Politics & Policy

Keith Olbermann and all the Ships at Sea

Behind the scenes at the DNC.

Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea, this is Keith Olbermann reporting from the sixth day Democratic convention. Overtime. Extra innings. Sudden death.” Olbermann hunched over, the studio lights glaring off the sheen of sweat across his forehead. “It’s 3 A.M. in Denver, the witching hour, and after 134 ballots, the convention is still deadlocked between the presumed nominee, Barak Obama, and the insurgent forces of Hillary Rodham Clinton. At this moment, three holdouts for John Edwards, three deadenders who evidently previously served on an Edwards’s jury and remain hypnotized, hold the key to the nomination and the presidency.” He held up a blank sheaf of papers, jiggled them. “Our latest MSNBC-NBC intelligence reports indicate that anything can happen, so please, stay tuned.”

And . . . we’re clear, said Doug, the producer in the control booth.

Olbermann flung the papers down. “The lights are too bright.”

The lights are fine, Keith. You want to take a nap? Rachel Maddow has been waiting –

“I want to do the report with a single spotlight on me,” said Olbermann, banging the desk. “A single spotlight says, here is a lone wolf, surrounded by darkness, a truthteller lit by firelight as the world burns — ”

You’re not Edward R. Murrow, Keith, and the world is not on fire.

Olbermann swatted at the makeup man who tried to pat his forehead with powder.

“You’re shiny, Keith,” said the makeup man.

“I’m supposed to be shiny,” snapped Olbermann. “”Shiny and bright, the last sane man in the Bush Gulag.”

“I thought you were a lone wolf.” The makeup man moved in again with the puff.

Olbermann swiveled away from him. “I want this man fired, Doug. Stat!”

He’s union, Keith. He can’t be fired.

“This is a crisis, Doug,” said Olbermann. “How can people tell it’s a crisis unless they see the unsettling effect it’s having on me?” He mussed his hair, loosened his tie, rolled his cuffs. “Let Anderson Cooper primp for the cameras like he’s at a GQ covershoot, I’m too busy for that nonsense. Bombs are falling. Clusterbombs, Keith, clusterbombs made by Halliburton. Destruction everywhere — ”

There are no bombs, Keith. We’ve already gone over that. Onscreen the cameras showed the inside of the convention center, delegates slumped in their chair, spilled snacks everywhere, balloons clogging the aisles. Onstage, Al Franken performed a skit from Saturday Night Live circa 1978, but no one paid attention. A liveshot outside the center showed the encamped hippies selling macramé bracelets and soy smoothies to the police officers. See, Keith? No clusterbombs, no contact poison dental floss, no Blackwater snipers trying to silence you. The FCC said if you keep saying things like that on air, they’re going to fine us.

“The FCC is a venomous cabal of Bush toadies,” spat Olbermann. “Tell them to look out their windows and see the faces of the children without even basic cable, children with rabbit ear antennae on their televisions, and . . . and . . . ”

You can dial it back, Keith; we’re still at commercial.

“And those rabbit ears are wrapped with aluminum foil,” continued Olbermann, staring into the dead camera, “and the children still can’t get decent reception. They see only ghosts, like the ghosts of the American dream your president has left them with, Mr. FCC chairman. Then, sir, you tell the children the bombs aren’t falling, sir, you . . . you tell them the world isn’t ablaze, sir.”

Doug, the executive producer, dropped a couple of Alka-Seltzers in a tumbler of water, pressed the cool glass against his forehead and listened to it fizz.

* * * *

Senator Obama had a headache. He sat alone on the sofa of the hotel suite, swirling a Diet Coke and staring at the television. The room hummed with frantic conversation, aides pacing back and forth, getting messages on their phones and walkie talkies, yelling at people who weren’t there. Even Michele kept her distance, standing by the window, arms crossed, tapping her toe, as frazzled as he was.

They had been waiting to accept the nomination for six long days and nights. Supposed to be a coronation, but the Clintons had picked up enough uncommitted votes the first night to freeze the convention and it had turned into a standoff straight out of a Tarantino movie, both sides with guns drawn as the clock ticked away, waiting for the other to flinch.

Obama kneaded the bridge of his nose. He knew he was in trouble before the convention when he saw Andrea Mitchell goose James Carville, the senior correspondent and the unpaid Hillary adviser carrying on like they were in high school, and Barry was the transfer student wearing high water pants. Then, the second night, Katie Couric had referred to him as Barack Obama, peace be upon him. She said she didn’t know her mic was live and had sent him a muffin basket by way of apology, but Rush Limbaugh had been running the clip nonstop ever since, and Glenn Beck now played a ululating call to prayer in the background whenever he talked about Obama.

One of his aides scurried over. “Senator . . . bad news . . . may be a rumor, could be a fantasy. . . . I heard it from Geraldo — ”

“That’s a relief,” said Obama. “Well? Just say it.”

“The Reverend Wright . . . he may be on his way to the convention center to publicly pray for you,” said the aide. “Hillary . . . she reportedly sent a limo for the reverend in your name. It had your presidential seal on the door and everything. No way to communicate with Reverend Wright, of course — ”

“I thought we had him stashed safely away,” said Obama.

“It . . . it gets worse.” The aide licked his lips. “Geraldo wasn’t sure, but he thinks the reverend may have stopped to pick up William Ayers.”

“Perfect.” Obama rubbed his temples. “Tell you what, have Spike Lee assemble a film crew and meet the reverend when he arrives at the private entrance. Tell Spike no matter what, just keep rolling whether he’s got film in the camera or not.” He sipped his Diet Pepsi. “In case Wild Bill is along for the ride, have one of the younger workers tell him she’s a Social Justice major and wants to get his thoughts about the limits of violent anarchy. That should buy us a few more hours.” He switched through the TV channels as the aide scooted off.

On ABC, George Stephanopoulos was rerunning footage taken during the Clinton administration: Hillary and Chelsea riding elephants through India, throwing flowers to the adoring crowds that followed them everywhere.

On CBS, special Last Time Ever, Promise correspondent Dan Rather was interviewing alternate Obama delegates from Nancy Pelosi’s district, a group of very hairy men wearing nothing but leather chaps.

On FOX, Bill O’Reilly had a live feed with President Ahmadinejad of Iran who said if he were an American he would vote for Mr. Senator Hussein Obama.

“Senator?” The chief of staff hurried over. “Great news!”

“Hillary’s finally conceded?” said Obama, his headache lifting slightly.

“Yeah, and Freddie Krueger’s really dead,” said Michelle, storming into the bedroom.

Obama jerked as the door slammed.

“I’ve got Lurleen Hitchens on the phone,” said the chief of staff, covering the receiver. “She’s the chief delegate from West Texas, got three more votes in her pocket and up until this moment . . . ” He leaned closer, and Obama saw a bit of arugula lodged against the man’s right canine. “ . . . up until now, she been committed to Hillary. She switches to you . . . it doesn’t matter what the Edwards’s looneytunes do, you win the nomination.”

Obama stuck his hand out.

The chief of staff slapped the phone into Obama’s palm.

“Lurleen, how are you doing?” said Obama, his voice like warm butter on a hot biscuit.

The chief of staff showed Obama his blackberry. Forty-seven years old. Divorced. Two kids. Bitter. Works in a meat processing plant. Gun nut. Dallas Cowboys fan.

“Lurleen, don’t you think this is the year the gun nuts make it back to the Superbowl?” said Obama.

“The who?”

Obama swallowed, looked around the room, everyone staring at him, waiting for him to close the deal. “Lurleen, what can I do to make the world a better place for you and your two children.” He glanced at the blackberry. “Little Todd and Maybelline.”

“It’s Mary Beth, and to tell you the truth, senator, I don’t give a darn about making the world a better place, I’d settle for Lubbock getting an Olive Garden.”

“Yes . . .  hmmm . . . umm, I’m a big fan of organic gardening,” said Obama. “I can promise you within my first week in office, that tax credits for composting — ”

“It’s not no organic garden,” sputtered Lurleen. “It’s a restaurant.”

“I’ll . . . um . . . I’ll get right on it,” said Obama. “Now, a little bird told me that you and your delegates are considering giving me your support — ”

“I work in a chicken processing plant,” said Lurleen. “Hard work. On my feet for the whole shift.”

“I can assure you when I’m president the floors will be padded and you’ll be issued Crocs or certified orthopedic shoes at no expense — ”

“I got my own shoes,” said Lurleen. “What I need is a dang back rub.”

“A back rub?” Obama’s headache was worse than ever. “Perhaps . . . umm . . . I could insert an OSHA mandate — ”

“I need a back rub now,” said Lurleen. “Been sitting here for hours and it’s about killing me.”

“Oooooh-kay,” said Obama. “I could send my personal masseur, Blaine — ”

“Don’t want no Blaine,” said Lurleen. “You said you was all about hope and change. We’ll I’m hoping for one of your fatcats to give me a backrub for a change.”

The chief of staff nodded. “Great video opportunity to counter the McCain spin that you’re an elitist do-nothing,” he whispered. “Prove to folks that Barak Obama thinks we’re all in this together, rich and poor, ignorant rednecks and — ”

“Lurleen, that’s a fine idea,” said Obama. “How about I send . . . um . . . um . . . Senator Chuck Schumer to come down to the floor and give you a backrub while you vote?”

“Willy Clinton already gave me a pedicure about a half hour ago,” said Lurleen, “I was hoping . . . ?”

“Me?” Obama laughed. “Not going to happen, Lurleen. Tell you what, though, how about I send Senator Biden down? He’s going to be Vice President someday.”

“Does he have soft hands?” said Lurleen. “I like a man with soft hands.”

“Lurleen, darlin’, Joe’s a United States senator,” said Obama. “You won’t feel a thing.”

* * *

“Welcome home, fellow patriots in the last days of the Bush hegemony,” intoned Keith Olbermann, his face lit only by the two serenity candles on his desk. He had smudged mascara across his cheeks. “We are at the dawn of a new era.” Muffled explosions sounded in the distance.

Keith, I told you to keep your assistant away from the special effects generator, the executive producer said into his headset.

Olbermann ignored him, wild-eyed in the flickering candlelight. Another distant explosion. “Incoming! Tell the crew to take cover!” Dust drifted down on his shoulders as he stared straight into the camera. “This is history, Mr. and Mrs. America. Whatever the cost, whatever the personal danger, your correspondent will stay here at his post, bringing you the news from the front. This is my solemn pledge to you.”

Fred? Stop that.

Fred, the stagehand, stayed poised on a ladder just out of camera range, dropping dust onto the desk in conjunction with the explosions from the sound generator.

Fred, listen to me. Keith is not in a bunker. He’s not a foreign correspondent and this is not London during the blitz. Get off the ladder, Fred. Now.

Another explosion. More dust.

Olbermann coughed into his fist. “The hour grows late, and danger approaches, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Citizen, but I will not abandon you or my post.”

Doug, the executive producer, took off his headset and wept quietly into his hands.

“Oh, the humanity,” crooned Olbermann.

– Robert Ferrigno is author, most recently, of Sins of the Assassin.


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