B. Thomas Marking
the end. It’s the end of another magnificent vision, one that has
demanded the labors of a thousand quiet patriots for all too many years.
This dark realization consumes Mr. Theodore "Smokey" Weston on an
otherwise crystalline December morning. The movement will die out,
thinks Smokey. I might as well go with it.
Weston is Chairman of
the most successful third-party to join the American political scene in
decades. Two floors of the Lucent Building in southwest Denver serve as
party headquarters. Smokey’s view from the seventh-floor conference room is
to the west. Gradually the sun begins to illuminate the entire Front Range,
a drama that normally demands optimism for all that life may offer. The
scene is glorious, beyond anything a mortal artist could hope to capture
and, today, quite wasted on Mr. Weston's soul.
This man had once before
been broken and descended to the sub-basement of despair. Back then, God
had seen fit to veto Smokey's bid to end it all. As he recovered, Weston
reasoned that there must be some task remaining on his celestial "To Do"
list. And for the past several years he thought he had discovered exactly
what that was. Now it appears to have been a delusion, or a monumentally
cruel and impractical joke.
Recognizing that self-pity has a boot to his throat, Weston forces himself
to think of the others whose dreams have been destroyed as well. His first
thought is of Ira Rappaport, their presidential candidate. Imagine what
poor Ira must be going through now.
diminutive, Ira was hardly a weak man. He had triumphed over every
adversity the business world could summon and emerged at the head of a
communications and media empire. On Wall Street he was the new Napoleon --
Napoleon with a Texas drawl, but no less acquisitive.
This was a leader who drew breath from the challenge and so created most of
his own. One day, as a polished young executive made a presentation to Mr.
Rappaport and the corporate board, the Chairman's eyes grew wide and drifted
to a framed landscape on the wall. The briefing floundered until one member
had the nerve to ask Mr. Rappaport whether anything was wrong.
"I'm bored," he said softly as if awed by the revelation. "I need to move
on." He rose to exit, and by habit walked in the direction of his opulent
office. Then he halted not twenty steps from the Board Room. There was
nothing he needed from there - not now. As he passed the Guard Desk,
Rappaport dropped his security card on the counter with a nod and a smile.
Ira always fixed the beginning of the movement to the evening of September
3rd, barely two weeks after the abrupt close of his corporate life. The
unemployed Rappaport was getting re-acquainted with the first editions he
had collected for his library. A volume he had studied in graduate school
caught his eye. It was Democratic Vistas by Walt Whitman.
With a grin Ira recalled the semester he’d been forced to read Plato,
Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Jefferson, and other democratic theorists. Ira
enjoyed recounting this life-altering experience to his close friends. Of
course, in typical Rappaport fashion, he likened the event to a heavy dose
of Drano on an intellectual pipe that had been clogged for years. He
settled into a comfortable chair and opened the delicate cover.
Ira read for some time, enamored with Whitman's poetic vision -- and
frustrated by the lack of practical solutions. Rappaport was a practical
man. Then one sentence bolted from the page and caused the reader's mind to
race as never before.
The thoughts fairly stumbled over each other as Ira struggled to put them in
order. Whitman was right. America had never really tried democracy. It
settled for something less. But democracy must reach its full potential.
Only then can mankind reach its full potential as well. Now there's an
enterprise worthy of full devotion. And who better to take that vision
through to a practical implementation? That's what I do.
Thus was born the Independent Party. Rappaport soon beguiled a dozen
struggling groups from the fringes of American political life, just as he'd
seduced business leaders in the past. His genius and sheer energy molded
them into a political movement. Then it became more than a movement; it
became a crusade to recover the vision of democracy that America seemed to
have lost. And at the head of this evangelic throng rode the noble
Rappaport with gleaming mental shield and serrated verbal sword. No, Ira
was strong. But every man has his limits, his vulnerabilities, his Waterloo
Smokey Weston now shared
with his friend and mentor a mix of desperation, rage, and humiliation. Ira
could not even make the call from Dallas himself. His wife, Dixie, told
Weston what had happened.
"It was right after
dinner," Dixie said, "though the few that touched their food simply did so
to be polite." Little Libby was missing and the clan had been gathering all
day for solace.
The first ring of the
phone sent a momentary chill through every person in the home, even the
children - especially the children. Twice before a call had come at
precisely seven p.m. Ira let it ring three times, as directed, before
activating the device the FBI installed to help trace the call -- not that
it would do any good. Like a stale police drama, the ominous caller knew
exactly when to get off the line. Ira lifted the receiver to his ear with
reconstructed voice was by now familiar. So was the caller's intent.
"Apparently, you didn’t take our previous warnings seriously, Mr. Rappaport.
Your granddaughter is now our guest. She’s a lovely girl. Leave the race
within twenty-four hours and Susanna will find her way home safe and sound.
You have my word of honor. However, Mr. Rappaport, there will be no further
warnings." A rude click ended the message, and much more.
Ira collapsed into the
nearest chair, phone receiver still in hand, staring off into his own
oblivion. Only when Dixie laid a questioning hand on his shoulder did he
What Dixie Rappaport
felt at that instant frightened her deeply. In her beloved husband's eyes
she saw the pain and disbelief of a defeat so total there would be no
salvation, no recourse, no recovery, not ever. All she could think to do
was put her soft warm fingers on the back of his neck and massage it gently
as she often did. Defeat was a new experience, for both of them.
Within an hour of the
threatening call, Ira’s Press Secretary alerted the media to stand by for a
major announcement the next morning. Whatever the cost, Ira would see his
beloved Susanna back in the arms of her parents.
Dixie hadn’t actually
used the word “defeat”. Weston could simply hear it in her trembling
Very early Sunday
morning, Smokey used the phone in his apartment to summon the core of his
headquarters staff, telling them only that it was urgent. Three additional
calls were made. Then he proceeded to the Lucent Building in the winter
darkness, not yet sure what he would say or how he would say it.
The end. The words
reverberate in Smokey’s mind. Sure, they’d try to salvage the movement, but
who could recapture the force and clarity of Ira’s voice? Who could sell
the idea the way he had? Who could keep the numerous factions in line, each
with its pet idea for a perfect world? Who would be fool enough to try?
The big-party bastards were going to win after all, and Smokey’s one shot at
making a difference in the world would be forever swept away. "Crap,"
mutters Weston as he senses the others arriving. "Now I have to put on my
"What's up, Smokey?"
The question substitutes for the usual pleasantries as Angel McKracken
sweeps gracefully through the conference room door. She's the first of
several staff members who arrive simultaneously. The nickname "Angel"
usually fit this alluring and affable Vassar grad, though she wasn't feeling
all that heavenly this morning. In the rush, she’d left a few strands of
cream-colored hair out of place. This was quite out of character.
"Yeah, how come the six
a.m. wake-up man, and on a Sunday too? This better be damn good." This is
from Duff Scroggin, the youngest member of the staff, and the one most
likely to be engaged in apolitical activities on a Saturday night. In fact
it looks like Smokey’s call, quite possibly, hadn’t found him at home. John
Halbert and the others offer a courteous, “Good morning, sir,” but get no
Smokey spins his
wheelchair around and pulls himself to the conference table. His grim
expression, made that much darker for lack of sleep, silences all further
protest. The half-dozen attendees slip quietly into their chairs and
respectfully wait for whatever pronouncement is coming.
boss may possess the demeanor of an old Montana cowpoke, thinks
McKracken, but there isn't a more gifted political strategist anywhere in
the country. This must be serious.
The 9:00 a.m.
announcement at the Rappaport’s suburban mansion is much too cryptic to
satisfy the reporters who have gathered at the entrance. “For reasons of
health, I will be unable to continue my campaign for the Presidency.” The
pundits don’t buy it for a minute. It does, however, allow them to
exercise their limitless powers of speculation. It will be a good news day.
As the meeting opens in
Denver, a man in Atlanta also gazes out a large office window. His view,
however, is of the hazy gray mountains of concrete along Broad Street.
Gene Kirby, Director of
the Broadcast News Division at the Global News Network (GNN), is spending
another Sunday at the office. It's getting old but it beats the
alternative. As much as he wants it, domestic bliss has somehow eluded
Kirby, more than once. Now he’s making up reasons to go in to work. This
morning he's thinking that maybe he thinks about it too much.
self-flagellation is interrupted as an assistant whisks through the door
with the latest Associated Press dispatches. Kirby's able lieutenant wastes
little time on a greeting, launching directly into the expected sound-bite
"Morning, boss. North Koreans are rattling sabers
again. The term limits case goes to the Supreme Court this coming week and
Rappaport just quit as the Independent Party candidate, for reasons of
health, if you can believe that. They’ll either cash it in or scramble to
find another sucker before their January convention."
That last item gets Kirby’s attention. "Damn,"
exclaims Gene as he twists into a position square with his desk. "With
O'Hanlon in self-destruct mode, it’ll be a Stoddard landslide." He sighs
loudly. "Well, keep me posted on that one."
O'Hanlon is Patrick
O'Hanlon, the sitting Vice President of the United States. His seven years
in office have been marked by seemingly habitual lapses in judgment --
political and “other.” The rank and file of the Republican Party would
prefer to abandon the embarrassing, lackluster O'Hanlon. The inner circle,
however, refuses to forfeit the supposed advantage of incumbency.
challenger, Senator Rathburn Stoddard, is no dream candidate either. Known
as a master of the backroom deal, there are those who claim he's the Jimmy
Dean of political-flavored pork. The Democrats simply feel they owe him
this run at the top. Their carefully crafted seniority system might
otherwise collapse. The Senator's one political virtue is total rejection
of the old-fashioned notion that it's not whether you win or lose; it's how
you play the game. Stoddard will do whatever it takes to win the game.
For Gene Kirby and many
of his media colleagues, the Rappaport factor was the only ray of hope for
an otherwise mundane campaign season. Ira Rappaport had used his money and
fame to forge an unprecedented coalition of reform-minded organizations.
The experts had scoffed at a third-party bid a few months earlier. Now they
acknowledged it. Rappaport had successfully tapped into the
"none-of-the-above" vote and begun to worry the major parties. But that was
“Okay, folks, let’s come
to order.” Smokey is ready to break the news to the key Denver staff.
“We’ve got ourselves a little disaster here." Weston glances at his watch
as if he actually needed to check the time. "Only a few minutes ago our
presidential candidate announced nationally that he's dropping out of the
race, for personal reasons.”
The reaction around the table is disbelief, dejection and anger, in random
order depending on the individual. There are also a hundred questions.
Smokey wisely lets them vent their feelings, and gives them time to let this
altered reality take hold. Then he taps a spoon on his mug of now tepid
coffee. Order is soon restored and Weston continues the briefing.
been getting credible threats against himself and his family for some time.
You can guess the source as well as I can. Only Stoddard would gain from
eliminating the independent candidate. So, Friday afternoon they acted,
kidnapping Ira’s granddaughter. Of course, there’s no proof it was the
Senator. It just smells like him. O’Hanlon wouldn’t have the guts or the
“Ira and Dixie are sure
the little girl will be returned safely but this incident has shaken their
entire family to the core. Ira now feels there is no choice but to drop
out. He’ll help in other ways, of course, but he can no longer be an
effective candidate for us."
Around the table there’s
a natural moment of silence, as if remembering a fallen comrade. Weston
allows this. Then he must get them back to the business at hand.
"We still have old
Maggie Russell as our VP candidate, but she says she’s not comfortable being
top dog. I think we have to respect her wishes on that." Weston's tone
makes it clear this issue is already settled.
"Now, we’ve all put a
lot a years into creating this here political party. I don't have to remind
you that we are a very fragile collection of renegades, and it’s about to
all fall apart, unless we can round up a new presidential candidate with as
much national stature and political savvy as Ira Rappaport, and I mean
pronto. That won’t be easy, but the option is to fold our tents and go
home. Of course, that’s just what the people who did this to Ira would like
to see happen. That’s about it. Let me hear those wheels start turning
Clarity comes slowly
now. Mental sprockets struggle to engage and regain normal momentum. It’s
John Halbert is the
first to share a thought. Smokey’s a bit surprised. John is usually the
most introspective of the veteran staff. On the other hand, he's also the
most passionate, once you look beneath the almost Vulcan facade he displays
to the public.
Hollander," says Mr. Halbert with conviction. Hollander is a former
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the first Black to hold that
position. The last war brought him into the public eye as he gave daily
briefings to the press. A calm military professionalism had earned him
nationwide respect. “He’d be exactly the kind of charismatic leader we need
Weston nods and
responds. "Great minds think alike. I already called him this morning.
The General supports our overall platform but won’t budge from his decision
not to run. Can’t blame him much, given the kind of bull crap that goes on
in these campaigns." John slumps in dejection. General Hollander is a
personal as well as a national hero.
Angel McKracken speaks
next, also nominating a favorite role model. "Well, how about Patricia
Saunders? She was one terrific Congresswoman. If we could . . .”
Duff Scroggin cuts her
off. "Right. Even if we could get Sanders on board, if we run an
all-female ticket, we’re dead. Sorry Angel, but get real!" McKracken
hadn’t thought of that, or had subconsciously discounted it. She sadly
concedes the point.
Scroggin wants to
suggest that the man at the head of the table take up the flag, but he can't
bring himself to say it. He's not yet sure what makes old Smokey tick.
Duff glances at John across the table and subtly cocks his head toward
Smokey. John understands the message instantly. He responds with an
imperceptible shake of the head. Drop it.
Silence returns as
disoriented minds search for other options. Desperation joins the group.
Finally, at the far end of the table, the clearing of a throat brings relief
from an uneasy quiet.
Vicky Brazil rarely
contributes to these meetings, preferring instead to take the minutes. As
an immigrant, she never feels equal to the others in political discussions,
not really. It seems, however, that they need a little help today.
As everyone turns to
give Vicky their attention, they see the petite Asian beauty studying a
photo on the inside cover of a magazine. She apparently brought it to the
meeting to fill the expected dull spots. Now it’s lying open on the table.
"Excuse me, please.
Maybe Mr. T. J. Carroll? There has not been a more respected journalist
since Walter Cronkite. Reading his editorials, I would say he is no friend
of the Republicans or the Democrats. People certainly know his name. We
could build on that, could we not?" Having finished her pitch, Vicky turns
the magazine around and slides it to Angel.
"But no real political
experience," comments John.
Angel comes to Vicky's
aid. "Maybe that’s another plus. Ira was a rookie when we started too."
Then she passes the periodical to Duff.
Scroggin accepts the
booklet and adds, “Well, this guy would at least know the issues.”
The magazine eventually
reaches Smokey. He has a quick look before starting it down the other side
of the table. For now, he's more interested in the process than the details
of the proposal. Smokey notes body language indicating some level of
approval for Vicky’s idea. He decides the group has probably done its best,
given the circumstances and the short notice.
"Thank you very much,
Vicky. Any other ideas?" As Smokey goes clockwise around the table,
pointing a finger at each attendee, they shake their heads or say no.
"Well then, I reckon we
need to leave the Saunders option open. Let’s make this simple.” Weston
finds an old nickel in his vest pocket, stands it on end and with the flick
of his middle finger sends it spinning to the center of the table. "Heads,
we go for Saunders; tails, Carroll."
coin seems to spin in slow motion between John and Duff, lingering as if
waiting for divine guidance. This is surreal, thinks Scroggin, so
many futures riding on a coin toss. Finally it topples, gyrates to
rest, and reveals the image of Monticello. John reports the outcome to the
group. Tails it is.
"John," orders Weston,
"get us on the next plane to wherever we got to go to see Mr. Carroll. If
he says no, we’ll meet back here in two days time. While we’re gone, keep
the talent search going, all of you."
Smokey waves the group
away. After a moment, he wheels around to again stare blankly out the
massive window. Gradually, the voices in the corridor fade and Smokey
returns to the all-consuming task of lamenting what might have been.
waits till she's back at her cubicle before allowing a self-congratulatory
smile. Then she muses, That’s one for the invisible office girl.
Atlanta, Gene Kirby and his staff are viewing a GNN tape of the Rappaport’s
pronouncement for a third time. They share the opinion that this
presidential candidate was the victim of his own success. Gene states that
someone must have judged the Independent Party to be a real threat.
Kirby has it right. At
precisely two-thirty a.m. on Monday, two cars enter a poorly lit parking lot
east of Capitol Hill. They stop with lights off, driver-side mirrors almost
touching. An envelope is passed. The outcome desired by the client has
been achieved and the little girl, Libby Rappaport, is home as promised. It
was a clean operation.
It took John Halbert
most of a day to track down Mr. Carroll, finagle a meeting, and make travel
arrangements. As it happened, Carroll was visiting his main home in South
Dakota and the easiest way to get there was by car. It was about a
seven-hour drive from Denver, almost due north.
Thomas Jefferson "T. J."
Carroll has just finished exercising Chief, one of his favorite Nokota
stallions. As they enter the yard Carroll notes a blue minivan raising a
plume of dust as it climbs the long gravel driveway.
Through the windshield
Weston notes that Carroll is built tall, straight, and slender. He envies
the natural grace with which Carroll straddles the handsome horse. He
carries himself like a cavalry officer of old. While Carroll dismounts and
ties Chief to an old-fashioned hitch rail, Mr. Halbert parks the van.
T. J. is a bit
annoyed at the short notice given by these visitors, and by their
persistence. However, the sight of a well-dressed black man helping a
disheveled and graying white guy into his wheel chair suppresses that
feeling entirely. The three men exchange greetings and spend a moment
admiring the splendid mountain scenery of the famous Black Hills. Then they
Carroll's imposing log
home sits on the crest of a rise with a breathtaking view of the entire
Buckhorn Range to the east and a sprawling valley to the west. Ancient
Ponderosa pine adorn the grounds in natural groupings and patches of graying
snow cower in their shadows, their cause doomed without timely
reinforcement. Well-tended flowerbeds wait anxiously for the attention
spring will bring them.
Passing through large entry doors of heavily shellacked pine, Smokey sees
the word ‘Wingspread’ carved into a matching plaque above the doors. He
makes a mental note to ask about it later. He also notes that the house is
receiving full-time attention. It is spotless and tastefully appointed with
engaging old-west accessories. Even the Christmas tree appears to have been
To Halbert it seems a bit rustic for the wealthy owner and editor of a
national magazine. Having escaped the D.C. slums, John’s taste in all
things now favors the more upscale and cosmopolitan. Still, there is
something serene about the luxurious leather furniture arrayed before
Carroll's great stone fireplace. Smokey wheels into a convenient spot
between two sorrel-colored chairs.
With the timing of a
seasoned hostess, Marissa Carroll, T. J.'s mother, enters from the kitchen,
greets the visiting gentlemen and deftly lays a tray of hot chocolate and
small cookies on an ancient pine coffee table.
Marissa now shares the
sprawling house with her son, having turned a spare room on the main floor
into a cozy little apartment. More than eighty years old, maintaining her
own home simply became a burden she did not wish to bear. Still, she enjoys
keeping her son's place in fine order for the visitors who appear regularly
whenever T. J. gets home. It's a good arrangement for both.
introduces the genteel matron of the house. John stands to shake her hand
while Smokey thanks her sincerely for her thoughtfulness. T. J. then
suggests that she sit and join them. This unexpected addition causes the
visitors some visible discomfort. However, they quickly understand that
it'll be two-on-two for this meeting, whether they like it or not.
Apparently, Mr. Carroll still listens to his mommy, thinks Smokey, as he
tries to suppress a wince.
refreshments having been sampled, the host and hostess wait politely for
their guests to begin. T. J. suspects that they're seeking some sort of
endorsement from his publication, On Balance. Wait, he
recalls, wasn't there some news about Rappaport recently? Marissa
senses a larger, more intriguing purpose for this unusual visit.
Seeing that the time for
pleasantries has ended, Smokey leans forward, makes a point of looking
straight into Mr. Carroll's eyes and begins. "Well sir, there's no reason
to beat around the bush. From the editorials we've studied in that national
magazine of yours, we believe you could support the platform of the
Independent Party. The idea that unites us all is that it’s high time we
tried democracy in America. We’ve always been a republic, governed by
representatives. But them representatives ain’t being all that
representative any more. The system won't let 'em. So the system has got
to change. Now, we believe that technology has reached a point where it’s
possible to let citizens make their own decisions, to give true democracy a
“We think it's time
people got to vote directly on issues of national policy and have their
votes stick. So, our platform is real simple -- add a constitutional
amendment to make that happen -- the 29th. But, we need a little help."
John Halbert takes
over. "You’ve no doubt heard about Ira Rappaport dropping out of the
presidential race. We need a replacement candidate, immediately. If we’re
going to keep our coalition together and stand any chance against the major
parties, we’ve got to be led by a nationally known and respected figure. We
all think you’re the one."
Smokey takes the handoff
and continues the drive. "Sir, we’re going to make you the same offer ol’
George Washington got back around 1775. What we’re asking is that you drop
everything else you’re doing and take on the uphill fight of your life;
leading a rag-tag bunch of zealots that are pushing a radical new idea
against well-heeled professionals who want to keep things just the way they
are. One helluva deal, ain’t it?"
A grin slithers onto T.
J.'s otherwise stoic face. He doesn't wish to respond with sarcasm, but the
temptation is overwhelming. "I believe you gentlemen are looking for Mr.
Quixote. He lives in the next valley over. I can give you his number if
The four share a subdued
chuckle but the representatives of the Independent Party won't be so easily
distracted or dismissed. John presses the argument.
"I know, sir. We’re
asking a great deal of you and we’ve hit you with this cold. But will you
at least let Smokey and I give you all the details of our proposal, before
you throw us out?" John smiles as pleasantly as he knows how, hoping to
somehow evoke a favorable response.
Carroll glances at his
mother. She shrugs and replies, “Well, at least they’re not selling
vacuums.” T. J. smiles and gestures for the visitors to proceed. Halbert
begins breathing again.
The exhausted guests
depart some two hours later, having been suitably grilled by both T. J. and
Marissa on every aspect of their program and plan. Weston and Halbert
perceive this to be a good sign. They expected to be shown the door within
minutes. Instead, they are promised a decision within twenty-four hours.
Too tired to drive safely back to Denver, they take rooms in a nearby
Once the visitors are gone, T. J. Carroll dons an old leather jacket and
walks out onto the spacious west deck to watch the sun excuse itself for the
day. It had been warm for December so the early sunset seems unnatural. He
is lost in thought when Marissa, who had donned only a shawl, approaches and
softly takes his arm. T. J. affectionately covers her hand with his to keep
"Well, what do you make
of that?" asks his mother.
"Christ,” responds T. J.
with a smirk, "you’d have to be nuts to sign on to that program."
"Yes. I especially
liked the part where you told them 'My mama didn’t raise no fools'." Being
nearly a foot shorter, Marissa hugs his shoulder as they share the quiet
drama of a mountain sunset. The fiery lower rim of the sun touches a far
away ridge. She smoothly continues, "You’re considering it, aren’t you?"
T. J. glances down at
Marissa with feigned shock. It's no use. She has a mother's gift for
seeing through any pretense he might venture. "Yup."
"I figured as much," sighs
Marissa. "It seems to be the Carroll’s destiny to ride off and fight for
the little guy, even when the cause is hopeless. I guess it’s only natural
you’d want to take on the Republicans and the Democrats -- both at
the same time." She has him pegged. A long family history is infringing
on both thought and emotion.