SPINNING DIXIE (Chapter One)
People ask me how a boy who was raised by a mobster grew up to become press secretary to the president of the United States. The answer is, when reporters started hammering me with questions about my pedigree, I did something sly that caught the Washington press corps off guard: I admitted everything.
THE TIMES: Jonah, is it true that upon the death of your grandfather, Mickey Price, you attended a Mafia summit?
ME: Who do you think called the meeting?
FOLLOW-UP: Would you say your relationship with Mr. Price was of the conventional see-Grandpop-on-Sunday kind?
ME: It was the opposite of conventional. He and my grandmother virtually raised me after my parents died. They were my best friends.
GLOBAL WIRE SERVICE: Mr. Eastman, it's been rumored that you arranged for the murder of a mob figure who was said to have crossed you?
ME: Absolutely not. I handled it personally.
As Henry Kissinger once said (but did not abide), "What will come out eventually must come out immediately." People were stunned by my answers. Sure, I was using candor as a spin device, but Washington found it "refreshing." Washington likes to think it finds candor refreshing, but honesty in this town is a novelty mint, not sustenance.
Nevertheless, the same frankness and irreverence that had been the "Jonah Eastman brand" for the last two years of the Truitt administration had finally become my undoing. I was fired this morning.
Before I took my job as the president's spokesman, I had been a Republican pollster. I specialized in handling difficult elections, ones that needed an unconventional boost. And, yes, my grandfather was the late Moses "Mickey" Price, the Atlantic City gangster known as "the Wizard of Odds."
Despite its Nixonian whiff, let me be perfectly clear about something: I am not a gangster. My Edie wouldn't have married a gangster, but she wouldn't have married a choirboy either. She had choices and, at some level, knew what she was doing. I couldn't have gotten to the White House being a cherub, and some of the runoff from Mickey's jungle of shadows had crept into my frequency. While I am tempted to reinvent myself for the reader, I am no more immune from my environment than the minor prophet with whom I share a name, the one in the Bible who tried to run from God and was swallowed by a big fish. Jonah was chosen by God to be in a sea of trouble, and in my more philosophical moments, I believe I was genetically predisposed to scandal. Anyhow, spinning at this stage would be a lie that runs counter to the spirit of my forced retirement from the lying business.
Officially, I wasn't fired. I resigned. I did so after a few unfortunate catalysts put me in play. It began when the head of the Republican Party declared the current recession to be a "communications problem." As press secretary, communications strategy fell under my purview. Then there was The Remark.
I made The Remark two days ago during a press conference after a suicide bomber--an erstwhile taxi driver from Yemen--blew himself up at a Phillies game, killing twenty-four people. Even though I was technically a New Jerseyan, Philadelphia was the provenance of my "hometown" sports teams. When asked by the White House correspondent for The Philadelphia Bulletin how I felt about the attack as a man who hailed from the region, I said, "It's hard to believe Western civilization is going to be taken down by a bunch of cabdrivers."
To make matters worse, a network correspondent aboard Air Force One claimed to have overheard the president bark, "Aw, hell, we always negotiate with terrorists," in a discussion about potential response options. Moments before taking off, the Big Guy had finished giving a speech where he echoed every other recent president with the canard, "We do not negotiate with terrorists." (FIST POUND/CONVEY RESOLVE--PAUSE FOR APPLAUSE)
The president totally said it, too. I was standing right next to him. Like the Secret Service agent who is trained to throw his body into the line of an assassin's bullet, I defused a potential crapstorm by instinctively telling the correspondent that I had made this remark, too. I was known for doing a mean Truitt impersonation--the molasses Mississippi drawl, literary allusions, tractor-seat wisdom. The network, terrified of a White House freeze-out, agreed to make me the lightning rod.
The feelings of having been accused of something you did do and something you didn't do are both terrible, but have different manifestations. When you're wrongly accused, you feel lost in time and space: there's a sensation of motion between dimensions. When you're accused of something you really did, you feel paralyzed and trapped. I was suffering from a hybrid of these symptoms that averaged out at a common state: panic.
The Islamerica League demanded my resignation on the grounds that I had made a racist remark, the implication being that the Truitt administration saw all Muslims as angry cabdrivers. I dug myself in deeper when I attempted to explain that the suicide bomber really was a taxi driver. My buddy Dennis Miller rallied to my defense on his talk show by saying I got in trouble "for making comments offensive to terrorists."
Adding to my predicament were the hearings that loomed for the president's nomination to the Supreme Court of R. MacDermott "Mac" Dewey--a conservative, white, Georgia-bred circuit court judge. Some of the same civil liberties people who were hammering me for my insensitive remarks would soon descend upon Washington to protest the Dewey nomination. Canning me wouldn't neutralize this challenge, but it would be a symbolic gesture to Democratic senators who were reluctant to turn a blind eye toward an administration they regarded as being an enemy of the progressive cause.
My assistant, Tigger, came into my office, which is in the West Wing of the White House (Coordinates--longitude-77.03740; latitude 38.89766)* facing Pennsylvania Avenue. She wore a quizzical expression. Her real name was Alison, but she revved in a reckless exuberance like Winnie-the-Pooh's tiger buddy, so I called her Tigger. In an environment where most staffers sought job preservation by taking no risks, Tigger was oblivious to the consequences of anything. She was my figurative sister, aide-de-camp, and personal social worker in one whippet-thin Chanel-suited vortex. What she lacked in subtlety, she made up for in devotion. (In Washington, if given the choice between genius or loyalty, choose loyalty.)
"Hey, Wonderboy, there's an envelope for you at the northwest gate," she said, quizzically. A Who's Who in the Truitt Administration fell off my bookshelf onto the floor. Tigger recoiled as if this had never happened before, but every time she came in, something fell.
I glanced up from my computer screen, which was spitting out all of the reporters I had to call back. Everybody wants the J-man to trash the president for canning him.
"Tigger, I don't mean to sound like a diva, but since when do I go outside and retrieve envelopes?"
"The thing is, Jonah, I went out to get it myself, and, uh, she"--Tigger drew out the she--"said she needed to give it to you herself. It seems personal." Tigger bit her lip suggestively. She knew I was a married straight arrow with kids, but she had worked for politicians long enough to know that, well, one never knew, façade being the cornerstone on which political reputations are built.
"Did she tell you her name?" I asked.
"She said she had a message from Claudine Polk."
Heat shot up my back. I felt dizzy, and my throat tightened. My heart raced. I was supposed to be the Dark Prince of Cool in the face of hostile data. I had shooting pains in my jaw and arms. Heart attack. Dear God, heart attack. But I exercise and eat right, how--?
"Claud--," I managed to half-say. I must have looked like an imbecile. I fell into my chair. "I haven't seen Claudine for twenty-five years. 1980. I was eighteen."
"So, who can it be now?" Tigger asked, singing the question, which was a verse from an early 1980s song by an Aussie band.
"Claudine was a weather system. Something that engulfs you. I mean, you're in it. This woman outside, is she my age?" I stood and looked out my window.
"No, Wonderboy. Early twenties I'd say, and..." Tigger sighed.
"Ruin-your-life/crash-into-a-tree/light-your-hair-on-fire gorgeous...It's the only reason why the Secret Service guy at the gate buzzed me instead of telling her to get lost."
"It's reassuring that our national defense is in the hands of a bunch of adolescents."
The White House's northwest gate was about thirty yards from my office. I could see it from my window. The Secret Service gatehouse blocked my view of a section of Pennsylvania Avenue, and I could not see the mystery courier, just people milling about beyond the gates, and a lone rabbit scurrying among the bushes. Freshly scandal-bait, I wanted to avoid the press corps in the briefing room, so I went outside the West Wing's main door, the one where the Marine honor guard stands.
It was dusk. There's no more enchanting city in the world than Washington in April at dusk--and, yes, I've been to Paris. It is cool, usually in the seventies, and a misty halo floats beneath the street lamps. I'm not sure what causes the mist, but it's not the humidity yet. Hell doesn't arrive in our nation's capital until May. The sky is a clear azure, flecked with stars slipping across the heavens like fugitive beads of mercury. Politics ceases to be about power, and becomes another excuse for falling stupidly in love. Even if we fail, we still sense our lover-shadow awaits us in Georgetown to fill that bagel hole we all drag around with us.
A few of the camped-out camera crews noticed me, and began to stir. I overheard somebody say, "Riptide." This was the Secret Service call name I was given after I started receiving death threats early in the president's term. My politician's ego had hoped the threats would be traced back to a shadowy foreign revolutionary movement, but I was crushed to learn that my typical nemesis was a constipated retiree in Daytona Beach who had also threatened other people who were on TV.
As I approached the gate, I spied my messenger though the iron bars. She was in profile at first. Her auburn hair was shoulder length, her nose gently sloped--a nose you see in Vogue. A ruin-your-life nose. She wore a white sundress, which gave her an otherworldly aura beneath the floating vapor of the street lamp. Lips like a bow, which made me wonder where she kept the arrow. When she turned to me, her green panther eyes narrowed in a challenging way, then quickly softened, opening wide. There appeared to be moisture around her thick lashes. When it comes to women and tears, quantity is an important variable: A few tears make men feel strong; a torrent makes us feel powerless, claustrophobic. Then I thought, April in Washington means allergies. That's what it was.
The thing about an outrageous beauty is that when she acknowledges you, you feel as if you've known her forever. It's the incarnation of the overused term charisma--God touching you, leaving out the others. The problem is, when you're in your forties, your baser instincts are derailed by a chronological factor that has its anchor in morality: I was an adult when this kid was born.
I felt the concrete go wobbly. My breath was short. Second heart attack in three minutes. I had a family history of fake heart attacks.
The uniformed Secret Service agent buzzed me out of the gate.
"Rattle & Snap," she greeted me. Raddlinsnap. Bewitching. Melodic. Southern. I smelled flowers, but didn't see any.
She handed me a small envelope. I took it. It was embossed:
RATTLE & SNAP
MOUNT PLEASANT, TENNESSEE
I felt my hands tremble, but they appeared to be still.
"It's a Passover greeting," she said. That's right, I remembered. Passover had just begun. I had lost a sense of the calendar.
"Are you here to liberate me from bondage?" I asked.
"I got you to come out from behind those iron bars, didn't I?"
"Yes, but where are the plagues?"
"No plagues," She of the bow lips said. "You look taller on TV."
"Sorry to disappoint you."
"Oh, I didn't mean it that way." Thay-at whyy. That voice. Tell me to impale myself on the White House gate, and I'll do it. No questions.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"A ghost." She said this in a businesslike manner. But then I caught a quiver at the side of her lips, and a tiny dimple surfaced. I saw a few teeth. I wanted one of them.
"Ghosts don't usually drop things off at the White House," I said. "Although there was that time Millard Fillmore brought me hot pastrami on pumpernickel. Which was nice."
The ghost suppressed laughter, and dabbed beneath a perfect nostril with a tissue.
"Are you all right?" I asked.
"Hay fever," she said.
"You weren't crying?"
She waited a beat, then nodded in the negative.
"I have it, too," I said. "Where do ghosts get tissues, anyway? Do they have haunted Piggly Wiggly stores, Halloween items, antigarlic lotion for vampires?"
"You're borderline funny."
"And unemployed because of it. The clown goes home alone."
"Then who gets the girl?"
"The strongman. The acrobat. Somebody with no self-awareness."
"I'm not sure about that. I read someplace that you wear a St. Jude medallion."
I showed her the chain. "Patron Saint of Lost Causes. How do you know the Polks?"
"I was asked only to deliver that envelope," she said firmly.
"Was it an easy delivery?"
"Eventful," she said, studying my eyes.
"Mine are green, too," I said. "The eyes. Different shade."
She seemed embarrassed. We were about the same height, and Ghosty's sandals had no heels.
"This is so strange," I said. "Would you wait while I read this? Is that what I am supposed to do?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "Rattle & Snap, sir."
"You've got some sass, don't you?"
"Nobody knows where I got it."
"Well, Ghosty, I know Rattle & Snap is a plantation." By plantation, I didn't mean some nouveau riche development of tract mansions riddled with social-climbing orthodontists calling itself The Plantation. I meant the kind of place that God had set aside long ago for the fleeting use of American nobles.
"Look--" Stall her, Jonah. "Would you like to come into the White House? We've got cable." I felt like a child molester. Still, she'd have to show her identification to get in, which might help with the whole Who-Is-She thing. She said no.
Several tourists walked by and recognized me. I heard one of them say my name. The ghost overheard it, and nodded warmly, as if to say, And I'm with him. I liked it, and I wished I had this job when I was single.
Ghosty saw my confusion as I studied the envelope, and she appeared to be pained. She began walking away. A few of the network camera guys sidled closer from the other side of the gate. Not good. I took a few steps to follow her, but a disgraced White House press secretary chasing a Victoria's Secret model down Pennsylvania Avenue might not look good.
"You'll have to reckon with Claudine Polk," she said.
"Claudine wasn't much of a reckoner, as I recall." I stood helpless, watching her step toward Lafayette Park. As my instincts turned protective, she turned to me one more time and said, "You don't look like a thief, Mr. Eastman."
"I'm not...a thief." This came out sounding like a question, and I wanted to do another take, but this was real-time--unforgiving.
"And those men you saw out in the field that summer, and in the town?" She swallowed, and I thought she said, "They worry, spaz."
"What? I'm sorry? I don't--"
Then she said it again, but with the blaring of a nearby siren, all I caught was something like "They worry, spaz." While I stood perplexed and shivering, the moonlight touched her in a way that reddened her hair. Then she disappeared among the subversives of Lafayette Park.
The president of the United States, Joseph Truitt, stood facing out the window of the Oval Office. The Washington Monument cut the April night sky like a razor, blurring slightly because of the funhouse effect of the thick bulletproof glass. There is a plaque on the wall beside his desk reading OMNIA VESTIGIA RETRORSUM, Latin for "All footsteps turn back on themselves." No one is more amazed that he is president than the president, which is why he contemplates his position so often. He believes that men who can appreciate their smallness make better leaders.
The Oval Office is another thing that is small. Photographers always use the wide-angle lens that conveys greater majesty than the room really possesses. What the Oval Office lacks in grandeur, however, it makes up for in gravity. The biggest egomaniacs on the planet instinctively lower their voices in here.
The president saw me at the threshold of his assistant's post and gestured to his twin sofas by the fireplace. As the Secret Service agent on duty, a mountainous black man named Roscoe, closed the door behind me, I heard him softly say for the last time, "Riptide is in the Egg." The finality sickened me.
The president spread his arms out on the sofa across from me. Like a great bird of prey, his wingspan was immense. I held my hands on my lap, which accentuated the difference in our natural sizes. "Jonah, son, did those eagle eyes of yours ever notice the difference between the presidential seal on the desk and the one on the ceiling?"
"Yes, sir, someone pointed it out to me years ago." I once had a mid-level polling job on President Reagan's staff. My boss at the time had pointed out that the Great Seal carved on the front panel of the president's nineteenth-century desk displayed the eagle facing the arrows, while the version on the newer dome of the Oval Office showed the eagle facing the olive branch.
"Harry Truman changed the direction of the eagle, son. Didn't want us looking warlike."
"Probably a good move, sir. After he sat at that desk and incinerated a few hundred thousand Japanese."
"Yup. When you're at peace, you romance war, but when you're at war you romance peace," he drawled in his prosecutor's baritone.
The strain of the job was showing around his eyes. The muddy circles were a contrast to his pewter hair. I had the impulse to summon a makeup crew to dab out the darkness, but not everything that is born in this room survives the light. "You know, son, there's a lot of true things we're just not allowed to say, and your mistake was that you said it. My mistake was that I said some cuckoo thing, too." The president tapped on an eyetooth. "It's true, of course. We say we don't negotiate with terrorists, but we always do in some form or another, which is why they do it. Now I have to make your successor fib her tail off while I have lunch with some sheik who'll compliment me on my statesmanship as he plans to hand over a sack of cash at dinner to a psychopath who'll blow himself up at a Starbuck's in Cleveland."
"Well, sir, it was time for me to go anyway. The great lesson of the Clinton years was that in a bull market, the public wants the president to have an intern under his desk; in a recession, he's on his own."
The president laughed so hard he started coughing. When he recovered, he said I had been like a son to him. This wasn't a caramelized brush-off. I had seen him tiptoe plenty of folks out of the White House, and he had plenty of less controversial choices for press secretary than yours truly. That a Jewish, Northeastern, Ivy League-educated gangster's grandson could be so close to a Republican president--a Dixie-bred Vietnam veteran, former Oxford, Mississippi, sheriff and prosecutor--had been the source of much K Street gossip over the past few years. In a screeching article in The New Yorker entitled "The Consigliere," a columnist alternatively attributed my loyalty to President Truitt to my desperation for a father figure or to an ethnic self-loathing tantrum. She even hinted at a desire to see me shot by a racist cop. The big northeastern urban city newspapers referred to the president by his full three names whenever possible--Joseph Lee Truitt--as they habitually did with Texas death-row inmates (those hair-trigger bubbas). While campaigning in Virginia, I sometimes hinted that Truitt was related to General Robert E. Lee (utterly false; the name derived from his beloved grandmother Lee Anne). I also winked to folks in Manhattan that the name had been shortened from Liebowitz just to frost The New York Times. The American Civil War drags on into the toddling millennium.
"You know I appreciate your sacrifices," the president said. He wasn't just referring to the flak I took for him this week. During his tenure, I had relentlessly beat back media interest in his wife's alcoholism and his college-age son's antics with women, some of whom were impressively no longer Brownies. During Truitt's election campaign, I had also cut a deal with my union contacts in New Jersey to endorse him over his Democratic opponent. New Jersey was a notoriously Democratic state, and deeply disinclined to support a conservative Republican. When the union endorsement came through, it dealt a psychological blow to the Democrats, and Truitt won the state on election day.
What the world did not know were the secret terms of the endorsement: If elected, Truitt would have to support certain federal judges. These judges, as it happened, were skeptical of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) judicial template that was used to prosecute organized crime. Which apparently flourished in New Jersey. Who knew?
While the president always executed the final meeting like a statesman, I had never seen him talk to anyone quite like he had to me. I believe in omertà and other antique laws of loyalty. This belief has served me well with the president, Mickey's gang, and, of course, my wife.
"In a way, Jonah, I envy you leaving," the president said, a fleeting expression of romance dancing across his pupils. Aaah INvee yew. "I thought I'd never miss the white skies of the Mississippi summers and hunting jackrabbits, but I do, Jonah. I do."
"If you're not careful, sir, you'll be a gentleman farmer soon enough."
"My spin doc is always the one to tell it to me straight. Why couldn't I have found myself a good liar like all the other boys?"
"Because you're a rebel at heart."
He knew that I meant this and had long been drawn to Southerners. We had discussed my youthful summertime at Rattle & Snap. I knew down deep that my boss was more impressed by Polks than he was by kings. Growing up in Oxford and painting William Faulkner's fence one summer (a favorite campaign story), President Truitt was eminently conscious of the Dixie caste system that had survived Sherman's March.
"I know I am, son. I want you where they can't see you, where you can play possum, dead on the side of the road. You and I know that we're not through and I will be hurt if you don't call upon me. I see myself as being in your debt. What did they call it in your grandpop's day, a stand-up guy?"
"Right. A stand-up guy."
The president's leonine head turned toward the panorama of monuments.
"If I may say, sir, just one more time...it's not your imagination. You really are here," I said.
"I am grateful for your reminder of my coordinates, son."
"May I ask if it was all worth it by your calculations? Getting here?"
"Obsession overwhelms reason, son. You're asking me to make a rational calculation about something that cannot be measured by any device man has invented to date. I've fixated on this coordinate my whole life. I don't claim it was healthy, nor will I be so bold to suggest it was even sane. All I can tell you is that this job was--and remains--a star out on the horizon that has come to define me. It may yet be my Lorelei--that siren who lures sailors to her breast until they are crushed upon her rocks. You were always able to spot those rocks for me, son. My prayer for you is that you can always spot them for yourself."
After I left through the Rose Garden door, I sat on the steps that went down to the Rose Garden. I opened the letter from my Lorelei.
Shalom lost spark
Flames char the porch
My rebel summoned
At midpoint torch
Hemp's run low--
From Union's trap
Rattle & Snap
Claudine had written a phone number on the bottom of the stationery. I returned to my lair, and asked Tigger to set me up with a special telephone line, one that played whatever tricks must be played to frustrate the efforts of eavesdroppers.
The first syllable of Claudine's elemental voice on the line (scientists have proven that certain molecules in the tiniest densities can be devastating) drew me back to Rattle & Snap, where I had hidden out from the worst gangland war since Prohibition. When I collapsed into my cracked leather chair trying to collect the events of 1980, I couldn't decide if civil war had broken out in Philly and South Jersey at the moment I met Claudine, or if I had met Claudine at the moment when the civil war broke out. The order mattered somehow.
The truth was that the White House wasn't the first pillared mansion I had been bounced from. My ejection from the Polks' place had long preceded events at the Executive Mansion. I think Ghosty was alluding to this when she said I didn't look like a thief. Of course not, Love. The best thieves look good on TV.
Claudine's voice sounded breathy, vulnerable. "I thought my heart would stop when my caller ID said the White House," she said.
"We're very covert and espionage-y here," I said, cursing Tigger, and thinking that the same intelligence agencies that supposedly assassinated President Kennedy and kept it silent for forty years couldn't hook up a blind phone line.
Claudine refused to elaborate upon the ghost. Nor would she speak on the phone about all of the things she had to tell me. When I told her I couldn't just come to Rattle & Snap for the first time in a quarter century without knowing more, she surrendered a few more details, and sighed. "I'm losing."
You'd have to know Claudine to appreciate how much she abhorred victims. That she sounded like one now shook me to my core.
When we hung up, I called in Tigger. "You saw her, too, right?" I asked. "The one outside? I'm not going crazy, am I?"
"I saw her, Wonderboy." Tigger's glasses slipped from her nose onto the floor. She kicked them a few times accidentally before reacquiring them.
I lay back on the sofa in my office and closed my eyes. The lights outside penetrated my drawn window shade, and I could hear activity on the White House driveway. Alas, the nation's welfare had fumbled out of my hands. A deputy press secretary had been named to succeed me, so when the protests began in a few weeks against Judge Dewey's confirmation hearings, it would be her career challenge.
I teared up a bit (or a lot) while lying down, which isn't smart because of the choking. Fluids and faces didn't mix. I hated guys like me. As soon as I patted my face dry, I dreamt about ghosts, specifically, silvery women in great hoop dresses tiptoeing in between great columns, in search of someone they had lost in the mounds of ash that were swelling on the steps. I could actually taste the ashes. The ghosts were not frightening as much as they were desperate.
I dreamt that my children asked me why I was covered in ashes. I told them, "Twenty-five years ago, there was a volcano."
SPINNING DIXIE Copyright © 2007 by Eric Dezenhall