“Referring to what he termed the New Reality, Governor Caxton Wheeler, campaigning in Winslow today, seems to have brought a whole new topic and tone to the presidential race….”
Such was the lead on the national nightly news on all three commercial networks. The words differed slightly, but the melody was the same.
Barry Hines sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the three television sets he had set up in the governor’s bedroom.
The governor sat in a side chair, watching all three sets. He was in his shirt sleeves, his tie around his collar not yet tied, his shoes off. Flash Grasselli was hanging the governor’s clothes in the closet. Fletch was sitting on the edge of the bed. Walsh was standing.
“Victor Robbins died in vain,” Walsh quipped. “Upton didn’t get the news lead.”
“No,” the governor said, “he didn’t die in vain.”
In the living room of the suite, the other side of the closed bedroom door, Lee Allen Parke and some of his volunteers were pouring drinks and chatting up local celebrities. They were waiting, while the governor dressed, to have a private moment with him over a drink before escorting him and Mrs. Wheeler to the mayor’s dinner.
For once the networks let the governor’s speech run—heavily edited, of course, almost identically edited—but at least without the instant voice-over, a reporter’s paraphrase of what the governor said. “Christianity has had two thousand years to tie this world together … and it has not done so. Islam has had six hundred years to tie this world together… and it has not done so. American democracy has had two hundred years to tie this world together … and it has not done so. Communism has had nearly one hundred years to tie this world together… and it has not done so…. Technology brings us closer together than any Biblical brothers! Technology makes us more interdependent than any scheme of capital and labor! Technology is integrating the people of this earth where love and legislation have failed! This is the new reality!” On all three channels The Man Who stood hatless, in his overcoat, on a platform, a corner of the forty-eight-starred flag and the facade of the First National Bank of Winslow behind him.
The governor had given much the same speech in Spiersville that afternoon. “You may not approve, Walsh,” he had said, “but by repeating what I said I will prove I meant to say it.”
“The President did not comment immediately on the governor’s remarks,” the network anchorpersons all reported.
Standing at the side of the bedroom, Walsh commented, “The old boy’s waiting to see which way the wind blows.”
“A White House spokesman did say the governor’s remarks were of such a serious nature that the President wants time to consider them. However, Senator Graves, campaigning in the same primary election, had this to say:”
“Fools rush in,” said Barry.
Senator Graves’s wide face filled the screens, one after another, his strident voice cutting across America. “Did I hear Governor Caxton Wheeler say Christianity and democracy don’t work? Well, I don’t believe that. And I don’t think most of the people in America believe that!”
The people in the bedroom of Governor Caxton Wheeler, including the governor himself, were absolutely silent. Walsh visibly swallowed hard.
The news anchorperson said, “Senator Upton could not be reached for comment since he was flying to Pennsylvania this afternoon, where his old friend and campaign aide died in an automobile accident this morning.”
“See?” the governor said quietly. “Ol’ Vic didn’t die in vain. Kept Upton from having to make a statement before he was ready.”
Studded with commercials, the news programs continued: Victor Robbins’s car being lifted from the icy Susquehanna River by crane; eulogistic quotes on Victor Robbins from the President of the United States and most of the presidential candidates (the words differed slightly but the melodies were the same); the President in the Oval Office signing a bill obliging a tribe of Native Americans to exploit the natural resources of their reservation; more film of the hockey riot the night before, with interviews with players and fans. (“Someone punched me,” each said. No one said, “I punched someone.”) One network showed Governor Caxton Wheeler handing out coins to the children at Conroy School during the body of the telecast, with expert negative comments; a second used the item as a soft-news last feature; the third did not refer to it at all, but instead, for its last feature, used film of a monkey in Louisiana who had learned to write hokku on a computer.
None referred to the death of Alice Elizabeth Shields the night before.
“I don’t know, Dad.” Walsh shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“What don’t you know?” The governor’s voice was challenging.
“You did say something about Christianity and democracy not working.”
“I did not!” the governor expostulated. “I said neither idea, no idea, has succeeded in integrating the world, the people of the world, as technology is doing. Dammit!”
“There’s a difference between ideas and delivery systems for ideas,” Walsh said sharply.
“There’s a difference between ideas and facts,” the governor said. “The people of the world will be better served with a few facts.”
Barry Hines was walking along the floor on his knees, turning off the three television sets. Quietly, in the tone of a very young person, he said, “I think it was a good speech. What the governor said is true, when you think about it. Don’t get thrown, Walsh, just because Graves took a cheap shot.”
“Yeah,” said Fletch. “You know how deep Graves is.”
The door to the living room opened.
Doris Wheeler entered.
She wore an evening gown, with a taffeta wrap across her big shoulders. She closed the door behind her.
She took a step forward with all the presence of a Wagnerian soprano.
“Caxton,” she said solemnly, “you’ve just lost the presidency.”
The governor’s face whitened. “Wait a damned minute!”
“Wait for what?” Doris Wheeler stepped nearer the center of the big bedroom. “For you to make an even bigger fool of yourself?”
Walsh faded into the shadows at the side of the room. Flash Grasselli retreated into the bathroom.
Doris addressed her husband as if they were in a room alone. “Everything you’ve done today has come as a complete surprise to me. Handing out money to schoolchildren. To some schoolchildren. Did Barry tell you what I had to say about that? Keeping Congress-woman Flaherty off the platform in Winslow. Don’t tell me you didn’t do that on purpose.”
The governor looked at Barry, still kneeling on the floor, then back at his wife. It was clear Barry had not transmitted Mrs. Wheeler’s criticism to Governor Wheeler.
“And what is this utter crap you uttered in Winslow?”
The governor narrowed his eyes. “Is it crap?”
Doris Wheeler’s voice became that of a reasonable lecturer. “Caxton, you know damned well the farmers and merchants of Winslow, of the U.S.A., do not want to hear about the Third World. They want to hear about their taxes, their health programs, their Social Security, their defense, their crop subsidies. The voter is a totally selfish animal! Every time the voter hears the name of a foreign country, he thinks it’s going to cost him money.”
“Doris, some things need to be said.”
“And what,” she asked in an exasperated tone, “is this utter crap about technology?”
Suddenly the governor, still in his chair, necktie still undone, was looking tired.
“Mother,” Walsh said hesitantly. “You don’t want people in the living room hearing you.”
“Why not?” she asked in the same loud tone. “They might as well hear! Governor Caxton Wheeler’s campaign for the presidency of the United States is over! They might as well finish their drinks here, put their checkbooks in their pockets, go home, and offer their support to Simon Upton or Joe Graves!”
The governor’s eyes flicked to Barry Hines as if for support. “Graves just took a cheap shot …”
Barry Hines had left a half-empty soft-drink cup on top of the television. With the back of her hand, Doris Wheeler slapped the cup off the television onto the rug.
Governor Wheeler looked at the brown fluid bubbling on the blue rug. Then, wearily, he stood up and went to the mirror and began to tie his tie.
Barry Hines was standing by the door to the living room.
“Caxton,” Doris Wheeler said, taking only a step toward his back. “The American people don’t trust technology. They don’t understand technology. Technology is taking their jobs away from them.”
“Come on,” the governor said tiredly. “The American people are in love with their technology. Their computer games and toys, their cable televisions. They even have—what do you call ’em?—those things on their tractors, in their pickup trucks—”
“You scrape a layer of skin off your average American,” Doris persisted, “and he’ll still tell you all technology is the instrument of the devil.”
“And you’re up there like a big fool saying technology replaces religion?”
“I said nothing of the sort.”
“Technology replaces democracy?”
As he turned from the mirror, he was buttoning the cuffs of his shirt. The muscles in his jaw were working hard.
“You’ve just quit, Caxton. You’ve just retired from politics! You retired me!” she shouted. “You self-destructed in one day!”
“I don’t need excuses made for me, son,” the governor said with annoyance. “I said what I felt like saying, and saying it felt right.”
“Well, it certainly cost enough for you to feel good.” Her eyes were as hard as a rooster’s.
“What real harm has it done?” the governor asked. He called on Fletch: “What’s the reaction on the press bus?”
“I don’t think they’ve digested it yet. Not really. I think most of them are just glad to hear something new.”
“Sure,” scoffed Doris Wheeler. “They’d be delighted to publish Caxton’s suicide note.”
“Actually—” Fletch hesitated. “Andrew Esty did head for the airport. Said he was leaving the campaign. Called you a godless person.”
“Caxton!” exclaimed Doris. “Do you know the circulation of the Daily Gospel? Do you realize what that readership means to us? To this campaign?”
“Oh, Esty!” the governor snorted. “Jesus Christ wouldn’t have pleased him. Jesus washed the feet of a whore.”
Doris Wheeler’s face was rising up the crimson scale. “How come you do these stupid things without even consulting me? How come you stood up on your hind legs in Winslow, and again in Spiersville, and spouted a pseudo-profound, pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-statesmanlike speech on the state of the whole world, without consulting me?”
“People are waiting,” the governor said.
“Believe me,” Doris Wheeler said, brushing Barry Hines aside and opening the door to the living room, “nothing more that is stupid and self-destructive is going to happen today. Not with me at his side. If you all can’t stop him from making a fool of himself, I can.”
Leaving the room, she left the door open.
The governor swung the door almost closed again. “Gentlemen,” he said to Barry, Walsh, Fletch, “while greeting people in the living room, please drop casually into your conversations that we were just playing the television rather loudly in here. What’s on television at this hour, Barry?”
“Right,” said the governor. “We were watching a rerun of Archie Bunker while I dressed, with the volume on loud.”
In the living room, meeting and greeting went on. Fletch found himself talking to the publisher and chief editorial writer of The Farmingdale Views, They wanted to be sure the governor believed absolutely in freedom of the press and had some ripe things to say about a certain federal judge; Fletch assured them the governor believed in freedom of the press without reservation and did not intend to appoint federal judges without thorough research into their local backgrounds.
The look of mild alarm and polite curiosity on everyone’s face when the governor entered the living room dissipated slowly as more drinks were poured and Archie Bunker was mentioned.
Doris Wheeler was never still. She kept moving around the room, her eyes apparently in everyone’s face simultaneously, appearing to hear, to agree with everything.
The governor stood with his hands in his pockets, chatting with a slowly changing group of people around him, making pleasantries, laughing easily.
Walsh was in earnest conversation near the bar table with five or six people in their twenties.
After a few moments, the governor came over to Fletch, gripped him by the elbow and, nodding at them kindly, faced him away from the publisher and the editorial writer. “Fletch. Find Dr. Thom for me. Have him come up here. No black bag. He’ll know what I need.”
The hand holding Fletch’s elbow shook ever so slightly.
Fletch said, “Yes, sir.”