Article II, Section I of the U.S. Constitution:
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
-- Presidential Oath of Office
1:14 a.m. EST. March 4, 2009
Two armor-plated, black Chevrolet Suburban vans with bullet-proof, tinted windows screeched to a stop on a recently plowed driveway off Massachusetts Avenue.
Secret Service agents in dark suits exited the vehicles almost simultaneously at the front entrance to Number One Observatory Circle. Six ran through snow to set up a defensive perimeter along the front, sides and rear of the three-story house, the official residence of United States Vice President Lorraine Valerie Forster.
Jogging to an open front door, agents Janet Watson and Gabriella Nunez entered a well-lighted foyer, then slowed to a walk.
At the foot of a dark-wood staircase, the Vice President stepped onto a polished terrazzo floor in low-heel shoes, her footsteps echoing softly as she walked toward the agents. Stopping, Forster handed one of the agents her leather handbag and with both hands loosely tied a scarf around her neck, tucking the ends under the lapels of a knee-length wool coat. “How do I look?” she asked Watson. “I’d just gotten to sleep when I got the call.”
“You look fine, Madam Vice President,” said the agent, “considering the circumstances.” The agent pointed to the side of Forster’s head. “You have some loose hair you might want to do something with, ma’am.” The Vice President walked over to a hallway mirror and looked at her reflection a moment. She pulled off a wide-brim felt hat and held it in one hand. Fingertips deftly
combed two strands of graying hair behind her ear. She straightened the hat on her head and turned around.
“Better?” the Vice President asked.
Vice President Lorraine Forster had slipped into bed at the end of the eleven o’clock news the night before and read a few pages of an intelligence briefing on the deteriorating situation in Iraq. She had to be up early for a 7 a.m. breakfast meeting with the President. Her Chief of Staff had called about a half-hour after she’d fallen asleep.
“The President’s in emergency surgery,” Helen Brown said to the bleary-eyed Vice President, fumbling with a switch on a bedside reading lamp. “The Secret Service is on its way now to pick you up.”
“What’s wrong with Richard?” Forster turned away from the light as it came on. She recalled the President had been examined the previous week at Bethesda Naval Hospital. Doctors said then he was in good health.
“He’s had a stroke, Lorraine.”
2:21 a.m. EST.
George Washington University Hospital
The Suburban carrying the Vice President rolled into a reserved parking space less than ten feet from the hospital’s emergency entrance. The slender African-American Secret Service agent stepped out and opened the rear door. “Thank you,” said Forster, sliding off the back seat. The air was brisk. She pulled up the collar on her coat.
“Your Chief of Staff is on her way,” said agent Nunez as she and Watson accompanied the Vice President through a sliding-door entrance.
“Do you know if Lydia’s here yet?” Forster looked first to Watson then to Nunez.
“Yes ma’am, she is,” said Watson, opening a second set of sliding double doors. “The First Lady’s here with her daughters.”
“Are we going to his room?”
“The President’s still in surgery, ma’am,” said Nunez. “The family’s in a room next to the O-R. The lobby’s being cordoned off now. We can wait there.”
The Vice President had trouble keeping up with Watson and Nunez as they quickly guided her down a long corridor that led to the hospital’s lobby and main entrance. Outside high plate-glass windows and revolving front doors city police finished setting up wooden barricades. On the other side of the barricades, about fifty feet back, spotlights had been turned on and illuminated two television news vans. Ten to twelve reporters and photographers were milling around, blowing into their hands to keep warm.
Police pulled back a barricade to allow two Lincoln Continental limousines to pass through. In one was Helen Brown. Getting out of the back seat of the other was Associate Supreme Court Justice Rachel Schoenfelder, the Vice President’s undergraduate college classmate. Forster watched as the two women greeted each other before heading to the front door.
“Ma’am,” Watson said, touching Forster’s arm above the elbow. “Follow us, please.” The agent had just listened to a short message transmitted to her earpiece. Nunez heard the same message.
“Right this way, ma’am,” said Nunez, grasping Forster’s other arm. “You’re going to meet with the President’s family.” The two agents looked at each other, nodded. “Let’s go, ma’am.”
Forster had wanted to greet Schoenfelder and her Chief of Staff but felt the agents tug at her arms. The trio walked slowly down the same corridor they’d passed through minutes before. They stopped momentarily outside a windowless room.
“Vice President Forster,” Watson said, “you have our sympathy. The President has passed
away.” Nunez held Forster’s hand as it tightened. The Vice President pursed her lips, looked down.
“Would you like to see Mrs. Templeton and her daughters now?” Watson held the Vice President’s other hand. “They’re waiting for you.” Forster nodded, took off her coat, handed it to
Nunez. From her purse she pulled out a tissue, dabbed away a few tears running down her cheeks. She stuffed the tissue back into the purse. Watson took it and opened the door.
Forster entered the room alone. The agents shut the door behind her. Inside, Lydia Templeton and her daughters Heather and Jennifer were holding each other, crying.
The 44th President of the United States died on the operating table. Doctors were unable to stop massive bleeding in the temporal lobe. He had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke that paralyzed him on the left side. If he’d lived, he would have been unable to hear or speak. He was pronounced dead at 2:31 a.m. EST. The former four-term U.S. Senator from South Carolina was 73. He had been President forty-three days.
3:11 a.m. EST
George Washington University Hospital lobby
A small wood podium had been set up in a back corner behind some couches and chairs and potted plants. Nearly fifty people, mostly journalists, were gathered now on the other side of the barricades in front of the hospital. The White House press secretary went outside to announce the President’s death to the teams of reporters. He said the President had been found slumped over at his desk in the Oval Office about 12:20 a.m. The press secretary also said President Templeton had been rushed to the hospital, about a mile from the White House, on board Marine One, the presidential helicopter.
In the dimly lighted corner off the lobby, Lorraine Valerie Forster repeated the presidential oath of office read by Justice Schoenfelder. Helen Brown held President Harry Truman’s family Bible. On Forster’s other side was U.S. Representative Constance Stowe from East St. Louis, Illinois. Senate Majority Leader Allen Campbell and House Speaker Thomas Dodge stood in the background to the left.
Agents Watson and Nunez were assigned to be President Forster’s primary Secret Service protection team.
8:56 a.m. EST.
The Oval Office
The White House Garden was dormant, covered over with plastic sheeting to protect the perennials that were expected to bloom at the end of March or early April. Everything’s dead, an exhausted President Forster thought. She was wearing the same clothes, a black pantsuit and a white blouse, since she’d arrived about three hours before at the White House. She wished she had her hair brush. It was in her purse, but she couldn’t remember where she’d left it. And she wanted to brush her teeth. “But first, I have to eat something,” she said to herself. “And, I could use a cup of coffee.”
It had taken a crew of twenty men and women less than an hour to remove all the furniture, rugs, books and President Templeton’s personal items from the Oval Office. In the following hour, all of the former Vice President’s clothing and personal belongings had been moved to an upstairs White House guest room.
Lydia Templeton was to leave the White House by the weekend. Her daughters, married, lived elsewhere, one in South Carolina, the other in California. They’d been in Washington with their children the last three days visiting their parents. They were scheduled to leave for Charleston, South Carolina, with their mother in three days to attend the President’s funeral and his burial in the family mausoleum.
At Forster’s request, Truman’s presidential desk was brought into the Oval Office. Newly refurbished chairs and tables, potted floor plants, art work and a few mementos from the Truman administration were in place by 7 a.m. President Forster arrived a half-hour later with Helen Brown, whom she’d appointed presidential Chief of Staff, and Congresswoman Stowe, chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
All documents that President Templeton had in or on his desk after midnight and from the day before were catalogued in two cardboard boxes on top of President Forster’s desk. Most of
them concerned the question of when it would be politically feasible to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Also included were notes Templeton had made during telephone conversations in the past two days with cabinet officials and generals at the Pentagon and in Iraq and Afghanistan. A short stack of papers were letters and faxed messages from the State Department and from heads of state, prime ministers and foreign ministers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia and Great Britain.
Forster, seated in a desk chair, continued staring out the Oval Office’s rear windows. She was oblivious to all the activity behind her and to the continuous roll of phone calls, each one Helen Brown dutifully answered on the first ring. Brown already had made notes through all the pages of one yellow legal pad and was starting to write on another. Congresswoman Stowe was on a call with the Office of Naval Intelligence at the Pentagon.
“Lorraine,” Brown said to the President. “Lorraine, you have to take this call.” Forster spun around in her chair and pulled herself to the desk. “It’s Senator Campbell. He wants to know when you’ll name your V-P.”
Outside her classroom at Woodbine College in Blue Waters, Wisconsin honey bees gorged on nectar from late-spring azaleas. The incessant buzzing sound wafted through an open screened window. It was less than a week after Memorial Day 1980.
Assistant Professor Lorraine Singer turned away from a chalk board. She’d just completed lecturing about President Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations covenant proposal for the Versailles Peace Treaty following the end of World War One.
“Class, what happened in 1919 outside Paris among the Allies gathered there had so much bearing on what would happen in Germany less than twenty years later. You can’t understand the causes of World War Two without knowing what happened in the battles of World War One and what followed during the political maneuverings after Germany and its allies surrendered. And without knowing what happened at the end of World War Two, you won’t be able to understand the causes for the war on the Korean peninsula, nor the causes of the long-entangled war between France and Vietnam and later between the United States and Vietnam. They’re all connected. I want you all to understand thoroughly these concepts because you’ll be the diplomats of the future and –– ”
“Even me, Professor Singer, even me,” chanted a twenty-old from East St. Louis, Illinois.
“Yes, even you Miss Stowe,” Singer said. “If you, Miss Stowe, plan to do any good at all in your final exam in a couple days, you better pay attention.”
“I’ll do what I can, Miss Professor Singer.”
“I want to see you in my office when this class is over.” A bell sounded. “Okay class, study hard. I’ll see you here tomorrow, yet once again to probe the minds of frail white men who led their countries into war. And Miss Stowe, if you please, follow me.”
The two walked down a long corridor in Woodson Hall and turned into the History Department’s outer office. “After you, Miss Stowe. We need to talk.” Singer turned her head. “Oh, Helen, what are you still doing here? I thought you’d be on your way home by now.”
“Just some last-minute papers to log in for your honors class.”
“Miss Stowe, you remember Helen Brown, the department’s secretary,” said Singer. “You should come around more often, Miss Stowe. Miss Brown is here to help.”
Stowe came around in front of Brown’s desk. “Always wanted to ask ya something, but I stay away from these uppity-ups aroun’ here. So, what I want to ask you is this, see. You been workin’ long for Professor Singer?”
“Since she first got here right after she got her doctorate,” said Brown with a smile. Brown knew about Stowe’s troubled history at Woodbine. Singer often had asked her secretary for advice on how to handle the college’s lone black student. After their last discussion, Brown had said: “Let that little spoiled brat sink or swim. Don’t treat her no different than any of your other students, even the ones you cater to so much in your honors class.”
“Helen, finish up and go home.” Singer shifted her attention to Stowe. “Come along, Miss Stowe, into my office. We need to talk.”
Constance Stowe dropped her book bag on the hardwood floor and fell into a chair in a corner of Singer’s cramped office. All four walls were lined with books – mostly history and political science texts – many of which Singer had used to write her doctoral thesis at the University of Wisconsin on the causes of war in Indochina from the late 19th century to the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. In less than six months, the thesis would be published. The 853-page text would win the 1981 National History Award. In seven years, Lorraine Singer, who would marry fellow professor Daniel Forster in 1983, would be selected the youngest president of Woodbine College, an internationally regarded women’s institution of higher learning near Milwaukee.
“What’s it about this time,” Stowe said, squirming in the cushion-less, straight-back chair. She looked around with a scornful look and rolled her eyes.
“It’s your attitude, Constance. You have a great opportunity here at Woodbine, but I’m fearful you’re going to blow it all.” Singer stepped around a pile of books on the floor and headed to her desk chair. Before sitting down, she picked up two large texts from the chair’s seat and plopped them on her desk.
“I’m the only black girl here. No one has talked to me in the three years I’ve been here.” Stowe stood up, about to leave. “I hate it here.”
“Constance, sit back down,” Singer said in an angry tone. “I’ll tell you when to leave. I’m giving you one more lecture about your deportment at this institution. I don’t want any more sweet- talking from you about how you’re discriminated against. You’re not. You’re as smart, if not smarter than most of the women at this college. You received a prestigious scholarship to get here. Everything’s paid for, and you get a stipend as well. You’re part of the privileged class because of that. And for God’s sake, act your age.”
“But I’m black as the ace of spades.”
“Constance, everyone here knows you’re black. You can’t hide that. And you can’t hide that sullen attitude of yours either. Now snap out of it.” Singer took another breath. “You hear me?”
“Yeah, I hear ya.” Stowe rolled her eyes again and lowered her head to stare at the floor. “Look at me, Constance. Look at me.”
“Okay, okay.” Stowe raised her head toward Singer. “I’m a-listenin’.”
“Constance, if you fail any course this semester, you’ll lose your scholarship. You’ll be on the next bus back to East St. Louis. You don’t want that. I don’t want that for you. You have talent, girl. Use it.”
Constance Stowe passed Lorraine Singer’s political history class, getting a B-minus in the final. Stowe kept her scholarship and graduated from Woodbine in the late spring of 1981. She then taught history at an East St. Louis high school for two years and on a whim ran for city council and won. She was re-elected three times. Then in 1992, when the local congressman retired, Stowe ran for the open seat and won by a slim margin of 997 votes. She switched parties after getting re-elected in 2004, going from Democrat to becoming one of the leaders of the new American Independent Party. Even though Democrats gained control of Congress after the 2006 mid-term elections, Stowe outmaneuvered three political rivals, including the House Speaker, and became chair of the House Intelligence Committee.