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  • Written by Philip Baruth
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  • Written by Philip Baruth
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On Sale: November 04, 2003
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-553-89811-8
Published by : Bantam Bantam Dell
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A masterful blend of political satire and edgy social commentary, here is a wildly entertaining trip through recent American history and into the impending future. An incisive look at how we love and hate our political leaders, and how they love and hate us back, The X President touches the very heart of what it means to be president—and what a president means to America.

It is the year 2055 and America is entangled in a devastating world war—and losing badly. As the threat of homeland invasion grows stronger, the United States is desperate to change the tide, anyway it can.

Enter Sal Hayden, official biographer of a former president known as BC, now 109 years old and all but forgotten. Charismatic, controversial, and always willing to feel another person’s pain, BC’s political career, like his personal life, is marked by both uncanny triumphs and key blunders—some of which may have doomed the U.S. to defeat. Recording his story has not always been easy, but it has been straightforward. That is, until the day Sal is asked to rewrite it—and not just on the page. For Sal will be granted a biographer’s most fantastic dream, one that will thrust her into the greatest moral dilemma of her life—and the world’s most daring, dangerous, and spectacular spin job. . . .

Excerpt

1

IN BC’S LIBRARY

The lights in the administrative wing of the Presidential Library in Little Rock were state-of-the-art in their day, designed to be as omniscient and as easy on electricity as possible. The Library’s designers tried their best to make them a monument to BC’s take on the environment, that the choice between profit and environmentalism is a false opposition. A brass plaque on the Visitors’ Arch says so in plain English, for anyone to read. It also tells you that most of the orientations in the Library match the White House: West Wing, South Lawn, even a Rose Garden, though with an overblown backdrop of a certain lavender-and-white wisteria that BC’s mother was said to love.

The lights are fed information from sensors embedded everywhere in the complex—walls, floors, ceilings, door handles. The building sees you, and it gives you only the lighting it feels you need, unless you trip wall switches manually (which BC does not do, and which is therefore not done). It isn’t that the building’s trying to be stingy. It just feels it knows better.

So no matter where you are in the West Wing, you sit in a pool of light exactly one office and one-half corridor long, with other corridors and archival caches and administrative offices at first darkly visible, then vanishing altogether in the high-tech gloaming. When someone nears your location in the building, they approach in their own moving corona of fluorescent light, corridors winking out behind them.

But the years have accumulated, and the system is past its prime, its wiring and memory and collective sentience degraded. Sometimes lights flicker on in an empty hall, tripped by the ghost memory of a twenty-five-year-old footfall. Without input, late at night, empty of administrators, the West Wing will very occasionally illuminate a whole floor of offices, slowly, one after another, brooding, as though in search of an item lost generations before and all but entirely forgotten. I know this because I’ve driven by at three in the morning and seen it happen, seen the building at its least imposing and most pathetic.

But the designers were big on windows, and during the day the lighting system is mostly beside the point. I prefer to work in the early morning, when the sun is waxing, and to leave by mid-afternoon. Those hours happen to coincide with BC’s workday. He was once infamous as a night owl, working the Rolodex until the wee hours, laying down solitaire on his desk while he gabbed, but no more, not for years.

I can always hear him before I can smell him, and I can smell him long before I can see him. He always wears an extremely expensive Italian cologne, and the bite of citrus precedes him down the hall relentlessly, like a blind man’s stick. In this, as in many things, he takes his cues from Ronald Reagan, an earlier ex-president who never let himself go to seed after leaving office, who despite advanced age and advanced Alzheimer’s never stopped looking presidential. No photo opportunity, no matter how close to death, ever caught Reagan looking elderly.

And so BC too must clothe himself in Italian silk and splashy ties each and every day, wear ten-thousand-dollar black wing-tips when deep inside himself he must crave sheepskin-lined slippers. Why couldn’t he wear those dreamed-of slippers? I ask myself. Who would know, and who could begrudge him?

And how, for Christ’s sake, could a sweater hurt? It’s his due. It’s his Library.

But the first token of BC each morning is the faint sound of magnets and metal snapping disconcertingly into place and then releasing, a noise without context at first, muffled but not drowned by his thin trouser legs. In the smooth marble hallway, the sound bounces everywhere.

Like most of the very, very old, BC uses a walker, but unlike most, his encases his weakened lower body and doesn’t show. It is cutting-edge geriatrics, and it walks him. A padded titanium exoskeleton, custom-built, is locked to his mottled shins and thighs. These flat, slightly bendable, absolutely unbreakable shafts are sequenced with magnetic joints; a sensitive and solicitous computer pack nestled at his lower back constantly searches for the sturdiest pressures and angles. BC’s knees can’t fail him. His backbone is stiffened. The intelligent pack at the small of his back calculates which resistances increase his leverage and which subtract, and it feeds current to magnets or cuts it off accordingly. More than physics, it functions along comfortable political lines, and no device on earth could be more appropriate for a one-hundred-and-nine-year-old ex-president with tricky hips.

His body-walker is only one of several ways that BC has cheated age and gravity, outwitted decrepitude. About six years ago, a year before I came to Little Rock, rheumatoid arthritis was threatening his ability not only to dial phones and manipulate a keyboard but to shake hands—for him, the unthinkable. BC was roused violently into action. Thirty-five- and forty-year-old favors were called in. There was a video conference with the head of the FDA, the president of Johns Hopkins Medical School, and the CEOs of two global underwriters of medical technology.

With acceptable speed, a research team at the Mayo Clinic performed what was then only the fourth complete digital ceramic replacement, a procedure they haven’t yet been able to patent or market. Small, weblike scars at each finger and thumb crease mark the spots where microsurgery removed entire joints and replaced them with smooth ball sockets made of treated dental ceramic, then nailed each construct together with doll-sized pins. Finally they infused the whole works with sea-green polymer gel—a lubricant and an antirejection agent all in one. The fingers work perfectly now, sleekly, and BC has adopted a habit of drumming them on tabletops. When he does it, I can’t hear but I feel as though I can hear the ceramic shuffling and clicking like loosely stacked poker chips.

Like the rest of the very, very old, a group once known as the Baby Boomers, BC insists upon the very best care. He is the nation’s poster boy for raging against the dying of the light.

He remains something of a spokesman for them, the hundreds of millions in the Southwest, the New South, and retirement villages in the Northeast. He is, after all, a two-term president who once made the preservation of the old Medicare and Social Security systems his middle name. The current administration, like the last five or six, works hard to be seen as good sons and daughters to BC. If they have cut subsidies to the Library over the years, they have regularly increased funding for his medical care and staff. When he’s brought down by pneumonia or small cancers, the current Vice-President may drop in with soup and a photographer.

His quadriceps, hamstring, bicep, calf, and deltoid muscles have all been coaxed into hypertrophy with regular gene therapy. His genes have been isolated, sequenced, resequenced, sliced, diced, and julienned. The idea is to create stronger muscle bases, allowing the limbs and trunk to function more easily, with less strain. It does work; I’ve seen BC reposition his heavy oak desk with none of the trembling hands and knees you associate with the very aged. Between the body-walker and the gene work, he gets around. He’s perfectly viable and does without a day nurse.

Still, the proteins produced by the injections are indiscriminate, and the long and short of it is that his geriatric technicians can make muscle tissue regenerate but they can’t stop the process just like that.

So BC has the slightly comical Popeye arms and legs that have infiltrated the gene pool—artificially but literally—of every geriatric community in the country. He has the inflated forearms, the bulbous shoulders. He has a partial fan of back muscle that fills out his Dao/Armani shirt in a way that must be very satisfying when he catches a glimpse of himself in his tailor’s cutaway mirror.

But in other ways he is old, and unable. He is stooped, with none of the tall, straight-carriaged swagger I see in the file photos. His hearing, always dicey even during his years in the White House, is very poor. Only an extremely quiet room and careful pitch can make a voice completely understandable to him. He tells me that my voice gets through, that he needs me for that. But I have a feeling it’s just a little bit of blarney. He’s spent an entire lifetime making people feel especially, particularly close to him.

His own voice is lost, along with teeth and hearing. It is dry now, the voice, powered only by determination and an indomitable larynx; the diaphragm hasn’t worked for decades. Although he can occasionally rouse himself to indignation, for the most part he speaks like an old, old man in a nursing home, asking a passing orderly for a cup of water.

In my apartment, on a row of shelves over my work desk, I have an enormous collection of video and audio discs. Ninety percent of these are BC material. As his only authorized biographer, I have access to it all, the biggest cache of historical material ever recorded during a single presidency. To one side is a small subsection of discs with a little white label beneath, reading simply Greatest Hits.

These are BC’s best: his anniversary address outside the Murrah Federal Building, his first and fifth State of the Union Addresses, the brief spots he did on his opposition to shutting down the government in 1995, his second inaugural speech on healing the breach, and the eulogies—for his friend dead by suicide, for his commerce secretary killed in a plane crash, for Richard Nixon, the evil shibboleth of BC’s youth, for a pretty young woman ambassador killed abroad.

One of these funeral addresses is my favorite. It’s a video of his eulogy for an assassinated Israeli prime minister, and it is devastatingly effective. BC’s voice, with its soft, lower-middle-class, Hot-Springs-and-Hope Arkansas accent, moves out into his audience like a prayer and a promise. Once, when my old boyfriend Steve and I got high and watched it late at night with the lights way down, we both started to cry, out of nowhere. Not racking sobs or anything, but we did both cry.

Partly it was that Steve’s brother had been killed in Azerbaijan the previous year, in the wreck of an Apache attack helicopter, and the memory of his funeral was still too fresh for us both. It was a closed casket, after all, body scorched beyond the reach of postmortem cosmetics. But partly the crying was in answer to the voice itself.

Because BC’s was a voice that reached out and embraced you, comforted you. It knew where you hurt, you personally, for whatever reasons. It understood the depths of American sympathy, our ancient feelings of loneliness without a king, without a God, without real friends in a world always rightly suspicious of us. BC called this slain Israeli minister “friend” and said good-bye to him in Hebrew, and he preached to us about the forces of light and the forces of darkness, and about God’s plans for both.

Steve and I blamed it on the pot the next morning and laughed about it, but the truth is that BC’s voice was one-in-a-million. It could turn night into day, or at least into approaching dawn, and more than intelligent missiles and better early-warning equipment, a nation needs a leader who can move an entire people up and out of grief. It was a seductive voice, but it couldn’t have been nearly as effective if BC didn’t believe in the sound of it himself, if he didn’t speak from his own undeniably scarred heart.

But that voice is gone now. When he walks past the door to my office most mornings, clicking softly beneath his clothes, his greeting doesn’t carry far. If it weren’t for the cologne, I might miss it altogether.

*  *  *

His mind, his clarity of thought, he’s both kept and lost. In our interview sessions my first year in Little Rock, he could go on for several days about a given topic, health-care initiatives, say. He could speak about them for a long afternoon, then pick up the next morning more or less precisely where he left off. And that’s still true today, that his mind can suddenly and unexpectedly focus like a laser.

“The Republicans screwed me royally on that one,” he’ll say, angry again, “wouldn’t even allow a vote on cloture, not even a vote, but insisted on bringing it up in . . . I think it was the Omnibus Funding bill we made out of funding for State, Justice, Immigration, and Commerce—I’m pretty sure it was, but you check that. Those tight-assed bastards.”

Other times, especially late in the afternoon, in the wash of sun from the tall windows in his office, he’ll turn inward, unfocus. His mind will drift, and worry will crease his lightly spotted forehead. Sometimes the toe of his shoe will start to saw up and down, in a kind of unconscious physical counterpoint. When that happens I know he’s back in the world of what he calls his “troubles,” the scandals and missteps that dogged his presidency and that still eat at him now, nearly sixty years later. The interviews we did on those scandals—and he insisted that we spend long months on them—were clearly painful for him.

I had only recently met him at that time. He seemed to me then like the lone survivor of a horrible jetliner crash or movie-house fire, alive but traumatized and left wondering forever about his own culpability, whether and how much he was to blame for the blaze, whether and how much he’d trampled over others in his panic to escape. In our discussions, he would agonize about the lives destroyed, the promise wasted.

But his defenses, even now, are labyrinthine. He spent a long, gray March afternoon explaining several of his eleventh-hour pardons, an explanation tying together common, civil, and criminal law, the Department of Justice, the Israeli Mossad, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Almost more than the sex scandals, BC remains bitter about those scandals marking his departure from office, the stories about clemency for sale and filched gifts and vandalized offices in the West Wing. In his mind, his enemies bided their time until he was forced to decommission his spin army, to take off his personal armor, and then they struck mercilessly, news cycle after news cycle. BC’s nationwide approval ratings and the invincible Dow Jones Industrial collapsed simultaneously, and like the stock market BC took a good long time to recover, to climb up out of national disgrace.

Not that anyone but BC cares anymore about land deals gone wrong or love affairs gone cold. A tempest in a D-cup, as my dissertation adviser used to call the events that led up to his impeachment. His wife and his daughter and his chocolate Labrador and all of his enemies are dead. Only scholars are interested anymore, and then mostly only to know what glancing effects the scandals had on BC’s foreign-policy motivations. All anyone wants to know about him is how he figured in the making of the current conflicts. But that era of scandal is BC’s own purgatory, and it still has the power to pull him out of a discussion of NATO expansion or the Oslo Peace Accords, to draw his eyes down and his refitted hands nervously to his lap.
Philip Baruth|Author Q&A

About Philip Baruth

Philip Baruth - The X President
Philip Baruth is a professor of English at the University of Vermont and an award-winning commentator for Vermont Public Radio. His previous works include The Dream of the White Village and The Millennium Shows.

Author Q&A

Editor’s Note: The following conversation with author Philip Baruth took place in Burlington, Vermont, the first week of September, 2003. We met in a coffee shop near the Howard Dean for President Campaign office. Dean — a hometown favorite in Burlington — was currently surging in the polls, and more than once I could faintly make out cheers from the campaign’s headquarters. It seemed an auspicious time to sit down for a serious discussion with another hometown boy in the process of releasing what may be one of the strangest novels about the modern American presidency ever written.


INTERVIEWER: There’s that cheering again. Is it always like this?

PHILIP BARUTH: Pretty much. A lot of people in Vermont really don’t like where the country’s been headed the last two or three years. [Faint cheering crescendoes]

INT: Right. Well, to start, I wanted to ask you about a line from one of the reviews of The X President. Kirkus said that it was [Fumbles with folder, comes up with review], they said it was a hybrid. I’ll quote it: “a time-travel extravaganza that’s also a political novel featuring Bill Clinton.” So first question — which is it really?

PB: Well, here’s the way I see it. The novel is a political satire on Bill Clinton, but also on the people who’ve been running the country since he left office. And it uses time-travel, science fiction elements — and additionally a bit of the thriller genre — as a vehicle to forward that satire.

INT: So it’s mostly political satire.

PB: It’s just hard to separate it out that way. Let me try this. I read and re-read a lot of books while I was writing this novel, but two books were really central, two of the most fascinating books written in the last twenty years: David Maraniss’s First in His Class, still the best biography about Bill Clinton, and Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. If you’ve never read it, First in His Class deals with Clinton’s early years — it ends with his campaign kick-off in 1991. That keeps the focus on the young Clinton, the formative events, the weird combination of talent and upbringing and social change that lands him in the White House. And Stephenson’s cyberpunk, when I read it in the early 90’s, changed the way I was thinking about shaping a story. Snow Crash rolls like a freight train, short cliffhanger chapters, never letting up, even as it flashes by enticing little bits of future history and an impressive amount of information about computers, language, viruses and ancient Sumerian culture. So that’s how I wanted to handle the wealth of political information I had about Clinton: I wanted the narrative to pump along, never letting up, even as fairly detailed political scenarios scrolled past. And the time travel would allow me to create exaggerated versions of Clinton, a really young version and a really old version, as a way of fleshing out the character of the middle-aged Clinton all of us think we know. That three-tiered character of Clinton is the part I worked the hardest trying to get right.

INT: I’m curious, I guess, about why you would write such a thing. A book featuring a sixteen-year-old Bill Clinton and a one-hundred-and-nine-year-old Bill Clinton.

PB: I don’t know [Head in his hands, in mock-despair]. You’re not the only one asking me that question. I feel like I’m in the backroom at the stationhouse and I’ve just murdered a guy and the cops are screaming, “Why’d you do it, killer?!” What can you say? It all happened so fast? It seemed like a good idea at the time?
Actually, I think the answer is fairly straightforward. The first three presidential elections I voted in, I was on the losing side. And life on the losing side during the Reagan/Bush years was not fun. Then, in 1992, I voted for a winner. I remember being at a party on election night with a bunch of other people who’d never voted for a winner, and we didn’t even know what to do when Clinton went over the top. We had no practice with champagne bottles, for instance. A cork? What the heck is that?
But one thing I did do was to begin reading voraciously about Clinton, trying to figure out what made him different, what made him tick. I think I’ve read probably a hundred books on the guy, at this point. At a certain point, you have to do something with all of that information.

INT: What keeps the Clinton-character in the book alive for so many years?

PB: He’s preserved by regret. That and advances in geriatric technology, and a kind of smoldering desire to replay the eight years of his presidency.

INT: Other than BC, who’s your favorite character?

PB: The time-traveling James Carville. I think he’s the coldest, funniest, most manipulative character I’ve ever written. There’s also another character who’s like an evil British Newt Gingrich that I get a kick out of.

INT: I think we have time for one more [Consults question sheet]. In the background of your book is a thirty-year set of global conflicts called The Cigarette Wars. It’s something like World War III, touched off by the expansion of NATO, and aggressive tobacco sales in the Third World. How much of a parallel should I draw between that and the real-world geopolitics?

PB: Well, there are some connections. The Cigarette Wars are produced by greedy tobacco companies, backed by successive administrations pushing highly aggressive, unilateralist foreign policy. Their sense of things is that the US is the sole remaining superpower, end of story. But in my book the rest of the countries of the world eventually put their heads together, and before you know it the US is looking at an actual invasion of the American mainland. In 2055, they’re left with only one option — Sal and her team of time-traveling secret operatives. It’s a Hail Mary pass. Sometimes when the powerful people are taking the world to hell in a handbasket, that’s really the best you can do — put your nickel on a little longshot with a good heart. And in a tiny state like Vermont, believe me, we know longshots. [More cheers float out of the Dean for President Headquarters] You know what I’m saying?

Praise

Praise

"Clever, satirical, hilarious—and horrifying in its all too
plausible projection of the future."
--Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series

"Revisionist history never looked so good, or so scary. That the earthquakes of current events will produce future backlashes is the premise and the promise of this taut, stylish novel. The X President rockets along on the fuel of our American disposition to revere and despise our leaders simultaneously. You’ll flip the pages at the speed of now, except when you have to slow down to bite your nails."
--Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

"An entertaining, delightfully inventive novel . . . Even those of us who loathe our ex-president will be moved by Baruth’s sympathetic, hauntingly human rendition."
--Bill Kauffman, author of Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and co-author with Gore Vidal of America First!

“Begins with . . . a brilliant piece of misdirection . . . Baruth's portraits of young BC and very old BC are touching, even loving caricatures, warts, wens and all. Cheerfully embracing the paradoxes inherent in time travel, THE X PRESIDENT provides as good an explanation as any for the uncanny political instincts and against-all-odds success of one of the last century's most engaging and enraging public figures."
The New York Times Book Review

“History won’t stand still in this clever time-travel romp about mid-21st century spooks who try to unmake a war by changing a presidential decision in the past.”
The New York Times Book Review (text from Notable Books listing)
**a New York Times Notable Book**

“Ingenious, often hilarious…if you can handle a fanciful plot and an onslaught of irreverence, you’ll devour it the same way the young BC did his first Big Mac.”
Washington Post Book World

“No matter how you think history should view our most recent ex-president, Baruth’s book delivers an engaging, action-filled adventure.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Orwell’s 1984 with a high-tech gloss…Baruth’s real strength [is] as a character-driven storyteller.”
Kirkus Reviews

"Imaginative...page-turning reading...readers who thought PRIMARY COLORS was too tame will appreciate this wacky speculative fantasy, and Friends of Bill with a sense of humor will be delighted to spend more quality time with James, George, and BC."
Publishers Weekly

"Baruth is especially good at manipulating his narrative, surprising us with sudden twists and turns that leave heroine and reader alike first confused and then forced to reconsider recent history in ways that, oddly, make perfect sense. Students of politics will enjoy picking apart the characters' arguments, alternate-history buffs will be delighted with the author's world building, and comic thriller fans will love the wild ride. Face it: anyone who picks this book up will be thoroughly entertained."
Booklist (starred review)

“An on-the-road book that is both zany and profound. Readers of Washington novels will enjoy a frisson of the silly-willies with this exuberant experiment in the retelling of recent American history.”
Library Journal

"The desire of some to blame our country's problems on former President Bill Clinton is very entertainingly brought to life in "The X President"...Baruth makes the twists and surprises that work on Sal also work on the reader. The story proceeds with the pace of a rapid-fire thriller with a clever satirical tone. The former president's strengths and failings are brought out in a world that justifies ideas of conspiracy and paranoia."
The Denver Post

“Pointed and intelligent speculative fiction/political satire…Inhale this one.”
The Kansas City Star

“Ambitious…winning…Baruth's recreation of familiar historical events draws on the powerful emotional reservoirs created by those moments in the first place. Anyone wishing to relive the history of the Clinton presidency–and seeing it twisted into new shapes–will want to catch The X President.”
Sci Fi Weekly

  • The X President by Philip Baruth
  • November 04, 2003
  • Fiction - Science Fiction
  • Bantam
  • $11.95
  • 9780553802948

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