11:11 a.m. EST. March 4, 2009
The Oval Office
“Senator Campbell, could you hold just a second, please?” Lorraine Forster heard a deep guttural groan a moment before she pushed the hold button. Helen Brown quickly laid on top of the desk in front of the President an index card highlighting the Senate Majority Leader’s background. It said the Huntington, West Virginia native was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1968, the year Richard M. Nixon beat Hubert H. Humphrey, the year the Vietnam War would rage on for seven more years. Forster quickly scanned through the typed notes. The last line said: “He’s the most powerful Democrat in the Senate and blocks confirmation of presidential cabinet nominees, from Democrats or Republicans, if they don’t pass his litmus test. They have to be white males over 55, not Jewish or Catholic, never had a mistress – or one no one ever knew about – and never got caught at beating their wives.”
“Lorraine,” Constance Stowe said as she pulled up a chair next to the President. “There’s someone from the Pentagon comin’ over here. Ya gotta meet him and talk with him. It’s real important. Put this Campbell jerk off ’til later.” Forster turned to her former student.
“Constance, please let me deal with one thing at a time,” said Forster. “Overwhelm me tomorrow, not today.” She reached over to the phone and released the hold button. “Yes, Senator, I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”
“I know you’re busy, Mrs. Forster,” Campbell began. “But, about –– ”
“Senator, excuse me. I haven’t been called Mrs. Forster since before January 20th. And now, much to my chagrin, I’m President of the United States. Please, address me as such.”
“Ah sure, Madam President, as you say.” Forster heard Campbell shuffling papers around on his desk. She was sure no President in the past had ever chastised him for improperly addressing
the nation’s chief executive. “Ah, ma’am, about ... well, about the President’s funeral.”
“I’ll be going down to Charleston to be with Lydia, uh, I mean Mrs. Templeton, for that day,” said the President. “But was there something else you wanted to talk to me about?”
“Yeah, ah, yes ma’am,” said Campbell. “I wanted to know about your V-P nominee so we could get the nominee scheduled for a confirmation vote as soon as possible.”
Forster had no idea whom she would choose for her Vice President. “Senator, let’s wait until after President Templeton’s buried. We’ll talk next week. I have to go, Senator.” She hung up. “Constance, you and Helen, when you both get some free time, come up with a list for me for V-P candidates. We’ll talk about it on the trip to Charleston.”
“Funeral’s Saturday, Lorraine,” said Brown, who quickly turned to pick up the phone on the first ring. “Yes, okay Jessica, okay,” she said into the mouthpiece.
“Who’s Jessica?” Forster asked after Brown hung up the phone.
“The President’s, ah, President Templeton’s secretary out in front of the Oval Office.” “Well,” said Forster, “have her stay for the time being, and bring in Meredith from my V-P
office. They can work together for now because I have a feeling we’re going to need all the help we can get. Oh, what did Jessica want?”
“She said Brent Dayton and a Colonel Tim Connors, a Marine, are waiting to see you.”
“Colonel Connors,” said Stowe, who’d come back over to sit next to Forster, “he’s my contact over at the Pentagon. You have to talk to him, Lorraine.”
“Sure, Constance, sure. Ah, Dayton? Oh yes. How could I forget Richard’s Chief of Staff. I’d like to keep him around as long as possible, too. He worked with Richard on the campaign, wrote most of his speeches and always kept reporters away so we could talk privately when we were on those buses running around the country. Can you work with him for a while, Helen?”
“Oh, okay,” said Brown. “I’ll go get ’em now and bring ’em on in here.” She stopped and turned around. “Oh, almost forgot, Claire and that Troy Thompson are out there, too.”
“Right now, Helen, please just bring in the press secretaries. I’ll see what they want,” said Forster. “Oh God, bring them all in. I might as well get more overwhelmed today.”
The Colonel and Brent Dayton were last through the door and took seats against the wall opposite the President’s desk. The two press secretaries went straight to President Foster.
“We’re so sorry about President Templeton,” said Claire Higgins, whom Forster hired during the campaign and kept her on as the Vice President’s press secretary. “You have our sympathy.” The young, fashionably dressed woman took Forster’s hands and leaned in to hug her.
“My sentiments also, Madam President,” said Thompson, who had helped the late President in scheduling during the campaign and was appointed White House press secretary. “If there’s anything we can do, please let us know.”
“Well, I hope you two can work together for a while,” said Forster, who sat down again behind her oak-wood desk. “I haven’t had any time to deal with staff, except to appoint Helen as my Chief of Staff.” She looked over to Dayton, who was taking notes on a sheet of paper. “Brent, come over here.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Dayton said, folding the paper and handing it to Connors.
“I appointed Helen my Chief of Staff, ah, without consulting with you first,” said Forster. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s very understandable, ma’am,” the Harvard MBA graduate said. “I know Miss Brown has been with you for quite a while, but the Colonel and I have to talk to you about some things, and I’m running short on time because of the funeral preparations and all.”
“Ah well, okay,” said Forster. “We’ll be right with you and the Colonel, but I want to ask if you’d stay on awhile and work with Helen. Don’t know for how long, but we could use you.”
“I’d be honored,” Dayton said. Forster turned to the press secretaries who’d seated themselves in couches directly in front of the presidential desk.
“Claire and Troy,” said Forster, “is there anything else you two need right now?”
“Ma’am,” said Thompson, “Miss Higgins and I would be glad to work together until you get things sorted out here. But we’d like to know, ah, because all kinds of reporters have been asking when you’ll have a press conference. And we suggest it should be fairly soon.”
“Helen,” said the President, “how’s our schedule look now for Friday? Richard liked to have press conferences on Fridays.”
“Looks pretty good,” said Brown, glancing through her daily planner. “Looks good.” She was standing next to the President and raised her head toward the press secretaries. “Would eleven in the morning be okay?”
Connors, a veteran of the Vietnam and Iraq wars, got out of his seat and walked toward a space between the seated press secretaries. On his way, he said: “Madam President, excuse me, but if I could interject a suggestion.” The women in the room, including Forster, gazed at the tall Marine Corps officer with his hands clasped behind his back.
Forster cleared her throat. “Go ahead, Colonel.”
“Ma’am, if you could delay setting that press conference, maybe until next week. Mr. Dayton, Congresswoman Stowe and I have to fill you in on some very recent developments. And you may want to bring in the Secretary of State.”
“Oh God, Helen,” said Forster, “where is Secretary Steinmetz? You said he called earlier, but I was still with Lydia upstairs.”
“Lorraine, he’s on his way back from Israel,” said Brown. “He’s due to land at Andrews in about three hours.”
“Okay,” said Forster, “I like the Colonel’s suggestion. So, let’s set Monday the ninth for that press conference, but put out that I’m going to Richard’s funeral in Charleston. Claire and Troy, tell the press Mrs. Templeton and the family will be traveling with me. And yes, we’ll be taking Richard’s remains with us on Air Force One. That’d be the right thing to do.”
12:47 pm EST. March 4, 2009
The Oval Office
The President herself had called the White House kitchen to order lunch for five. She sat at her desk with a bowl of tomato soup, a tuna-salad sandwich and a cup of coffee. Brown, Dayton and the congresswoman stacked their plates from a lunch cart parked in a far corner of the Oval Office.
Colonel Connors begged off lunch but sipped on a diet soda after he’d pinned up a topographical map of Afghanistan and Pakistan on an easel.
“Madam President,” said Dayton as he loosened his tie. “I’d like to talk about some files President Templeton was working on before he passed away.”
“Go ahead, please,” Forster said, pushing her plates to a corner of her desk. She pulled some paper and a pen from a desk drawer.
“Ma’am, President Templeton learned about some treaties that complicated what he wanted to do in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Dayton, sitting next to Brown and across from Stowe. Connors stood behind Congresswoman Stowe. At the far end of the coffee table lay a stack of documents President Templeton had been working on in the days and nights before he slumped over at his desk.
“What are you talking about?” The President never had heard of treaties relating to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq or Afghanistan.
“Well ma’am, let me explain,” said Dayton. “You know President Templeton announced last month at a press conference that he wanted all U.S. troops home by the end of the year, if not sooner. The timing would depend how soon the Defense Department could draw up plans for the Iraqi army and police to take over and for Afghan authorities to stake some semblance of control there after NATO forces leave.
“The complication came when Defense Secretary Goodman told the President about treaties with Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar. Goodman said the treaties guaranteed stationing thousands
of our troops in those four countries. Some are already in place there now, unbeknownst to Congress or the American people. The mutual defense pacts were signed, sealed and delivered last fall when Morris was President. Morris announced, if you remember, he’d withdraw troops from Iraq and he did ... except many weren’t coming home directly.”
Forster pushed back her chair, got up and started pacing around the Oval Office, hands behind her back. “You mean to tell me thousands of our troops are sitting in the middle of all four of those countries ... in the middle of some desert, it sounds like, and doing what?”
“Goodman said the plan called for them to act as backup if and when the Iraqi army and police failed to maintain security,” Dayton said. “Morris had no confidence in the Iraqis. He believed they could not on their own win a guerrilla war, let alone the civil war now raging in that country. So our forces would come back in and, I guess, save the Iraqis’ bacon. And, the treaties guaranteed the defense of those four countries against any terrorist attacks from the Jihadist Front.”
“Richard never told me about this.”
“President Templeton was going to tell you, ma’am, but he never had a chance.”
“I’ve heard enough,” said Stowe. “Those treaties and these troop movements would-ah been
front-page news. They would-ah been all over the cable channels. People finally would-ah been marchin’ in the streets over this. Where was the Senate on this, Mr. Dayton?”
“That’s the strange thing, Congresswoman. President Templeton tried to check on the disposition of those treaties with the Majority Leader,” said Dayton. “He got nowhere.”
“I’ll have to call Campbell,” said Forster. The phone on the President’s desk rang twice before Brown jumped from her seat to pick it up. She’d been trying to finish a ham and cheese sandwich.
“Yes sir,” Brown said, nodding. “Yes, the President’s here.” Brown cupped her hand over the receiver and looked at Forster. “It’s Secretary Drexel. Says it’s urgent.”
“Oh my,” said Forster. “Mr. Dayton, I know you have to go. Anything else?”
“No ma’am,” Dayton said. “The files about this treaty business are on the table here, and there are other files you should look at in those boxes by the TV console. Those are the papers we packed up after the President passed away. Colonel Connors can finish up the discussion.”
“Okay Mr. Dayton, please stay close,” the President said. Dayton walked out the Oval Office’s side entrance. “And Colonel, can you wait?”
“Ah, yes ma’am,” said Connors. “Do you want me to step out?”
“No, stay,” said Forster. “Please stay. I need to hear from you after this call.” The President dropped into the desk chair. Brown handed her the phone. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Abraham. It’s been, well, it’s been awfully busy here today.”
“Understandable, Madam President,” said Treasury Secretary Abraham Drexel, a former chairman of a Wall Street brokerage house. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I have to pass on to you a conversation I had with President Templeton the afternoon before he died. It’s disturbing, to say the least. And I’m sure Richard never had a chance to talk to you about it.”
“No, Abraham, I last talked to him a couple days ago,” said the President. “So please, go
“My contacts at several oil exploration firms called me personally in the last several days, and even today,” Drexel said. “They have no, for lack of a better term, no scruples whatsoever. And I’m sure some of them talked with Richard before he passed away. Oh God, I’ll miss him so very much. Sorry for the sentiment, but I knew him for some two decades.”
“I understand, Abraham. I shall miss him, too.” Forster heard Drexel take a deep breath before he continued.
“I presume the best way to present this to you is to just say it,” said Drexel. “It’s a mess, all right. You see, all of the majors have been complaining that their promised oil production-sharing agreements were to –– ”
“Wait, wait, Abraham. What promised agreements are you talking about?”
“It all came as a surprise to me as well, President Forster, but these oil companies were quite quick in pointing out these agreements made by the previous administration.”
“You’re joking?” Forster closed her eyes and swiveled in her chair to face the White House Garden. She let out a deep breath and opened her eyes.
“No ma’am, I’m not joking,” said Drexel. “I had my staff check into them. The documents came over from the Commerce Department. I’m looking at them now. They’re signed by President Morris and several chairmen and CEOs of major oil companies, including Texas Gulf Oil.”
Forster turned around in her chair. Looking at any garden now was not going to soothe her exasperation. “Sorry for jumping on you, Abraham, when you mentioned the word ‘promised’ in connection with the Morris administration. But for the life of me, I don’t even know what a production-sharing agreement is. What is it?”
“To put it simply, ma’am, it’s a quick-and-easy way to privatize a country’s oil fields, and we’re talking about Iraq here. Right now the price of oil just keeps going up.”
“Privatize? But won’t Iraq get some of that money to help rebuild the country?”
“Sorry, ma’am, I don’t think you quite understand,” said Drexel. “Iraq’s not going to get much, if anything, under these agreements. Only the oil companies are, and they’ll have all the control they want for exploration, drilling and pumping, and who gets what and when. Any money going to Iraq would depend solely on the largess of the oil companies.”
“Oh God,” said Forster. “You mentioned something earlier about high oil prices. Is that right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Drexel. “The oil companies see the sure probability of all U.S. troops leaving Iraq, and they say that’ll ruin their bottom lines. These companies figure no one will be left behind to guard the oil installations, the pipelines, well, all their investments.”
“We trained the Iraqi police and army to do that, right?”
“Yes, I know, ma’am, but the oil companies expected American troops to make sure that country’s oil is pumped into their tankers. With our troops coming out, Madam President, oil
companies see disastrous implications to their bottom line with the dwindling supply. Thus, the rising prices. Markets will be dropping everywhere, ma’am. Every stock and bond market in the world is tied into the price of oil. I think you got somewhat of an economic mess on your hands.”
Forster hung up and then blurted out: “Oh God, for the life of me.” She saw Connors standing next to the maps of Afghanistan and Pakistan pinned to the easel. She tried to smile, but couldn’t. “More bad news?”
“I’m afraid so, ma’am.”
“I see where you’re standing, Colonel,” said Forster. “After the mess in Iraq, one could only
hope for good news about Afghanistan, but I guess, Colonel Connors, you’re not here to give me any good news. I see the look on your face, and I see Constance’s, too. Well, Colonel, let me take another sip of this cold coffee, and then I’ll be all ears.” Brown turned a page in a legal pad she was holding on her lap and sat back. The President set down in a saucer her now-empty coffee cup.
“Ma’am,” said the Colonel, “sorry for the size of the map, but I want to start with the big picture.” He looked from the President over to Brown, who was seated next to Congresswoman Stowe.
“Colonel, before you start,” the President interrupted, “who else have you talked to about this? Secretary Goodman, members of Congress? Who?”
“Actually,” Connors said a moment before he retrieved a pen from his briefcase, “no one. Not anyone at the Pentagon, including the Secretary, and I put calls into all of their offices. Congresswoman Stowe is the only official who called me back. This will be the first formal presentation I’ve made to anyone since I began accumulating this intelligence nearly a year ago. And some of what I’m about to tell you goes back a lot further.”
“What about the CIA? Did you call them, Homeland Security, any of our other intelligence chiefs, the Director of National Intelligence? National Security Advisor McManus?” Forster asked
in quick succession. “Did you try speaking to Richard, ah, President Templeton? Sorry for the rapid-fire questions. I’m just trying to cover everyone I can think of.”
“That’s all right, ma’am. I understand,” said Connors. “But, ma’am, the CIA never returned my calls, nor did Homeland Security or the National Intelligence Director’s office. I had an appointment with McManus a couple weeks ago, but he cancelled out on me at the last minute. I never found out why. But I was to meet with President Templeton today, ma’am.”
“You talked with him then?”
“Ah, yes ma’am, briefly,” the colonel said, “but for some time I was prevented from meeting with him. Let me try to explain. I received a late afternoon call yesterday from Secretary Goodman’s office, ma’am. The man calling me, and he wouldn’t identify himself, said only the national intelligence chief briefs the President on any intelligence matters. He said I failed to go through proper channels to schedule the appointment with the President, and that I was to go through the C-N-O to make any appointments with elected officials in the executive or legislative branches.”
“Did Goodman know what you were going to talk to President Templeton about?”
“How could he, ma’am. The Secretary’s office never returned my phone calls, and when I went to the Chief of Naval Operations and Intelligence, I was told not to contact any elected official unless ordered to do so.”
“How did you get the appointment with the President then?”
“President Templeton knew me, ma’am,” said Connors. “I was put through the minute I called the Oval Office. How can I say this, ma’am? I didn’t want to call the President, but no one else was listening. I had to say hell with protocol because I knew the President would talk to me.”
Connors brought his hands together in front of him. He was nervously rubbing them when he said: “I was his son’s commanding officer in Iraq. Senator, ah, when the President was a Senator,
he and his family received an official letter from me offering condolences for his son’s death.”
“My, my. Now I see,” said Forster. She knew she’d have to talk to Secretary of Defense Harvey Goodman and others for an explanation about stonewalling this Marine Colonel. Forster gazed at Connors. “I just have this feeling, Colonel, you were with Richard’s son when he –– ”
“I’ll finish that sentence for you, ma’am. I was. Major Templeton was killed with one shot from a sniper outside Ramadi. I was standing not five feet from him. He was walking over to my Humvee with some maps he wanted to show me. I hit the deck when I heard the shot, then I looked up and saw him ... lying there in the sand.”
“So sorry, Colonel,” said Forster. “Do you need something, something to drink?” Brown and Congresswoman Stowe were crying. Brown wiped away her tears with a tissue before she poured a glass of water for Connors. She handed it to him and remained standing next to him. The Colonel met her gaze and nodded.
“Thank you, Miss Brown,” he said. Forster came over in front of him, gently held his hand in both of hers. Connors stared down at the five-foot-five president and smiled. She smiled back with tears in her eyes and looked up at Connors.
“Both of them will be in my prayers tonight,” said Forster, who delicately withdrew her hands before she walked back to her desk and sat down. “Do you, ah, want to take a break?”
“No, no ma’am, this is important, and I’m glad you’re seeing me without regard to protocol,” said Connors, sipping some water before placing the glass on a nearby table. He took a half step to the easel and with his pen pointed to Qandahar, Afghanistan.
“Madam President, we’ve already heard the name of the group. I’m referring to the Jihadist Front, which right now, as far as we can tell, is based in Qandahar. Its leader is someone we know very little about. He’s well protected by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and when he’s in Pakistan, he’s surrounded by Pakistani security and intelligence operatives. We can’t get close to him. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency won’t let us. He’s so well protected we don’t even know what he looks like, but we know his name – Abu Mahmoud Rahman.”