Creative Writing – You Can Count On Me

You can count on me

W. James Jonas III
May 2006

He has “a foolish consistency … adored by little statesmen.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Chief!  It is time to get up.  Chief?  Can you hear me … Chief?

I am not sure why I continue to call him Chief.  I long stopped doing things just because it was his preference, but calling him Chief was one of the things he always liked and, in another time, it would have been a demand.

Now, it is different.  He has obtained far greater political position than he had in those early years, but my reasons for remaining at his side are more subject to change … perhaps.

In the early years, I needed a job and helping him was the only opportunity I had to earn a living that was off the campaign trail and not back on the family farm.  In the Summer, I still fulfilled my obligations on the tractor (wearing my walkman of course), but there was more nostalgia and helping farm bound family members in those working weekends than anything else.  When the Chief asked me to be part of his administration, I said yes to assure one dependable source of revenue.

Now, I hang around and occupy an office (some would call it work) for the same reason I have never walked out of a long play or movie.  I would like to see if it ends with some type of strange twist.  So far, there has been little to suggest much change from the script we began using running for city council … good schools, good streets, and good government.  The three themes have never changed, and in a way, it made me sad to see how these sincere and simple thoughts of 30 years ago now were a staple of political farce – a farce produced and directed by my team.

The comments on late night television come with the territory but the political cartoons have always been the source of the greatest hurt.  The most recent version had three large and obviously cannibalistic rats each labeled “good schools”, “good streets”, and “good government” half way through their meal of stew made from the body parts of children.

We are a disease ridden country that is bankrupt both fiscally and morally in the middle of a multi-front war, and our highest ranking political leader has not deviated from his prepared remarks for any public statement in over a decade.  Extraordinary public apathy combined with the fact that the two best armed sectors of the population other than the military (i.e., hunters and drug dealers) have passions that can exist under any form of Western culture are the only reasons I can readily identify for the civil stability we experience.

He was a great member of the local school board waiting to have his term and chair and then return to teaching Graduate level economics when a position on city council opened up.  Had there been no term limits, he could have spent his entire career “saving” and “taking our city to the next level” like some elaborate form of performance art, but the voters had spoken before he ever ran for council; his stint in city elected office would be brief, focused, and ruled by messages that were easily understood.

After that but still a quarter century ago, in a weekend retreat, we explored the possibility of mapping out the political messages for an entire career.  The work of that weekend was revised, at times, as it was implemented for the first few years, but in recent memory, re-typing is all that is happening.

Our strategic approach was simple and was based on the axiom that the only clock that can claim absolute precision, more than once a day, is a clock that remains stopped.  We adapted this analogy to establishing a political agenda that had a chance of resonating.  The belief was, and it has worked quite well, that the cycle of community concerns will return to certain issues periodically.  Those who try to anticipate what those issues are will be destined to be advocating a topic too early or too late.  Alternatively, a person who repeats the same three areas of concern may appear out of touch, at times, but there will come a time when he is connecting and those ARE the priorities of the day; that is the moment he will appear visionary.  Once this has happened, even once, that political figure will have the ability to posture as a modern day messiah.

He was in the State Legislature when we hit the jackpot.  Our policy team was featured in every possible political communication.  The Chief was acclaimed as the most in-touch politician in America.  His first visit to the White House was as an advisor, and his next trip was to attend his first meeting as Vice President.  It was the first time in over 100 years, but when the President (a woman in her mid-50s) died, in office, of natural causes that were non-degenerative (I still cannot accept we lost a President to the flu.), it became time for the Chief.

Perhaps others would have seen this opportunity to re-evaluate priorities, but we had been following one path, and that path remains our only option.  Clearly, most issues can be placed under the heading of, at least, contributing to “good schools”, “good streets”, and “good government”, but at the level we are working today, the choices are better characterized as the lesser of evils.  In that environment, it makes articulation of selecting an option that is less damaging to schools, streets, or government difficult to characterize as bold and deliberate.  With that in mind, we have not tried to articulate, lately.  We just do things.  We react.  We act, and then when we are done, we accept a speaking opportunity at a University graduation or some other major public event and go back to taking about “good schools”, “good streets”, and “good government.”

Somehow, today feels different.  I do not think it is going to be possible to either simply react or blindly keep repeating our Krishna.  We are meeting mothers this morning.  These mothers are like many mothers; they gave birth to sons.  If there is a difference that makes these mothers special, it is that their sons are dead; they died working in a hospital after contracting the same virus that killed a President a few months ago.  Schools are meaningless; streets are meaningless, and government is meaningless unless it can bring back a person from the dead.

The element of personal tragedy is not new for us.  The expectation that we will give hope about the future acts of this Administration as it relates to this horrific moment is a new predicament.  No one expected him to stop the war (yet), but there is more than a slight expectation this health crisis will justify action from the leader who has been honored as the man most in touch with America.

Something is strange this morning.  There has been no response to my calls at his door.  There are no sounds of movement.  I begin thinking of what may  be behind the door and, for a moment, begin to think of the various possibilities from the mundane to the extraordinary; he may be still sleeping, so we will run late for the rest of the day; he may be in deep thought, and that may cause the day to have a new priority;  he may have had that long anticipated (but never discussed) second nervous breakdown;  he may be dead, and while unthinkable, that would be the signal that it was okay to talk about something other than “good schools”, “good streets”, and “good government.”

That is when in happened.  Without anyone around me noticing, I became a revolutionary.  The staff was informed to not disturb the Chief again for the remainder of the day (such instructions would be ignored in the next two hours, but it would give me some time) and that substitutions should be arranged for all meetings except the meeting with the mothers in three hours as I will be representing the Chief.

For years I had been waiting to articulate the true national vision that would be responsive to the grief of today’s meeting but also articulate a path for the near term and a vision for the future that would inspire all.  Our health professionals would be called upon to invest in research and information sharing, industry would facilitate knowledge sharing, and the government would keep regulators at bay during this crisis.  Nothing about streets, nothing about schools, and some would suggest too much government, but I knew it was action that could be logically articulated and responsive to our Nation’s pain.

In less than an hour, I had drafted the Executive Order, talking points, and press release.  There was no need to let these documents go unsigned as my ability to duplicate his signature had been established in our first year of work together.  The remaining time before the meeting was used to assure press coverage was concentrated on the mothers’ meeting and the expectation was that the Chief would be there.

The first half of the walk toward the meeting was empowering.  The introductory remarks including explaining why he was not present had been rehearsed thousands of times and occasionally implemented.  The only difference, this time, was that the remarks would not be stale; we would be taking a new path.  Many details would not be outlined today, but the steps of today would call for more change than we had advocated since the city council days.

The Executive Order called for immediate legislative action to eliminate one federal agency and elevate to cabinet level another.  The political carnage would be significant, but the goal was well articulated, responsive to our current crisis and politically feasible.  Other portions of the plan would show a thoughtful empathy for the families that were in the audience.  The message was ready, and I was ready.

Still several yards from the room at the end of the corridor, I could see the activity that confirmed the Chief had, in fact, arrived early to this meeting.  This would be the first time he had ever walked in to a room, in over twenty years, before speaking to me and me handing him his remarks.  Notwithstanding the habits of decades, I walked up on the group where the informal discussions had become almost intimate.  If I did not know the Chief better, it would have been easy to wonder if the embraces and sobbing on his shoulder would impact his ability to deliver a message.  My doubts were zero relating to his ability to ignore the feelings of others.  My question was what would be his message today.

While it would have been easy for him to have a staff member access the last official version of his prepared remarks (a version that did not reflect my most recent modifications), but there was no speech folder to be seen … other than the one in my hand.

In a single motion the Chief shook my hand (we still do that each morning when we see each other for the first time) and eased the speech folder out of my very and unusually tight grasp.

He cleared his throat, and without waiting for anyone to quite the room, he said “I want to share some things with the group this morning.”  This was not his usually stilted introduction, but it was ideal for what was in the folder.  He ignored the first page where I had worked on the wording of my explanation as to why he was not there and launched in to a set of remarks he had never read until that moment, but he was a skilled performer; no one had a clue, and all were touched if not shocked.

What I had begun, in the morning, as a peaceful coup of the policy direction of this Administration was now possibly to be viewed as a purposeful paradigm shift of a insightful executive.  We walked out of the room together,  his comments to me were simple.  “Thanks, I forgot to tell you that I was going on an early morning jog with the Premier (I knew which one as the State Dinner had been the night before), so it kept me from getting the remarks in advance.  It was good of you to bring them to the room.  Do you want to fly with me to Pittsburg today.?”

I declined the trip and had no way of telling if he was aware of what had just happened.

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