The Senator debates his opponent — and becomes unglued

The first presidential debate is coming up in a few days.  The experts say that the debates really aren’t terribly important–they happen too late in the election cycle to change people’s minds.  But on a personal level, they are high drama–the candidates at last facing each other on stage.  They are a natural for a political novel, so of course I included one in Senator (there’s one in Replica as well, but it’s too central to the plot to talk about here).

In Senator, the protagonist is under all kinds of pressure as the day of the debate arrives.  His marriage is crumbling, the DA is getting ready to charge him with murder . . . and then, the afternoon of the debate, his father wrecks his car and ends up in the hospital.  The senator arrives at the debate with little time to spare, and his advisers quickly prep him . . .


Sam Fisher paced along one end of the conference room. “Maybe you can use this as a human-interest story,” he suggested. “You know, they ask you about health care, the elderly, so on, work in about how you just came from visiting your aged father in the hospital, you saw what wonderful care he was being given, and your reforms to the medical system would provide every senior citizen with the opportunity for the same kind of care.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’ll keep it in mind,” I said.

“You’ve got to stay personal,” Sam warned. “You have a tendency to come across as a know-it-all. People can’t digest strings of statistics in a debate; they like anecdotes.”

“Welfare mothers using food stamps to buy heroin,” I said. “OSHA inspectors shutting down pro football ’cause it’s dangerous to the employees.”

“And don’t be a wiseass. You can be witty, but don’t get nasty, and don’t go over people’s heads.”

“And above all, be myself,” I said.

“Well, that goes without saying,” Sam replied, and I wasn’t sure he got the joke.

“Perhaps we could go over the main points one last time,” Harold said.

The debate, we figured, would be the campaign in a microcosm. Each candidate had his themes; they’d been tested on countless focus groups and honed to a fine edge by master political craftsmen. They didn’t have a great deal to do with policies and issues, which made some op-ed types gnash their teeth, but they weren’t entirely devoid of content. We both stretched the truth in support of our themes, but they were close enough to reality (they had to be) that people wouldn’t notice or care if we fibbed a bit.

Bobby Finn’s main theme was that he was in touch with the people of Massachusetts. Their concerns were his concerns. He was the guy you could go have a beer with and talk about your sewer bill, your car insurance rates, your kid’s drug problem. He wasn’t the handsomest or wittiest politician around, but he understood how to make government work for the average citizen.

The corollary of this was that Jim O’Connor was out of touch with people. Out of touch philosophically, since many of my positions were not shared by the majority of voters. And out of touch as a senator, hobnobbing with the rich and famous and planning my run for the presidency instead of taking care of the voters’ business. Bobby Finn wanted to be senator so he could serve the people, not so he could gratify his own ego.

Our main theme, on the other hand, was that I was the candidate who had the stature to be the United States senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. I had the leadership skills; I had the experience; I had the intelligence; I had that extra something that made me a worthy representative of the Bay State in the world’s greatest deliberative body. You might not always agree with Jim O’Connor, but don’t you feel proud that he’s your senator?

Our negative theme, therefore, was that Bobby Finn was just not “senatorial.” He hadn’t done a good job as governor, and he wouldn’t do a better job as a senator. You might go out for a beer with him, but can you imagine him debating the great issues of the day on the floor of the Senate?

Our debate would be a contest to see who would do the better job of getting across his themes. I would stress my accomplishments and try to project my senatorial image—without sounding too intellectual—while portraying Finn as just another local politician who was in over his head. Finn would try to come across as the friend of the workingman—without sounding too inarticulate—while portraying me as distant, uncaring, interested only in my own career. And the one who had the edge might see a spurt in his tracking polls, and that spurt, if properly nurtured, might be enough to win the race.

I listened to all the advice as Harold led the last-minute strategy session, but I didn’t pay much attention. Harold, of course, noticed. He cornered me in the men’s room afterward. “You’re not here,” he said.

“I’m on my way,” I responded.

“Would you please make sure you show up? I mean, I’m sorry about your father, I’m sorry about your marriage, but this is important. This is crucial.”

He knew about my marriage then; Marge had probably told him that she had given away the secret about Liz and Roger. “Doing my best, Harold,” I murmured. “Honest.”

He gazed at me, helpless. A campaign manager can take care of a lot of things, but he can’t step out in front of the TV cameras for his candidate and debate the opposition. We flushed in unison and washed our hands, and it was time to go.

* * *

The debate was held at the John F. Kennedy Institute of Government at Harvard University. More or less neutral territory, since I was a Harvard grad and Finn claimed to be a JFK Democrat. My entourage pulled up at a side entrance, and we made our way to the auditorium. A burly Cambridge cop was guarding the stairway to the stage. He beamed when he saw me. “Hey, Jim, good luck tonight!” he said as we approached.

“Thanks very much,” I replied with an automatic smile.

“I’ll never forget you writin’ those book reports for me in high school. Sure saved my ass.”

I stopped and looked at his name tag. Doherty. “Billy?” I said.

He grinned. “Been a long time, huh, Jim?”

“Sure has.” Since that gray dawn when you punched Paul Everson in the face and might have killed him with your nightstick if I hadn’t kindled some spark of human feeling in your soul. Do you remember, Billy? Or have you conveniently forgotten—like Danny, rewriting the past to make it fit what he needs to survive the present? “Gee, it’s good to see you, Billy,” I said. “You’re looking great.”

“Ah, I’ve put on the weight. Too many beers. But we’re all rootin’ for you, Jim. You’re doin’ a great job.”

I shook his hand. “I appreciate it, Billy. We had some good times in the old days, didn’t we?”

“Sure did.”

“Senator,” Kevin murmured.

“Gotta go, Billy. Give my regards to the family.”

I went onstage, to cheers from my half of the audience. Bobby Finn was there already, along with his wife. They were talking to the moderator, an anchor emeritus at one of the Boston TV stations, which trotted him out for important occasions like this. Gobs of makeup made him presentable on camera, but in person they couldn’t disguise the passage of time; he seemed tired and bored, as if he had attended one too many of these things in his career. Mrs. Finn looked cool and handsome in a navy blue silk dress and pearls. She also looked psyched up for the big event; I was glad I was debating her husband instead of her.

Finn’s forehead was already beaded with sweat, and his palm was moist when he came over and shook hands with me. He made no secret of his dislike of debates. “Don’t worry, Senator,” he said with a tense smile, “I’m gonna go easy on you tonight.”

“No, no, gimme your best shots,” I replied. “We don’t want people upset because they gave up reruns of The Cosby Show to watch us.”

Finn shook his head. “Okay, you asked for it.”

I looked around for Liz. She was already in the audience; Kathleen waved to me, and I waved back. Liz didn’t want to come up onstage, and I didn’t blame her.

So we killed time chatting with the moderator and the panelists, who were going to ask the penetrating, provocative questions to which we would respond. We went over the ground rules. We tried to control our nerves. It felt like a prizefight; it felt like a trial. The difference was that there was rarely a clear-cut winner in a debate. Finn would win if he did better than people expected; I would win if I came up with better sound bites or if he said something outrageously stupid. The polls might show something, but most likely the message would be mixed. And the battle would continue until election day.

The director started giving orders. The audience quieted. I went over behind my lectern, where Kevin had arranged my notes. Everyone waited. Then the red light over the camera came on, and the debate began.

* * *

I gave the first opening statement. “Six years ago you elected me to the United States Senate. It was the greatest honor of my life. Not a day has gone by since then that I haven’t reflected on the responsibilities that go along with that honor. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t tried to live up to the trust you have placed in me…”

I could tell immediately that I wasn’t right. I had hoped that my personal problems would take an hour off while I did my job; they had generally cooperated in the past. But instead I felt the way I had on the Senate floor when making my futile speech in favor of my amendment. The words were all there, but the passion was missing. I couldn’t focus on what I was saying. Instead I saw my father in his hospital bed, or Liz in Roger’s arms, or Amanda dead on her kitchen floor. I wondered if Melissa and Danny would survive their latest crisis; I wondered if I would share Liz’s bed again; I wondered how much all this was hurting Kathleen. I tried to banish such thoughts, but apparently I was no longer in control.

Would the voters notice? Would the pundits and the spin doctors? Perhaps not. I was a professional, after all, and my opening, no matter how absentminded, was still smoother than Finn’s; Bobby stumbled a couple of times and looked as if he’d rather have been single-handedly battling the entire North Vietnamese Army. And this was the easy part for him: just say what he wanted to say, without having to respond to some tricky question. So maybe I would be all right, at least by comparison.

The first question was about crime. Doesn’t matter what the specifics were; reporters spend hours crafting their questions trying to trip us up, and then we go ahead and answer the unasked question we feel like answering. Finn over-praised his own record and belittled mine. For all my tough talk, what had I accomplished as a senator? He brought up the failed amendment. All talk, no action; that was Jim O’Connor. I gave my standard response, ticking off all that I had done and all that Finn had failed to do. Too many facts, Sam would say. Well, did he want me to bring up Amanda?

The next reporter brought her up for me. Did I think her death and my relationship with her should be a factor voters should consider in deciding whether or not to vote for me?

We had figured out how to handle this one. “Her tragic death is an issue,” I said. “But so is every other murder in this state.” And then I simply ignored Amanda and laid into Finn again.

Finn gave a careful response, which indicated to me that his people still didn’t know how to handle the situation. The matter was under investigation, it would be inappropriate to comment on the case until the investigation was complete, blah, blah, blah. If Cavanaugh had something on me, wouldn’t Finn at least have dropped a hint?

And so it went. Neither of us was particularly effective, I thought. Finn made a moderately controversial statement about taxing Social Security, but I failed to follow up on it. He garbled his syntax, but I tossed off too many statistics.

And then came the easiest question of them all. “Could you each recount for us one incident from your early life that helped form the person you are today?”

Finn went first. As usual he didn’t answer the question; instead he talked about how important his family had been to him. Good old middle-class Democratic family values. Big deal. While he blithered, I thought. My standard response to this sort of question was to talk about the time my grandmother had been mugged, beaten up by a couple of punks for about seven dollars in cash. She lived for a few years after that, but she never left the house again, except to go to a nursing home to wither away and die. The punks were never caught.

But I didn’t feel like talking about Gramma. God love her, I had gotten enough mileage out of her suffering. What then? Just one-up Bobby Finn on families? Mine was more working-class than yours, so there! I could bring in my poor dead mother and probably my injured father—Sam Fisher would be pleased—but I didn’t feel like doing that either.

What about the time Danny scored the touchdown off me and made me cry? Not very senatorial, unfortunately. But I wasn’t feeling especially senatorial. I was feeling… strange.

Something was happening inside me as I stood at my lectern and listened to Bobby Finn—some shifting of my internal continents, some rearrangement of my constellations. It had started when I talked to Carl Hutchins in the cloakroom and realized that I didn’t know if my amendment was worth passing, or perhaps it had started even before that, when I found out about Roger and Liz, or when I saw Amanda’s body on her kitchen floor.

I don’t know when it started. I only know that at that moment I felt reckless; I felt reborn. I felt as if true wisdom were within my grasp if only I could recognize it.

Finn had stumbled to a finish. “Senator O’Connor,” the embalmed moderator intoned.

I opened my mouth, and I swear I had no idea what was going to come out.

“One morning in April 1969 I was present when the police evicted a group of demonstrators from University Hall in Harvard Yard,” I heard myself say. “This was at the height of the antiwar movement, when campuses across the country were in turmoil. The police cleared out the hall without much trouble, and then some of them proceeded to riot in Harvard Yard, indiscriminately bludgeoning helpless onlookers. I saw fellow students, male and female, with blood streaming down their faces. I saw a boy being dragged from his wheelchair and beaten with a nightstick. I saw the fierce, unreasoning eyes of the police as they attacked these kids who despised them.”

So what did that teach you, Senator? How did that form the person you are today? It had better be something good, or you’ve just thrown away the election. “It would have been easy enough,” I went on, “to become a left-wing radical as a result of that experience, to mindlessly despise all authority, to see everyone in uniform as the enemy. That’s what happened to many of my classmates. But I think that eventually I learned some deeper lessons. First, that all authority must be tempered with restraint. It must not simply please the majority; it must be absolutely fair to the minority, or else authority will become tyranny. Second, that you must give the people in authority the tools and the training and the support to do their job effectively; otherwise you risk having them lose control the way the police did that morning. And finally I learned the importance of tolerating diversity, of seeing someone else’s point of view. I was a student, but I was also a local boy; those cops were my neighbors. So I was pulled in two different directions. But in life I’ve found that you can be pulled in many more directions than that. You choose the path that you think is right, but you always have to keep in mind that there are other paths, and other people who firmly believe that those paths are correct.”

I stopped. Had that been ninety seconds or ninety minutes? I felt as if the whole world were staring at me with its mouth open; Bobby Finn certainly was. Was that Jim O’Connor, the Jim O’Connor, talking about a “police riot”? About them beating up a kid in a wheelchair, for God’s sake? Had my explanation of the lessons I had learned saved my skin or just dug me in deeper? And had I really learned those lessons, or was that just the politician in me talking?

The next question arrived, and I answered it on automatic pilot. Everything else was an anticlimax now. The TV stations had their sound bite; the columnists had their angle. And I had one more problem to add to my list. Before long I was making my closing remarks, and then Bobby and I were shaking hands as the moderator declared the debate history.

“You kinda surprised me there, talking about the police,” Finn said.

“I’m full of surprises.”

“You don’t think you shot yourself in the foot?”

“Just wait and see, Bobby. Just wait and see.”

Then it was time to greet the family, who were obliged to come onstage as the closing credits rolled. “I thought you were great, Daddy,” Kathleen said, giving me a hug.

“I’ve been better,” I said.

Liz was looking at me oddly. “You never talked about that incident in Harvard Yard before,” she said.

“Saving it up for the right moment.”

“It was very moving,” Kathleen said.

“See? I’ve clinched the fourteen-year-old vote.”

On the way offstage I saw Billy Doherty staring at me. We didn’t speak.

* * *

Sam Fisher kept on pacing. “They don’t know what to make of it,” he said, referring to the pundits. “Some of ’em think it’s a cynical ploy to get the liberal vote. Most of ’em think you’re off your rocker, although they’re afraid to say so.”

“It reminded me of one of those Saturday morning cartoons,” Marge said. “You know, where the stupid lumberjack saws off the limb he’s sitting on?”

“I think it’ll go over well,” Kevin said. “It’ll make the senator appear more human, less—less…”

“Arrogant?” I suggested. “Cocksure? Condescending? Isn’t that what you wanted, Sam?”

Sam threw up his hands. “I wasn’t suggesting that you spit in the face of your core constituency.”

“Just what were you thinking of, Jim?” Marge demanded.

I shrugged. “I don’t know. It seemed like the thing to do at the time. Maybe I was wrong. Do you people want a real live candidate or a robot?”

“A robot, of course,” Marge replied. “Especially if the real one is going to start reminding people that he was a draft-dodging police-bashing Harvard pinko while Bobby Finn was over in Vietnam heroically defending his country.”

Harold glanced at me. I smiled at him. He looked away.

“This is bad,” Sam muttered. “This is very bad.”

“Well,” Kevin said, trying desperately to look on the bright side, “things can’t get much worse.”

The Real News comes out tomorrow,” Harold said.

I stood up. “I guess we’ll have to have another meeting tomorrow then,” I said wearily.

No one replied, so I left the conference room and went home to sleep on my couch.

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