This is the second chapter of Falling Together by Randolph Anderson. Click here to get caught up with Chapter 1.
The shelves and cabinets were trimmed out in a pine that contained tiny wormholes. Interesting how the damage made it seem pleasing and expensive. Years ago Ralph had asked his best friend Bill what sort of pine it was. Big Bill Tipton said he knew once but had forgotten. He chose it, as he recalled, to give the library a “thoughtful” atmosphere. Ralph gravitated to the room when he visited. He was half-listening to Bill while he allowed the Glenfiddich to take the edge off the phone conversation he just had in the car.
“We could let the grand-kids open a present or two tonight.” Bill was caught up in the party. If Bill would not talk politics Ralph could not work around to the call.
“It’s practically Christmas and they can’t stand it. Jean and I have a few things they could tear into, nothing much, of course.”
Ralph nodded. He had to be content with hearing Bill talk. Some of it was useful and interesting, but not so interesting that Ralph could not carry on a parallel reflection.
Ralph had been disconcerted to see the name of a “founder” appear on his cell screen. Bill introduced him months ago at the meeting to launch the ad strategy. He is announcing himself to me, Ralph thought. Here’s his virtual secretary saying, “Billionaire John Brand calling on line one. Will you take the call?”
He better damn well take it. John Brand smoldered with demands, but why would he call now? One of the top workhorses who managed Ralph’s campaign might call with news of an attack they had to counter or angle they should play – right now, tonight, Christmas Eve. There could be no pause in the flow of campaign ploy and counter ploy. The game had become more like tennis than chess, with furious volleys and little time to think before smacking back the return. He knew about the algorithms the consultants used to detect activity against him. The programs were based on the same ones that picked up ticks in stock prices around the world. Buy and sell orders came instantly, sometimes without human intervention. Computers trade with computers, and now campaigns trade insults on automatic. Bill and then Hillary Clinton first defined the best, most aggressive practices. Warfare, markets, politics – all have become struggles between robots with incidental collateral damage to lives, fortunes and elections.
John Brand had spoken up frequently during the meeting, yet at the end he still seemed uncertain what the strategy actually was. He was a sallow old grump who needed the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted. How a man with a net worth well over two billion dollars could be so dense was beyond Ralph’s comprehension.
“I see that you are doing very well in Iowa, Senator,” John said. “Even if you place second, you are going to be in the running.”
“Thank you, John,” Ralph had replied, his voice deep in his throat. “Yes, we are doing well, and we are going to continue to do well. America needs a return to the policies that the Reagan Administration pursued, particularly on the economy and defense.”
Ralph felt pompous going on the stump in the confines of his car. But John was a bit pompous himself.
“Well, that’s why I’m calling, Senator. I am pleased and delighted you are doing well but I don’t see how my support has made any difference. I mean, I get the DVDs of the ads. They hardly ever mention you. I am putting up a lot of money to support you, Ralph, not educate voters. We need to pound them with what the Obama Administration has done to this country.”
Ralph had difficulty staying equable. He particularly wished Brand had not repeated with distaste the exact purposes ads like these were supposed to serve under the law.
“I know you are my best supporter, John, and I deeply appreciate all you are doing. The time is coming soon when I will ask you to go to persons you know and to appear and speak for me, if you remain willing. But right now you are engaged in very important work on your own to address a public need you identified.” A public need you identified, John, not me.
“Well, I just wanted to tell you what I thought, Senator. You deserve more credit than you are getting. Good night, Senator, and I do wish you and your family a Merry Christmas. Sorry for a call on Christmas Eve but I thought I should get this off my chest right away. Good night.”
He hung up before Ralph could say another word. Admiral Rickover had called Ralph when he was governor and hectored him about the virtues of his school for nuclear submarine officers. Governor Mason had delivered a speech about education that set the Admiral off. He spoke his mind and hung up before a conversation could begin. This communication is terminated. Good night.
Ralph encased himself in the memory of the founders’ meeting as the Glenfiddich took effect. He might as well. Bill was not trying very hard to share the present with him. Ralph wondered what sort of impression they were making. Two power politicians in the corner talking strategy at a family Christmas party? Not really. Bill continued his self-indulgent monologue.
Two years earlier, Bill was getting increasingly impatient. Ralph’s strategies to build momentum during the early primaries did not cut it with Big Bill. Ralph should not be content with the same campaign he ran four years earlier.
“Look,” Bill said. “We come from the computer industry. Innovation is life; replication is death.”
“You memorized that from somewhere, didn’t you?”
“What if I did,” Big Bill said, “what if I did? Does that make it any less true?”
Ralph listened. Bill was a shrewd, take-no-prisoners political strategist and had pitch-perfect instincts in raising the money for Ralph’s campaigns, even if he chose to stay out of politics and get richer. The computer industry continued to yield big dividends to people who stayed on their toes.
Bill was always on his toes. He was aggressive in a businessman’s sort of way, taking advantage of his squash-toned height to look down on his listener as he pressed his case. A leaner and meaner Lyndon Johnson but with a pleasant tidewater accent, not like LBJ’s, which sounded like he spoke through soured livermush, Bill was a type of businessman popular in the nineties. But the Fastows and the Skillings torpedoed that. Their jail terms were over now. In the mid-oughts, President Bush and Bill were much alike and liked each other.
Bill’s plan was predicated on taking aggressive advantage of the liberal rules on funding for organizations that promised to remain independent of the campaigns. He wanted to assemble a few stupendously wealthy men and one businesswoman to fund a blizzard of ads in the early primary states.
“Ralph, we need to have a small meeting to launch the effort. There’s so many billionaires now who want to help Ralph Mason get elected that I can’t possibly know them all well enough to do this alone.”
“I can’t do it, Bill. If I get involved, that would be wrong. It might even be illegal.”
“Oh I agree with you, agree with you completely. Your campaign cannot coordinate with the operation. But attending one little ‘blue sky’ meeting can’t be improper, much less illegal. The rules don’t apply until we exist. All the candidates can attend exploratory meetings.”
Bill’s credibility depended on him, and he saw he could not refuse. Besides, it might be a really good idea.
A thin but impervious film of money and exclusivity settled over the meeting that took place two years earlier at the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco. All but two of the persons in the room were exceedingly lean and tanned. Two wore light black jackets over what appeared to be cotton tee-shirts. One tee-shirt was beige, the other athletic gray. They were tight-knit and of the finest quality. One billionaire, John Brand, was clad in the Target fashion and remained contemptuous throughout the meeting.
The group stood chatting in small clusters. In Ralph’s cluster, the tee-shirts split off into a dialogue about a National Geographic tour that gray was urging on beige.
“It’s only a little north of a hundred and twenty-eight thousand dollars for the two of you for the three weeks – over by the end of October. You’d have to get yourself back from London to California, but that’s just a scheduling issue.”
“Looks good, but I don’t think we can stand another trip to China, even for the terra-cotta warriors. Let me see if Melinda has thought it over. An expedition physician, huh?”
“Yes, and a chef. You won’t believe Petra.”
Bill welcomed them and then introduced two political consultants. The first to speak, Sam MacLauchlan, was a pudgy, untidy fellow with a baby face. He wore a red bow tie beneath a smile as untrustworthy as the grin on the Cheshire cat.
MacLauchlan had barely started before he declared that “voters’ choices grow up out of a bacterially active, muddy area between their backgrounds and their cultural milieus, on the one hand, and their economic needs, on the other.”
“Milieus?” Ralph asked himself.
“Four decades of strife framed their social and political views – as President Nixon recognized so well.”
MacLauchlan paused for effect.
“But look here,” he said, his Boston accent beginning to wear on Ralph, “the cultural struggle is metamorphosing in directions that have become hard to predict. The young, the newly political, seem more laid back, less ideologically inclined. They frame issues differently. Unexpected, outsized swings left and right obscure basic change.”
He sounded indignant that a new era of inclusivity and insouciance about traditional issues might be emerging – he was way out on a limb with his ten-dollar words – but MacLauchlan stuck pig-headedly to his data.
“The data show that the Great Recession, unemployment, debt, mortgages, taxes, the health care system – you get the idea – are lapping the cultural issues with the voters who will choose the nominee in the primaries,” he declared, looking slyly at Ralph.
“In sum” – Ralph remembered McLaughlin’s portly bulk shifting beneath his pinstripes – “in sum, these meat-and-potatoes issues will matter most in the primaries and the general election, while it remains unclear how significant a role cultural antagonisms will play.”
The shifting scene, he concluded, offered an opportunity to reconfigure the face of the early primaries through “a bold campaign of upbeat ads that would jell the minds of voters and reframe what the election was all about.”
Ralph was appalled. Jell an amorphous electorate? Combat insouciance? That didn’t sound like a way to spend their money.
It wasn’t until the tall, intense consultant, Peter Crane, began to speak that the group awakened. Crane, whose crisp white shirt and clean red tie showed well beside his colleague’s less orderly attire, said his topic was the funding of political campaigns.
“Specifically, how Congress has strangled our right to support our candidates with whatever means we have. We worked for it, we earned it. The accumulation of wealth is not possible without discipline and hard work.”
Crane pursed his lips into the righteous creases his mouth was conditioned to assume. He borrowed the language of unlimited freedom of speech in support of the right to give any sum one wanted, even a stupendous, anonymous sum, to the candidate of one’s choice.
“You already know about the federal commission that regulates campaigns. Campaign giving is a thicket of annoying constraints.”
He raced through them, painting a picture of vast power for good that had been illegitimately constrained. He reviled the spectacle of public-spirited men and women forced to pull back from “using the influence that would never be denied them in any other field of action.”
“But,” he said, speaking slowly for effect, “when campaign reform closes a door, Congress always leaves another open.”
Crane laid out his plan in the simplest terms. The “bottom line,” he began, was that a tight circle of persons could stand up a battery of independent organizations to pursue issue advocacy, voter education and voter mobilization. He was “sorry to riff through them so fast,” and to have to mention the tax code categories “that had grown like Topsy,” but the social welfare organizations, the 527’s and the Super PACs that everyone was talking about had almost no constraints on how much they could spend.
“And let me tell you about the best organization of all,” he continued, unable to contain his glee, “the five-oh-one-cee-fours that practically guarantee anonymity to any individual, or corporate, donor.” Crossroads GPS was such an organization, and they all knew how it had manhandled Obama and the Democratic leadership in the debt ceiling debate. Of course they would file the reports the law on 501(c)(4)’s required, but the regulators and the media would go on a merry chase to learn who executed this soft money strategy and who the most generous donors were. He doubted that their names would ever see the light of day, and if they did, it would be well past the inauguration. The group exchanged glances, but he held them.
Crane stalked around the room, bending into his sell; he wanted them to come on board, and, Ralph recalled thinking, he really wanted the work. He laid out the issue ads he wanted them to fund and hinted at much greater things to come. He slipped in references to networking and suggested mobilizing “hubs” and “nodes” of opinion leaders. Ralph remembered thinking, cells, too, comrade, cells under the nose of the federal commission?
Crane chopped his palm, emphasizing how his scientific polling and focus-group research – he was at great pains to stress his scientific claims – showed that state-by-state efforts to educate voters could influence the primaries. It would take quite a lot of money, but in this election it would work.
Bill did not hurry the meeting. He let them connect the dots themselves. If they funded a series of ads, hitting the issues in states where Ralph was a viable candidate, if Ralph appeared to be the man of the hour to tackle them, if somehow Ralph and the ads became but different faces of the shape the primaries were taking, then he might get the momentum he needed. It would take coordination, those potent nodes and hubs, which the people in the room best not probe. They got the message that the ad campaign and the agenda of the Mason campaign would have to sing to each other above the reach of the law.
Despite the ebb and flow of the Christmas party, Ralph finally managed to slip in that he just had a call from an angry John Brand, but Bill had no interest in talking about it. He told Ralph not to worry in the same breath as he drew attention to a new shotgun he had leaned in the corner.
“John is probably already over it,” Bill said.
Yet Ralph worried. He stared out the library window. The rain had blown against the panes, which caught the gold and silver from the lights inside. The ads had begun in the fall of 2011, and Ralph’s poll numbers crept up. A national website, TheCrossroads.org, had picked up the themes of the ads and had initiated a netroots exchange about the issues, all for free. Some of the better ads had gone weakly viral for a day or two on the internet.
Yes, it was working, but the nest of obscure organizations Bill assembled could turn mean. They had before, and they could again. Once, huge sums poured into Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and MoveOn.org. Their ads were hard-hitting and some were vicious, but they made a deep impression. Getting rough seemed to be part of the hereditary structure of the independent organizations. Ralph had to think how he would handle denying any link to the groups if they did go on the attack. The well-funded lateral support, the flying buttresses that kept campaigns from toppling, had ferocious, evil-looking gargoyles perched on top.
Ralph heard the Scharf children arrive at the party even though he was back in the library. Bill and my sister have a problem on their hands, he thought. No one in the family had the courage to ask him if he knew that Jean’s son-in-law, Denis Scharf, had worked for the state team for Obama four years ago and was involved last fall in the effort to convince Hillary Clinton to run against Obama. Bill groused about his son-in-law’s politics, but he cloaked his grousing as a father-in-law’s disapproval of his daughter’s choice of a husband.
This better stay out of the media, Ralph thought. He was not particularly worried; it did not surface years ago and Scharf’s role was minor, to say the least. The name Scharf wouldn’t suggest anything, but with a little work someone could connect Denny to Jen, Jen to Jean and Bill, and through them to me.
Listen to them. The three Scharf girls raced from room to room and found the tree and the presents beneath. His Gen X children were well beyond excitement. Their entire generation was not excitable, not as teenagers and not as young adults.
The evening progressed from drinks to milling about the buffet Jean set out to searching for a place to sit with a plate balanced on an ottoman or rickety tray table or, as a last resort, on one’s knees. A few flexible young people sat on the floor in yoga-like contemplation of the piles of food before them. Ralph circulated and greeted cousins, aunts, nieces, nephews and in-laws by name. He ate nothing until he realized he had not taken the usual precaution of a bite in advance. But he did not forget the Purel. So many children. So many OMG Generation voters. He made certain to convey his greetings to Jen and the girls, shooting them friendly glances and calling winning compliments to them all. He shared a quick hello and handshake with Denny Scharf and made a mental note not to cut him with averted eyes if they looked at each other again. Denis, the menace.
He could hear his wife’s laughter from somewhere in the crowd. His children would drive themselves over after seeing friends, they said, but they weren’t there yet. He was not confident they would show up at all. Wherever they were, he hoped they had not been drinking, especially if they were in a public place. He had not given them his best hours when they were young. His children were past their teens, but the smoldering remnants of their rebellion still reached Ralph’s nostrils. While he was running for the Senate he had to fight the sullen stares that greeted him every morning he was home, and he tried not to see hostility in the eyes of youth in general. Now he wondered if a delayed shoe would drop. And the guilt…. Well, they just had to move on. They were all very good though about going along with the Rockwell walk onto the platform, the cleaned-up American family behind him, backing him up and so far never letting him down. His wife’s soprano now rang above the other voices in the hall outside the library. Ralph did not try to understand what she was saying.
Ralph had carefully chosen Catherine during his first year in business. His friend, Bill Tipton, introduced them in reciprocity for Ralph’s introducing him to his sister, Jean, whom Bill promptly married. He was not one to mess around. The courtship lasted less than two months.
In his own case, during his college years, at first with chagrin and then more and more readily, Ralph realized that he was sorting women into binary categories – buckets, his staff might have said: those who would show well like Catherine, and those who wouldn’t. He was proper with the former but endearing to the latter; he would marry from the former but in the meantime he had a lot of fun with the rest. In those halcyon days he would occasionally come across a woman with whom sex and sensibility intermingled well out of sight of appraising eyes. It did not happen often, but when it did the memory, the trace of starved delight, would feast on his happiness years later. It happened long before he met Catherine with a woman whose memory lodged deep as the surrogate for those he gave up. They would practice word-play before foreplay, riffing on Goldilocks and the Three Bears, building out their world with outlandish fantasies and adventures, introducing into their midst cartoonish cranky relatives or whacky furry friends, a foreign exchange polar bear, a grizzly bully bear, a cub…. Or they would invent stories, batting the narrative back and forth like a shuttlecock until they were convulsed with mirth and desire.
Catherine was bucketed for show, and when they met Catherine’s laser locked on him with an intensity Ralph mistook for love. She showered him with attention and once at an expensive restaurant, she confided that they would make “a formidable couple.” She had already begun work on African health issues, and that work balanced well with his career in business, making scads of money. Later, he realized that her desire for a husband who would show well paired with his self-love so that when he looked in her eyes he saw what he wanted to see. Something ennobling and anesthetizing spread through his brain as soon as his pride picked up her ardent admiration.
Tonight, he kept looking into Bill’s large watery eyes rather than over where Catherine stood now, an ex-ray of her former self. Sometime after the children were born – he could never figure out for sure when – Catherine’s laser flickered off and on for awhile and then went out. She had landed him and intended to feed a multitude of ambitions with her fish. Still, they were a formidable couple tonight in their separate places. Listen to her, auditioning for First Lady.
Catherine would serve well as a First Lady, because over the years, whether she, too, needed an outlet, or whether she already knew her place in his plans, Catherine steadily built a non-profit African aid organization, an NGO, that linked up with international aid organizations like Doctors without Borders and a few enlightened foreign governments like the Dutch and the Germans. She and her like-minded circle of well-to-do women raised millions by hosting elegant dinners and benefit auctions. Her compassion became part of the plan as early as his run for governor. Catherine spoke well, and intertwined with her message of better AIDS prevention, the replacement of lung-destroying open cooking fires with efficient wood stoves, women’s rights and education for girls was a plug for her husband, whose concern and empathy, she maintained, were as strong as hers. When she and her colleagues tapped Nobel laureates, churchmen and heads of state for their fund-raising events, Ralph was always included so he could enlarge his network for the campaigns to come.
But where it might have mattered more, in the kitchen or bedroom, the partnership grew cold. He knew many stories like his around Capitol Hill. Powerful, egotistical men who made good matches early on and then sought to appease their lost selves with chains of libidinous affairs, affairs more passionate and gaudy the more the impossibility of propitiation gnawed at their innards – affairs Ralph could never delude himself would restore his happiness. The Hill was an active volcano of sex of many sorts, with eruptions spilling into the media as continually as the flows of lava coursed down Mauna Loa. The leadership stood in perpetual suspense, wondering who would be next to be outed. There were no reliable clues; the grandest, the sturdiest, the presidential aspirants, all fell as regularly as the most craven lowlife in the Congress. He wondered if a biological cross-link existed in the randy political animal or if politics alone made it so.
At the end of the meal people surrendered their plates to the kitchen staff and headed for the luminous spruce that bulged out from a corner into the cavernous Tipton living room. The ‘tweens and teens finished first and fell to stacking the gaudy presents in gross parodies of eastern religious shrines, just possibly to signal the end of awed childhood, yet not quite ready to behave like adults. The shepherd Bill busied himself placing the flock around the tree, expectant children first. Bill commanded a few minutes of shared time every holiday. The Tiptons had taken up the Quaker way from Jean and Ralph, and Bill asked for a moment of silence. Yet Big Bill was not willing to listen for the still, small voice for long. For him, the moment of silence was a technique for getting attention.
Every holiday Bill called on his brother-in-law to make remarks. Ralph the Governor, Ralph the Senator and now Ralph the candidate – our life as a nation incarnate in Bill’s own house. Bill was in fine form and already half through his greeting. I am lucky to have him on my side, Ralph thought. If he prayed during his silence perhaps he asked a higher power to join the campaign. Ralph did not have to struggle to keep the smile from reaching his face. He had learned the neutral photo-face years ago, right after the smiling photo-face.
“We have gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessings on this Christmas Eve, once again grateful for a fine year and our lives, our health, our liberty, and our happy good fortune together.”
Thanksgiving, church, family, nationhood and the Constitution wrapped into one. I never say it as well, Ralph thought.
“During this year our extended family has been blessed in another way.” Bill turned slightly in Ralph’s direction. “Very, very few families have the honor to number among their members a candidate for President of the United States.”
Ralph smiled to the applause and cheers. He lifted a limp hand in protest.
“Ralph Mason, we are all honored by your presence.”
He is uneasy bringing himself to say Senator Mason or just Ralph. He is caught between, Ralph thought.
There was a pause, and then Bill seemed to pick up the scent and leaned forward toward his quarry. Ralph took his cue and began to speak on the same themes Bill had touched. It was easy working from his lead. Ralph enjoyed imagining the sensations he was creating as his public voice streamed over the family gathering. He concluded quickly. No reason to hold them from each other any longer than was necessary to satisfy his host.
“Senator Ralph Mason, Uncle Ralph Mason, you do us credit and we are all pleased and honored to have you in the family,” Bill boomed, lifting his bourbon high above his head. “Ralph, we toast you and all wish you good luck and victory in the fall!”
Ralph could not be sure that he heard disapproval beneath the many voices responding to the toast. Political ears learn to hear undertones, but it seemed unlikely that the same atonality he heard on the stump would rise up out of this living room to disturb him. He was inside the family perimeter; he should be able to relax. But he saw that Bill had heard it, too. He was staring hard at Denny Scharf.
“Denny, booing a family member in my house means you will apologize. Now.”
Bill had spoken quickly in a loud voice everyone heard. The bourdon of the room dropped the same instant to a susurrus of whispers. What did he say? What did Bill just say?
Ralph watched the wave of eyes break over Denny Scharf, who swayed and blanched. No one knew how to turn away. Even the children were not exempted. They looked about for adults whose glances would say everything was all right.
“Bill, I… I didn’t.”
Denny shifted his weight. He couldn’t bring himself to say he didn’t boo. He looked surprised that he had said anything and seemed at a loss to continue. He glanced around but found no one he was looking for. He was searching for the words he really wanted to find. The apology Bill sought did not appear to be among them.
“I didn’t boo,” he said in a rush, “but I do think that you asked too much of some of us when you said we all wanted Uncle Ralph to win in the fall. Some of us don’t want Uncle Ralph” – this time Denny put a certain emphasis on “uncle” – “to win this fall, or even get the nomination.”
The wine had led him to his words as surely as the bourbon had led Bill to his. His raspy “uncle” was not friendly, and not a capitulation, but it was familial. Ralph saw that those southern “alls” Bill used had tipped Denny and Denny then tipped Bill. Ralph was not going to let the remark about not winning the primaries, the only malicious thing Denny had said, tip him.
“Bill, I don’t think I heard what you heard, and I am sure Denny regrets this, as do I. He owes no apology. I respect, and I know we all do, the differences of opinion that may crop up from time to time in any red-blooded American family, even one that is as perfect as ours.”
He laughed as much at his own public language as at his feeble joke. Others who had lost their composure were anxious to have this over and joined in an approving titter. They did not look at Bill, who had chosen to focus his attention rather severely on a conversation with a distant cousin. Ralph noticed that the Scharf brood left the house soon after the presents were opened.
[Falling Together on Amazon]