(The following short story first appeared at Eternity Road on March 1, 2009 — FWP.)
The president-designate’s eyes flicked briefly toward his chosen successor, then back to the helmeted soldier who stood before him, sidearm holstered at his hip. The soldier noticed the glance and smiled briefly.
“It’s all right, Mr. Secretary,” the soldier said. “Everything is secure. Chief Justice, are you ready to certify the proceedings?”
The jurist nodded. Though plainly shaken by the day’s events, he was as composed as he’d ever been on the bench.
The soldier looked toward the waiting camera crews. “Ready, gentlemen?”
A forest of red lights winked on in assent.
The president-designate cleared his throat, sat forward, and did his best to smile.
“My fellow Americans,” he said, the tremor in his voice barely controlled, “the events of today have not yet been reported to you in their full extent. Given the circumstances, I can only provide a synopsis. There are more important matters I must attend to at once.
“Most of you have never seen my face. I was not meant for this office, and will occupy it for only a few minutes more. You will find my successor more recognizable by far.
“I sit here because a few hours ago the man you elected president last November, his vice-presidential running mate, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the secretary of State were all killed in combat.” The president winced as he spoke. He could hardly imagine the impact of his words on the millions in the audience, most of whom had only the vaguest notion of what had happened in Washington that day. “I can’t go into details about that engagement, except to tell you that they, and the men who stood by them, died in defense of offices they were no longer entitled to hold. They forfeited all right to those offices yesterday, when the president ordered American troops to fire on American citizens who were peacefully protesting his policies. When the troops in Anchorage, Alaska, Los Angeles, California, Tampa, Florida, and Portland, Maine refused those orders, the president ordered the officers commanding those troops to fire on them. The foreseeable result was a mutiny, and that’s exactly what took place.”
The explanation needs to be complete and correct.
“We were fortunate that our men at arms recognized the illegality of those orders. We were even more fortunate that the Joint Chiefs had been in contact with friendly forces outside the United States, formulating contingency plans to be put into motion should the need arise. It was those outside forces that proved critical to thwarting this unprecedented coup against the Constitution, engineered inside the government itself.”
He paused to let the impact of the statement sink into the nation’s minds.
“We are equally fortunate that the president pro tempore of the senate and the secretary of the Treasury, both of whom stand before me in the presidential line of succession, agreed to resign from office in exchange for immunity from prosecution for their collaboration with the coup. That allowed the office of the president to devolve to me. In a moment I will be sworn into it before you all. A moment more, and I will resign it in favor of my chosen successor, who is far more suited to the office than I.
“You might be thinking, ‘How could a coup arise from inside the government itself? Aren’t the soldiers who overthrew the president and his appointees the real coup?’ A coup is a stroke against legitimate authority. In America, all legitimate authority flows from the Constitution of the United States. An official who acts in violation of the dictates of the Constitution is therefore an outlaw, a traitor against the bedrock laws and principles of this nation. If he tries to retain his position by force, others who are charged with enforcing the law are thereby entitled to take him down by force. That’s what occurred earlier today, with a regrettable but unavoidable loss of life on both sides.”
The president-designate’s gaze passed swiftly over the faces of the cameramen. All were doing their best to retain a professional demeanor. None were entirely successful. The overwhelming majority of them, like the majority of their brethren in journalism, had supported the deposed administration. Few had any sympathy for the views of those who were to replace it. Yet each of them had volunteered for his assignment, knowing full well what had come to pass.
“I wish it could have been otherwise, but the late president gave us no choice. He had decided to place himself and his associates above the law — the supreme law, the Constitution. That made him and those who stood by him criminals, whose deaths in combat were fully justified. I’d have preferred to see them go on trial for their crimes, but their tenacity in defense of their illegitimately wielded powers took that possibility away from us.
“We are at the beginning of a process whose end we cannot see. Nothing like this has occurred in America before today. No foreign soldier has fired a shot in anger on our soil since 1814. And never before have men whose sworn allegiance is to another nation been called to act in defense of our own.
“I must ask for your patience, and your prayers for my successor. I can ask nothing more — especially not for your trust. To trust in government and politicians is and has always been insane. Our first president, George Washington himself, cautioned us against it. ‘Government,’ he said ‘is not reason; it is not eloquence. It is force. And force, like fire, is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.’ We almost learned the truth of that assessment upon our own backs. If it hadn’t been for the character of our all-volunteer military and the foresight of a single foreign friend, we would have suffered as no generation of Americans has ever suffered.
“You will shortly meet my successor in this office. She’s a woman of sterling character and considerable accomplishment. She’s been an honest official throughout her public life. I entreat you: Don’t trust her. Keep her honest. Keep her associates honest. Keep her agents honest. If I’ve judged her accurately, she’ll appreciate the necessity.
“Above all…” The president-designate’s voice caught momentarily. He looked down at the desk and struggled for calm.
It was necessary. Horrible, but right and necessary. I suppose I’ll be telling myself that all the way to my grave.
“Above all, my fellow Americans, do not make it necessary ever again for America to be saved from itself by a foreign force. I will not criticize that force or its men at arms. We stand in permanent debt to them. But we should be ashamed that we, the people of the United States, supposedly the sovereign rulers of our own nation, needed their assistance to retain our Constitutional heritage. We should be ashamed that all our brave talk about holding our officials accountable for their deeds turned out to be no more than that. We should be ashamed that, virtually to a man, we were willing to submit to an elected tyranny, to go along with oppression in order to get along with our comfortable lives.”
With those words, the president-designate felt his tears break free. He wiped his eyes on a sleeve, stood and squared his shoulders. The camera lenses followed him faithfully.
“That’s it. I have no more to say.”
He strode to where the chief justice stood, Bible in hand.
“Are you ready to take the oath of office, Mr. Secretary?” the chief justice said, voice quavering.
“I am, Your Honor.”
Once the oath had been completed, the president returned to the historic desk — his desk, for a few moments more — crouched to sign the Deed of Resignation, and handed it at once to the chief justice.
“Is the form correct and the intent clear, Your Honor?”
The chief justice nodded gravely. “Yes to both, Mr. President. Thank you for your service to this nation.” His eyes moved to the governor of Alaska. “Are you ready to take the oath of office, Madam Governor?”
She stepped forward, shoulders thrust back and head held high with an obvious effort. “I am, Your Honor.”
As she completed the oath, the cameras winked out. The soldier waiting just beyond their gaze never budged.
The president found the White House telepresence room empty and as silent as a tomb. From the giant screen on the wall shone a single face.
She turned to her companion. “Please, have a seat.”
The soldier smiled. “It’s all right, Madam President. I prefer to stand.”
She nodded and took her own place at the curved conference table.
“Mr. Prime Minister,” she said.
“I can’t thank you enough. I can’t imagine how to repay this debt.”
The prime minister shook his head. “America prepaid this debt long ago. Not that we keep accounts over here, old jokes notwithstanding.”
“All the same.”
“Do you anticipate any further unpleasantness with…anyone on Capitol Hill?”
“I think the events of the day will make that unnecessary. I intend a clean sweep of the Cabinet, of course, except for Defense.”
“Of course.” The prime minister looked aside for an instant. “Would it be of any value to you to have our brigade remain in Washington a few days longer?”
The president felt her face tighten. “It would, but I have to balance that value against the appearance of a foreign occupation. I think the latter weighs more heavily, so I’m going to send them back to you. With thanks.”
“Don’t you have any fear of a counterstrike?”
The president grinned ruefully. “That’s so unlikely it’s not worth discussing. The army is on our side. The people are on our side, or soon will be. Our principal opponents will be the news media. I think I can cope with them.”
The prime minister nodded. “Then I will be happy to welcome my forces home, and thank them for a difficult job well done. And, Madam President…?”
“Yes, Prime Minister?”
“Should you need further assistance, now or in the future, I trust you won’t hesitate to ask.”
For the first time that day, the president felt a lessening of the burden of her office.
Probably the last time, too.
“I won’t, my friend. But I’m as embarrassed — no, ashamed — at our non-performance on our own behalf as my predecessor is. It shouldn’t have been necessary. I intend to make it unnecessary, if it’s in my power to do so. So once again, you have my thanks, and the thanks of our nation, and the fervent hope that nothing like this will ever happen again.”
“To either of us, Madam President.” The prime minister’s gentle accent became more pronounced. “But you must discard your notions of debt. Your country has made it possible for men to be free. For men everywhere to dream of freedom, whatever bondage they currently endure. And for my nation, the sole refuge of a badly oppressed people, to exist at all. We will never forget that. We cannot.”
The prime minister raised his hand in silent farewell. The president did the same, and the great screen went dark. She sat unspeaking for a long moment, then turned to the soldier who stood at her side.
“Your prime minister is a great man,” she said.
“He thinks rather highly of you, Madam President.”
She nodded and rose. “It’s a degree of esteem I’ll have to try to earn. And now, General Alon,” she said, a hand extended, “my thanks to you and your men for saving my country from itself.”
The soldier did not take the proffered hand. Instead he came to full attention and executed a micrometrically perfect salute. “No thanks are required, Madam President.” He started to turn to leave, stopped, and cocked an eyebrow. “May I leave you with a memento of our alliance?”
“None is required, General.”
“Please, Ma’am.” He handed her his uniform cap. “I have another. Remember that America is not without friends.” With that, he departed.
She turned the cap in her hands. The stylized Star of David, inset with the sword and olive branch of the Israeli Defence Forces, gleamed from its prow. She vowed upon the instant that it would rest upon her desk in the Oval Office for as long as she might sit there.
“Thank You, God,” she murmured, “for men of valor and justice. It could only have been nicer if they’d been Americans.”