The door to Senate Committee Hearing Room 192 creaked open over the hubbub.
Senator Bigsley glanced up from her notes to see who had entered. A slight figure had slipped through, to take a seat at the rear of the Hearing Room.
Not her man. Bigsley resumed her work.
Suddenly, both doors burst open and brilliant daylight flooded into the dim room. The crowd of more than a hundred fell silent, as the silhouette of a man materialized, a powerful outline framed by the door. The photographers, hitherto circumspect individuals creeping or loping from one vantage point to another, crackled into life and aligned themselves as one with this solar event. They fused into a blurred concentration of light and energy, cameras whirring, clucking and clicking at the striking image.
From her raised position behind them, Senator Bigsley narrowed her eyes in suspicion: the hallway outside was, if anything, more dull than the Hearing Room. She craned her neck to one side of the silhouette and squinted into the light. She straightened and shook her head: was she seeing stage lights outside, or were her eyes playing tricks on her?
The silhouette stepped forward into the room, and took form, and the photographers bickered and growled, half-starved wolves snapping for the same piece of meat.
This particular choice cut stood five foot nine in stockinged feet and was better known to the world as General Whiteley, the recently-appointed NSA Director. Bullish and scowling, the General’s whole demeanor suggested the world conspired against him; if so, the world could expect one hell of a scrap.
The gawkers in the aisles to left and right twisted about to get a good look at the man. He made his way through them unhurriedly, with that stiff-backed purposeful stride of a man who has given his life to the military and not been blown to pieces. The buzzcut of the General’s youth had shrunk back to gray wings below a smooth pate. Suspicious eyes nestled in the safety bunkers of their sockets, darting about the senators in front of him for signs of treachery. At the center of the room, a simple office desk faced the dais, a plastic seat shoved beneath it. With dignity, the General took his place there, the very picture of noble military leadership.
Room 192 was the largest hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Adjacent to the Capitol, the seven-storey white marble edifice was one of three enormous buildings where most of the Senate’s real work took place. This morning, that work happened to include the Senate Appropriations Defense Sub-Committee Hearing.
The five Senators and their various teams were arrayed around the semi-circular dais at one end of the room. A burgundy-carpeted expanse separated them from the General, with the rest of the room behind him taken up with tiers of seats for the public.
It was little surprise that the hearing room was full: opportunities for the common citizenry to see an NSA Director in the flesh were rare. Even less common was the chance to see one called to account for the profligate spending of their agency. Rumors had swirled, and the public sniffed blood. Meanwhile, other intelligence agency chiefs – CIA, FBI, DIA, OIA and a whole host of further acronyms – grabbed seats at the rear, to see what might lie in store for them.
The crowd’s hushed conversation continued until Sub-Committee Chair Senator MacCartan quieted them to open proceedings.
‘We would like to recognize,’ he said, ‘that this is the General’s first appearance before us as Director of the NSA. General Whiteley, you are most welcome. The American people trust us – and we in turn trust you – to protect our fine country. Without trust, we have nothing.’
The General nodded acquiescence, as Senator MacCartan concluded: ‘I speak for us all in offering our sincere gratitude to you for coming here today, and for your fine service to your country.’
The General inclined his head generously in acknowledgment of Senator MacCartan’s words, as the senator yielded to Senator Lubowitz, on his immediate right.
Lubowitz was not to be outdone by the Chair in obsequious platitudes, albeit delivered in his characteristic mumble. ‘Gratefulness …us all! …delighted …the honor! …of course… Meeting you recently, sir, at the dinner… and the opportunity… to discuss… matters of state!’
When that venerable statesman ran out of puff, Senator Thornhill took over in similar vein before Senator Alderon of Maryland spoke. Alderon played it safe in his quavering pitch, repeating what had already been said, and then made sure to restate that, just in case.
‘…finally, to conclude and to finish,’ he said, ‘I would just like to paraphrase my good friend Senator MacCartan in reiterating his welcome to you, General, and to say what an immeasurable honor it is to have such a fine and decorated soldier before us today.’
‘You served also, Senator?’ asked the General.
Senator Alderon affirmed this with a nod. ’With the 23rd in My Lai, General.’
‘Ah yes, My Lai,’ said the General. ‘A noble cause, but the dodgers never understood. The media, damn Communists.’
‘Yes, General,’ agreed Alderon. ‘History has been unkind.’
‘Historians rarely have the benefit of the true truth,’ said the General, shaking his head. ‘Your nation thanks you, soldier.’
Senator Alderon managed a brave little smile, as Committee Chair MacCartan offered Senator Bigsley, to his immediate left, the opportunity to heap further praise on the General.
‘Let’s just move it along to the inquisition, shall we?’ said the Nebraskan.
Committee Chair MacCartan shrank back from the rebuke. Recovering himself, he offered General Whiteley the chance to make his opening speech, before subtly shifting his chair a little further away from Senator Bigsley.