the Brickskeller. When he opened the door, warm yellow light and the smell of beer enveloped him. He found a small table in the corner and shoved one of the chairs aside so he could slide in.
"Do you want the usual, Georgie?" said a passing waiter.
"Not tonight," he said. "Bring me a bottle of champagne, not too expensive but not too cheap."
"Something like that. I'll need two glasses."
"Coming right up."
George pulled a nicotine tab out of his coat and slid it under his tongue. It was a terrible substitute for smoking, but it kept him from gnawing his fingernails off until his drink arrived. He waited, shifting in his wheelchair to keep the blood circulating in his lifeless legs.
"That was amazing tonight," said a voice behind him.
George smiled and turned around.
"That was nothing," he said. "But I'm glad you liked it. Have a seat."
LaHaye sat down just as the waiter returned with the champagne.
"Make sure you bring me the bill," said LaHaye. The waiter nodded and filled a glass for the each of the men.
LaHaye raised his glass. George lifted his and clinked them together.
"That was hysterical," said LaHaye. "How did you do it?"
"I programmed Mr. Bradbury to start talking gibberish ninety seconds into the interview. I set him to search for porn sites and read the titles at random. I doubt you have to worry about the President facing any serious challenges from the Democrats next November."
"I bet Connie went into cardiac arrest."
George laughed. "She beat me up and threw my computer in the river."
"It doesn't surprise me," said LaHaye. "She's a little bit nuts, like most Democrats. But this might ease your pain."
LaHaye slid a thick envelope across the table. George grabbed it and it disappeared inside his coat.
"I think that will be more than enough," said LaHaye. "It's too bad the Reeve Center doesn't take insurance for spinal repair operations."
"It wouldn't matter," said George. "There arenít good medical plans for people in my line of work. How's the president?"
LaHaye frowned. "Not good. That bullet had a hollow tip. He's on full life support now. We'll probably pull the plug in a month or two, if you can do what you promised."
"No problem. The program is ready. The President will remain in office long after he's dead. In fact, I think you'll like the computer generated President Thomas better than the real one. The voters certainly will. I guarantee a second term."
"And the Vice President?"
"I've got her program ready too. She's a sure thing for 2028. She won't even have to campaign. The virtual version will do it for her."
"Excellent," said LaHaye. "As long as you keep up the good work, you'll keep getting those envelopes. And they will only get thicker."
"It's my pleasure, sir," said George. "I'm honored to perform this valuable service for my country."
"Don't be sarcastic," said LaHaye. "For the first time, we won't have to worry about a President who ignores a focus group or loses sleep over personal convictions. We can combine the best from every past politician and create a Super President, capable of changing with the desires of the voters or his advisors. He will never sleep or play golf. Heíll always be working for the American people. Just don't forget who youíre working for now."
"Don't worry," said George. "The Republicans will retain control of the Presidency for years to come. Jonathan Bradbury was first in the polls yesterday, but the voters will have a different opinion of him after tonight."
LaHaye drained his glass and stood up.
"I have to fly back to Colorado. Let's meet here again at the same time next month. Are you going to be OK?"
"I'll be walking the next time you see me. What do you think?"
"I think youíre about to change American politics forever."
"For the better, I hope."
"Of course itís better, " said LaHaye, heading for the door. "For the first time, the American people will get exactly the kind of President they want."
George wondered if that was a good thing. The leader of the free world would be nothing more than a bunch of smart and charming electrical signals and George would be the one responsible. But he would walk again. After the operation, he would take his first steps in twenty-four years. Thatís all that mattered. He didnít worry about the rest of the world. For them, little would change.
E-mail: simpsonsteve [at] earthlink.net