I arrive in Manchester and it’s almost over. We were delayed from San Francisco, and my luggage is late. I chew out Hank, my old body man—enough incompetence. No wonder the campaign is ending here. His eyes get watery and red, and he thinks I can’t tell he’s about to cry. Just find the bags, I need them today, I say, letting him walk away, while the press flutters over and I put on a smile.
Hank finds our New Hampshire political director’s car and they come drag me from the gaggle. I say, that’s all for now, you’ll hear more this afternoon.
Any comment about the debate in Kansas City? Would you consider a vice presidential offer? Is the Politico report accurate, that you’ll be dropping out?
Hank’s grip on my arm tightens. Still I turn back to the cornfield of cell phones and faces.
Movements don’t die, they just slumber, I say.
Who knows what that means. I walk through the revolving door into the cold and snow.
I never liked New Hampshire. I don’t like the people who live there. They are fattened with attention for their early primary, engorged on bullshit praise from me and my unfortunate class. I watch the highway signs roll by en route to some overfunded community college. Guns for gold…Are you a problem gambler? It’s no different from across America. It’s all the same.
Sir—Hank is talking—Anise wants you to review the talking points, she said, lemme just read you her text, she said this is a very important speech that you have to pull off carefully to keep your standing in the party, your future…
Hank’s voice angled from the front seat. Our New Hampshire political director anxiously pounding the gas. Not our director, mine.
I don’t need Anise today, I say. I just need those bags. Hank’s eyes get that redness again. And then I look away, because I remember when he came into my congressional office, three years ago, help with VA benefits, the timeless story. He couldn’t get through the speech without weeping. I was in the next room listening. I don’t do constituent work anymore. But he was making so much goddamn noise. I stormed in. What is taking so long why isn’t the deputy secretary on the phone yet where is the urgency jesus fucking christ. Later, he said he most hated that “gruff” was how everyone saw me.
I am gruff. I’m mediocre. I’m not good at getting what I mean into what I say. Mostly, I’m tired. The same lines, the same debates. Different stages. I’ve been dragged across too much of this country and I know it’s not getting better. The diners, the hospitals, the VA centers, the shadow malls; the parking lots, the antennas, the overgrown irrigation ditches, the treeless streets. The fucking diners.
I stand with my arms outstretched so some Victor can mic me. Victor, where you from Victor. Oh, I’m from San Juan, I…. He keeps talking. I ask these questions to deflect attention and let the inevitable happen. Soon he will get to the point, to his concern and his agenda, that’s why the refugee cap should be higher, that’s why the minimum wage should be $15, in short clearly Congress should focus on infrastructure, and as always I agree with the speaker but that doesn’t make anything change.
I think to myself, Derry, New Hampshire, Granite State. They blur together after a while, something I won’t miss. You always think you can’t work harder, then there are two more appearances on the calendar. A pancake breakfast. A union hall in Illinois. Still, the horror of being an anonymous Representative, while someone else wins this hopeless gig.
Anise sweeps in past the Secret Service, who I’ve had since July. They know her and love her, everybody loves her, even my wife. My heart flops.
Did you read the edits?, she says. You have to word this right. To have even a shot at Secretary of State or Labor. And if you want to keep us all in jobs next year.
She’s right but I can’t tell her that, as when she asked if I would marry her and her husband, a good man and Marine. I care about you too, she’d whispered when I blanked, and I bottled all that up behind me. The ceremony was back in our district. My district.
I just need my fucking bags, I said, waving away her papers. That has everything I need for the speech.
Somewhere over Tacoma I promised myself this would be the way it went: a passage from a book some man had handed me, a Steve or Sammy. It’s inspiring, he said, pointing to page three. And he was right, that’s what I’d quote from, to wrap this whole experience up nicely. I’ve always worked with inspirational, with chance and narrative and story. And the book was an adventure novel I’d never heard of, something for kids, but there was this clear passage in it: “The adventurer moves forward until there is nothing to move forward to, a trail that hits a rock, and so the adventurer must scale the rock in order to see the full sweep of desert, the saguaros and dust, blue mountains far in the distance, from which help is on the way.” Or it was something like that. I have never been good at memorization. That’s why I tucked the copy in my bag. But nothing at the end of this campaign had gone exactly right.
Anise’s face twists and drops. Fine, she says about the bags, we’ll try.
Victor is hovering, looking at his phone, I know he’s done with the mic because I can’t feel it anymore, the mark of a professional, the wires hidden, the way I like it. I’m not the kind of guy who leans on a podium, never will be.
What’s the story Vic, I say.
And it comes out, a grandmother outside Guaynabo, in the mountainous middle of the island where three years after the hurricane there’s still no drinking water. Anise already has the business card ready.
Have your grandmother call us, I say, we’ll do what we can do.
There is almost nothing we can do, I don’t know how to tell the man, this is a real detraction as a politician, everybody tells me, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC. He doesn’t know how to say no. This from a crew that only knows about getting to yes. Sometimes I think we’re all speaking different languages, every single one.
Victor’s back is straight and bouncy as he walks out, trying to give the Secret Service guys a pound (they ignore), and he exits to the impossible future where things get better and better every day.
I can’t remember when I last felt that way, maybe the day after my first election win, state senate just north of Paris, New York. Nobody expected that, except I did. You can’t take it in the night of, the squeals from supporters, old friends, the inane questions from journalists, an extremely off-the-cuff set of remarks. Instead it was waking up and my wife leaning over, just smiling, I’d hardly seen her in weeks. Isn’t this America after all.
I am led into another classroom, a left-handed desk, doodles of trigonometry still ghostly visible on the smart-board wall. There is a journalist waiting for me, old and confident, recorder on the table, the New York Times. He shakes my hand and says hello Congressman like someone pointing at the fish they want to grill for dinner.
What do you think your campaign achieved?
And I’m racking for something, some promise, some vow from the remaining bigfoots, some piece of polling to indicate a dawning acceptance of what we believe (I believe). But I keep coming back to a moment with Anise on the train, an opportunity to show environmentalism over flying, a Chicago to Detroit run, on the phone with her Marine husband while she thought I was asleep.
He doesn’t have it, she said. No emotion in her voice, just information: He doesn’t have the dzoodge.
Eyes closed, I could almost hear her husband ask what the dzoodge meant.
He always thinks he’s the smartest person in the room but he also knows that he’s not, she says, and so he’s either too arrogant about other people’s opinions or wants to gather too many of them, anyway a decision never gets made, why do we have a full campaign staff in South Carolina. The last time we were there he read from some book at a church, three people.
No, I know (she continued), his heart’s in the right place and I’m grateful, but there’s just better people out there. Snappier. Understand the internet, I mean my god. He’s getting repetitive. I’m talking to the Smith team, I think they’ll make me an offer after the end.
It’s a little like at the end of Tom Sawyer when Tom gets to hear his eulogies. It almost feels good for a second. But then it doesn’t. She hangs up the phone.
I want to tell her I’m angry, or I’m sorry, or I wish I could change things for her or for me. A better night’s sleep would do it, a day in my office in the Adirondacks reading, that had always brought my head back, helped me put the patterns together, know what to say and how to say it, who to call and who to cajole, I wrote the whole bill to regulate the real estate broker industry on two pots of coffee and a cell phone in the middle of the table, that big wooden table cut from Adirondack wood and the service never breaking up so we could get real lawyers and academics on the phone, a short story collection to calm the mind during breaks. Anise helping with the drafting, just the two of us there, her leaving to a motel late that night when we had nearly finished—are you sure I should leave, she asked? No—I just need to take a deep breath for a second and I’ll be able to do the right thing (I have taken all the breaks, all the breaths, all the energizing mistakes—there’s just nothing left, my mind goes a million places an hour, I can’t focus, maybe it’s the cell phones that did it, I wish I could be like Smith, sit down and read three white papers on an iPad and noodle Excel sheets and come up with answers).
I look at the reporter’s recorder, his pen laid lightly on the pad, not even prepared, not even poised.
We met a lot of people, I said, we tried to raise their issues. We do what we can. We…
You can gauge a crowd of people even many rooms distant, there is something about the cadence, or perhaps it is the stomping of feet. I think this is the best example of the wisdom of crowds, or the power of collectivity, or the possibilities for the future: one voice only has so many decibels but in many, just by muttering…
I could hear them already; it did not feel like an excited crowd, it did not feel like a sad one. Maybe it’s something about the flats or sharps they are hitting (I have never been inclined towards music, just my books) but they seem like they are going through the rote. I don’t know. I don’t know what to say to them. All I had prepared was the book in my bag.
In the future I will carry my own bag wherever we go, I will get older and older, until I can’t carry my wife’s bag too and then I won’t even be able to carry my own, and we will stop traveling to DC and we’ll visit our son in Montana or stay in the Adirondack cabin, at least my wife will be able to be helpful, emergency room doctors always are, if she’s not working we will actually be together at the same time, everything behind left behind. And I will sit in the cabin and read books or think of things, read the papers and only sometimes Twitter, scoff from the sidelines because only so many among us can affect the world. There is a sound I have always liked in that cabin, a humming that pops up from time to time from a tractor trailer going down the nearest road, it will be the sound of things happening, elsewhere.
We’re in another classroom, they all look the same, this smart-board is covered with accounting data, someone is moving on to a better life. And Hank is coming in with his face like a television screen, like CNN showing good early numbers, like the word “projection” and my entire name.
The bag, he says, and he hands it to me, an offering. Familiar black straps, leather patch. I breathe.
Except it is not my bag. I open the zipper. Exercise bras and cold-weather tights. I’ve never jogged in my life.
Are you fucking…I’m yelling. Hank has the red-eye look. Anise rolls her eyes. Grow up, she says.
I’m really sorry, Hank says.
It’s not your fault, Anise tells him.
It is though, I say (I’m spiraling).
It’ll come to you, she says, her eyes hard. You don’t need a prop anymore. It’s over for that. Just tell them the truth.
There comes a time in a campaign where we all must come together, party unity (I begin, mic squeak-catching, the echo among the basketball banners of the dirty gym) and now it is my time to raise the banner for an old opponent, a worthy adversary, and this is why…. The murmurs begin.
I pause for breath. I reach for the next line. There are so many I can choose from, the jigsaw puzzle of my rhetoric, apply it to any question possible, enough sound bytes in different arrangements to make it sound truthful, fresh. I have always been able to do this, we all have, each of my peers jabbing their jigsaw pieces against one another, none of it makes any sense if you pull back and think about it, or hear it enough times, the embed TV guys know. I, I say, I, I, I, I…
It’s all a fib (I land, jumping off the deep end, a shocking unknown expanse) you people who think you influence, you unfortunates, you the mom with three kids and the careful question about health care, and you the father with Gulf service wondering about retirement. It may as well have been decided ahead of time, I say as I stand here and the lights flashing and the crowd confused. My subject today is The Political Future. The dispersal of power is just a numbers game, there aren’t enough of you, you’re not cohering sufficiently in one direction or another, we’ve been doing this twenty-four hours a day for a year and tell me what have you gained? Everyone’s moving to Virginia and Texas to get out of this shitty freezing empty place anyway (I see the New Hampshire political director cringe) and the world isn’t yours anymore, you primary voters, you supposedly high information-havers, it’s some kids on their laptops moving around demographic data and running digital advertisements, stupid advertisements, have you seen these advertisements? Of course you’ve seen them and clicked on them, what further evidence do you need of the separation between you and us, us the makers of the advertisements and the getters of your vote, you the lookers, just look at those limited pixels and know how little we care about or actually trust you. (Hank’s mouth open, still clutching the useless bag.) Other than the money, and you idiots keep the money coming. How can you trust me or any of my people here, you should hear the things they say about people like you, the jokes they make about the stereotypes you fall into (Anise’s face in a vice, her campaign job on the line) we’re all doing it for me it has nothing to do with you, it’s me, me, me, me. They said I was a little slow to the punch, maybe my makeup doesn’t look good in primetime? Stumbling in Sacramento? But I feel clear as hell today. You know what, let’s start a donor drive, I’m done with all this but send me dollars anyway—five dollars, ten dollars, fifty, whatever you were saving or going to spend on a weekend dinner or a visit to your aunt, just log onto my website and give it to me. I’ll take care of it, you can trust me, this is not really an end but a beginning. They may say I’m off the rails now, that I should have stuck to the teleprompter or my book or notes but this is really—go ahead, scream, I promise that I’ll help you.