Monday, September 26
Wright State University Nutter Center, Dayton, Ohio
The moment Bob Carson arrived, the atmosphere in the room changed. Harriet felt it; they all did. She’d been trying so hard to strike the right chord rehearsing for the first debate in the presidential race proper. It was easy to demean Dennis Saxon and talk down to him. But the guy was obviously doing something right; he was ahead of her in the polls. She had to be civil, even nice. Whatever, she just had to keep smiling and not lose her cool.
“Just one more time, Harriet. You’re almost there.” Sally Smith, her aide and closest confidante, was asking her repeatedly how she was going to make America great again.
They’d been stuck in a stuffy student center office for nearly three hours. It took Harriet most of that time to hide the irritation in her face.
Then Bob arrived. Suddenly, it was all about him. Bob looked thin and pale; he leaned over and pecked her on the cheek. “I’ve missed you sweetheart. I just wanted to see if I could help with any last minute tricks.”
“I’m fine, darling. Honest, I am.”
After so many years, how could she tell her husband she didn’t need him? Harriet Carson had been struggling with that long before the start of this presidential campaign.
“We’re running through what Harriet will say when Saxon talks about making America great again.” Sally said.
She missed Harriet’s flashing eyes. “Any thoughts, Mr. President.”
“Dennis,” Bob said, smiling. Three other aides in the room stopped shuffling papers and listened. “Dennis, I really appreciate you adopting the ‘Make America Great Again’ strategy I first used back in 1992, but you’ve missed the most important point. It’s not America that has failed; it’s certainly not the people. It’s our leaders, the politicians on Capitol Hill who’ve been preventing the President from making the changes he was elected to make, the business executives who have taken their manufacturing abroad and the Wall Street fat cats living in their mansions while ordinary people are losing their homes... How does that sound?”
The room went silent for a second. Then one of the younger aides punched the air. “Yeah! That’s awesome, Sir.” The others clapped, even Sally.
Typical, Harriet thought. Wearily, she rubbed her temples. She didn’t want Bob getting involved, but right now she knew she needed him. He charmed folks...he charmed her. It had pretty much gotten him everything he wanted.
Harriet suddenly felt exhausted and quite old; a woman trying to play big boy games with… well with boys. But play she must.
“You need to keep smiling,” Bob told her gently. “Your mouth droops when you relax. Looks like you got a whiff of something bad.”
“I did - Dennis Saxon,” Harriet sniffed, the corners of her mouth drooping in fake disgust. “I still find it hard to believe this is really happening.”
Her husband came around the table and she gratefully leaned into him, resigned, as he put his arm around her shoulder. “You’ll do great. You’re the most capable person I know. Just keep smiling.”
“Let’s hope America has as much faith in me as you do…”
She stood up and said she was taking a break. The parking garage was next door. She needed some air. She looked over her shoulder at a Secret Service agent and an aide trailing behind. For once I’d like to be alone, she thought.
She was on the third level, looking across a line of satellite trucks to where the debate was being held that evening. It was strangely quiet. She’d been to countless debates like this. There was usually a buzz of anticipation...but she didn’t give it much further thought.
A pile of briefing papers about a foot thick was sitting on the coffee table in Dennis Saxon’s suite at the Hilton, just outside Dayton. The man himself was on the phone and several aides were slumped on sofas exhausted from trying to get their candidate to rehearse his lines. Saxon ended the conversation smiling. “That was Rupert Murdoch - he loves me.”
He grabbed the stack of papers and flicked through it. “Nothing too complicated here. Seen it all before.”
“But what about Harriet? This is your first time up against her. What’s your line of attack going to be?” GOP staffer Steve Miles had worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and was second on the Saxon team. He was used to being ignored. Saxon was checking a text.
“Dennis? What’s your best attack? I spent three days working on questions like this with Mitt before he went on TV against Obama.”
Saxon ignored him and shouted across to his PA. “I’m getting messages from the Secret Service saying the traffic is jammed up between here and Wright State. Is that everyone arriving to watch the debate?”
He put the papers down, picked up an apple and took a bite. The PA already had her laptop out. “No, the gridlock’s around Dayton State University. We need to go past there to get to the Nutter Center. Better leave 30 minutes or so early. The Dems are already there.”
Just before 7:00 p.m., the Wright University facilitator was in a panic arguing with network execs to delay for 5 minutes. Only half of the auditorium was filled and most of the students had yet to take their seats. “I can’t understand why this is happening,” she cried. “This has been planned for months.”
“Five minutes, no longer.” The executive producer was furious.
For Harriet Carson and Dennis Saxon, the delay meant a few extra minutes together at the side of the stage. They swapped pleasantries about their families and stood in awkward silence. Carson preferred the quiet, Saxon couldn’t stand it.
“You know why there’s a delay, don’t you?” He smirked.
“The kids are all over at Dayton State University. Different college.”
“So they’re all late? She wished he’d shut up.
“No, they’re not coming. They’re watching the debate on that political reality show, The iCandidate.”
Harriet was aghast. Saxon thought it was pretty funny.