In honor of Presidents Day: From The Distance Beacons, here is President Ann Kramer making a speech in Boston’s Government Center, trying to convince New Englanders to pass a referendum to stay part of America, twenty or so years after a nuclear war has wreaked havoc on the nation. Our hero Walter Sands, who has already met the president, looks on.
Complications, of course, ensue.
In a few minutes I saw flashing blue lights in the distance, and then the president and her entourage came into sight—jeeps and shiny cars and motorcycles, with the president waving from the back seat of a convertible. The motorcade circled around the edge of the plaza, coming within ten feet of me. The president brightened when she saw the familiar face and gave me a special wave. I didn’t wave back.
“Did you see the bracelets on her?” a kerchiefed woman standing next to me on the bench said to her friend. “I wonder how much she gets paid.”
“Too much,” her friend replied.
The motorcade pulled up behind the platform, and the martial music stopped. President Kramer appeared on the platform, along with Bolton and Cowens and a bunch of officials. More waving, and then Bolton approached the microphone and spoke. “My fellow citizens, it has been a long time since we in New England have been honored as we are today, by the presence of the chief executive of our great nation. Far too long. This is a day that will live in our memories. It is a turning point in our history….” And so on.
“I’ve never trusted that one,” the kerchiefed woman said.
“I’ve never trusted any of them,” her friend replied.
Bolton’s introductory remarks were, as usual, irreproachable yet unconvincing. The crowd responded in kind, with tepid applause at all the right points, but without ever showing any real excitement. Finally he finished, and the moment had arrived. President Kramer stepped up to the microphone; the applause was somewhat more enthusiastic now.
“She is pretty, though, you’ve got to give her that.”
“We could be pretty, if we had her money.”
“The hair’s phony. The tan’s phony. It’s all phony, every piece of her. A phony president and a phony election.”
She’s not going to win, I thought suddenly. She can’t convince me, and she can’t convince Charlie DePaso or Jesus Christ or these women. It’s over.
“Thank you, Governor Bolton, for those kind words,” the president said. “My friends, I am here today to ask you to support the government of the United States of America in the referendum next week. I recognize that you may not find this support easy to give. I understand the issues you have with the American government. But I’m asking you to have faith. Faith in the government. Faith in the future. And faith in me. Of course, it’s difficult for you to have such faith unless you know me. So let me first take a few minutes to tell you about myself….”
And she launched into the story of her life, with which I was already familiar. Much of what she said after that was familiar as well. Oh, she changed an emphasis here and there, and sometimes she anticipated objections I had made. But basically she was repeating her performance of the night before.
But if I had been the test case, the dress rehearsal, why did she think this approach would succeed? If she couldn’t manage to convince me, how was she going to convince Charlie DePaso and the two women next to me? She couldn’t exactly go around massaging everyone’s neck and shoulders. And we weren’t in a beautiful pre-War apartment, listening to music and sipping wine. We were huddled under leaden skies, cold and suspicious. What did we care about her experiences in Atlanta? What did Lincoln matter to us? Could we see the world that President Kramer saw? Not today, I’m afraid.
But then she went further. This was the part that I hadn’t wanted to stay and hear in her apartment, too afraid that I would succumb to her the way Marva had succumbed to Flynn Dobler. “All of this is nothing but words, I admit,” the president said. “Perhaps some of you have heard too many words over the years, and seen too little improvement in your lives. Perhaps some of you think the referendum is pointless, because it won’t put more food on your table or give you better health care. Well, let me tell you here that I am prepared to stake the future of the Federal presence in New England on the results of the referendum.
“If you give us your support, we will immediately take steps to institute direct election of all local officials, up to and including governor, by vote of the entire adult population, not just taxpayers. Individual state legislatures will be re-established, and New England will return to being six separate states once again. As they did before the War, the new state governments will control policies and laws within their borders, and the Federal government will handle interstate issues. Federal troops will stay in the states at least until the elections are over; after that, the new governments will decide individually what role, if any, they want these troops to play within their states.
“Now I must be honest and tell you that not everything will change. Conscription will continue, as will Federal taxation and restrictions on interstate travel—we can’t allow unlimited exit visas to the South. But what we are proposing is, I believe, a major step toward giving the brave people of New England what they need and deserve: a chance to determine their own future within the framework of a system that will preserve and extend our great American ideals.”
The president paused, and people applauded—rather warmly, I think. “That seems like a good idea,” the woman next to me said.
“I’ll believe it when it happens,” her friend replied.
“What if you lose?” someone shouted.
The president waited for silence. “If we lose,” she said softly, “we leave. It’s as simple as that. The reduction of the Federal presence will be gradual, in an attempt to prevent chaos, but within two years we will be gone. We hope the two-year time period will be sufficient to allow some sort of peaceful evolution of new political entities to take place—and we will do our best to help that process—but ultimately you will be on your own—your own borders, your own soldiers, your own laws. New England will no longer be part of the United States of America.”
There was no applause at this, only a kind of buzzing silence as people tried to come to terms with this new prospect. No one had believed that anything would change if the referendum lost; the Feds would just continue with business as usual. But on the other hand…
“Why should we trust you?” someone else shouted.
“We recognize that the results of the referendum will only be valid if people think they are valid,” the president said. “Therefore we have asked well-known opposition groups to join with us in supervising the balloting. We renew that request today. Now if, under those circumstances, the government—win or lose—subsequently reneges on any of the commitments I have made here today, do any of you seriously believe that we could continue to govern? Any credibility we have with you, any respect we have from you, would be gone, and this whole effort would have been worse than useless. No, this is for real, my friends. You have your future in your hands, and I pray that you make the right decision.
“The right decision, of course, is to vote yes—vote to support the government—vote to stay part of the United States. Such a vote entails responsibilities, but with those responsibilities comes the possibility of renewed greatness. You will remain a vital part of the adventure that is America, and you will help our nation take its place once more at the forefront of human progress. And perhaps a hundred years from now people will look back on this day, and say that it was then that the tide turned, it was then that the long darkness ended, and the new day began to dawn.”
The president stopped speaking. The applause that followed seemed genuine, but it also seemed tentative, and a bit confused. She had offered people what they had always said they wanted: freedom from the Feds. But did they really want that freedom if the Feds were also offering to give them a say in the way they were governed? After all, that was something else they were always complaining about. They couldn’t have it both ways.
All of a sudden the referendum was no longer a joke.
The president waved and shook hands with the people on the platform and waved some more. The music began again. And before long the applause faded. People were going to have to go home and do some thinking.
The president came down off the platform and started shaking hands with the dignitaries in the roped-off section. The crowd began to drift away. It started to rain.
And then the president walked past the dignitaries and the guards who protected them, into the milling crowd, reaching out physically to the people she had just tried to reach with words. I looked back to the platform. General Cowens was still there, staring at her with his arms folded. Major Fenneman stood next to him, gesticulating with his walkie-talkie. This, apparently, was what they had been unable to talk the president out of.
“Want to try and shake her hand?” the woman next to me asked her friend.
“What’s the point?”
“Well, she’s the president, after all.”
“So what? Come on. It’s raining.”
A lot of people seemed to feel the same way. There was no surge to greet her, no spontaneous outpouring of respect and affection. The weather was more important than Ann Kramer.
Still, there were hands to shake and an occasional baby to kiss, while her grim-faced bodyguards stood by and reporters struggled to record what was happening. I stayed where I was and watched her progress across the plaza. She was progressing, I noticed before long, toward me.
I got down from the bench. I saw Gwen among the reporters. I wondered if I should leave. It was raining, after all. President Kramer smiled at me. “Well, Walter, what do you think?” she called out as she approached.
“Great speech,” I said.
“Did I convert you?”
I shrugged. “You certainly gave me a choice to make.”
“But you haven’t made it yet?”
I shook my head. “Maybe I’m too—”
The gunfire interrupted my reply.
For a moment I didn’t understand. What was that noise? Why were people ducking and sprawling and screaming? I turned and saw a large green car come roaring out of the crescent of abandoned shops and offices beyond the plaza. Two masked men leaned out of the front and rear passenger-side windows. They were firing submachine gun rounds into the air. The car was heading right at us.
I reached for my gun. No gun.
I turned back to the president. Her bodyguards were pulling her down to the ground. She stared at the car as if she couldn’t believe it was real, as if this were just a nightmare that would soon pass. The gunfire stopped and I heard the squeal of brakes just behind me. I turned once again. The masked men were out of the car and coming toward me. It occurred to me that I was literally the only person standing between them and the president. Not a position I would have chosen, but here I was.
I tried to think of something to do. Nothing came to me. I wanted to fight, but fists can’t accomplish much against submachine guns.
So I stood where I was and wondered if I was going to die as I watched the men approach. I noticed their black masks, their shapeless tan jackets and dungarees. And—and—
I didn’t have time to finish my thought. One of the men pushed his machine gun into my midsection. I clutched my stomach and gasped for breath. Then the other man swung his weapon at my head, and all thinking ceased.