The brief and merciful administration
January 20, 2009. The vice president walked unceremoniously into the Oval Office, Mrs. Cheney close behind him. As a White House aide gently shut the door after them, the vice president regarded the man sitting behind the large oak desk. The president's face was flushed and his forehead glistened.
“Good morning, Mr. President,” the vice president said. Cheney was punctilious in his treatment of the chief executive, always careful to provide the form if not the substance of complete deference.
“Good morning, Dick. Is everything ready to go?”
The vice president strode forward and extended his hand. The president stood up, bracing himself on the desk with his left hand and offering the right. Cheney clasped it in a brief handshake, noting that the president's palm was clammy. Given the president's appearance, he was less than surprised. At least the president's voice was fairly steady.
“I'm glad you could join us, Lynn. I'm sorry Laura couldn't be here.”
The Cheneys knew that the first lady had been furious when her husband broke the news of the morning's plans and had refused to participate. Instead she was in the private quarters of the White House, waiting out their final hours before the noon inauguration ceremony. She would, however, join the president and the Cheneys for the limousine ride to the Capitol.
A muffled rap on the door signaled that another expected guest was about to be admitted and the secretary of state walked briskly past the White House aide who held the door for her.
“Good morning, Mr. President. Good morning, Mr. Vice President. Mrs. Cheney.”
The president had hoped that someone would say something uplifting on the occasion of his last day in office, but his guests were all business. It would have been difficult in any case to offer the customary platitudes about missions accomplished or goals achieved. The nation was eager to see him gone and his approval numbers had long languished in the low twenties, rivaling Nixon's just before his resignation. The disastrous 2006 elections had saddled him with a Democratic House of Representatives and nonstop congressional hearings on executive branch corruption had taken a toll. Articles of impeachment had not been voted, but scores of Bush administration officials had scrambled to secure immunity in return for their testimony. The American people seemed simultaneously disgusted and fascinated by the spectacle. The president had been disappointed in his hopes that they would soon be sated and lose interest. Instead the voters had decided that the 2006 results were a half-measure. They had used the 2008 election to increase Speaker Pelosi's margin in the House and broken the tie in the Senate, making Harry Reid the majority leader. Both the Democratic and Republican nominees for president had campaigned against the incumbent, the latter only slightly less overtly than the former.
The secretary of state was carrying a slender portfolio. She slipped a single sheet of paper out of it, stiff bond paper carrying the White House letterhead, and placed it on the desk before the president. He took up a pen and quickly signed it. “Here you go, Dick.”
“Thank you, Mr. President.” The vice president accepted the proffered sheet of paper, folded it carefully, and slipped it into the inside pocket of his coat. The secretary of state pulled another sheet of paper from her portfolio and placed it before the president. George Bush stared at it for several seconds, then wielded his pen again.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” said the secretary of state, suddenly keenly aware that it was now just a courtesy title. She carefully placed the resignation letter back into her portfolio. Mrs. Cheney began to rummage in her large handbag and pulled out a Bible. With impeccable timing, a muffled rap on the door accompanied the entrance of Mr. Alito, the junior associate justice of the Supreme Court. The Court was precariously split down the middle and the president had been unable to fill the Stevens vacancy because the emboldened Democrats in the U.S. Senate had blocked his nominee. The Democratic president-elect would begin his term of office with a crucial Supreme Court appointment.
President No. 44
Justice Alito was wearing a business suit rather than judicial robes. He greeted the occupants of the Oval Office and they quickly arranged themselves, Cheney with his right hand lifted, his left hand on the Bible in his wife's hands, and Bush and Rice to one side. “Please repeat after me. I, Richard Cheney, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The former vice president echoed the justice's words, ending his recitation with an emphatic, “So help me God!” The words were a traditional coda to the presidential oath of office, but they were not actually in the U.S. Constitution.
“Congratulations, Mr. President,” said Justice Alito, shaking Cheney's hand. The new president exchanged a quick kiss with the new first lady and then shook hands with his immediate predecessor and the secretary of state. “Okay,” he said. “Let's finish this.”
Secretary Rice dipped into her portfolio again. In addition to the presidential resignation letter, it contained her own previously signed presidential pardon and one other sheet of White House stationery. She placed it on the desk and President Cheney signed it. He handed the document to Bush, who stared at it until Rice suggested she take care of it for him. He gratefully handed his own presidential pardon to the secretary of state.
“Of course, it's not like we are really going to need that,” he said, trying to make light of it.
“It doesn't hurt to be safe, George,” said President Cheney. The former president's eyes widened at the use of his first name and he flinched as if struck. Bush opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again. Finally, he said, “Well, I'd better go find Laura and get ready for the inauguration ceremony. I'll see you there, Mr. President.” He uttered the final salutation very precisely, with an exaggerated tone, but was disappointed that Cheney showed no reaction. The 43rd president of the United States left his former office, trailed by the secretary of state and the associate justice. The Cheneys were alone in the Oval Office.
Mrs. Cheney looked at the president's desk. “You may as well try it out, Dick.”
The 44th president of the United States moved around the desk and sat down. “I do believe I still have a bit of work to do,” he said. The president began pulling open the drawers. Most of them were nearly empty, but that had been true throughout the eight years of the Bush administration. The Oval Office had been less of a work room than a meet-and-greet facility. The room's decor and appointments still reflected the tastes of its recent occupant, but that would soon change. An army of White House staffers was poised to sweep into the offices and living quarters as soon as the Bushes left for the inauguration ceremony; they would rapidly box up and remove all of the items specific to the Bush administration and put in place items chosen by the incoming president. The departing president did not have to suffer the indignity of spending his final days among packing crates and such. His office was his until the moment he left it.
“Here it is,” said President Cheney. He picked up a half-empty bottle from the drawer he had just opened and handed it to his wife. She tucked it into her handbag. White House aides were famously discreet, as a rule, but Cheney saw no reason to provide any additional rumor fodder during the transition.
“We don't know when he last had a drink,” observed the first lady.
Cheney gave a sharp laugh as he stood up. “You saw him. Face all red and sweaty. Laura's been hovering over him to make sure he takes his Antabuse, but it's been too much for him. For months now. I knew he'd need a quick drink this morning before facing the end.”
“But at least he was right about the pardons, wasn't he? I mean, we aren't really going to need them, are we?”
“Don't worry about it. Like I told George, it's insurance. Doesn't hurt to be safe, especially with the whack jobs who'll be in charge after the inauguration. It's kind of funny, you know. Al Gore still thinks he was the legitimate 43rd president and today he thinks he's going to be sworn in as the 44th. He'll probably never really know he's the 45th, not unless he sics Attorney General Spitzer on all of us and we have to wave those pieces of paper in their faces.”
The news media were already referring to the scheduled swearing-in ceremony as the “Restoration Inauguration.” One liberal commenter using the name “Winston Smith” on the Daily Kos blog had proposed that the United States adopt the Prestimion option and expunge all trace of the Bush administration from the federal records. Right-wing blogs had exploded in paroxysms of outrage, denouncing Winston Smith for his Stalinist approach to history. The screams finally died away to a disgruntled muttering when the fearless keyboard brigades were introduced to the literary significance of the name Winston Smith and realized they had been pranked. There followed several long complaints that the joke had not been funny, clever, or even very credible.
The president of the United States arose from the desk that had been so briefly his. “Let's get out of here,” he said. “I'm going to need some cups of coffee in me if I'm going to stay awake through the tree-hugger's speech.”
The first lady was still fretting.
“Do you think we did all we could do, Dick? I mean, what about Karl and some of the others?”
Karl Rove had been convicted for blowing the cover of a CIA operative. He had filed his appeal the week before the November election. No one in the White House had appreciated his timing.
“What about Karl? What about the others who went running to Fitzgerald or Conyers? They can go fuck themselves.”