Authors: Ben Bova
A Del Rey Book
Published by Ballantine Books
Copyright © 1976 by Ben Bova
All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Ballantine Books of Canada, Ltd., Toronto, Canada.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 75-33505 ISBN 0-345-25656-5
This edition published by arrangement with The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Ballantine Books Edition: September 1977
Electronic version by Baen Books
April is the crudest month.
It's still winter in Boston. I had tried to get that across to the staff before we left Washington. They had listened, of course, but it never really registered on them. Too excited about the trip. The President didn't make that many public appearances, and they were too busy with the details of this one to worry about topcoats. When we landed at Logan and filed out of the staff plane, that old wind off the harbor knifed right through their doubleweave suits and the women's stylish little jackets. I was the only one with a real coat. Didn't look photogenic, but I didn't freeze my ass, either.
The President didn't seem to notice the cold. While we huddled down on the windswept cement rampway, stamping our feet and blowing on our hands, he stood framed in the hatch of Air Force One, casually smiling and waving for the photographers, while the Secret Service security team set up the laser shields and their other protective paraphernalia. The Man wore only a sport jacket over his turtleneck and slacks. Mr. Casual. When McMurtrie gave him the all-clear nod, he came loping down the ramp in that youthful, long-legged stride of his. The politicians and media flaks surged toward him. The crowds beyond the police lines roared. One of the bands struck up "Hail to the Chief." He smiled and grabbed hands. Everybody smiled back, warm and friendly. Especially the women.
"Damn!" Vickie Clark yelled over the noise. "Why didn't you tell me it was going to be this cold?"
"I did." But Vickie's a California girl. She puffed out frigid little clouds of vapor and looked miserable. Which is difficult for her to do. She's an elf, really. Good-looking in a delicate, almost fragile, sort of way. The face of an innocent. With a sharp, tough mind behind it. Vickie typified the White House staff: young, intelligent, an achiever.
Boston is a small city, and the half of it that isn't covered with universities, churches, or historical monuments is covered with politicians. They had all turned out for
the President, of course. This was the first time James J. Halliday had been to Boston as President of the United States. We had all swung through twice during
year's campaign, and although the people had come out to see him—pouring into the streets in such numbers, the second time, that the town simply shut down—the politicos had kept a wary distance. Brilliant young governor from the Far West making a dark horse bid for the White House. They were suspicious. They remembered McGovern, way back when, and the aftermath. But now they wanted to show the President that they loved him, and the Federal revenues he represented.
Halliday was in his charming mood. He smiled at everyone, recognized each of those red-faced professional office holders by first name, and just generally went through the airport reception like a combination emperor and movie star. You could feel waves of adulation welling up from the
, for God's sake. And the people behind the police security lines were cheering louder than they would for Pat O'Brien's reincarnation. The politicos kept staring and studying The Man with their beady little eyes, trying to figure out what his magic was.
So we had the parade, and the afternoon speech in Boston Common—a cool half-million people overflowed the old park and completely stopped downtown traffic for two hours. ("You should've told me to bring my ski parka," Vickie complained as we stood off to one side of the speaker's platform. I grinned and lent her my topcoat. The sun was shining through the still-bare trees. If The Man could tough it out in a sport jacket, so could I. My coat dropped to Vickie's ankles.)
We rode in the President's limousine to the Boston Sheraton for his press conference. I took the jump seat next to Robert Wyatt, the appointments secretary, and went over the names of the local newsmen with The Man, showing him flash pictures of their faces on the TV viewer built into the limousine's back seat. Halliday had his eidetic memory going; he'd take one look at each picture and have the person's name fixed in his mind.
"I can flash their names on the podium," I told him.
He leaned back in the seat, utterly relaxed. "Might as well. I've got them all up here"—he tapped his temple with a forefinger—"but it's always better to be overequipped than embarrassed."
Robert H. H. Wyatt nodded a tightlipped agreement. Everybody on the staff thought the H. H. stood for "His Holiness." At least, that's what we called him behind his back. He was a crusty old dude, bald, lean, sharp-eyed. Been a retainer of the elder Halliday—the President's father—since before James J. was born. We all felt that one of His Holiness's main duties was to report back to the old man on how and what his son was doing.
Wyatt said, "Mrs. Halliday's due to land at four- fifty; you'll still be at the press conference."
The Man let a flicker of annoyance show. The First Lady had been originally scheduled for an earlier flight, but had begged off for some reason. "You'll have to meet her, Robert, and bring her to the dinner."
Halliday had always been able to handle the Washington press corps like a chess master playing a roomful of amateurs simultaneously. So I wasn't expecting any trouble from the news hounds at the Boston Sheraton. I took a chair in the rear of the ballroom, behind the news and media people and all their cameras and lights, and tried to relax. The Man was enjoying himself up there, making my job easy.
The only sour face in the big ballroom belonged to McMurtrie, who headed the President's security team.
"Relax, Mac," I whispered to him, while Halliday was explaining his stand on the Iranian invasion of Kuwait. "The only danger he's in is from being smothered with affection. These people love him. He's another JFK."
McMurtrie shifted his bulk uneasily, making the folding chair groan. "Nice analogy."
a stupid thing to say. I tried to retrieve with, "Come on . . . you guys've got laser deflectors, riot gas, electric prods, sonic janglers . . . it'd take a nuclear bomb to hurt him."
McMurtrie's face looked like a worried Gibraltar. "The Saudis have nukes."
I gave up and leaned back in my chair. Which did not squeak. I'm lanky, but bony.
Up on the podium, under the TV lights, The Man was saying, "Naturally, if Saudi Arabia intervenes, then we will have to assure both the King and the Shah that the United States will remain neutral. We've sold arms freely to both sides. As long as they don't threaten our oil supplies, we can continue to sell them munitions. Short of nuclear weaponry, of course."
One of the women, Betty Turner from
jumped to her feet and got the President's nod. "Is that moral, selling arms to both sides?"
Halliday gave her his best grin. "No. It's not. It's not moral to sell weapons or munitions to anyone. But there is no morality in international politics. I found that out long ago. No morality at all.
. . ." He let them all dangle on that for a moment. "Except to insure that the best interests of the United States are taken care of. We are still somewhat dependent on both Arabian and Iranian oil, especially since the Kuwait fields have been temporarily knocked out. In a few years, when we've reached self-sufficiency in energy, we can rethink our Middle Eastern policy. But for the present, if they want to have a war, they're going to do it with our help or without. If we refuse to help them, they will refuse to sell us oil. It's that simple."
Turner opened her mouth for another question, but Halliday went on. "And if we refuse to deal with them, they'll turn elsewhere for help, which is something I don't think we want to see. And, when you get right down to it, if we refuse to deal with either side we will be, de facto, meddling in their internal affairs. As I've said before, our foreign policy is basically very simple . . . we are not the world's policeman or the world's pastor. We will do what is best for the United States."
Damn! He didn't go over with that too well. It was phrased too baldly. Goddammit! I'd worked over that foreign policy speech with him for a solid weekend, just the month before, when the Iranians had first jumped into Kuwait. He had bowled over the Washington press corps with what they had described as "shrewd political sense and uncommon candor." You'd think he could remember the goddamned wording. It's all-important in this game; it's not merely what you say, it's the way you say it. You can carry candor too far.
McMurtrie nudged me gently with his elbow. For a guy his size, "gently" can leave your ribs sore. "Now
look worried." He came as close as he ever does to smiling. "Welcome to the club."
I had begged off attending the dinner before we'd left Washington. The First Lady flew into Logan late in the afternoon and met Halliday at the hotel. Then they went off to their quiet little thousand-buck-a-plate dinner at the Harvard Club. I kept wondering what old Harry Truman would've said to
Vickie covered the dinner for me, letting old Wyatt escort her. It was unusual to see her so dressed up, in a long gown and everything. With her slim figure, she looked like a high-schooler going to her first prom. But she had good color sense; her gown was sea-green, and it picked up the color of her eyes while setting off her sunstreaked blonde hair beautifully.
His Holiness looked stunning in an old-fashioned tuxedo. His parchment-smooth face glistened; he had reached the age where his skin had taken on that translucent look that only infants and octogenarians have. He made a stately old gentlemanly figure. Vickie could have been his granddaughter, making her debut in society.
I assured them both that I'd show up for The Man's speech in Faneuil Hall at nine, and they left for the Harvard Club. I debated with myself for a moment when I got to the hotel lobby, then decided to walk to my own dinner appointment.
It had been only a little more than two years since I'd left Boston to join Halliday's campaign and eventually become a member of his White House staff. The city hadn't changed much. A couple of new towers going up in Back Bay, their gaunt skeletons outlined against the dusk. The same gaggles of students in their raunchy Guccis and carefully scuffed sneakers, out looking for an evening's fun. The same chill wind that cut through you, no matter how heavy a coat you wore.
I walked briskly through the deepening shadows, watched the evening star duck in and out behind the buildings, and refrained from making any wishes. I felt cold, alone, and suddenly damned bitter. I was heading for the North End, to have dinner with an old newspaper buddy, and the past couple of years were unreeling in my mind like a rerun of a TV documentary. I should have been proud of every minute of it. It should have been a great time in my life. No one except me knew that it wasn't. At least, that's what I thought and hoped.
There's a particular rhythm to a city, different for each one. After so many months in Washington, which is really a Southern town with ulcers, I could tell that I was in Boston even with my eyes closed. The chaotic snarl of traffic, with each driver making damned certain King George III won't tell
which side of the street he could drive on. The anguished nasal bleat of the improper Bostonian telling his neighbor to "Have a haaaht, willya?" or "Open th'doah, fir the luwa God!"
It was fully dark by the time I got to the North End. The street market around Faneuil Hall, on the other side of the expressway overhead, was closing down. So were the store owners in Little Italy, taking in their sidewalk wares. Still, there was an aroma of spices and olives, and the sound of old men playing
under the shadow of Paul Revere's Old North Church spire. It made me incredibly homesick.
Johnny Harrison was halfway through a water tumbler of red wine when I stepped into Rita's. The place hadn't changed at all. It was tiny, actually just the front room of a private house. Only six little booths. Linoleum floor covering. Steam radiators hissing and making the place almost uncomfortably warm. Paintings of Naples and Venice by one of the neighborhood kids fading on the walls. Conchetta, the waitress, still bleaching her hair in the hope that it would make her glamorous. Kitchen in the next room.
You had to know Rita's existed in order to find the place. The entrance was on an alley that used to be blocked all the time by a Mafiosi Cadillac. Now it was an electric Mercedes. Word of mouth was the only advertising that Rita went in for, and most of it was in Italian.