“Just . . . fine, George,” said Obama, taken aback by W.’s casual appearance. The president wore blue jeans and a Texas A&M sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, a scuffed up pair of cowboy boots on his feet.
“Nothing like winning, is there?” drawled W.
“Um . . . no,” said Obama.
W. threw an arm around the younger man’s shoulders. “Wait until you win the next one. Nothing better than knowing you don’t have to go through the dog-and-pony show again.” He squeezed harder. “Then getting out of Dodge and handing over the keys to the next man. . . . Well, according to my daddy, that’s the absolute best of all. You and me, B-Man, we don’t have any idea what that’s like, but I can’t wait to find out.”
Vice President–elect Joe Biden noisily cleared his throat from just inside the door.
“Joltin’ Joe! What are you doing here, boy?” said W. “You’re supposed to be getting prepped from the Dickster.”
“Cheney has been putting me off all week,” said Biden. “Today he had to cancel because” — he made air quotes with his fingers — “he had to have the oil changed in his pacemaker.”
W. laughed and so did Obama.
“I don’t think it’s funny,” Biden complained.
“Of course you don’t,” said W., “That’s why you’re second banana. Now scoot.”
Biden looked at Obama. “I thought I was going to be allowed to sit in — ”
“Sorry Joe-Joe, this sit-down is for POTUSes only,” said W. “Or is it POTI?”
“Go on, Joe,” soothed Obama. “I’ll e-mail you later.”
W. waited for Biden to leave. The veep-in-training tried to slam the door, but it had weighted gimbals so that it closed gently. Clinton had the gimbals installed during his first term when Hillary had cracked the door-frame twice in one week.
“George . . . uh . . . I appreciate you sitting down with me today, bringing me up to speed before the inauguration,” said Obama. “I think the nation’s interest is best served through bipartisan –”
“Yeah, yeah, got it,” said W., pretending to yawn. “The national interest stuff will be taken care of later. Bring your aides and your future cabinet members. Heck, you can bring Working Class Joe along for giggles if you want. I invited you here to wise you up, Grande Jefe to Grande Jefe.”
W. clapped him on the back. “You best brush up on your Spanish, hombre. That’s my first bit of advice.” He walked over to one of the bookcases, half-pulled a copy of Ann Coulter’s Treason out of place and pressed a mole on a marble bust of Abraham Lincoln. The bookcase pivoted, opening wide, exposing a staircase leading into darkness.
Obama stumbled backwards, gulping. “You try! You just try to engineer a coup,” he sputtered, lower lip trembling. “I’ve got community organizers from ANSWER and ACORN ready to hit the streets. . . . ” He stopped as W. howled with laughter.
“A coup?” W. slapped the knee of his jeans. “You think I want to stay in this job a minute more than I have to?” He snickered. “Yeah, I can’t let go of those Saturday morning breakfasts with the speaker, because it’s just so much fun watching her turn up her nose when I ketchup my eggs? Oh, I’ll really miss glad-handing every two-bit commie politician and World Bank egghead that shows up for dinner, listening to their stories and pretending to care.” He shook his head. “Riding around on Air Force One is fun and all, but truth be told, I’d rather be at the ranch than watch Barney Frank flapping his gums about the budget mess he helped create. So, no thanks, hoss. You be president for a while, see how it fits.”
Obama stared at him. “Really?”
“Mi case es su casa. Will be in a couple days, anyway.”
“Okay.” Obama licked his lips. “What’s . . . what’s down the stairs?”
“Presidential hideaway. Top secret. Supposedly Lincoln had it built during the Civil War, case Johnny Reb crossed the Potomac.” W. walked over to the stairs, flipped on a light. “Come on.”
“Come on, there’s no boogeyman down there,” said W., starting down the stairs. “Look, son, if you’re going to be president, you’re going to have to grow a spine.”
Obama reluctantly followed him down the stone stairs, his footsteps echoing. At the bottom he found W. in a large, softly-lit room that smelled faintly of leather and tobacco. Thick carpet on the floor. Dark wood paneling on the walls. A refrigerator hummed softly in one corner. Two La-Z-Boys with the presidential seal on the arms faced a big-screen TV.
“Nice, huh?” said W. “I like coming down here sometimes and watching Steven Seagal movies, one right after the other. I got everything he ever did on DVD. Man takes out a whole room of evildoers and never gets his hair mussed. Laura can’t stand him.” He kicked off his boots. “You want something to drink?” He opened the door of the refrigerator. “I got all kinds of soft drinks . . . sweet tea, Snapple. There’s a few bottles of Ulysses S. General Grant’s private-reserve rye whiskey tucked away in a cabinet, but I don’t mess with that stuff anymore myself.
“No . . . I’m . . . ” Obama looked around. “I’m fine.”
W. popped an orange Nehi, and it fizzed over his hand. “It’s not fancy, but it’s as private as it gets — and that’s what counts. Man needs a getaway.” He took a long swallow of Nehi, sat down in one of the La-Z-Boys, and put his feet up. “Take a load off, man. Make yourself comfortable.”
Obama sat gingerly in the other La-Z-Boy and jerked as the footrest flew up.
“Whoa there, cowpoke,” said W.
“Why are we here?” said Obama.
“I heard that Teddy Roosevelt put a pool table down here but that’s long gone. And there’s stories about Taft filling it with water so he could paddle around like a walrus –”
“George . . . why –?
“Ceremony,” said W. “It’s all about the ceremony, passing on the torch, the keys, the collected presidential wisdom.” He flicked on the big-screen, scrolled through the channels with the sound off. “Every president since Lincoln has passed on the secret location of this room to his successor, except for Billy Clinton. Daddy decided not to tell him about it.” On screen a man was peddling his program on making a fortune buying foreclosed properties, his mouth moving rapidly as he pointed at a fallen-down house with weeds in the yard. “Daddy said there was something about the man he just didn’t trust. Said there was no telling what Billy would do down here.” W. sipped his Nehi. “Course, Billy was the man who kicked Daddy’s butt in the ’92 election, which might have had something to do with it.” He looked over at Obama. “You sure you don’t want a snack or something?”
“What are these presidential secrets you wanted to tell me?” said Obama. “Something about Area 51 or the Kennedy assassination?”
W. laughed. “No. You ask me, UFOs are satanic manifestations, and your guess is as good as mine about who killed Kennedy. Heck, maybe it was Lee Harvey Oswald. No, no. I wanted to wise you up about things that might actually help you be a better president.”
“With all due respect, George, I really don’t think you’re in any position –”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, you’re the smartest guy in any room you walk into, Barry, but this ain’t the U.S. Senate, where guys who didn’t even pass the bar their first time out get to decide who’s on the Supreme Court,” snapped W. “Maybe, just maybe, you could learn something from the men who’ve come here before you.”
“I’m interested in the future, not the past.”
“Right. Hope, change, and arugula in every salad bowl, I get it.” W. picked up an enormous bag of fried pork rinds off the floor. “Laura says these things’ll kill ya,” he said, crunching away, “but how can anything that tastes this good be bad for you?” He held up the bag.
W. shrugged and changed the channel to the Food Network, where a short, bald American standing on a crowded street in Asia was eating roasted crickets on a stick. “You can leave if you want,” he said, rooting around in the bag of pork rinds. “I’ll see you at the inauguration. Dress warm.”
Obama stayed seated. “Well, it wouldn’t hurt to hear what you have to say.”
“No, go on,” said W., watching the television, “I’m sure Slow Joe is wondering where you are. Probably wants to tell you about all the big ideas he’s got in the last 15 minutes. Tell you again what a great team you two are.”
Obama swallowed. “Okay, okay. Talk to me.”
W. glanced over at him. “First off, and this is something you’re going to have trouble believing. but it’s important — the media is your enemy.”
Obama rolled his eyes.
“Trust me, hoss, that tingle Chris Mathews feels running down his leg when he hears you speak isn’t going to be electricity once you’re in office, and just because Charlie Gibson and Maureen Dowd laughed at your jokes for the last year, they’re not going to find a thing amusing about you the day after tomorrow. Remember, they used to think McCain was funny, too, until they decided the ol’ maverick would look a lot better as a gelding. Just wait until you have to make a tough decision, one where there’s no good choice, just a best-of-all-the-rotten-alternatives choice, then see what happens. Go ahead, turn on the charm, give ’em that winner’s smile and see if it works. Just remember, these are the people who published details of our classified terrorist-surveillance program then complained because we hadn’t caught Osama.” W. kept his eyes on the big-screen, where the short, bald American was eating something that looked like it belonged in a sci-fi movie. “General Robert E. Lee once said, ‘It appears we have appointed our worst generals to command forces, and our most gifted and brilliant to edit newspapers.’ ” He winked at Obama. “So, lesson No. 1: The media aren’t your friends, they just liked you better than the other guy. Now you are the other guy.”
Obama folded his hands in his lap, stretched out his legs. Michelle thought La-Z-Boys were ugly and rednecky, but it was comfortable.
“That’s it,” said W., “Take a load off. You’ve got to be able to slip things into neutral and just coast. Otherwise, well, you’ve seen the before-and-after photos. Eight years in the White House is like eight in dog years.”
“That’s why it’s important to eat right and stay fit.”
“Comfort food, that’s what you’ll end up with,” said W., reaching for the pork rinds. “So who do you think your base is?”
“Black folks, of course, and George Soros,” said Obama. “Throw in the Oprah females, guilt-ridden metrosexuals and college-educated vegetarians with 2.2 mountain bikes, and you’ve got the Obama landslide.”
“Good. Lesson two: First week in office, best thing you can do is infuriate your base. A real knee to the groin. Make them question why they ever donated a nickel or licked a stamp for you.”
“In 2001, Before Laura even got us unpacked, I went right out and made a deal with Ted Kennedy on education,” said W. “A lousy deal. A violation of the core principles of my base, but I did it and never looked back. Gave Billy Clinton a pass from prosecution when my people were howling for blood. Later, just to rub it in, I had Justice sign off on a wrist slap for Sandy Berger for stealing those documents from the National Archives.” W. wiggled his toes in delight. “You have to make people understand that nobody owns the president of the U.S. of A. There used to be this phrase politicians in Texas would say, ‘You got to dance with the one what brung ya,’ which basically means you got to pay off the people that ponied up to elect you. That’s fine for a congressman or senator — let’s be honest, the wheels of government are greased with other people’s money — but a president is a different beast altogether. You need to show them that.”
“It sounds so . . . counterintuitive. I don’t know.”
“Next week, while you’re still trying to find your way around the place, call up the CEO of Exxon-Mobil and invite him over to watch a movie. Something with soldiers. A war movie where we’re actually the good guys. You may have to use Netflix, because there’s nothing like that at Blockbuster and I’m not loaning out my copy of Sands of Iwo Jima. Serve Mr. Big Oil a big bowl of buttered popcorn. Better yet, have one of your flunkies from Greenpeace or the trial-lawyers association there, too, and have them serve the popcorn. Teach that puppy to heel.” W. swigged down the last of the orange Nehi. “And the president of Exxon, he’s not a bad guy to know, if you get my drift.”
Obama nodded. “It would be nice to be my own man. To show them, show them just once.”
W. stared at the condensation on his Nehi. “You want to be your own man, the trick is to pick one thing and stick with it no matter what anybody says. With me, after 9/11, it was all about the war against the jihadis. You pick one thing and hold fast to it, you’re going to be hated worse than you can imagine.”
“This one thing,” said Obama. “You have to be right about it, though. Otherwise. . . . ”
“Clinton, he didn’t have any focus,” continued W. “Billy walks down the cafeteria line and needs a half dozen trays to hold it all, not just because of his appetite, but because he can’t stand to let a choice pass. He wants every entree, every vegetable. He wants the Jell-O mold and the pecan pie and the devil’s food cake, too. Nice thing about being him, though, you don’t get hated much, and those that do hate you, after a while they forget why. Me, they’re people on their deathbed made sure they voted absentee against me.”
“What if you’re wrong about that one thing?” persisted Obama.
“The big things, the important decisions, you may not ever know if you were right,” said W., “but you have to do what you think best, anyway.”
Obama squirmed on the La-Z-Boy, getting a whiff of what was ahead of him.
“You’ll do fine,” said W. “Another thing, don’t be tempted to start throwing out pardons like necklaces at Mardi Gras,” warned W., wagging a finger. “I guarantee, right off the bat you’re going to be hit up to release that cop-killer. What’s his name? Abu Ben-Adam?”
“Whatever. Don’t do it. At least not until the last day of your last term in office. Then all bets are off. You can pardon Manson if you want to then. Billy Clinton got that right at least.”
Obama settled deeper into the La-Z-Boy. “Does this thing have a massage unit?”
“There’s a switch under your right arm. That’s it.”
“Another thing,” said W., squinting over at him. “Give people nicknames. Stretch. Turd-Blossom. Hezbollah Helen. Mr. Stupid. Giving out nicknames makes it seem like you’re one of the gang, humanizes you while, at the same time, asserting control. Remember, you’re the one passing out names. Nobody gives you a nickname.”
“Remember, don’t tell anybody else about this room, not even Michelle.”
“Pass me that bag of pork rinds, George W.” Obama deftly caught the bag tossed his way.
“That’s the spirit,” said W., flipping through the channels. “What do you want to watch?”
“Does it matter?” said Obama, chomping away, spraying crumbs everywhere.
– Robert Ferrigno is author of the novel Prayers for the Assassin.