John O. Banion stared unblinkingly into the TV camera's cyclops eye, keeping his famous cool under the baking glare of the Videssence lights. It pleased him that he was more at ease than the person seated opposite him, who as it happened was the most powerful man in the world.
"Five seconds." The technician counted down with an outstretched hand. With his huge headset, he could have been a crewman on an aircraft carrier signaling for the launch of an
"Three, two . . ."
The theme music was cued, a variation on a Handel trumpet voluntary with echoes of Aaron Copland. The TV critic for The Washington Post had called it "Fanfare for the Self-Important Man." Still, nothing like a few bars of brass to get the Establishment's hemoglobin pumping on Sunday mornings as it sipped its third cup of coffee and scanned the newspapers for mentions of itself.
"Sunday . . ."
A satisfying opener, implying, as it did ownership of the entire day, and the Sabbath at that. The announcer's voice was familiar. It had taken four meetings between Banion, his producers, and the sponsor, Ample Ampere, to settle on it. Ample Ampere had wanted James Earl Jones, but Banion said that he couldn't hear the voice of James Earl Jones without thinking of Darth Vader, hardly an appropriate tone setter for such a high-level show as his. Ampere countered with Walter Cronkite. No, no, said Banion, Cronkite, the beloved former TV anchorman, was too avuncular, too upbeat. The voice must have such gravity as to suggest that if you missed the program, you were not a serious person. Only one would do--George C. Scott, the voice of General Patton.
". . . an exploration of tomorrow's issues, with today's leaders. And now . . ."--Banion had dictated the slight pause in the manner of Edward R. Murrow's wartime "This . . . is London" broadcasts--"your host . . . John Oliver Banion." The Post critic had written: "Drumroll, enter praetorians, household cavalry, concubines, elephants, rhinos, captured slaves, eunuchs, and other assorted worshipers."
Banion looked owlishly into the lens through his collegiate tortoiseshell eyeglasses. He seemed perpetually on the verge of smiling, without ever giving in to the impulse. He was in his late forties, but could have been any age. He had looked this way since his second year at Princeton. He had a round face that was handsome in a bookish sort of way. His graying blond hair was unstylishly cut, on purpose. He disdained salon haircuts as marks of unseriousness.
"Good morning," Banion said to the camera. "Our guest today is the president of the United States. Thank you for being with us this morning."
"My pleasure," lied the president. He had loathed John O. Banion ever since Banion had corrected him on a point of history at a White House dinner, in front of the French president. He would much--much--rather have stayed at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Catoctin Mountain Park outside Washington, on this Sunday morning. He chafed at being told by his press secretary that Banion insisted on a live interview in the studio. What was the point of being the most powerful man on earth if you had to grovel before these assholes, just because they had their own TV--
"Sir, it's the top-rated weekend show. And it looks like he's going to be moderating the debates this fall."
"All right, but you tell him, no commercials. I won't sit there twiddling my thumbs while they break for commercials every five minutes. It's unpresidential."
"Mr. President," Banion said, "I want to ask you why, in light of your administration's below-par performance in a number of areas, you haven't fired at least two-thirds of your cabinet, but first . . ."
It was a trademark Banion opener: establish the guest's inadequacy, then move along to the even more pressing issue. The president maintained glacial equanimity. For this he had gotten up early on Sunday and helicoptered all the way back to Washington. The press secretary would suffer.
". . . let me ask you about something else. We have a report that NASA, the space agency, is planning to advance the launch date of the final stage of the space station Celeste to right before the presidential election this fall. Would you call that a triumph of American aerospace engineering, or of politics? You can take credit for both, if you'd like."
The president smiled, suppressing his desire to pick up the water pitcher and smash it against the forehead of this supercilious twerp. But inside his brain alarms were sounding like those on a depth-charged submarine. How did Banion know about the launch date? They'd gone to pains to put in so many buffers between the White House and NASA on this exquisitely delicate matter that no one would be able to trace the decision to the Oval Office.
"John," he began, in his slow, overly patient tone of voice that suggested he wasn't sure English was your first language, "the credit for Celeste's dazzling success has to go, first and foremost, to hundreds and thousands of men and women who have worked their hearts out on this project from the very beginning. . . ."
Banion looked over his glasses in the manner of a disappointed schoolteacher and jotted notes on his clipboard. He did this not because any of the drivel exgurgitating like foam from the presidential mouth warranted recording but because it made his interviewees nervous.
". . . to make sure that America will not only be number one here on earth but number one out . . . there."
"Before we return to whether the timing of the launch was politically manipulated," said Banion, "let's talk for a moment about the wisdom of spending so many billions of dollars on a space station. So far all it seems to have accomplished is to provide a platform for studying the effects of weightlessness on copulating fruit flies."
"Three and a half years ago, only days after a disastrous and, if I may, ill-advised military operation in North Korea, you gave a speech at an aerospace plant in the Mojave Desert in California in which you called for completing an orbital space station. You called this 'an urgent national priority.' Some cynical voices at the time suggested that, like President Kennedy, who announced the man-on-the-moon initiative right after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, you were trying to get people's minds off the Korean debacle. But leave that aside for a moment--"
"If I may? And leave aside the fact that Celeste's biggest contractors are in California and Texas, two states you almost lost four years ago and which you desperately need to win this time. Let me ask you, after four years of cost overruns that would have made the emperor Caligula blush crimson, what does the nation have to show for this celestial boondoggle, aside from three-point-four-million-dollar zero-gravity coffeemakers and one-point-eight-million-dollar toilets?"
"With all due respect, I'm sure there were some people in the court of King Ferdinand and Isabella who objected to the cost of the facilities on Columbus's boats."
"I don't recall that there were facilities on the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María."
"My point is that you can't really put a price on the future."
"With all due respect, whenever a politician says you can't put a price on something, you can be sure it's going to be a whopper. The fact is that you can put a price on anything. In this case, it's twenty-one billion dollars and counting, as they say at Cape Canaveral. This is a huge sum of money. What's more, it's being said that your reelection committee should report this as a campaign donation by the American people."
"Fine," said the president, "but let me tell you what I hear when I travel around this country in support of Celeste. I hear people saying, 'This is excellent. This is something we can all be proud of.' "
"Fine. So what are the American people getting for their billions?"
The president pressed play and, straining against the weariness of reciting it all for the two hundredth time, began to tick off the bountiful spin-offs that Celeste would bring to earth: glorious advances in--you name it--machinery lubricants, long-distance telephone networks, sewage treatment, robotic wheelchairs, insulin pumps, pacemakers, research on cures for osteoporosis, diabetes, uh, radiation-blocking sunglasses, energy-conserving air-conditioning . . . too numerous to mention, really.
Banion listened to this life-enhancing litany with the chin-quivering air of a man at pains to stifle a yawn. Sensing that he had better come up with something more millennial than Celeste's contribution to the field of ultrasound scanning, the president gave a gripping description of what the AOR--atmospheric ozone replenishment--module, part of the launch package, would accomplish once it became operational, namely squirting ozone back into the atmosphere to cover the O-Hole, which now stretched from the Falklands to Madagascar, wreaking havoc on plankton and emperor penguins alike.
Still Banion looked faint from boredom. The president dragged out the LAWSI module, the ultimate--if slippery--argument for Celeste's relevance. If in doubt, refer to the large asteroid warning system indicator, which theoretically could detect whether some astral death star this way was heading. The top people at NASA and the Pentagon had been cautioning him from becoming too evangelical on this particular aspect of Celeste. It was tricky business, getting the citizenry in a lather over the prospect of death-by-gigantic-meteor, especially this close to the millennium, when every fruitcake in the pantry was screaming Apocalypse.
"But what," Banion said, "are we supposed to do if we find out that there is an asteroid coming our way?"
"Well, in the unlikely event . . . we'd want some sort of warning."
"I wouldn't. If the world's about to end, I don't want any warning."
"No one is saying the world is going to end," said the president, trying to smile. "This is about beginnings, not endings."
When he began to extol the racial and cultural diversity of the astronauts being launched, Banion interrupted him.
"We'll be right back with the president, after this."
The studio filled with the sound of Ample Ampere's theme music. The commercial showed a basset hound sitting staring hopefully through the glass door of an oven, inside which a juicy roast was baking. The president gestured to his press secretary to approach with his miserable, inadequate excuse as to why he, Leader of the New Millennium, was being made to endure a homey commercial message about the joys of electricity.
A makeup woman, modern-day medic of the TV battlefield, sprang forward to touch up glistening foreheads.
Banion, overhearing a snatch of perturbed presidential conversation, leaned forward and said, "I asked them myself if we could bank the commercials at the beginning and end, but"--he smiled dryly--"it seems I am as helpless as you, sir, in the face of the exigencies of Mammon."
banion's wife, bitsey, reached him in the car on his way to brunch at Val Dalhousie's in Georgetown. The interview had made her nervous. After all, the president was coming for dinner, next week.
"He's going to cancel now."
"No he won't."
"They'll make it sound like a last-minute thing. I've spent the whole week with the Secret Service."
"Bitsey, he's only a president." She would understand. She was fourth-generation Washington, a cave dweller.
Banion hummed along Rock Creek Drive, fairly throbbing with contentment over the entrance he would make at Val's. The car, made in England, had a burled walnut dashboard that shone like an expensive humidor. He could actually make out his reflection in it, and he liked that. He'd paid for the car with two speeches--one of them on how to revitalize the U.S. auto industry--and he hadn't even had to leave town for them. More and more, he hated to leave town. Everything he needed was here.
It was a bright, clear June day. He felt devil-may-care. He had just stuck it to the president of the United States in front of all the people who would be at Val Dalhousie's brunch: senators, Supreme Court justices, editorial-page pontiffs, bureau chiefs, an ambassador or two for seasoning, perhaps the papal nuncio, or at least a tony bishop. They added such nice color in their robes. It gave him a little thrum of pleasure that Bitsey was anxious. Dear thing--didn't she understand that presidents came and went?From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Little Green Men by Christopher Buckley. . Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.