ONLY THE SUPER-RICH CAN SAVE US!
On the Friday preceding the Fourth of July, the Meliorists gathered at Warren's home in Omaha instead of going to Maui. There was too much to do before the Great Launch to waste time on extended air travel. The Fourth fell on a Tuesday this year, which meant that many people would be taking long weekends. Perfect. The corporatists would be luxuriating at their watering holes and vacation spas while the Meliorists massed their forces at the gates of Congress. It was Samarkand and Bukhara before the Mongol horsemen swept down from the steppes.
When everyone was settled comfortably in Warren's living room, he opened with a welcome and a brief rundown of plans for the public unveiling of the Meliorist Society on July 5th. "We are in good shape, my friends, he said. "The ballroom of the National Press Club has been reserved. Appropriate security and crowd control measures are in place. Each of you has your own role to play and your own statement to make before what will undoubtedly be a phalanx of reporters. Phil will be our emcee because of his experience in tight interview situations and because of his disarming style and quick humor. He'll put the audience at ease, and he's less likely than most of us to be seen as a threat by the powers that be."
"Right, we don't want to unduly alarm the business bosses," Barry mocked. "We just want to duly jolt the jagers off them."
Bill Joy reported that he had a mole in Lobo's rapidly expanding war suites. "He's their all-purpose gofer, the guy who deliverers lunch, snacks, mail, packages, whatever -- a humble job, but a perfect interface with everything that goes on there. Last week he overheard Lobo's media people discussing a national media buy slamming the SROs for sabotaging the country. He says they were looking over mockups of a TV ad and chuckling. I suppose he could be a double agent, but I doubt it. He knows who I am and was eager to talk to me because of our shared interest in futuristic science. I think he regards me as a kind of mentor, and I'm almost certain he has no idea that I'm connected to any of you. That makes him all the more valuable to us, since there's no more perfect mole than a mole who doesn't know he's a mole. For reasons you'll understand, I'm not at liberty to tell you exactly how I found him, but it's obvious that I can't appear with you at the National Press Club, even in the audience, since I might be recognized. As of this moment, consider me undercover," he finished with a smile.
"Well, if that isn't the icing on the cake," Warren said.
"Move to applaud," Paul said.
Once the clapping died down, the next order of business was to review the DVD prepared by Promotions for the branding of the Meliorists. Bill Cosby slid the disc into the machine and asked his colleagues not to comment until they'd seen the entire thirty-five minute presentation. When it was over, everyone was temporarily speechless. It was so sophisticated, so steeped in idealism and at the same time rooted in practicality. It profiled each of the Meliorists individually, highlighting their achievements against the odds of life, their own experiences of intolerance and injustice, their business successes, and their military service where applicable. It presented them as exemplars of a patriotism of care, of promise, of love. It drew on the best of the past and showed how community spirit and civic action could make this best of the past blossom into a glorious future. It showered the viewer with solutions readily available in a country as wealthy as the United States, concrete ways to redress the systemic inequities that made life so materially and spiritually impoverished for so many millions of Americans. With Yoko's wreath symbol prominent throughout, it portrayed the Meliorists as the great rescuers, selfless leaders without guile, willing to take the heat for people they would never meet, and more than capable of besting the big boys on their own turf. It ended with a collage of clips of the Meliorists' activities since January -- Patriotic Polly, Yoko's light bulbs and the Seventh-Generation Eye, the Pledge the Truth drive, Peter's testimony on the insurance industry, George's speeches, the People's Court Society, the People's Chamber of Commerce, the CUBs, the Sun God festivals, the corporation jamborees, the Beatty campaign, and on and on -- all meant to show that change was already happening, that it wasn't pie in the sky, that the train had left the station but would stop for all Americans who wanted to turn their country toward real liberty and justice for all and the real pursuit of happiness.
Bill Gates was the first to break the silence. "All along, our hardest decision has been how to step out and speak out, how to put ourselves personally on the line without losing control of the Agenda and inadvertently making ourselves into distractions for a media obsessed with personalities and peccadillos. Since we're about to cross that bridge at our press conference, I can't imagine a better backup than this magnificent DVD. Kudos to you, Barry, and to your whole team."
"Thanks, Bill, labor of love," Barry said. "The plan is to distribute it to everyone at the press conference and go national with it at the same time. By evening, it will be all over the place -- TV, radio, Internet, you name it."
"Terrific, Barry," Warren said, adding his thanks. "Now for the two big questions. Who says what at the news conference regarding the Agenda? And how much do we say about our core group and what we've already accomplished?"
"Hell, let's let it all hang out," Ted said. "What our opponents gain in knowledge of our collaboration will be more than offset by the people's excitement over having a team of billionaires batting for them. The drama becomes part of the mobilizing message. Sure, it may frighten the other side into firing up the counteroffensive, but the building pressure on Congress to enact the Agenda is going to scare the daylights out of them anyway, so what's the difference? We've got --"
"Hold on," Ross interrupted. "Just wait a minute. Let Maui out? Tell the world how much we've raised and are prepared to spend?"
Ted hesitated. "Well, I guess not. There's no tactical reason to expose those facts. I meant everything about our collaboration that will further our mission."
"Seems to me," Joe said, "that we ought to open with a brief statement about our collective identity and then go right to our personal statements. We start by describing what propelled us to do what we're doing -- our children, our country, our respect for our fellow human beings, our self-respect, the Golden Rule, it's just that simple, folks. We suggest that the real question is why thousands of very wealthy people aren't doing the same thing. Then we talk about what we've already done, and that's it. Keep it factual, keep it personal, keep it down to earth."
"I agree," Warren said. "The more substance we give them to fill their column inches and TV segments, the less likely they are to speculate and the less off base the columnists and commentators are likely to be, though the market fundamentalists will still bray their catechism."
George was nodding. "Warren is quite right, from my dolorous experience with these experientially starved ideologues. We should stress that the giant corporations and their apologists -- i.e., said ideologues masquerading as conservative capitalists -- are supplanting authentic capitalism with state-sponsored corporate capitalism. That will put them into an amusing bind and get them going on theory, practice, and contradictions while we're on the ground changing the direction of Congress. It's a good fit with our distraction strategy, at least for the short term, but it will be a critical short term for us."
"George's point about 'capitalism' is right on target," Max said. "We are entering a period where the word/deed perversity will be manifest in all its bizarre cultural inversion. If I've learned anything from my experiments, it's that we must always, always take this bull by the horns. I view this as an essential part of our educational mission to prevail with a new set of deeds over the old set of controlling words. Just watch the opposition's ads, watch how they revert instinctively to word over deed. They'll try to ignore or obfuscate the destructive deeds afflicting our people and country by throwing everything they have into winning the war of words."
"Well put, Max," Barry said. "And I would add that body language also counts as 'words' for purposes of our press conference. We've all got to be alert to how we come across to the media. Except for C-SPAN and radio stations that carry us live, we're going to be giving them so much that they'll have to pick and choose. If there are any stumbles, any displays of anger, a lip curled at the Chamber of Commerce, a laugh at the expense of some high-profile CEO, that's what will make the evening news or page one. We don't want that first impression. We want to project a cool, determined demeanor, a calm conviction that what we're doing is the simple and right thing to do. If there are any digs, they should be at our peers, along the lines 'Just because we're billionaires, that doesn't mean we have to be greedy, insensitive, lazy, uncaring, and golfing in our retirement.' Say we reject that stereotype and we reject it decisively in the name of the human spirit. If any of you want to say that you're inspired by a religious calling, by all means do. Try to head off the obvious question, which is essentially, 'What makes you tick?' Maybe we should list the likely questions right now? Suggestions?"
"So it's true that you're one big conspiracy. How often do you meet and where?" Yoko offered.
"Do you really expect to beat the big business lobbies?" This from Peter.
From Phil, "Are you on some revenge trip for old wounds you suffered in your past battles with certain companies?"
From George, "Do any of you have short positions in the various companies you're going to be regulating, lambasting, or exposing? Are you going to release your personal financial statements?"
From Bill Gates, "Given government deficits and the precarious position of the dollar, are you worried that the changes you're pressing for may tip the stock and credit markets and lead to a recession or worse?"
From Sol, "How are you going to pay for all of your changes and regulations? Are you out to soak the rich?"
From Leonard, "Who have you been in touch with on Capitol Hill and in the upper ranks of academia, business, labor, and religious institutions? How much are you planning to spend to get this Agenda through Congress and the White House?"
"Time out, time out," said Bill Cosby. "Obviously, we need to put a time limit on the press conference. There are seventeen of us. Two minutes each plus a few minutes to sit down and get up and you're at maybe forty minutes. Say forty-five for slippage, right, Ted? So what about another forty-five for questions, and then Phil cuts it off. Fair enough, don't you think?"
"I'll buy that," Phil said. "If we take questions for forty-five minutes, no one in the media can accuse us of running for cover. But our answers will have to be relatively brief, or else the prima donnas of the networks and the major newspapers and weeklies won't have their day in the sun. They'll have to content themselves with our press packet -- and the rest, as they say, is commentary. By the way, another question that's likely to be asked is whether we intend to testify at the congressional hearings."
"You know, I'm fascinated by this Lobo fellow and his aggressive personality," Yoko interjected. "Why not out him at the press conference? That will steer the reporters away from us to the secret CEO cabal."
"It's not exactly a secret," Peter said. "After all, they did take out a full-page ad in the Journal."
"Yes, but the press doesn't know the identities of the CEOs or of the man they chose to lead the attack against us," Bernard pointed out. "Or if they do, they haven't reported it."
"I like Yoko's idea," Jeno said. "It will certainly juice up the drama Ted spoke of earlier. It may even throw Lobo off his rhythm a bit."
"Yes," Warren agreed. "In my experience with Lobo, the more pressure he's under, the weaker his judgment and the greater the chance of his taking a risky gamble. As I keep saying, we must always be on the offensive, never on the defensive, and outing Lobo and his CEO cohort is nothing if not offensive. It will send them reeling because it will come as a complete surprise."
"On the other hand," Jeno said, "if we blow their cover, it may speed up their timetable and increase their support from the business community. It may work to our disadvantage."
"True," Warren said, "but they're going to get plenty of accelerated motivation and support when they watch the media coverage on the fifth and see the full breadth of our Agenda. And the reporters will be demanding answers not just of Lobo, a control freak extraordinaire, but of those sheltered CEOs. That will diminish the impact of their early advertising campaign, because people will know where to look when some patriotic-sounding 'Save America' front group comes along."
"But what would outing them do to our mole?" Sol asked.
"Probably not much," Bill Joy said. "He's too far below the radar. And besides, they won't suspect him because he doesn't suspect himself. Even if they make everyone take a lie detector test, he ought to pass because he doesn't think he gave any secrets away to anyone."
"I think it's a go," Jeno said.
'Well, if there's no objection, will you do the honors, Yoko?" Warren asked.
"Now, do we need to go through the questions you predicted a few minutes ago? I can tell you what I'm planning to say. If they ask how much we're going to spend, I'll tell them the truth: 'Whatever it takes -- and you know we have whatever it takes.' If you wish to release your financial statements, that's up to you, but I won't be releasing mine. Remember that we're private citizens, not public officials, and this isn't a grand jury proceeding. By maintaining our privacy we set an example for all citizens who suddenly become fair game because they gain some prominence. If I'm asked about our meetings, I'll say that we're in touch regularly and get together in person whenever we can, but I won't mention Maui. No need for them to know, as Ross says. As for congressional hearings, I'll testify if I'm asked, and I may even ask to be asked. Whatever they throw at us, I suggest as a general rule that we recall the master of the shrug and smile, that escape artist Ronald Reagan -- and he made them like it. That's my two cents' worth."
Bernard tossed two pennies on the coffee table. "Here's mine. I think we're all old enough, rich enough, smart enough, and honest enough to handle anything they throw at us. Besides, it will all be over in the blink of an eye. We just have to try not to let them spend too much time on us and too little on the Agenda for the Common Good."
"Which is what we must spend the rest of our own time on this weekend," Warren said, "but I can tell Sol's ready for his dinner."
While the views in Omaha weren't quite as spectacular as the vistas at Maui, the deficit was filled by Warren's warm hospitality. During the fruit cocktail around a candlelit oak table, there was a palpable sense of relief that the months of furtive deliberation were at an end and the frontal confrontation was at hand. Regardless of the outcome, the Meliorists and the country would never be the same again. All the spectacular activity of the last six months would now be connected -- heaven forbid! -- to a single organized source. No more idiosyncratic billionaires. They were a team, a conspiracy, a brigade assaulting the citadels of power, privilege, and presumption head on, no holds barred. That was how the press would read it, no matter how often the Meliorists referred them to the infrastructure they had built since January -- the PCS, the PCC, the CUBs, the Congress Watchdogs, and all the rest -- but still they would continue to hand off the reins of the new democratic society they were striving to achieve. As Max put it, "We're the shoehorn, they're the shoes. We're the bloodstream, they're the heartbeat. We're the head-knockers, they're the brains." This cascade of metaphors put the diners in a jovial mood, and for once their talk was entirely small-family matters, aches and pains, recent graduations of grandchildren, dreams of going fishing, or even golfing.
In the morning, refreshed and relaxed, the Meliorists descended to Warren's basement conference room for Patrick Drummond's report on the status of the Agenda legislation, which the First-Stage Improvements eggheads had honed into what had to be called perfection in the sloppy congressional world. They had broken the Agenda down into seven comprehensive bills dealing with a living wage, health insurance, tax reform, sustainable energy, more equitable distribution of wealth, electoral reform, and the seeding of deeper forms of democracy. The intense and nuanced exchange among the Meliorists following Patrick's presentation matched the scholarship and practical experience that had gone into both the drafting of the legislation and the accompanying section-by-section explanations and substantiations. Their discussion continued unabated all day Saturday and into Sunday morning as they decided which of them would take primary responsibility for which bills.
Just before noon, a tired but happy Warren declared their work finished. "My friends," he said, "we have done all we humanly can to ensure the passage of the Agenda. Before you head home, I hope you'll join me for sandwiches and a fruit salad as close to Ailani's as my chef could make it."
In the dining room, there was a contented buzz around the oak table as the Meliorists ate and chatted. Suddenly Bill Cosby clapped his hand to his forehead. "'Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars,''' he said loudly.
Everyone stared at him, forks in midair.
"Proverbs 9:1. It's as though it was written especially for us. Don't you see? Those bills we've been parsing down to the last comma -- they're the Seven Pillars of the Agenda for the Common Good."
There was a sharp collective intake of breath. "That's beautiful, Bill, just beautiful," Warren said. "I guess we weren't quite finished after all."
As the Meliorists were dispersing Sunday afternoon, a brief notice from the Secretariat went out on the AP wire.
Several elderly individuals of means who have been publicly espousing measures to better our society since the beginning of the year will hold a joint news conference in the ballroom of the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, July 5, 2006, at 10:30 a.m. Accredited news reporters and columnists are advised to arrive early to find seats in their demarcated section. Twenty seats are reserved for freelance reporters. Representatives of civic groups are encouraged to attend. Members of Congress and White House officials should call for reservations.
That evening the announcement led all the network news shows, the anchors vying with one another to pull down clips of Jeno and the PCC, George before the editors' convention, Joe throwing down the small claims gauntlet, Warren tearing into runaway executive pay, Peter's devastating testimony before Congress ...
It was the perfect free media buildup to zero hour.
If they could have seen their about-to-be-outed opponents that weekend, the Meliorists would have been happier still. True to form, the CEOs were vacationing all over, from the isles of the Caribbean to the Canadian Rockies, from the Hamptons to Jackson Hole. That was what they always did to celebrate the Fourth of July. Sure, they had some concerns this year, but what could they do over a long weekend? Besides, that was why they'd hired Lobo.
Lobo did not disappoint. To some grumbling from his associates, he cancelled all leaves. He delighted in doing this. It pumped his adrenaline. Lobo was a workaholic and had no time for a social life. Under other circumstances, he might have gone the way of a male Mother Teresa instead of becoming his own version of Gordon Gekko.
Lobo's core teams were in Battlestar Galactica mode. They were readying a spate of media attack ads to be unleashed the moment the sponsors of the anticipated SRO legislation dropped it into the congressional hopper. Some of the ads were targeted at the members of Congress allied with the SROs, others reflected the theme that the SROs were destabilizing the economy and the Republic. Even without the precise details of the bills, Lobo knew enough to pull the traditional strings of fear and political bigotry. There were plenty of historical precedents to learn from. Lobo's favorite was the 1934 California gubernatorial race between Upton Sinclair, the great progressive reformer and author of The Jungle, and Frank Merriam, the Republican incumbent. Running as a Democrat, Sinclair started the campaign as the easy favorite in depression-torn California. After a nonstop personal and red-baiting assault orchestrated by the public relations firm of Whitaker and Baxter, fearful Californians gave the Republicans a narrow majority. The election was a turning point in American politics, as the Whitaker techniques were copied in whole or in part in many subsequent elections around the country. To beat an Upton Sinclair in a state wracked by poverty, a state where wealthy growers cruelly exploited hundreds of thousands of farmworkers through all the abuses depicted so powerfully by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, emboldened the ruling oligarchies throughout the United States.
Lobo chose his media carefully. He had good intelligence on Barry Diller, what stations he owned, what stations he effectively controlled, and he avoided those. One series of ads for the afternoon TV talk shows was designed to appeal to women and turn their everyday anxieties into "garrulously driven fears," as he put it. He went to the evening cable shows for "the redneck males," and to the cable business shows for "the stock market crowd." And of course there was always all-right-wing-all-the-time talk radio. Lobo put in a call to Bush Bimbaugh to give him a heads-up.
"Hey, Bush, got a minute? I'm going to blow your socks off with a scoop that will make your blood boil."
"Make it fast, Lobo. I'm right in the middle of working on a show that will annihilate those stupidos pushing for a change in our National Anthem."
"Bush, you've got bigger fish to fry. Try this out. The rich old guys you've been denouncing in your surgical on-air manner are about to show their hand in Congress. They've lined up your favorite libs, and body-snatched some conservs too, behind a Commie-pinko, bleeding-heart, blame-America, destroy-capitalism agenda that's about to roll out. And they're not ignoring you, Bush. They're ready to proclaim you the Corporate Welfare King of Kings."
"What? Are they nuts? I earn my money the hard-assed way every day, pounding feminazis, queers, peaceniks, consumer fascists, and all those enviros squawking hot air about the planet melting down. What are you talking about, Lobo?"
"Get ready for it, Bush. You're going to be crowned Corporate Welfare King because your boss corporation and all the radio stations that carry you use the public airwaves free and pass part of the windfall on to you. Get the picture? You must've heard about all those 'Pay the rent' demos."
"Preposterous! Possession is ninety percent of the law, Lobo, that's basic conservative doctrine. That's how we took away the Injuns' land and built this country. The treaties were just an afterthought cover story. No one in my hordes of dittoheads is going to believe any corporate welfare bullshit about me. In fact, they'll call in and yell, 'Go, man, get all you can get from the feds!'"
"Don't say I didn't warn you, Bush. I'm going to take a big media buy on your show, so if you have any ideas about how to sharpen our attack on the old guys, let me know. We still haven't come up with the right catchphrase. Oh, and one last bit of advice. If I were you, I'd be looking over my shoulder. You've never experienced anything like what's coming. You've had it pretty easy so far in your choice of enemies."
Bimbaugh bridled but held his temper. He could smell the ad dollars. "Thanks, Lobo, sorry if I was short with you before. I hear you, friend, and I'm on full alert. Ten-shun! Stay in touch and watch me soar!"
Shutting his cell phone, Lobo shook his head. "Once they're on top, these big shots never think they can fall," he muttered to himself. "Well, I did what I had to do with the King of Shout Radio."
Lobo turned back to reviewing his three-pronged strike strategy -- fear, smear, and the Khyber Pass. Fear was well in hand with the first wave of attack ads. The smear campaign was in the works, with inbuilt safeguards to assure the CEOs complete deniability, but it would have to wait until the other side fully revealed its intentions and the conventional counterattack played out. The Khyber Pass was a last resort, but the troops had to be up to strength, and Lobo was already assembling a crack team of veteran lobbyists. As he made clear every time he interviewed one of them for the patriotic opportunity of joining him, his main requirement was that they be able to move on Lobo time at Lobo speed with no learning curve, which immediately eliminated most of these five-day-a-week corporate warriors, who'd had a soft time of it flacking for big business in cushy jobs. He told those who passed muster that they'd have to take a four-month leave of absence but would be well paid and would not be bored. They would be in the eye of the biggest political hurricane in the country, dealing with challenges that would draw on all their experience and talent. "You'll be facing the most cunning, determined, ingenious, well-financed, and organized foe of your lives," he said, adding with arched eyebrow, "And you'll be working for the most cunning, determined, ingenious, well-financed, and relentless taskmaster of your lives." Whereupon more dropped out, until fifteen men and five women finally grabbed the "cast-iron ring," as one of them put it, and signed on to start immediately.
As Lobo saw the upcoming strife, his side already occupied the Khyber Pass. The immense burden of dislodging the defenders of the corporate society was on the backs of the SROs, who had a vertical climb over jagged rocks, some of which could easily start rolling down on them. But occupying a position of logistical superiority and coming out on top were two different matters, as waves of invaders had proved more than once. Just remember the Mongols who thundered through the Pass hugely outnumbered and conquered much of India.
Lobo's main problem was that most of the troops on his side were also in his way. More than a hundred trade associations, and many more corporate law firms and public relations firms and lobbying entities, would want to start riding hard once the bills moved onto the floor of House and Senate and into the media spotlight, but they would be brandishing the old weapons, rusty from disuse because a prostrate Congress had given them nothing much to oppose. Their whole professional culture was geared toward buttonholing congressional committees for favors, privileges, deregulation, subsidies, and government contracts. Few forces were arrayed against their incessant demands. Most of their work consisted of making sure the demands were clothed in complexity and symbolism -- like the tax code with its Swiss cheese loopholes -- and providing tender loving care for the lawmakers, with a stick waiting in the wings as needed. With a judicious mix of perks and pressure, they maneuvered legislation through the labyrinthine maze of committees and subcommittees to the floor of the Senate and House and then through the Joint Conference Committees. There were always little differences here and there to be ironed out, always lawmakers with outstretched hands who would concede for the price of an earmark project in their districts or states. It was all very time-consuming, but these silver-tongued corporate demanders had ample time to give.
Lobo had three objectives. First and most difficult, he had to change their orientation from pushing their own interests to stopping a wave of bills that addressed heart-rending conditions in the country, represented voices of conscience begging for reform, and beat the drum for a fair society affording its citizens material sustenance and a life of dignity. Second, he had to make sure that these inconstant allies were a net plus to the forces that he would unleash, that they didn't interfere with, embarrass, or obstruct the far smarter and more energetic drive of the CEOs. Third, they would have to share the information they had collected over the years on every member and legislative staffer on Capitol Hill.
Sitting in his corner office hour after hour, his staff working on overdrive around him, Lobo wondered from time to time why he was doing all this. It wasn't his convictions that led him to change his colors and join his former opponents. It wasn't that he wanted revenge on Jeno Paulucci and Warren Buffett -- he did, but that wasn't enough. Finally he told himself that he wanted to be the biggest rainmaker of them all by taking control of Capitol Hill for the biggest showdown of his generation, then relax and bask in the eternal gratitude of the giant businesses that had hated him all these years. Still, beneath the hard exterior that was Lobo, there were yearnings that could not be explained even by this anticipated titanic victory. Softer yearnings.
Elsewhere in Washington, a different kind of unusually intense activity was afoot. On Capitol Hill more than a few offices were on the job day and night. The Capitol Police could not remember so many members of Congress and their staffers working on a long weekend, much less so late at night. There was a feeling of productive exhilaration in the air, absent the vacationing legislators and the legions of lobbyists, reporters, and tourists. Precision and resolve marked the collaboration between the congressional progressives, the Double Z, and the volunteer scholars and lawyers gathered for one final review of the Agenda legislation and the sponsors who would guide it through Congress. These lead legislators, chosen after taking into account a veritable library of political and personal intelligence and strength of character -- no wobbly knees invited -- were masters of the arcane parliamentary procedures of the House and Senate, and were ready, willing, and able to clear the congressional decks at every stage. Close coordination with the Congress Watchdogs was also a high priority for the congressional Agenda allies, since the Watchdogs in each district were the conduit for the local segment of the Meliorist epicenters, which were all in a state of advanced readiness and focus regarding public funding of public campaigns.
The much-touted Blockbuster Challenge, hatched in Maui and developed by Joan Claybrook, was slated for an extravagant unveiling right after the Fourth of July, but after much back-and-forth between Joan, Theresa Tieknots, the Secretariat, and some of the Meliorists, it was decided to suspend the effort, primarily because of FEC regulations restricting individual contributions to a candidate to $4,200 and PAC contributions to $5,000. A party's national and state committees could receive additional donations, but those were limited too, and could not be part of a member-by-member quid pro quo. Under the provision for "independent expenditures," there was no limit to how much an individual or a PAC or a single-issue group could spend, but then there could be no contact whatsoever between these individuals or groups and the candidates and parties. There just was no wiggle room, other than to use the $2 billion Blockbuster budget for cold mailings that urged small donations within the legal limits but could not solicit these donations on behalf of a particular candidate. Even if the mailing lists were composed of declared sympathizers with the Redirections projects, the logistical problems would be formidable, and there wasn't time to get an advisory opinion from the FEC on the various unique options conceived by the lawyers. The Meliorists learned the hard way that not every honest and lean political idea was legally permissible.
The fallback position for the coming weeks was to raise individual contributions for the "good guys" up to the legal limit, and use separate independent expenditures to oppose the "bad guys." Joan would remain in charge and allocate money based on the incumbents' and challengers' records, behavior, and capabilities. The Meliorists pledged a sizable budget to be disbursed candidate by candidate as needed, with an iron wall separating independent expenditures from direct donations. Joan's legal advisers would issue guidelines for setting up the relevant entities so that they were in complete compliance with FEC regulations. Naturally she was disappointed, as were her patrons, over having to abandon the aptly named Blockbuster Challenge, but it was clear that much more planning would be required to execute such a path-blazing overthrow of the established ways of dirty politics. Moreover, the Clean Elections Party and its candidates needed direct contributions, and for those purposes traditional political fundraising infused with reformist energy would do the job.
Meanwhile, in those pre-Fourth of July days, the Secretariat was wrestling with a troubling problem. They had names and contact information for millions of volunteers and supporters of the various Redirections, but they were trying to assess intensity and stamina. Large turnouts for rallies and lectures and festivals were important in both reality and perception, but when the Agenda battle began in earnest, the Secretariat had to have some sense of how many people would dig in their heels, weather storm after storm, and fight back with even greater fervor, determination, and ingenuity.
Their deliberations produced what Patrick Drummond's chief of staff, a retired master sergeant, called "the lesson plan." The idea was to have the seasoned field organizers of all the Redirections assemble as many of their supporters and volunteers as possible for a thirty-minute presentation generally outlining the coming drive in Congress, its historic urgency, the expected vicious counterattack, and the rough timetable for four months of maximum effort culminating on Election Day. After an hour of discussion, the field organizers would circulate among the attendees at an informal reception and ask each of them how much time they were willing to commit to a range of activities, from stuffing envelopes to attending rallies to doing the nuts-and-bolts work of the Redirection in question. The organizers would mark the responses down, as thoroughly as possible including data on age, gender, occupation, background, and recent civic action, and then tabulate the results in three columns: passive sympathizers, modest volunteers, and self-energized enthusiasts.
This gauging of intensity was critical. The corporatist opposition could energize its base with clear monetary incentives and appeals to economic self-interest. The civic world had to rely on less material and less immediate gratifications, such as those to be found in Dick Goodwin's eagerly anticipated pamphlet, which the Secretariat sent to the field organizers in quantity along with their instructions. It was beautifully designed, down to the feel of the paper; with the Seventh- Generation Eye under the title: "You, Your Children, and America's Future." Goodwin started from the universal instinct of humankind to protect and nurture its progeny and worked outward to connect that instinct with the building of a just society where no one went without the basic necessities of life, a national community embracing all its members in the pursuit of happiness -- in short, an America true to the best of its past and worthy of its ideals. The pamphlet provided eloquent inspiration and warmly insisted on perspiration. "We have the means," Goodwin wrote, "and we have democratic and sustainable solutions within our grasp. All we need is the will to turn the visionary ideas of our Founders into everyday realities for our children." Bernard was overjoyed by the pamphlet. He had grown up on the classics of the genre, starting with Paine, and had immense faith in the power of the written word to provoke action.
The Fourth of July arrived with a bang that had nothing to do with fireworks. All over the country and at the main event in Washington, DC, the Redirections were out in full force. The week before, Patriotic Polly had returned to the airwaves proclaiming "Independence Day for the Sovereignty of the People" and telling the public to watch for a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence in the mail. The lecturers, the Congress Watchdogs, the CUB and PCC chapters, the lunchtime ralliers, the Daily Bugle youngsters, and assorted groups from the rest of the Redirections had contingents marching in all the official parades of the larger cities. The "people's parades" organized with Meliorist help in two thousand smaller cities and towns drew wildly enthusiastic crowds.
Large or small, this year's parades were like none in living memory. Everywhere in the crowds, people were sporting Seventh-Generation buttons and T-shirts, holding up their copies of the Declaration, and thrusting Dick Goodwin's pamphlet on their friends and neighbors. These were parades for a new America. Alongside the usual military and martial displays were huge banners emblazoned with phrases from the Gettysburg Address and the nation's founding documents: "Toward a New Birth of freedom," "Toward a More Perfect Union," "With Liberty and Justice for All." Other banners and floats addressed what those words meant in concrete terms: "Freedom from Poverty," "Fair Taxation," "Workers' Unions of, By, and For Workers," "Health and Health Insurance for All," "Safety in the Workplace, Marketplace, and Environment," "Freedom Is Participation in Power," "Education to Think, Not Memorize," "Modernize Crumbling Public Services," "Fund the Arts," "Shareholders Are the Owners, Not CEOs," "Corporations Are Our Servants, Not Our Masters," "Save Our Children from Mammon," "Take Over Congress, Take Over Washington," "Clean Elections, No More Dirty Money," "Citizen Action Is Patriotic Action," "Dissent Is the Mother of Assent." The parades represented a substantial investment for the Meliorists, but the returns more than justified it. They had arranged to have the floats mass-produced to save money for the individual parades and send a message to the entire country that the marchers were part of a unified movement for change. That alone assured national media coverage, and the parades themselves assured local coverage. The parade organizers and the spokespeople for the various floats and contingents had been well briefed for the press and were prepared to drive their own passionate arguments home with local illustrations.
An unexpected dividend was the army of people who spontaneously recruited themselves for this great cause of a more just society. They turned out by the thousands. They'd have to have been living on Mars not to know of the ferment of the past six months, but they'd been observers, not participants. Now the parades had come to them where they lived, worked, and raised their children. That was what brought them out to rub shoulders with their fellow citizens and some of the elected officials who had been invited to take seats of honor on the floats. Normally parades were dream events for politicians -- they were far less likely to be booed than in more contained forums, and they could leave without interrupting the proceedings -- but not this time. When the parade organizers drew up the invitation lists, they had a great time matching the pols with the float slogans and waiting to see who would accept.
One impression all the politicians took away that day was that the parades were not just local events but part of a vibrant new movement. A shiver of apprehension traveled up more than one officeholder's spine. They couldn't just wave and smile their way through this Fourth of July revelation. These parades, with their constant background drummers, put meat on the banners, gave substance to the traditional American symbols. Bands played "America the Beautiful" over and over again, along with "This Land Is Your Land." Patriotic Polly toys were hot sellers. People on the bandstand spoke from their hearts about what was on their minds. Onlookers used their cell phones to send digital images of the parades to friends and relatives around the country. Promotions was on the scene in all two thousand smaller communities to videotape the entire parade festivities for future replay on local cable access channels and elsewhere. Their teams collected sample comments from the crowds and transmitted them to National Parade Headquarters in Kansas City.
"I just never knew there were so many people in my town who feel the same way I do about big business controlling our lives and our country. I signed some petitions and made some new acquaintances."
"I didn't stay very long. Fourth of July Parades shouldn't be political. They should be all about fun and loyalty to America. But the free food was yummy."
"This is one parade that will stay with me. I'm going to one of the marchers' homes next week for an action meeting."
"I'm a World War II veteran. Finally I've seen a Fourth of July Parade that talks real patriotism -- caring about one another. I belong to the VFW, and I'm going to find out why they weren't there."
"Our American Legion post in Lubbock organized its own parade to protest the so-called people's parade. A bunch of marchers from Veterans for Peace split off and came over to talk to us, and pretty soon some Legionnaires were shaking hands with them. Not me. A tough world needs tough guys."
"It was a blast watching the politicians caught between the military style of the old parades and the spirit of people power in this one. A lot of them were squirming because they knew that if they let themselves get swept up in the moment, their financiers would make them pay for it later. Serves them right for wanting to have things both ways."
Over the following week, the analysts at headquarters studied the parade footage, tabulated the comments, and reviewed the media coverage and commentary. Among the most insightful observations were those of syndicated columnist A. J. Eon. "Many reports seem to have missed the wider significance of these new-style Fourth of July parades. They represent a well-organized effort to reclaim the nation's public symbols from the commercial, conservative, and martial groups that have dominated such public traditions as the Fourth, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day. In the past, too many liberal-leaning people have looked down on the celebration of these 'holidays' as vacuous and jingoistic. It appears that their condescension has been transformed into a drive to take control of our traditions and infuse them with an agenda that puts the people's plight and the people's needs up front on the bandstand. There can be no more portentous struggle than one over the nation's most hallowed symbols and traditions. To the victor goes the enormous power of legitimacy and communication. This past Fourth was a display of drum-major sophistication that will be hard to reverse, for if there is anything more powerful than symbols, try symbols with substance, symbols that communicate our highest hopes for the future of America -- the ultimate symbol."
Eon's words flew across the airwaves, the blogosphere, and the media machine of Promotions. To his astonishment, he was flooded with interview requests. Many of his fellow columnists took envious note of his sudden prominence and turned their attention to this unique populist resurgence and the forces behind it.
On the morning of July 5th, there were monumental traffic jams all around the National Press Club by 7:30 a.m. In front of the building. dozens of camera crews were unloading their gear. People who worked at the Press Club found the entrance blocked by Japanese reporters finishing their dispatches on Japanese time and readying themselves for the big event. By 9:00 a.m. the ballroom was full. The Secretariat quickly rented two spillover rooms with closed-circuit TVs. and by 10:00 a.m. they were full too.
The news conference was to be televised live, not only by C-SPAN, CNN, and PBS, but by the three major networks, which were breaking all precedent for this group of private citizens without portfolio. Bill Joy had hired cameramen to videotape the whole session in case of future attempts at distortion, along with a photographer to take pictures of everyone in attendance. He suspected that the audience would include corporate lobbyists and the usual grim gumshoe types who just couldn't learn how to dress. Luke Skyhi and some associates from the PCC were there to take notes so they could go to the media fast with the progressive business reaction.
At 10:15 a.m., the Meliorists walked briskly to the dais at the front of the ballroom. The cameras went wild in a frenzy of metallic clicking that sent images of the core group, publicly together for the first time, all over the country and the world. In the back row, Lobo sat erect and alert, scanning the SROs one by one -- until his eyes alighted upon Yoko. It was as if a silent lightning bolt had struck. Her eyes, her facial features, the way she held her dainty hands, the angle of her chin, her beautifully styled hair, her confident posture -- he was a man consumed. His long-repressed libido erupted into a series of escalating fantasies, culminating in the recognition that she was quite a bit older than he was. She also despised everything he stood for, but didn't James Carville, arch liberal Democrat, share a matrimonial bed with Mary Matalin, arch conservative Republican? Wild thoughts careened through his brain and sent his pulse rate soaring. He tried to compose himself, for the news conference was about to start, but his superego was wrestling mightily with his id in the classic Freudian tussle.
Phil stepped up to the lectern, which looked like it might topple over from the weight of the twenty or so microphones attached precariously to the front edge.
"Good morning, folks, thanks for coming. I'm Phil Donahue, and we" -- he paused as his arm swept the group sitting behind him on the platform -- "are the Meliorist Society. Since January, we've been working together for the betterment of our country, which is what our name means, no more, no less. We hear that the corporatists who oppose the changes we've initiated refer to us as the SROs, for Super-Rich Oldsters. Apparently they forgot that the initials also stand for something else, which I leave to your quick wits. We've got an acronym for ourselves too. It stands for Prodigiously Rich Oldsters, so feel free to call us the PROs. Each of us will make a brief statement, and then we'll take questions for forty-five minutes. There will be no one-on-ones afterward, but we'll make ourselves available in due time. My colleague Warren Buffett will begin."
"Thanks, Phil. I've spent my whole adult life investing my own and other people's money with some success. I had intended to leave my estate in its entirety to a charitable family foundation, but I've changed my mind. Our country is sinking deeper and deeper into troubles that are sapping its collective spirit and blinding it to the solutions that are ready at hand. From my observations of the rarefied world of business leaders, I've concluded that the vast majority are not leaders except for themselves. A society rots like a fish -- from the head down. I want no part of that lucrative narcissism, that abdication from the realities that are blighting our country and the world. I am here to do my part, my duty, in persuading some of my very wealthy peers to live by the words of Alfred North Whitehead: 'A great society is a society in which its men of business think greatly of their functions.' The Agenda for the Common Good that you will find in your press packets is only a down payment on a great and caring society."
Warren sat down, and the rest of the Meliorists rose to make their statements one by one.
"I am George Soros. I was born in Hungary, but I came here as an immigrant in the aftermath of World War II. The United States is my country by choice, my home. My personal experience of both fascism and communism has attuned me to the urgent need to reinvigorate and expand democratic institutions constantly, for the concentration of power also goes on constantly, left to its own many devices. The concentrated power of the few over the many is the antithesis of democracy. It breeds injustice and chronic suffering. In recent months I have joined with my colleagues to help launch many new democratic institutions with millions of dues-paying members. These are growing every day, helping to shift power from the blinkered few to the informed many, helping to build democracy. They have reached critical mass and are close to self-sufficiency. If they remain steadfast in purpose and diligence, their impact in creating a fair and equitable economy will be formidable and will portend well for the future of our country."
"I'm Ted Turner. You all know me. The world is going to hell in a handbasket. We've got to do something about energy and the environment. We've got to enlist the services of the Sun God. Those festivals are just the beginning. We're going to make the twenty-first century the Sun Century, and not a century too soon. The big fossil energy companies have had us looking under the ground for our hydrocarbon BTUs. We're going to look up toward the sun and toward a carbohydrate economy. No more obstructionism from the fossil and uranium companies. Either they convert to solar or they'll be fossils themselves. From now on Congress stops being their feed trough and patsy. When we stop to think about conditions in our country, the good ones were most likely brought to us by the organized demands of the people throughout our history. Time for an encore. This is the twenty-first century, when democracy becomes an adult."
"You may remember me, I'm Ross Perot. I'm here today for many of the same reasons I ran for president in 1992. I love my country, but my country is not in the hands of people who love her or her children and grandchildren. Piling debt on our descendants is what the power boys love to do. Mortgaging our country's future to the hilt is what they love to do. Well, they're not going to get away with it anymore. From now on, they'll be paying their fair share of taxes individually, and so will their corporations. They'll be getting off the corporate welfare gravy train. They'll be standing on their own feet and taking the verdict of the marketplace. They say they're capitalists? Okay, they're gonna act like capitalists. No more Uncle Sam to bail them out while small businesses go under. The Business Week poll was right -- most Americans believe big business has too much control over their lives and their government. The Business Week editorial in the same issue was also right -- corporations should get out of politics."
"I am Bernard Rapoport, from Waco, Texas. Too much is wrong in our country. There's too much greed, and too much power attached to the greed. Too much poverty, illiteracy, hunger, and homelessness. Too much despair and too pervasive a sense of powerlessness. Too many good people doing nothing about all this and making too many excuses for themselves. Too much graft and too much waste. Too much lying and too much sighing. Too much speculation and too much sprawl. I've spent a lifetime in the business of insuring risks, but all the things I've mentioned are things no one can insure, even though they are huge risks for our society. So we're going to get control of these risks -- we, millions of aroused Americans -- in the streets, in the voting booth, in the hearing rooms and courtrooms and boardrooms. The people are already on the march, and they are unstoppable. This news conference is only an anti-climax to the work that has been done already, and a prelude to the work to come."
"My name is Max Palevsky, and I am proud to be a Meliorist. As one of the pioneers of the computer business, I used to believe that this new technology would work to the vast betterment of our society. That hasn't happened. Why? Because promising technologies that are under the sway of concentrated economic powers and their political agenda never come close to fulfilling their promise. Until we break the grip of big money on our public elections at all levels of government, fundamental democratic values and critical economic priorities will not be translated into political policy and implementation. It was Thomas Jefferson who described representative government as a counter to 'the excesses of the monied interests.' His hope must become our reality. The electoral reform platform of the Agenda for the Common Good will clear the way with its call for public money for public elections, full ballot access for voters and candidates of all parties, and open competitive contests to produce the best results on Election Day, with all the votes counted, including those for binding None of the Above. No more one-party districts, and no more two-party elected dictatorship. We're ready to take on the merchants of politics once and for all."
"I'm Joe Jamail, and I sue big corporations hard. I want everyone who's wrongfully harmed or defrauded to have full access to our courts of law so as to secure justice and deter the greedy miscreants by proving them culpable before judge and jury. The courts are the last resort of American democracy when the other two branches fail us. For too many years, regular folks have had the courthouse doors slammed in their faces by legislative fiat greased with corporate money. Faith that justice can be achieved is crucial to our social solidarity. For us Meliorists, open access to the courts, without political interference, is bedrock constitutionalism. The same goes for the exercise of defendants' rights in criminal trials. We are a nation of checks and balances. The checks have been out of balance for too long. That will change."
"I'm Paul Newman, and I'm here to say that the people believe our country is on the wrong track. They want to see America move in a direction that spells a better life for themselves and their children, and this is not a partisan sentiment. Check out the veterans' groups, the NASCAR crowds, the senior centers, the voluntary associations and clubs down at the community level, and you'll see how disdain for those who rule us is growing. For a long time the people have wanted change, but they've felt trapped, powerless, helpless to make it happen. Now those feelings are giving way to a sense of empowerment and hope. You've all reported on this rising tide over the last six months. The Congress is starting to feel the heat and the light from the aroused citizenry, and that's just the beginning. Congress itself will be redirected. Votes will start to nullify money instead of the other way around. The Corporate Congress will become the People's Congress. Once Americans taste popular sovereignty and its benefits, they'll want it on the menu daily. They'll tell their senators and representatives, 'Stand with the people or stand down.'"
"I'm Bill Cosby. Look, folks, you know something has to be done when there's no correlation between hard work and having the necessities of life. The bottom half of America is working harder all the time and falling farther and farther behind. The rich are getting richer beyond their wildest dreams. Those of us here on this stage represent the older rich, and we are doing our best to multiply our numbers and help more billionaires find a purposeful life. As far as I know, our coming battle with the entrenched super-rich on behalf of the people is unique in recorded history, and as a sometime actor, I find it a prospect filled with drama and suspense. How, where, and when are the corporate supremacists going to respond? Stay tuned."
"My name is Peter Lewis. This ballroom is already historic for all the valedictory speeches that have been delivered here in recent weeks. There will be many more, synchronized with the introduction of the seven bills comprising the Agenda for the Common Good. Imagine the high-level whistle-blowers who'll come forth once Congress starts debating universal quality-controlled health insurance. They'll be lined up from pillar to post. You know of my views regarding my industry's abdication of its responsibility for loss prevention. Today's insurers operate on the principle that making money from waste, inefficiency, and damage is part and parcel of doing business. As Meliorists, we intend to redefine what productivity, efficiency, and superior management really mean in this twenty-first century. Our yardstick will be the well-being of the people, and you know the axiom -- whoever controls the yardstick controls the agenda. So to big business I say, we're taking the yardstick out of your hands, and with it your control over public expectations, not to mention your wholesale stifling of invention and innovation."
"My name is Sol Price, and I'm a consultant to Wal-Mart." Ripples of laughter coursed through the ballroom, which had been preternaturally quiet till now. "I came of age in the 1930s, a time of economic depression, but also a time of forceful response from FDR's Washington, a time of deliberate, thoughtful striving to jump-start the economy, diminish the armies of the unemployed through useful public works projects, and bring Americans together in a common cause. Today we have immensely more wealth, more ways to communicate and mobilize, more of everything except heart, will, and leadership. At my age I don't want to leave my country in decline, dominated by greed and gluttony, in a downward spiral of lower wages and a lower standard of living for the majority. I don't want to leave our children and grandchildren a country where 'only the little people pay taxes' while millionaires become billionaires and billionaires become trillionaires, a country where millions can't pay their fuel bills while oil chieftains running sure-bet companies subsidized by the taxpayers make more than a hundred thousand dollars a day. That's why I've joined hands with some of my peers in age and wealth to give back to our beloved land, not a little charity masquerading as justice, but the real thing -- systematic justice safeguarded by a permanently organized populace."
"Phil Donahue again. Our culture is in decay. Our media is a relentless merchandising machine. It has insinuated itself into the minds of our children, turning them into feverish Pavlovian bundles of conditioned craving, and undermining parental authority. Corporate commercialism, in alliance with the forces of repression around the world, is ruthlessly trampling down budding civic efforts to alleviate agonizing destitution and redress staggering inequality. Four hundred of the world's richest hold wealth equivalent to the assets of the bottom three billion humans sharing that same world. What in hell are we, the super-rich, doing with our days in our later years, wallowing in a leisurely drudgery when we could be changing the world? Ours is not a messianic mission. It is a dutiful, deliberate quest to achieve today what should have been achieved years ago in a society with pretensions to 'liberty and justice for all.' We intend to make good on 'for all.'''
"I am Yoko Ono. Our society is dying of spiritual starvation. Everywhere the human spirit labors under the yoke of materialism, the dull and the bland usurp aesthetics, the myopia of instant gratification keeps us from looking toward the horizon for our posterity. A society that genuinely cares for its offspring and future generations is a society that cares for its adults today. That wreath" -- she gestured gracefully to the Meliorists' banner -- "symbolizes an embrace, a caring and reaching out and ministering to our collective anguish and our collective needs. We on this platform strive to become worthy ancestors for our descendants, for if we do not, they will surely curse us."
Lobo sat transfixed as Yoko left the lectern. He was losing control of his bodily fluids. Blood rushed to his head and extremities, his stomach gurgled, sweat poured from his armpits and dampened his palms. It was all he could do to keep from trembling.
"I am William Gates Sr., and I heartily second Yoko's emphasis on posterity. That is our proper measure. Wisdom, judgment, and knowledge -- in that order -- must be our bequests. Only real people -- not artificial persons, not corporations, those mere legal fictions -- can leave behind such a legacy. Real people must be supreme over corporations in our constitution, in our laws, and in our regulations. There can be no equal justice under law, no equal access to the law, under the present empire of corporate supremacy. Global corporations bestride the planet, commandeering governments and writing their own laws and rules of adjudication. They are becoming the government de facto, they are corporatizing governmental functions de jure, and through their amassed control of capital, technology, and labor, they are creating a new serfdom. Artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, communications technology -- all are in their grip. Distributive justice is deteriorating from an already low base. In past years, some of the super-rich have organized to preserve the estate tax. Now some of us are engaged in a broader revolt against the enveloping matrix of plutocratic privilege and power. Rest assured that if the corporatists refuse to bend before the oncoming pressure, they will break."
"I'm Jeno Paulucci, and I'm a veteran of many clashes with business competitors and predators. Like my fellow Meliorists, I know how the business barons think, how they react, and how artfully cunning they can be. I know how practical, expedient, and opportunistic they are, I know when they are likely to cut the check and make a deal. I also know how they swing from fury to fragility, how they save their own skins or line their own pockets at the expense of the very companies they run. To them I say, take heed of the rapid growth of the People's Chamber of Commerce, take heed of the hundreds of thousands of smaller and midsize businesses for whom you do not speak through your sprawling trade associations in Washington, DC. The coercive harmony of the business world is no more. 'Stand up and speak out' is replacing 'Sit down and keep quiet.' More and more flowers are blooming. There is more than one way, one path, one ideology to animate economies and sub-economies. Note that word, sub-economies. Note it well, for the sub-economies will turn the stubborn and stagnant status quo upside down."
"They call me Leonard Riggio. Half of democracy is just showing up. Today, people all over the country are showing up at marches, rallies, hearing rooms, courts, city council meetings, and the fountainhead -- their neighbors' living rooms. The lunchtime rallies are growing and spreading all the time. Leaders and orators are emerging from their midst. These rallies are showcasing new directions, nurturing determination and stamina, producing mass resolve for a basic shift of power in our society. As a child growing up in New York City, I could never stand bullies. The downtown skyscrapers are full of bullies of a different kind, bullies in three-piece suits, and they're at work all the time. What's different these days is that when they look out their windows, they see the ranks of those who will send them home sniveling in the very near future. And it's worth noting the rendezvous points for some of the ralliers: fraternal organizations like the Elks, Kiwanis, and Knights of Columbus, women's clubs, senior centers, farm associations, union halls and churches, even the VFW and the American Legion. Sure, not all of them or even most of them, but who would have thought that thousands of members of such groups are joining the ralliers? The rebellion is swelling -- just what Thomas Jefferson called for in our country from time to time."
"I'm Barry Diller, and you're wondering what I'm doing on this side of the bench. Hey, media moguls are people too. Broadcasters can be broad-minded citizens too. I've chosen to use whatever influence and knowledge I have in the cause of my county and its aborted promise. The big media outlets are straitjacketed by their clients' advertising dollars. They ignore the voices of conscience and the cries of affliction among our people. I want to see the public airwaves reverberate with these voices and cries. The people own the airwaves that we in the industry use so freely and so lucratively. The people must reclaim their property in the public interest and use it to air suppressed or unpopular views, calls for change, demands for responsible government and accountable corporations. The first test will come in Congress, that stained and monetized arena, when the Agenda for the Common Good is introduced. We ask viewers and listeners to join with us in support by e-mailing us at info@RedirectAmerica.org or logging onto our website, RedirectAmerica.org. The power of good people pulling together for the good life can overcome all opposition, no matter how wealthy, greedy, and powerful. Organized power can only prevail over unorganized people. Join together, throw off that subservience, speak your minds, and power shifts in your favor. Take it from someone who knows a little about corporate power and who has been corporate power until recently."
"Well, that's it folks," Phil said, returning to the podium. "I want to second Barry's invitation to the viewers at home to extend their talents and time to the Agenda for the Common Good. The forthcoming action in Congress demands action back where you live and work -- in your cities, towns, villages, farms, and neighborhoods. What you do there will feed the thunder rolling over your senators and representatives. The Agenda consists of seven bills -- we call them the Seven Pillars of the Common Good -- so simply select the one best suited to your interests and talents and put whatever time you can afford behind it. Be part of this rising citizen movement to shape the future for the benefit of all Americans now and to come. The RedirectAmerica.org website is packed with information and ways to participate at all levels, and it will guide you to others in your community working along the same paths. We need you, folks, and thanks. Now we'll take questions for forty-five minutes. Out of consideration for your fellow members of the fourth estate, please be brief, and please identify yourself and indicate which of us your question is addressed to."
Hands shot up by the dozens. Phil called on Basil Brubaker of the New York Times.
"My question is for Mr. Buffett. What if any legal entities are you all working through, how much money have you spent, and how much have you budgeted?"
"We are working through a number of nonprofit corporations, 501(c)(3)s and 501(c)(4)s, and several PACs. Each of us is also spending our own money, directly as individuals, on various improvement projects that have been reported in the press over the past half year. As for amounts, what the law requires to be reported is on the public record. What the law does not require will remain confidential, for reasons obvious to those of us in the business community -- you don't show your hand in a struggle where resources signal levels of capability and persistence."
Yoko popped up beside Warren at the podium. "You wouldn't expect Mr. Lobo and his clients to reveal their war chest, would you?"
"Lancelot Lobo, the corporate raider?" said Brubaker. "What's he got to do with it?"
"Surely you saw the full-page ad that an anonymous group of CEOs took out in the Wall Street Journal some weeks ago?" Yoko replied. "Well, Lobo is the spearhead they hired to lead the charge against the Agenda."
In the back of the room, a reporter recognized Lobo -- his picture was often in the papers -- and shouted, "Hey, he's right here!" For a few seconds Lobo was oblivious, utterly enthralled that Yoko knew his name and what he was doing, and those few seconds cost him his exit. In no time he was surrounded by reporters bombarding him with the basics of their profession: Who? What? Where? When? Why?
Phil rapped the lectern with his pen. "Can we please have order? Mr. Lobo, will you kindly go outside to answer their questions so we can finish up here?"
Lobo did not oblige. He did go outside, but he didn't stop to answer questions. Pursued by a dozen scribes, he no- commented his way to the elevator and down thirteen flights to the front door of the National Press Club, and thence into a fortuitously waiting taxicab that sped him away. Half of him was outraged by his outing, the other half was still in libido land. Fortunately, the taxi driver was talking on his cell phone in Urdu and did not try to converse with him. Unfortunately, the photographers got what they wanted, and their pictures would speak a thousand words in the next day's newspapers.
Back in the ballroom, the press conference resumed.
"James Drew, Washington Post. My question is directed to Leonard Riggio. Sir, there is an old saying that 'when you're everywhere, you're nowhere.' There are so many proposals in this Agenda and so many causes you've been espousing individually in the past six months that it seems to me you're spreading yourselves too thin and have no focus. Are you going to winnow your proposals down when Congress returns from its Fourth of July break?"
"We are working to build a deliberative democracy with a broad embrace. The more issues we take on, within limits, the more people will organize and swell their own leadership ranks. Down at the street and neighborhood level, they'll select the causes currently most pressing to them and take advantage of the winds of democratic possibility sweeping across our country. People are motivated by what Saul Alinsky, the legendary Chicago organizer, called 'perceived injustices.' And if you study the Agenda more closely, you'll see that it is in fact a very careful and detailed winnowing down of urgent and long-unaddressed needs and reforms into seven precisely drafted bills. Taken together, they represent a great advance in two respects: the substantive improvement of the material conditions of life in our country, and the expansion and safeguarding of our democratic institutions."
"Mark Melville of CBS. Mr. Diller, are your television and radio networks going to support the Clean Elections Party and its candidates, and if so, just how do you intend to do that without violating FCC and FEC rules?"
"Simple, Mr. Melville. We'll report all the news on all the candidates who have something to say or have done something of note. We'll do features and interviews and sponsor open debates for all ballot-qualified candidates of all parties, large and small. The Clean Elections Party is running exclusively on the single most important issue of electoral reform -- money in politics. It has pledged to disband once it secures public financing of public elections in law and in fact. It has over fifty candidates on the ballot, among them challengers to the most senior incumbents in the House and ten of the most powerful senators. Finally, what I do to support candidates as a private citizen is between me and the Federal Elections Commission, as it is for everybody."
"Laurie Newsome, ABC, question for anyone. I've been covering Capitol Hill for years, and I can tell you that Congress and its committees have a whole arsenal of tactics for delaying, hamstringing, and hogtying legislation. What makes you think you can steer your Agenda quickly through the congressional maze of arcane rules and procedures?"
"I'll take the question," Bernard said. "First of all, our deep awareness of the workings of Congress as you describe them underlies all our efforts in this regard. You will see that our relative inexperience on Capitol Hill, though some of us have lobbied it often, does not translate into naivete about what it's going to take. I might add that the members of Congress have no experience whatsoever with what's coming at them from the folks back home. What's more, among our allies in this fight is a group of seasoned former legislators and staffers who know the rules inside and out. Some of them helped write the rules. They know the escape hatches, the dodges, the moods that can sweep Congress into action. Corporations push their special bills through Congress all the time. We'll just be doing it on a grander and more public stage."
"Rita Dawn, Associated Press. Ted, what can you tell us about your Billionaires Against Bullshit? Will you release their names? What they are working on? How much they are donating?"
"Well, you know some of them already. Jerome Kohlberg on campaign finance reform, the ones who are after Wal-Mart, the ones interviewed in Billionaires on Bullshit. I'll ask those who haven't gone public yet whether they're open to interviews. There's a lot of autonomy among these billionaires, as you might expect."
"Alberto Adelante, Univision. Speaking of Wal-Mart, are you trying to destroy it, Mr. Price?"
"As I've said on previous occasions, what we're trying to do is give workers an opportunity to form a union, if they so choose, without intimidation and Wal-Mart SWAT teams descending on them. The overall objective is to turn Wal-Mart into a pull-up giant instead of a pull-down behemoth outsourcing its suppliers to China, hollowing out communities, offloading its responsibilities to its workers onto the American taxpayer, and driving its competitors to break their labor agreements and downgrade wages and benefits. Otherwise the vast Wal-Mart sub-economy will keep metastasizing and depress the standard of living for millions of American workers. This is not the way our economy grew in the past."
"Charlene Jepson of the Liberator, question for Bill Cosby. How do you feel in this sea of white men?"
"Andy, the Meliorists are all about justice. Justice is color-blind. We speak of the people, not blacks or Latinos or Asians or Anglos. Segregating our attention to injustice peels off those not in the circle of concern. Look at the white working- class males who've been turned off by identity politics and whose alienated votes have helped make corporatist right-wing government possible."
"Archibald Aldrich, National Review. You are aware, I presume, of the recent torrent of petitions to the federal regulatory agencies, seeking to regulate to death just about everything that moves in the business community. You come from business. Are you responsible for these petitions, directly or indirectly, and how do you justify them without calling yourselves socialists or worse? And what do you call yourselves, other than Meliorists. Are you a collective, a collaborative, a cooperative, a joint partnership, an association, what?"
"They're a conspiracy," yelled Fred Froth of Fox News, "and they've finally admitted it!"
"A bunch of billionaire codgers getting together over their Postum to improve the country?" Sol said. "You want to call that a conspiracy, be our guest."
"I'll take Mr. Aldrich's question," Max said over a wave of laughter. "The names of the authors of those public petitions are on the petitions. They hail from consumer organizations that want your car to be safer and your food healthier, from environmental groups that want your air and water to be cleaner, from taxpayer associations that want your public property to be rented and not given away to private companies, from a whole array of groups that want your procurement dollar to be efficient and free from graft, your aircraft to be equipped with the latest safety features, your highways to have fewer potholes, your medicines to be thoroughly tested, your hospitals to be more competent and less infectious, your antimonopoly and corporate crime laws to be enforced, and -- of particular interest to those in your economic class, Mr. Aldrich -- your investments to be free of fraud, deception, and conflicts of interests. Without endorsing every iota of the petitions, the Meliorists supported these groups in going before the agencies and demanding a hearing at long last, after being shut out for decades by both parties in power. Meliorists are for betterment, remember. As for your second question, no, we are not incorporated or in a partnership. We are a voluntary association of individuals coordinating, collaborating, and cooperating with one another in what we believe to be the national interest."
"Stan Rustin of the Dallas Morning News. Who are your allies in the Senate and House? Surely you know their names."
"They're the ones who are sponsoring and signing on to the various bills about to be introduced," Bernard said, "so you'll know when we know."
"Tom Tempestiano, Newsweek, three-part question for all of you. Are you willing to testify before congressional committees, are you willing to debate your opposite corporate numbers, and are you predicting victory for your Agenda before Election Day?"
"Yes and yes to your first two questions," Warren said. "As for the third, we are not predicting victory for the Agenda, but we believe the people of this country will be victorious before Election Day. We believe their organized mobilization will affect the congressional elections and will make the Clean Elections Party a force to reckon with if the clean elections plank of the Agenda doesn't pass this time around."
"Danielle Demure of Spectrum News. I'm a reporter for your syndicate of stations in Washington, DC, Mr. Diller, and I fear that in the coming days my colleagues will view me as compromised because of your open involvement with the Meliorists. They'll say I'm not objective, and there will be rumors of your heavy hand. I'll deny any pressure to slant or hold back, since there's been none, but I need to know the nature of your Chinese Wall. And I have a follow-up."
"Ms. Demure, my policy is that reporters should be diligent and inquiring and call things as they see them. My partisanship will be channeled into paid television and radio ads at market rates, on stations where I have no equity interest and my company has no ownership share. My philosophy of news is to report on all subjects of importance, not just on the doings of the political and economic establishment. It's news if voters are viewing or listening to more voices and choices. It's news if new information is coming forth, regardless of how powerful or lowly the messenger. That is standard ideal journalism. Both the overdogs and underdogs in our society deserve coverage."
"My follow-up is on your drive to get the electronic media to pay rent for the use of the public airwaves. I know that Channel 7 and other stations rejected your ads. What's the latest?"
"Well, as you know, our ads urged rental payments to the Federal Communications Commission. We suggested recycling these payments back into cable access stations and other media access programs for improved content on behalf of the audience. The current plan is to have the stations within our own networks announce that in lieu of paying the FCC rent for their licenses, they'll pay into a nonprofit fund to do what I've just described. Through our publicized example, we expect Congress and the FCC to come around and end this eighty-year-old giveaway of public property. We hope the communities we serve will be so pleased with our financial donation to their own participation in their own programming that they'll spread the word around the country and to Washington, DC."
"Paul Profitikoff of the website Business Hourly. Mr. Paulucci, how do you think big business is going to react to your Agenda? Please give us a detailed response."
"Well, some of my colleagues will probably want to respond to your astute question too, but for my part, here's what you can expect. The entire corporate community will gear up and do its thing, steering more campaign money to its indentured servants on the Hill, whipping up its dealers and agents and franchisees, beefing up its full-time lobbying staff; plastering TV screens with lurid ads predicting the destruction of the free enterprise system -- to the detriment, of course, of working families everywhere. They'll have their allies on key committees try to stymie or stall the legislation through procedural maneuvering. Nothing surprising here. They'll try every destructive tactic at their disposal to keep our country from moving forward."
"If they're really stupid, they'll try to smear us," Bill Cosby said. "Not directly, of course, but through surrogates. Just look what happened to John McCain during the Republican primary in South Carolina in 2000. We have investigators of our own, and we're prepared to respond."
"Did you see Mr. Lobo a few minutes ago?" Yoko chimed in. "The CEOs who hired him did so because they don't believe the traditional business response to perceived threats is enough. I respectfully urge all of you to find out more about Lobo's operation and his backers. Perhaps they can be persuaded to have a news conference such as this one."
"Lady Lake of the Arkansas Baptist News. There's a big dose of the holier-than-thou in what you all say, yet none of you seem to be religiously inspired in any way. Can it be reported that you believe yourselves to be in possession of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? And aren't you more than a bit arrogant if you are your own highest authority?"
"I'm delighted to answer your question, Ms. Lake," George said. "We believe in the open society, where minds are persuaded through reason and fact, through genuine concern and earned trust. One of my university professors, Karl Popper, convinced me long ago that we must always revisit and revise what we think and do, because we can never know all the complexities of human behavior and the forces of nature. That means that all voices must have the right of expression and access to the means of expression, especially when communications technology uses the public's property. All of us have obviously been around, and have accumulated a fund of experience from which we've developed a sense of the fundamentals of the good society, the good life. We've decided to engage our beliefs in a fight for these goals, a clean fight, honestly undertaken. We haven't discussed among ourselves what our religious or antireligious beliefs may or may not be, but we all believe very much in the wisdom of the Golden Rule, as you see from our insignia. And we don't mean that they who have the gold rule. It's just the opposite: those who must rule will likely have very little gold, for they are the people."
"Michele Mirables of USA Today. I've repeatedly heard you refer to 'the people' as the force that will turn the situation around in our country. What exactly do you mean by 'the people'?"
"For six months the media has been covering what we mean by 'the people,''' Max said. "We mean 'the people' who have stepped forward on so many fronts in so many ways, we mean the millions who've indicated by their actions a readiness to exert themselves individually and in an organized civic manner, to recruit others to the cause, and to accept the assistance we've offered. Like a venture capital firm jump-starting small innovative companies, we and an ever-enlarging base of the super-rich have fostered these efforts and will continue to do so. We are coining a saying, Ms. Mirables: 'It takes organized money to take on organized money.'''
"That doesn't sound very American."
"Oh, but it is, Ms. Mirables, it is. Read your Tocqueville. 'Americans when confronted with a need quickly form an association to treat it,' he wrote some hundred and seventy years ago. We're just upping the ante and quickening the pace. Some commentators have described what we're doing as the revolt of the older super-rich against the entrenched super-rich. A little oversimplified, of course, but essentially accurate for a culture with a boxing match mentality. Sparks will surely fly, and you in the media will decidedly be yawning less."
"David Roader, Washington Post syndicated columnist. I'd like to inquire where you're heading with your high-voltage movement. With apologies, none of you are spring chickens. There must be limits even to your energy. My guess is that you've spent and are spending billions of your own dollars, and as impressive as that is, your opponents can far outspend you in all categories. Would any of you like to comment?"
"Mr. Roader," said William Gates Sr., "there is a consensus among us that is best summed up by that grand citizen of a united Europe, Jean Monnet, who knew without people, nothing is possible and without institutions, nothing is lasting. That is precisely what the Meliorists are about. That is why some of you may be surprised by the strong popular support for the Agenda for the Common Good. We're not talking about a flurry of e-mails or phone calls to Congress. You, sir, are about to see a civic outpouring such as you have never seen in all your years of distinguished reporting. I was informed a few seconds ago that even as we conduct this live news conference, five hundred thousand Americans have already emailed us or visited our website to express their eagerness to participate on the ground. That alone will not provide the necessary cutting edge, but with the requisite resources, many of these motivated citizens will become community leaders in neighborhood after neighborhood. Many of them will join the new democratic institutions that have been established in recent months, like the Congress Watchdogs, the People's Chamber of Commerce, and the consumer, taxpayer, and labor CUBs. They will find themselves sustained, advised, and defended by a well-appointed infrastructure of resolve, experience, and stamina. We have observed that these institutions and the people involved at all stages are multiplying themselves without any central direction. The one cohesive element here is the determination to forge a better country, an exemplary economy, a caring society -- all the goals of the Agenda. People are beginning to believe in themselves and their vaunted sovereignty in our republic. Remember, the preamble to our Constitution starts with 'We the People.' Those whom FDR once scorned as 'economic royalists' are about to be dethroned. We expect that small numbers of these latter-day royalists will abdicate voluntarily and join us in becoming responsible elders for our posterity."
"Tamika Slater of the Nation. Let's be candid. Big business is like a giant accordion: it can expand its war chest to meet the occasion. It has so much in reserve, so many ultimatums it can issue to make opponents in Congress and elsewhere cave. The business response Bill Cosby and Jeno Paulucci predicted doesn't begin to take the measure of their means. What makes you so confident?"
"I'll tell you what," Joe said. "Many of my colleagues are too modest to say so, but they've been spectacular successes in the world of big business. They know how it operates, what moves it, how it bluffs, and when it's likely to buckle under pressure and make mistakes. They have the feel, like people say I have the feel of the courtroom. They know many of these CEOs and bosses personally, some from when they were in middle management years ago. They've played golf with them, gone to their children's weddings, and negotiated deals with them. So I have to disagree with my colleague Leonard Riggio. Whatever you may predict about the pending battle in Congress, you can't accuse the corporations, their trade associations, and Mr. Lancelot Lobo of being bullies. This time around, they're up against guys their own size. We know the business lobbies are in charge of the economy. We know they can destabilize the economy, start making noise about shipping more plants and offices abroad because of 'overregulation' and the rest of their bullhorns of alarm. But they're not going to get away with it. Our Agenda is in tune with the needs and aspirations of the people, and the people are the ones who vote. And Patriotic Polly will have a thing or two to say about the Agenda too."
Scattered applause floated through the ballroom.
"Reginald Sesko of Business Week. Are you implying that the business lobbies would actually stoop to deliberately damaging the economy they're profiting from? Isn't that a little conspiratorial, Mr. Jamail?"
"Not at all, in the sense you mean the word, and their strategy will not be so crude. But of course they're going to conspire in the original dictionary meaning -- they're going to work together intensively -- and of course they won't be doing it in the mall. When Congress starts to light up for the Agenda, when the lawsuits, regulatory petitions, and rallies are placed in the context of what's happening here in Washington, the stock markets may go down a little, and then the corporate flacks and pundits will start talking about 'the deteriorating business climate.' Comparisons will be drawn with the more favorable and often tropical climate in other countries that beckon US companies to flee their native land and bring their jobs and capital with them. 'Business confidence is battered,' we'll be told. Well, it's a gigantic bluff. As long as this is the most lucrative market in the world. as long as foreign companies are still beating down the door to get into the US marketplace, we'll be able to call that bluff in front of the American people. You see, we've got the resources."
Warren consulted his Timex. The forty-five minutes were up. Some of the reporters had already left to file their stories. The cameramen were packing up since there would be no one-on-ones afterward. He stepped to the lectern.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the time allotted for questions is exhausted. You'll have further opportunities to question any or all of us should you wish to take them. Please note that we're each handling our own media requests. I'm sure that I speak for all of us in thanking you for attending. Be sure to sign the clipboard if you didn't on the way in. You all have copies of the Agenda and further information in your press kits. And once more, to the live audience, please get in touch with us so we can get in touch with you and join together to lift our society to the highest levels of human possibility. Again, the website is RedirectAmerica.org and the e-mail address is info@RedirectAmerica.org. And now, good day from the Meliorist Society."
With Warren in the lead, the seventeen stalwarts strode out of the ballroom as briskly as they had entered, heaved a collective sigh of relief, and repaired to a popular new restaurant at V and Fourteenth Street NW, an area that was developing quickly. They had reserved a large private room for an afternoon of repast, relaxation, and reflection before going their separate ways. Earlier Bill Joy had made sure the room was secure.
Once the door closed, they broke into animated conversation about how well the news conference had gone overall and about the extraordinary Internet response that had registered right on the spot. Recruitment, they agreed, would be deliriously happy. "And beyond overworked. We ought to let them hire a couple dozen more people," Ted said. "Of course," came the unanimous response. With the tension diminishing, food had never tasted better, even though the menu was a little too heavy on the vegetables to suit Sol. The diners took their time with each course and filled the intervals between with their hopes for the critical month of July, when the Agenda and the hearings would tell their stories.
Meanwhile, somewhere in Maryland, Lobo was hitting bottom. After hurling himself headfirst into the cab, hurting his elbow in the process, he'd ask the taxi driver to head due north up Connecticut Avenue. At the District line, he told Urduman to keep going, straight to New York City. When he demurred, Lobo whipped out twelve crisp one-hundred- dollar bills and spread them out like a Japanese fan across the front seat. Urduman took one glance to his right, swooped the C-notes into his jacket pocket, and drove on. The cab's air conditioner was struggling on this warm summer day, and Lobo was sweating profusely, but not because of the heat. Pushing away thoughts of the fallout from the press conference, he took out his laptop and googled Yoko. There she was in all her pallid beauty, there were all the laudatory and envious and scurrilous articles written about her, there were her shoulder-shrugging dismissals and concise epigrams. He could barely contain himself.
But he had to. Though he knew he should be googling all the news stories about himself that must be flying around the country and the world, he couldn't bring himself to do it. He had to clear his head, assume the worst in print and photos, and prepare his recovery with his staff, his CEO superiors, and the media, which was no doubt mocking him at this very moment. Lobo had been down before, if not so personally. But his inner core of steel didn't distinguish between different kinds of down. He just had to connect his steel with his mind, his brain, his cunning, his resourcefulness, his imagination, his gift of jab. He had four hours in the cab, his cell phone off, his whereabouts unknown. He had to fight back his Yoko fantasies and concentrate, concentrate, concentrate.
His preliminary assessment of his predicament was that he had clearly been ambushed. Just as clearly, there was a leak or a mole or a bug in his suite of offices. Not likely the latter, because he debugged daily, but whatever the source -- which had to be found -- the damage was done. He and his clients had been put on the defensive, revealed publicly before they had chosen to reveal themselves. The CEOs were probably stunned. They would expect a call from him explaining what had happened. Worse, explaining himself. CEOs, at least publicly, were all about dignity. They had learned from their predecessors that lying, cheating, and stealing proceeded more smoothly on an appearance of dignity, a well-dressed style of prudent solidity and gravity. They expected these qualities not just in their corporate attorneys but in all their retainers. At all costs, preserve your public bearing and dignity, no matter what your mistresses might titter about privately or your wives might be thinking about your double personality.
Lobo decided to tackle the problem head-on and turn a swine's ear into a silk purse. He would go to his CEOs and admit that this was an ambush he hadn't foreseen. He would accept the temporary embarrassment and take the fall, but he would take the hard fall and use it to bounce back more formidably than ever. That was the way he was built. "You have a fighting mad Lobo now," he would tell the CEOs, they of the pursed lips and folded arms, "and you know what a wolf aroused to fury can do to its enemies." Besides, with the gloves off and the spotlight on, he could marshal his forces without inhibition and roll out his attack ads earlier than planned. His growing band of bulldogs could leap into the fray because the war had been declared before the entire nation.
But Lobo wasn't sure his legendary tongue could carry the day. He knew he had to give his CEOs some insightful substance about the news conference and his evaluation of the Meliorists. He also knew that his usual keen powers of observation and analysis had been blunted by the heavenly Yoko, who had recognized him, anointed his name with her pretty lips, and obliterated his storied self-control. He reopened his laptop and began to read the transcript of the news conference, already online, to refresh his memory and fill in the gaps created by his lustful fantasies. He began to apply his fabled powers of concentration, absorbing and memorizing whole sequences, analyzing, synthesizing, and digesting them for the make-or-break meeting with the CEOs, who would no doubt summon him tomorrow morning on the double.
Passing Newark on the Jersey Turnpike, Urduman asked for directions. "Just follow the signs for the Holland Tunnel and I'll tell you what to do from there. I'm on the corner of fifty-third and Madison." When they arrived, Lobo tossed another hundred to the smiling driver, shook his hand, wrote down his license plate number, company name, and cab number, and went into the building in a hat and sunglasses. It was 5:45 p.m. He used a private door to enter his expansive suite, which now covered an entire floor. His secretary had left for the day. Still sweating and fantasizing, Lobo peeled off his clothes, took an ice-cold shower, toweled down, and prepared to do battle. It was going to be a long night. There was an emergency message on his desk phone and another on his computer: "CEO Jasper Cumbersome summons you to an executive session at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow morning, no ifs, ands, or buts." Leaning back in his leather chair, he thought, "Well, I guess I'm lucky they didn't fire me on the spot. It's their curiosity that saved me. Besides, I know too much." He felt his confidence and composure swelling.
The night wore on and Lobo wore well. He was at the height of his powers and combativeness. He would turn adversity into an aggressive asset. He would show the Meliorists that you could humiliate Lobo once but you'd pay for it in multiples. He prepared his presentation for the next morning step-by-step. His plan of attack would soar far above his casual but respectful explanation of what happened at the news conference. At 3:20 a.m. he went home to catch a few hours' sleep, just enough to give him the edge he wanted. At 8:56 a.m., he checked in with Cumbersome's secretary.
In the penthouse boardroom, the CEOs were not in a good mood. They were shaken by the Meliorists' cool determination and extensive groundwork, and appalled by the front-page photographs of Lobo that had people lining up at the newsstands. Spread out on the conference table before them were shots of Lobo looking like a deer in the headlights when Yoko first mentioned his name, Lobo in his flight out the ballroom door, Lobo streaking toward the elevator, Lobo in the elevator surrounded by the press, looking like a snarling canine half-crazed with fright, and finally a posterior view of Lobo diving into the cab. The CEOs couldn't help laughing, furious though they were. It was bad enough that Lobo had suffered deep public humiliation, but what concerned them most was whether it would rub off on them. Thank God none of their names had been mentioned.
Enter Lobo, looking confident, with a calculated touch of contrition. "Good morning. What happened yesterday was caused by a mole somewhere in my office or a careless leak to a third party inimical to our interests. I deeply regret it and have already taken steps to insure that nothing like it will happen again. Its intent was to derail us. It will not," he said firmly, and proceeded to deliver his plan of attack before any of the bosses could break in. "A huge multimedia buy that will completely drown out the so-called Agenda for the Common Good is on for next week. Obviously, should there be another September-eleventh-type sabotage, it would melt the Meliorists down indefinitely, but God forbid. So our campaign to unmask these pseudo-capitalists starts by declaring a fact: Bernard Rapoport's late father was an immigrant from the Soviet Union and a confessed Communist who made no apologies. This first wave of ads will leave the impression that more shockers are on the way for the Meliorists at the personal level. In tandem with this campaign is another wave of ads that uncannily anticipate exactly what the Meliorists told the press we would do-- an endorsement, as I see it, of how effective our message will be. The themes here are that the Meliorists are ruinous to our nation's business climate and our economy's ability to meet the global competition, that they're destabilizing the workforce, that they're bent on costly overregulation that stifles innovation and productivity -- and all this because they're palpably in the grips of a late-life psychiatric crisis."
Lobo paused and swept the CEOs with his steely gaze as he walked to the boardroom's TV and slid a DVD into the player. The ads rolled forth, exquisitely produced and highly emotive, with a small line of type at the bottom identifying their sponsor as a group called For the USA.
For a long moment no one spoke. Lobo was beginning to wonder whether he'd misjudged the quality of the ads when Sal Belligerante said, "They're knockouts. Actually made my all-American blood boil. They catch your attention and keep it. No one will be hitting the remote during these commercial breaks."
"That's just a sampling," Lobo said. "We've got more ads covering every possible variation on the theme of SRO sabotage, tailored to our target states and congressional districts, and we've got them in print, radio, and Internet versions too."
"All well and good as far as it goes," said Justin Jeremiad, "but if your strategy is to slam them personally and at the same time meet their Agenda head on, it's not going to be enough, given what we saw on C-SPAN yesterday. You need a third wave. What is it? With all the money you're spending, you better know by now. We have a lot less time to lose than we thought."
"The third wave? What is it?" Lobo asked, ever more confident that he was off the griddle and turning the tide. "The answer is you and you and you," he said, pointing his finger at the CEOs in turn.
"Just what do you mean by that?" asked CEO Celeste Thackery, in attendance for the first time.
"The third wave is for each of you to take responsibility for threatening to shut down a major US plant or operation and transfer it abroad if these regulations and bills go into effect. You can do it directly or via your extended network of CEO friends. It can't be a bluff, although you can, of course, announce plans already formulated months ago in private to take the plant abroad. That's probably the easiest way to go for the immediate future. Be sure that whatever countries are named aren't all in one region -- for example, China, China, China would create too many problems. It's hard to go after Bernard Rapoport's Communist father while announcing that you're going to lay off workers here and ship whole factories to a giant Communist dictatorship."
Wardman Wise was nodding in approval. "Yes, Lobo, I think what you seek can be arranged on an expeditious schedule. Plants are going overseas every day, to Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam, and our friends at the Department of Commerce will give us their daily listings, which they used to make public but now do not, for obvious political reasons."
"Excellent, Mr. Wise. To continue. Now that their cat is out of the bag and we've seen their Agenda, we can push the steak-and-potatoes lobbying drive by the Washington corporate establishment. We've already touched base with eighty- two trade associations, fifteen public relations firms, twenty-seven boutique lobbying groups with a heavy presence of former members of Congress and former top congressional staffers, and twenty-six of the most powerful corporate law firms. We put some noses a little out of joint on first contact -- 'Who the hell are you, newcomer?' -- but we quickly mollified them by mentioning our principals and our superior information about the SROs. In Washington power circles, inside information is mother's milk, the currency they trade in, and they realized that by comparison with your humble retainer's knowledge, they were in the dark.
"In two days we're meeting with the directors of three hundred and eighty-two corporate political action committees (PACs) at a private and suitably secured hotel ten miles outside Washington. These PACs are personally well-connected with members of Congress who can be expected to be on our side. Because several dozen of these incumbents are being challenged by the Clean Elections Party, the PAC men will be unusually attentive. I welcome your observations and advice on this meeting, but first a word about yesterday's news conference. I'm sure you all have your own impressions, and I'd like to hear them. For my part, having sat in that room and felt the atmosphere, I can only repeat that these are not dilettantes arrayed against us. We're up against seventeen tough hombres who are supremely confident as a team and individually."
"You forgot the lady, Mr. Lobo'" interjected Celeste Thackery.
"Yes ... yes, of course, the lady ... Yo ... Ms. Ono." Lobo bit back the dreamy smile his lips were trying to form. "As I was saying, the so-called Meliorists did not seem rehearsed. There was nothing slick or scripted in their presentations and answers, and that made the reporters less aggressive than I thought they'd be, even though we know many of them are liberals, unlike their CEOs. The press didn't dwell on the public mobilizations of the last six months -- didn't even ask about the lunchtime rallies, for God's sake -- but it's clear that the SROs are behind all this activism, which is increasingly taking on a life of its own, though most of the money still comes from them and their billionaire friends. Throughout the press conference, there was a disarming quality to the SROs' demeanor and an authentic ring to their words, and I emphasize this point because, as you know, they expressed an eagerness to debate you or any CEO of your choice. The media won't ignore that challenge and will soon be asking who's going to step forward from your ranks, so you've got to make it a priority to find seventeen CEOs who are capable of taking them on in public."
There was an awkward silence around the conference table, until Ichiro Matsuda finally said, "Mr. Lobo, we are active, full-time, busy executives. They are retired and have nothing but time on their hands for their hobbyhorses. Let's have our own retired CEOs debate them."
"I don't think that will go over very well with the press," Lobo said. "And given the wave of valedictories from their retired CEOs, our retired CEOs are going to be less inclined than ever to get into this hornet's nest. Besides, they won't be up to snuff on current controversies and accusations.
"But to return to the press conference, you may have noticed that numerous persons in the audience were not reporters. Nothing unusual about that, except maybe the three gentlemen from reputable private detective firms who were there on our nickel to get a feel for their subjects of interest. There is obviously more to learn about the SROs and their force fields, much more indeed. I'll call the PIs tomorrow with further instructions, the details of which would only bore you. I've also got some sartorial and behavioral advice for them. It's amazing how even the most seasoned private dicks haven't figured out that they have to dress casually, loosen up, and smile once in a while. They're worse than ever now that their profession is so automated."
"Automated, Mr. Lobo?" asked CEO Lester Manchester III.
"Just a way of saying they use more gadgets these days to ply their trade. Now, to continue, I didn't detect any body language indicating envy, disagreement, or dismay in the rest of the SRO lineup when one of them was speaking. Given their legendary egos, I can only presume that their leader, probably Warren Buffett, carefully selected them so that they wouldn't work at cross-purposes and would each have their own unique missions along with the common cause. As for their clutch of legislation, as I've said before, it consists primarily of proposals the corporate world has defeated in the past, so there's no wheel to be invented here. However, what we don't know is what furies may be released in the form of riders and other bills if the revolt of the SROs and their masses gets out of hand. If you know what I mean."
"What do you mean, Lobo?" said Wardman Wise a little impatiently.
"I mean that the revolt may catch on to such a degree that both we and they lose control over it as it moves for a peaceful but for us decidedly uncomfortable rearrangement of the power grid -- and I'm not talking about electricity. I mean that the revolt may become a genuine popular revolution."
CEO Wise shuddered visibly. "I see," he said.
Lobo tried to resist the feeling that he now had the CEOs in the palm of his hand, but he didn't try hard. "In a few days we should know which of the bills will be introduced when. I'll brief you in detail then, but we can't wait. My first two waves and your third wave have to roll out now if we are to take the offensive and not be caught napping."
"The way you were yesterday," said CEO K. Everett Dickerson pointedly. "Quite candidly, Lobo, I still can't get over the collapse of your composure. You were hired in part because you're so quick on your feet. I myself have seen you in far more dire circumstances, when your corporate raids hung by a thread in a courtroom or when a reporter blindsided you at a news conference -- and wham! You always fired back with high-velocity effectiveness. Did something or someone distract you?"
Lobo froze, coughed three times to gain three seconds, took a drink of water to gain two seconds, excused himself to gain two more, and then manfully decided to tell the partial truth and nothing but the partial truth.
"Mr. Dickerson, I can only say that I was concentrating so hard on weaving together everything I was seeing and hearing that I was caught completely off guard. I certainly did not expect to be named. We all have a bad day now and then. It won't happen again, I assure you. You'll get more than your dollar's worth."
This last twist generated a few chuckles among the CEOs, along with a good deal of quiet admiration for the agility of Lobo's answer. Jasper Cumbersome looked around the table at his colleagues and summed up the sense of the meeting.
"Well, Lobo, you've reassured us once again, but you must realize that your margin of error is narrowing. Let's conclude and reconvene in a few days to hear your update. You have your work cut out for you, judging by the media's treatment of the Meliorists. Pretty respectful overall, and some editorials were actually laudatory. Your flight made them look better than they would have, unfortunately."
Lobo could not let this remark pass. He had to leave the meeting on his terms. "Unfortunately and temporarily, Jasper. The psychological makeup of Americans is such that they often favor people who stumble, who show some human frailty. Consider the election campaigns of our recent presidents, who actually surged with the voters when the media hound dogs were trumpeting a weakness, a deficiency, a faux pas. Shrewdness can often turn a setback into a gain. And before we leave here today, I want to add one more observation from the news conference. I didn't notice even a whiff of reluctance in any of the SROs, no voluntary or involuntary indication that they were being led faster than they wanted to go or pushed along by peer pressure. Can you all say the same? Do you all without exception feel the same dynamic harmony and symmetry of energy? It does make a difference when the rubber hits the road, you know."
"Lobo," declared Samuel Slick, "this is as smooth an operation as any collection of prominent, successful, rich CEOs can be. Not even a conspiracy of price-fixers fearful of discovery would operate with such perfectly meshing gears. Fear makes for a powerful glue."
"Well, on that reassuringly sticky note, I bid you a brief farewell and plunge back into my twenty-hour days," Lobo said, and turned to stride out of the boardroom, confident that he had commanded the high ground.
After the door closed, the CEOs shook their heads in amazement at Lobo's suave performance. "Could any of us have pulled the rabbit out of the hat like that in a similarly intimidating environment?" asked Roland Revelie unnecessarily as the meeting broke up.
Lobo got back to his office at 12:25 p.m. and went in by the side door to skim the newspapers laid out on his desk and review some television news tapes. At 1:00 p.m. he went on the office intercom to summon his chief aide de camp and field captains to a meeting in the conference room in an hour. Then he conducted a rigorous review of all the operational mandates and sub-mandates, with their precision timetables and repeated checks before launch.
At 2:00 p.m. sharp, Lobo stood before his dozen captains at the end of a long, narrow mahogany table. A student of history, he had studied photographs of dictators with their subordinates and noticed that the conference table was always long, narrow, and rectangular, with the dictator dominating at the head. No round tables for him. His was a premeditated table.
"O captains, my captains!" he began, knowing that most of them wouldn't catch the reference. Still, it pleased him to invoke Lincoln at this grave hour. "The war is at hand, and we shall strike the first blow. You all have your missions, and I trust you have studied them down to the last detail. Remember, they must fit together as tightly as the stones of the ancient Egyptian pyramids."
"Boss," said Brad Bashem, a seasoned gut-fighter in the political trenches of the past four decades, and an admirer of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Bashem was in charge of Wave One. It was his job to choreograph the business about Bernard Rapoport's father. "Boss, that Commie ad is just too soft. It needs some scarier footage -- Soviet tanks rolling into Budapest, the Rosenbergs, Stalin blockading Berlin --"
"Stalin who?" asked one of the younger captains.
"Oh, Christ," growled Bashem.
With any doubts about the Lincoln reference dispelled, Lobo proceeded to explain to the young man as patiently as possible who Joseph Stalin was and what his regime had done after Lenin's death, and then he explained who Vladimir Lenin was. "All right, enough history lessons," he said. "What do the rest of you think about the ad?"
"I think Brad's right," said Captain Brig Bigelow, who was responsible for Wave Two, the series of print and television ads straight from the old business playbook, with their dire warnings about the catastrophic consequences of passing legislation designed to improve people's lives: THE SKY IS FALLING, AND IT WILL LAND ON THE WORKERS AND THEIR FAMILIES!
Lobo frowned. "Well, maybe you're right. I'll call the Beef Busters and ask them to work something up fast," he said, referring to a Madison Avenue ad agency renowned for thirty-second and one-minute masterpieces that had crushed advocates of even the most appealing and necessary substantive reforms. One of their more recent victories was over bereaved mothers seeking safer crib designs. The Beef Busters left the fluff fights to their lesser colleagues on the Avenue. In the office, they routinely used language like "masticate them," "show the fangs," "send the bleeding hearts to solitary," and "drain the blood from their veins." The office walls were covered with bloodcurdling stills from just about every vampire movie ever made. The war room where they devised their frightful mind-lasers was called Transylvania. The name of their numero uno was Horatio Hadestar, and the firm's business card featured its motto in ghoulish calligraphy: "We push the envelope."
"Are you sure about that, sir?" asked Lobo's aide de camp, Lawrence Nightingale, in a tone of prudent alarm. "Don't the attributes that make the Beef Busters so compelling to us also increase the risk of their going too far? Of course we'll have final review, but we're on an extremely tight schedule, and we may not have time to send them back to the drawing board. And those are very forceful personalities over there."
"Here too," Lobo snapped, "but I applaud your sensitivity to our time constraints, Larry. There can be no slippage. We're not at the nanosecond point yet, but we're getting closer. Equally important is the targeting of our gamma rays, what marketers call positioning but I prefer to call beaming." Lobo paused and gripped the edge of the table. The moment he'd uttered the word "positioning," Yoko flashed into his brain. With a heroic effort, he shoved her back out, but not before some odd facial twitching that did not go unnoticed. Recovering, he proceeded to bark commands regarding the placement strategy for the ads, which he had formulated after much careful mining of data. He assigned one captain the task of tracking the ads in the chosen congressional districts and states so that the immediate fallout could be gauged and the campaign adjusted as necessary. He ordered another to follow the news closely and see what free publicity was provoked by the ads themselves so that such opportunities could be maximized over the coming weeks. The remaining eight captains he divided between Bashem and Bigelow for the urgent work of contacting the media and making the actual buys.
"Exactly how long do we have, boss?" Bashem asked. "When do we declare war? Have you finalized the date yet?"
Lobo gave his captains an ironic smile. "Fourteen July." Bastille Day, another reference that would go right past them. "Next Friday. One week and one day from today."
Groans followed -- that meant another weekend in the office -- but soon yielded to whistles and cheers. Lobo's troops were ready to see some action.
The Meliorists were not idle on that key weekend before the launch of the Agenda. Boisterous rallies filled one city square after another all over the country. Mass Demonstrations made note of one of the better banners, held high by a Congress Watchdog contingent in the Pittsburgh march: "What's the Big Deal About the Agenda's Fair Deals? We Earned Them!"
These were no ordinary marches and rallies. They were professional to the last detail. Experience was adding up. The press could see the cool determination on the faces of the speakers, organizers, and participants. Buckets were passed through the packed crowds for contributions, giving the people a stake in the whole funding effort. Dick Goodwin's pamphlet was passed out by the thousands to eager hands -- the demonstrators were people who read. Some reporters tried random interviews in hopes of showing that these masses were of the great unwashed variety and were being used by the SROs, but their hopes were dashed by the sophistication and plain eloquence of the interviewees. Clearly, months of work had paid off for the Meliorists, who among them managed surprise appearances at twenty-two of the rallies, to the delight of the crowds. The erudite Bernard got a huge ovation at Cowboy Stadium in Dallas, of all places, when he hollered over the public address system, "You know why there are so many Texas rednecks? Because they're red-hot mad about injustice, and they're not going to take it anymore. When they pledge allegiance to the flag and say those last words, 'with liberty and justice for all,' they're going for it big-time -- Texas big-time, and you know it doesn't get any bigger here in the USA." The crowd went wild with laughter and applause, "rednecks" and progressives alike.
The rallies and marches weren't the end of it. By the thousands the participants walked to the local offices of their representatives and senators and formed human chains around the buildings, even the larger federal buildings. No one was inside on a weekend, of course. The purpose of the encirclement was to take photographs, email them to the legislators, and leave huge blowups at the entrances next to big signs that read, "The First of Many Bear Hugs. We'll be back. Love, The People." Other ralliers headed to any number of storefronts that the Redirections projects and their offshoots had rented in low-income neighborhoods. These storefronts were rapidly coming to be viewed as backbones of the community, places staffed with knowledgeable advisers who could tell people where to get help, how to qualify for public services, how to find work or get refunds. Many of the local residents came out to join the marchers in going from tenement to tenement to enlist support for the Agenda.
All the Sunday news shows featured segments on the rallies, their commentators remarking on both the level of organization and the destinations of the marchers right after the rallies broke up. These were no ephemeral events that left behind nothing but bottles and cans, cigarette butts, and paper cups. They left some of that behind too, of course, but the debris was quickly collected, sorted for recycling, and taken away.
On Monday, July 10th, the first pillar of the Agenda for the Common Good was introduced in Congress: the $10.00 minimum wage, with exhaustive backup documentation on the human needs that would be addressed by it and the beneficial consequences that would flow from it.
Tuesday witnessed the introduction of comprehensive health insurance coverage for all citizens, taking off from Medicare but with many refinements in the areas of quality control, cost control, and organized patient participation in the oversight of this nationwide public payment program for the private delivery of healthcare. There would be no more corporate HMOs and many more health cooperatives, no more tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of undiagnosed injuries and illnesses every year. The backup documentation showed that the entire overhaul, preserving choice of doctors and hospitals, was less expensive than the present $6,500 per capita expenditure on healthcare. The statistics were all clearly explained, and the press ate them up, especially the estimated $200 billion annual savings from eliminating computerized billing fraud and abuse because there was only a single payer.
Wednesday was the day for comprehensive tax reform. This bill blew away all other topics on the cable and network news shows. It called for a 0.5 percent sales tax on all stock, bond, and derivatives transactions, higher taxes on pollution, gambling, manufactures of addictive products, and commercial entertainment, restoring tax rates for capital gains, lower taxes on the necessities of life, and a corporate tax neutralizing corporate welfare disbursements. Most dramatically, it abolished the federal tax on incomes below $100,000 per year, reduced or eliminated the blizzard of federal fees for public parks and museums and other public services, and projected a significant surplus. That evening the Meliorists consented to dozens of TV and radio interviews, chatting easily but with authority about the tax bill and the Agenda as a whole, studding their remarks with down-to-earth examples, and generally making viewers and listeners feel like their friendly neighborhood billionaire grandparent had dropped in for a visit.
Lobo watched it all with mounting concern, pushing his captains mercilessly day and night. His kiss fests with the young pit bull became more frequent. He swapped the carrot sticks for celery sticks because the orange tinge to his skin was heading toward pumpkin. He was munching on a celery stick when Horatio Hadestar arrived at noon on Wednesday with a DVD of the Rapoport ad that made Lobo blanch. Over footage of goose-stepping Red Army soldiers, mass starvation in the countryside in the wake of forced collectivization, and heavy iron doors clanging on emaciated prisoners, a stern voice intoned, "Communist dictator Joseph Stalin was one of the biggest mass murderers in history. So-called Meliorist Bernard Rapoport was sired by a Communist who was proud of it, both before he left the Soviet Union and after he immigrated to the United States. The deadly legacy of Communism runs through the Meliorists' so-called Agenda for the Common Good, their Red Plan for America. Guilt by association? Hardly. Bernard Rapoport rarely misses an opportunity to quote Papa. Tell your members of Congress to send the Meliorist Agenda back to Russia, where it came from. Call them at 202-224-3121 or log onto their websites and e-mail them today!"
"Hadestar, you've pushed the envelope right over the cliff," Lobo said when the ominous background music died down.
"Do you want to win or not, Lobo? The public is so saturated with advertising that you've got to hit 'em right between the eyes and sock 'em in the solar plexus. Deep down in your marauding soul you love it, Lobo. Admit it."
"I'm seeing beyond that, Hadestar. way beyond. I'm seeing your ad come back and kick us in the cojones -- not that you'd have much to worry about. I'll call you tomorrow."
As an indignant Horatio Hadestar stormed out of the office without a word, Lobo was already deep in reflection. Should he even bother sending the ad to Cumbersome and company? His reflections turned to reverie. He was back in Little League, pitching in the state championship game, his team ahead five to four in the final inning on his opponents' home field. He had just walked three straight batters, and the bases were loaded, with two outs and a three-two count. The coach gave his catcher the fastball sign, but Lobo threw the lanky batter a slider and struck him out to win the game. A slider in a situation like that was unheard of. Despite the win, the coach was furious, because he knew Lobo's insubordinate impetuousness would come back to haunt him on and off the ballfield.
The coach was right. Snapping himself back to reality, Lobo copied the DVD onto his computer and transmitted the ad to Cumbersome. Two hours later the CEO consensus came back: "So long as all the facts are exactly true, there is no reason to withhold it."
Lobo summoned Bashem and thrust the DVD at him. "Get this to all the media outlets on the A-list right away and report back first thing tomorrow," he commanded, already knowing what Bashem would tell him. There would be no static from the major networks and their particularly finicky morning talk shows, for the simple reason that the Meliorists wanted the broadcast industry to pay rent for the public airwaves. Presto, out went the standards-and-practices malarkey, in came pure self-interest. Open sesame! The Commie ad would be a go.
On Thursday morning. as Captain Bashem was delivering the report Lobo expected, the Solar-Carbohydrate Energy Efficiency Conversion Bill was introduced in Congress, with a dozen senators and a dozen representatives -- a mix of Democrats and Republicans -- as sponsors. They jointly declared America's energy needs a national emergency and urged passage of the bill as a blueprint for the future.
Ted Turner was the proud author of the bill's preamble, titled "The Ecology of Justice." With none of the joshing and sparring that usually marked his style, he portrayed America's dependence on fossil and nuclear fuel as a grave threat to national security, and the resultant pollution as a silent and expanding form of violence against the health and well-being of the citizenry. He described specific measures like closed-loop systems of pollution control, precycling, and recycling, in close coordination with relevant reforms of the tax system; he charted the course for an expeditious displacement of fossil and nuclear fuel through several innovative strategies to be laid out in the bill itself; and he persuasively connected it all with a soaring vision of the goals that could be achieved by enactment: clean air and water, a diminishment of environmentally caused disease, an expansion of affordable housing, and even an end to hunger.
The bill's first section dealt with new efficiencies for fossil fuel that would increase BTU productivity greatly over the next dozen years -- more output from less energy -- and reduce pollution as a result of the more efficient conversions. Backing up this feasible projection were written statements from the well-known experts Art Rosenfeld, Amory Lovins, and Paul Hawken. Section Two laid out an accelerated national solar energy mission -- passive solar architecture and active solar thermal, photovoltaic, biomass, wind, and some tidal. Section Three was devoted to fiscal conversions. It stripped the fossil and nuclear companies of all the tax breaks, subsidies, and rapid depredations that kept the playing field so uneven, and allocated these benefits to startup renewables at more modest levels. Federal procurement of products and buildings was to be guided by the massive solar conversion called for in Section Two, as was federal research and development. Reductions in government contracting waste would fund a program offering financial assistance to consumers who wanted to go green with their purchases and their homes. The final section dealt with citizen empowerment, asserting an affirmative government responsibility to facilitate the formation of advocacy, oversight, and cooperative associations dealing with energy matters. The idea was to aggregate the power of consumers -- economic and political -- at the consumption end of the energy production stream.
One new feature of the legislation's background documentation -- perhaps attributable in part to the Sun God festivals and sustainable economy shows -- was supportive testimony from a few representatives of coal, gas, oil, and nuclear power companies speaking the same language: "If the sun is profitable, we'll go sun. It's safer, it's cleaner, it's abundant, it's everywhere, no one can deplete it, expropriate it, or tax it, and it'll be around for another four billion years. Just make it profitable and we'll never look back." The documentation also included a predictable condemnation of the bill from the US Chamber of Commerce and a rousing endorsement from the PCC.
In his office in Manhattan, Lobo was receiving reports on the reaction to the energy legislation from his people on the Hill -- they were alarmed because there were more Republican defections to this bill than any of the others -- but he scarcely gave them a glance. He'd had a tip about a big announcement coming any minute from Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, and he was glued to C-SPAN. Sure enough, shortly before 11:00 a.m., CEO Leighton Clott strode to a phalanx of microphones in front of the headquarters building, flanked by his board of directors.
"Ladies and gentlemen, a brief statement. Throughout its history, Wal-Mart has succeeded because it has responded to reality. The past weeks have presented us with a new reality -- a drive of unprecedented organization, spearheaded from without, to make us abandon the business model that has worked so well for Wal-Mart customers and Wal-Mart shareholders for nearly half a century. Our new business model will require us to adjust prices to respond to higher wages and benefits. Henceforth Wal-Mart will offer no opposition, philosophical or operational, to unionization. If Wal-Mart associates want to establish themselves through union structures, store by store or nationwide, the board of directors and management will accept the collective bargaining choice and work through those frameworks for the benefit of our associates and our company. One last personal word, to Sol Price. Congratulations, Sol. You began your career as the pioneer of the modern discount chain, and you end it as the pioneer of the price hike movement. Thank you, and good day."
Lobo grabbed a handful of celery sticks. Oh, brother, talk about watching Goliath come crashing down. The Wal-Mart capitulation was really going to gum up the works. The story was huge, with way more than a day's worth of legs. It was a defeat by proxy of Lobo's CEOs. It was demoralizing. It would be seen as a people's victory, since the weeks and weeks of news coverage had focused not on Sol Price and his billionaires but on the workers, picketers, and small businesses -- the people, dammit! What would Lobo say to the CEOs? They'd want to know why he didn't see this coming, what he was going to do about the week's launch. What was he going to do? Should he delay the Commie ad or pull it altogether? Should he push back the rollout date for Wave Two?
Lobo sat at his desk wolfing celery sticks. He invited no counsel from his associates. He had to think this through alone. He went into the private suite adjoining his office, shut the door, and whistled for the pit bull. Then, feeling a little more relaxed, he turned off the lights, lay down on the couch, and allowed his 100 billion neurons, give or take, to whir.
Ten minutes of whirring later, he decided to let the Commie ad run the next evening as scheduled. For one thing, it would show weakness on the part of the CEOs to concede another setback and display hesitation in the midst of the first week's pitched battle. Besides, regardless of its reception, the ad would distract the Meliorists and the public, and cast the CEO front group as the aggressive, daring protagonist. It was time for action, not reaction. He would have no surprises for the CEOs. He would stay the course with his three waves. The Meliorists were the talk of the country, the talk of the talk shows, the talk of the news and the late-night comedy shows. There was no public patience for a detailed rebuttal of the Agenda legislation. The Meliorists had generated such a pervasive public mood in their favor that the need to reverse it with a negative campaign was greater than ever.
Lobo summoned his captains to his office over the intercom and gave them the final go-ahead for Operation Rapoport. He told them to anticipate every conceivable backlash to the Commie ad so they would have an instant response capability, with no loss of initiative for Wave Two next week. Then he called Hadestar and ordered an immediate modification of the ad. It had to end with a question, not a condemnation. Instead of a blunderbuss approach that might just blunder, it had to plant corrosive seeds of doubt.
The Wal-Mart news hit like a rocket. "Capitulation!" the late-edition headlines screamed. "Wal-Mart to Be Unionized!" "Stock Analysts Fear Inflation!" "PROs Bring Wal-Mart to Its Knees'" Reporters flooded Sol with requests for interviews. He decided to accommodate them with a brief press conference at a rented hotel ballroom in San Diego at 6:00 p.m. By 5:30 p.m., the place was packed to the rafters -- SRO, Sol noticed with a wry smile as he strolled in half an hour later and sat down at the front table. He had no statement other than, "I'll take your questions now."
"What led mighty Wal-Mart to capitulate so suddenly, given its longstanding take-no-prisoners reputation?" shouted Roger Diamond of the LA Times.
"Not so suddenly. Two factors. Management was beginning to lose some control to outsiders, and sales were down in a couple hundred stores. They saw these two trends continuing to intensify and decided like the smart company they are to cut their losses." Fran Jordan of CNN managed to get herself recognized amidst the clamor. "You say loss of control to outsiders. Were you the chief outsider, Mr. Price, and who are the rest?"
"A number of my fellow Meliorists and others known to you in a general sense -- some Wal-Mart workers, some ex-Wal- Mart workers, some competing small businesses, many peaceful picketers, and all mom-and-pop stores on the deserted Main Streets all over America. Oh, and several vocal billionaires who got their calls returned," Sol added, calling on a San Diego Union reporter he'd known for years.
"Wal-Mart says in effect that they're going to have to raise prices and you're to blame, Sol. Do you agree?"
"Would they have to raise prices if they lowered the price they pay in salaries, bonuses, stock options, and perks for their top executives and upper management? Wal-Mart has realized enormous savings from constant advances in labor productivity, through automation and the like. Would they have to raise prices if they passed those savings on to consumers? Just give me a look at their books and I'm sure I can help them find plenty of other ways to avoid raising their prices. In the meantime, their workers will have more money to spend on goods and services. Isn't that the way Costco operates? Isn't that good for the economy? Wasn't that always the way in our economy before Wal-Mart? Of course. And now just one more question, as I'm pressed for time this evening."
Abe Simon of the San Francisco Chronicle elbowed his way out of the pack. "Mr. Price, you took on the biggest corporation in the world and beat it. Are you proud of what you did? And what's your encore?"
"I think a better word is 'pleased.' I'm immensely pleased that billions of dollars a year will be going to underpaid, overworked Wal-Mart employees and their families. As for encores, you all saw the Meliorist news conference on the fifth, I'm sure. The victory over Wal-Mart will energize millions of low-paid workers to roll up their sleeves and rally behind our Agenda for the Common Good, now pending before Congress. It may also energize the CEOs amassed against us behind their chosen warrior, Mr. Lobo. That remains to be seen. Thank you for corning on such short notice."
Sol wasn't trying to dodge the media when he said he was pressed for time. He was not about to rest on his laurels regarding Wal-Mart. He foresaw a rush of existing unions moving in on the Wal-Mart scene to organize this large population of downtrodden workers one store at a time or one supply depot at a time. Sol had his sights set on one national Wal-Mart union, independent of other unions and setting high standards for union democracy and membership participation.
He went straight home from the press conference and got on the phone with his field organizers and SWAT teams. He told them to stay in place on the ground, keep working with the support constituencies of existing and former Wal-Mart employees, and let the small businesses in the five communities sell off their inventory. His plan was to use his great prestige with the Wal-Mart workers to call a national organizing convention in Chicago in early August. His teams were to find two representatives from each Wal-Mart Superstore and associated installations to send to Chicago. Sol continued to work the phones for the next two hours, until he had lined up all the necessary legal, negotiating, and logistical personnel, including three respected veteran labor negotiators who agreed to chair the proceedings. At the closed-circuit briefings that night -- the Secretariat had added an end-of-day wrap-up because of the pace of events -- the Meliorists agreed to pay travel and hotel expenses for the nearly ten thousand Wal-Mart workers to the convention.
In his heyday as king of the major discount chains, Sol had chosen his management staff with care, interviewing them personally and peppering them with questions and hypotheticals before taking them on board. He was a master at delegating responsibility, so much so that his family jokingly accused him of abdication. But it had worked then, and it would work now, in this final chapter of the Wal-Mart revolution.
Friday was drop-in-the-hopper day for the Equity in the Distribution of Wealth bill, which was far more nuanced than its title suggested. The preamble narrated the grim facts about the widening gap in returns on capital as compared with labor. It took crisp note of the winner-take-all nature of the contemporary economy, which rewarded the concentration of power, not merit or hard work or even, in most instances, innovation. It outlined four causes of the concentration of power in corporations and in the wealthiest classes: first, the maldistribution of the tax burden through loopholes and the diversion of taxpayer dollars into corporate welfare giveaways that swelled the coffers of big companies whose stock was held largely by upper-income investors; second, the maldistribution of law enforcement, not just in underenforcement against corporate crime and fraud, but also in negotiating paltry cash settlements of the few corporate prosecutions that were undertaken, without any admission of wrongdoing or any sanction against the corporations; third, the government corporate contracting complex, in which companies were allowed to keep patent rights to taxpayer-funded innovations and receive the unearned increment of government contracts -- from surges in the value of land or licenses, for example -- for other commercial and proprietary uses; and finally, the stupendous imbalance of political power, which was effectively in the hands of the giant corporations and gave them incalculable policy leverage on issues affecting their vested interests, such as the minimum wage and universal health insurance.
Following the bill's preamble were four sections paralleling these four causes with corrective legislation. What the Republican cosponsors liked about the legislation as a whole was that it would reduce the size of government, respect the use of tax dollars, crack down on corporate outlaws, and protect the public's property from being given away or sold for a fraction of its marketplace worth. They also liked the provision giving small business and regular people the same access to government as the big boys. They did not particularly care for Section Four, which provided for full public financing of federal elections, but they tolerated it because it was probably unconstitutional under the existing doctrine of "money is speech," and besides, they could probably lop it off during the give-and-take over the legislation should it move toward enactment. What they did not yet know but would shortly find out was that the progressives had put the public financing provision in several other bills in a form that would pass constitutional muster. Section Four was clever negotiating bait to give up in return for broader support from legislators. The bill's chief sponsor was not named Terrence Tradeoff for nothing.
Friday afternoon, as the corporate media was readying an all-out assault on the bill as "the mother of all class warfare legislation," the Meliorists blanketed the airwaves with the first of the series of ads they had prepared in anticipation of a Chicken Little scare campaign from their opponents. Lobo couldn't believe his eyes. He'd been scooped. He taped the Meliorist ads and watched them again and again, grudgingly admitting to himself that they were masterful -- ingenious, penetrating, and insightful. Thank God he hadn't decided to pull the Commie ad, which would air in just a few hours on the local evening news nationwide. Once again his native combativeness would prevail. Lobo didn't need Max Palevsky to tell him what words-over-deeds travesty was about to unfold. He knew in his bones which story was going to lead the nightly television network news, and it wasn't going to be a bill proposing the most radical redistribution of wealth in the nation's history. It wasn't even going to be the Wal-Mart debacle. No, the slider was going in again, and the game was his.
In Waco, Texas, Bernard was at home with his wife watching the CBS Evening News when lo and behold, onto the screen came a picture of Papa wearing his trademark 1930s fedora, then a contemporary head shot of Bernard, and then a sequence of historical footage narrated in a menacing baritone with even more menacing background music. Then Bernard's picture filled the screen again, and the voice asked, "Would you entrust your future, your children's future, to this man?"
Bernard sat stunned on the couch as anchorman Rob Shiffer, having played free of charge most of the ad that had run commercially an hour ago, proceeded to provide the context -- Bernard's appearance on Oprah back in January to promote his Egalitarian Clubs, the more recent activities of the Meliorists, the introduction of the Agenda -- and then brought on the usual pro and con pundits. "It's about time to call a spade a spade. Billionaires in their dotage can afford to be communists as long as they get theirs before the vast wasteland comes to America," said Ima Wright of the Joseph McCarthy Memorial Institute. Hugh R. Knott of the Nelson Proxmire Center shook his finger at her. "When shady groups like the one behind this ad don't have the facts, they resort to smears. Bernard Rapoport is the capitalists' capitalist. He just wants to reduce the greed. He loved his father, who left this earth sixty-six years ago and was a peaceful man who abhorred violence."
"Yes!" exclaimed Bernard, jumping up and spilling a cup of tea on the rug.
"Yes!" echoed Audre.
The phone started to ring -- the house phone, the cell phone, the private phone. Bernard picked up the private phone. It was a conference call from Luke Skyhi and Evan Evervescent, Barry's right-hand man at Promotions.
"You've seen the ad, Bernard?" Luke asked. "Unbelievable."
"Yes, I've seen it. Factually it's all accurate, except that Papa left Russia before the Soviet Union came into existence. If he was still around, he'd be having a ball answering these creeps. He had a lot of practice in the twenties and thirties when the Commie scare was growing."
"It's obviously too early to assess how damaging or distracting the ad will be in terms of the Agenda," Evan said, "but evening and late-night cable and radio are dominated by the right, so you can be sure they're going to run the string out on this. And you know they preach to the converted, so the call-ins will be even more vicious. Two questions: Do you want to respond to interview requests tonight and tomorrow? And should we put together a quick counter-ad? We just spoke to Hillsman a minute ago, and he's licking his chops."
"Well, you fellows are a lot younger and far more proficient in public relations than I am, but my instinct is just to make fun of . . . Who took credit for the ad anyway? That type at the bottom was too small for an old man to read."
Luke laughed. "Too small for anyone. It's some bullshit front group called For the USA, but we know from Bill Joy that Lance Lobo is behind it."
"Perfect," Bernard said. "Sure I'll do interviews, and I'll slam the ad for what it is: Wolfshit. How's that? Smother them with ridicule, laugh them out of the ballpark. Hell, even 'rednecks' aren't afraid of communists anymore -- if they can find any. The scare word today is 'terrorists.' I don't think you should spend a dime on Hillsman. It'll blow over because I'll blow it through the roof. I've always wished more Americans could know about Papa, since he loved our country so much, even with all the warts he complained about daily. This is my chance, thanks to Wolfshit. Go ahead and set me up with the media. Let's do telephone interviews on radio for tonight and concentrate on television for tomorrow. Meanwhile, I'll send you a short statement for the morning papers so Lobo's handiwork doesn't get all the ink."
"Bernard, you are one cool dude," Luke said. "Okay, Evan and I will line up the interviews, and I'll put out a paragraph from the PCC mentioning, among other points, that you're a capitalist who makes a big deal of saying that capitalism doesn't have enough capitalists and that greedy giant business isn't good for any economy, any democracy, any society."
"Go to, Luke, put out whatever you want. All to the good. But this one is basically mine. Can you get Lobo to debate me?"
"Evan, what do you think?" Luke asked.
"I'll put out a challenge in your name right away, Bernard, and you can challenge him directly when you're on the air. I'm sure he won't welcome another outing. These guys thrive in the shadows, in the dark recesses of their executive suites."
"Oh, I'll challenge him all right. How's this? 'I hereby challenge Lancelot Lobo, the creator of this hilariously dirty ad campaign, to a debate. If he accepts, I'll unmask him as a corporate wolf in sheep's clothing. If he declines, I'll treat him to dinner: braised mutton with a side of fried timberwolf tongue.' Or will that get me in trouble with the animal rights folks?"
An image of a supercilious waiter setting a steaming plate in front of Lobo arose simultaneously in the three callers' minds, and they plunged into an involuntary laughing jag that lasted a good two minutes. Finally, Bernard managed to choke out, "This is better than exercise, boys. I feel so refreshed. I can actually feel my blood circulating."
"According to the latest medical findings, hard laughter is equivalent to vigorous exercise like running and swimming," said Luke, drawing on his immense knowledge of factoids, and going off into another aerobic peal.
"Get a grip, Luke,' Evan said, but he was laughing too. He pulled himself together. "How long do you want to go this evening, Bernard? I want you to do the big stations for sure, but I don't want to ignore some of the smaller ones. We'll keep them all short."
"Hell, I could go all night, but let's say three hours with ten one-minute breaks interspersed through each hour so I can rest my voice and drink some water. Start in thirty minutes. I'll have a few words up to you by then. Hasta la vista."
Bernard hung up and went to his study, laughing all the way. He poured himself a glass of wine, sat down at his computer, and began typing.
The claws of Lancelot Lobo ripped through national television screens a short while ago. Greased by fat-cat money, Lobo's jaws came down hard on truth and decency. Leave my beloved, long-departed father out of this fight for America's future, Lobo. Papa was a humble peddler who went door to door to support Mama and us three children. Yes, he was a communist, if a communist is someone who believes that working people and the downtrodden deserve the necessities of life, but he also thought that anything beyond that basic level of economic security was fair game for initiative and competition. He abhorred dictatorships and violence. He left Russia before it became the Soviet Union and turned communist theory into brutal totalitarianism. Call him a biblical Jewish communist, because all his life he believed in the equality of mankind, equal justice, and an equal chance for everyone. Lobo, emerge from your den. I'm your full moon, and I challenge you to bay at me in a televised debate on the conditions so many Americans have to suffer and endure because of corporate domination of a puppet government. Debate me or go down in history as a corporate wolf in coward's clothing.
Bernard sat back and reviewed his statement. Satisfied, he emailed it to Luke and Evan, with a copy to his son Ronald, a professor of political science in Virginia. Then he took another sip of wine to fortify himself and spent the next three hours talking to three dozen interviewers, from Hawaii to Maine, from Alaska to Puerto Rico, who all wanted to find out whether he had any Commie DNA. He did the big right-wing shows, calmly answering questions from a lot of snarling callers and a few sympathetic ones, among them some of the "rednecks" from the Dallas rally. He lost no opportunity to regale his listeners with stories about Papa, his faith in hard work, his favorite proverbs and nuggets of wisdom, his real family values, his compassion for the down-and-out, his skepticism about party politicians, his belief in the creative spirit of rebels, whether political rebels or ordinary people who know that a lot of what they're supposed to believe just ain't so, and above all, his passion for justice. Whenever Bernard felt himself flagging, he thought about how much Papa loved a good argument and how proud he would have been of his son.
By the end of the night, even some of the most savage talk show hosts in the country had nothing but praise for Bernard. After all, he was a super-successful capitalist and philanthropist, a man who made his fortune by wit and work and knew the language of the people because he came from them. After a warm glass of milk with honey, Bernard crawled into bed and fell contentedly asleep beside Audre, ready for the next day's media hoedown.
In the morning, he rose at the crack of dawn to be ready for a live TV special hosted from New York by Tatie Youric, queen of the weekday a.m. airwaves, soon-to-be network news anchor. Sitting comfortably in his study with the CBS cameras trained on him, Bernard spoke eloquently about Papa while Tatie nodded and waited for an opening to ask one of her hard-hitting questions. When Bernard paused to clear his throat, she said, "Your father sounds like a lovely man, Mr. Rapoport, but can you tell us about your own economic philosophy? Does it go beyond making billions by selling insurance?"
Bernard gave her a warm smile. "That's a good question, Tatie, and I'll answer it the way Papa would have, with a story. About a year ago I was having lunch with a top executive of Bank of America, and I was giving him an earful about the badness of bigness in business -- nice phrase, with all that alliteration and sibilance, don't you think, Tatie? Feel free to use it. Anyway, he wasn't buying it, of course, so I said to him, 'Dexter' -- let's call him Dexter, Tatie -- I said to him, 'Dexter, if your bank gets into serious trouble, the federal government will bail you out with taxpayer money. You're so huge that you're on the Federal Reserve's too-big-to-fail list.' Now, Tatie, if instead of one giant dominant bank, there were twelve smaller banks and one of them was going down, the taxpayers wouldn't be required to save it because the other banks would pick up the business. And it isn't just about the taxpayers. If you want to put your money in a bank, or if a business does, it's natural to prefer the extra safety of Bank of America, which is backstopped by the US treasury. The very size of an institution like that gives it an unfair competitive advantage over smaller banks, which have to sink or swim with nothing but FDIC insurance behind them. Does that philosophy sound 'Commie' to you, Tatie? The Bank of America is redder than Papa ever was, with Uncle Sam as its silent partner."
"Well," Tatie said briskly, "you make a point, Mr. Rapoport, but I'm afraid our time is up. Thank you. After the break, we'll be back with Sly Psikick, who has just broken the world record for eating the most sardines in fifteen minutes."
By midday on Sunday, after Bernard had made the rounds of all the press shows, there was nothing left of Lobo's seedy salvo except egg on his face. The CEOs had summoned him to a command performance first thing in the morning, and the media was besieging his office with calls about responding to Bernard's debate challenge. "Ignore them," he told Lawrence Nightingale. "It will only add fuel to the fire. It should be obvious even to a first-year PR major at Podunk U that I am not the issue."
Lobo was very much the issue around the conference table in the penthouse boardroom as the CEOs waited for him to arrive on Monday morning. When he did, they greeted him with a stony silence.
"Sit down, Lobo," CEO Cumbersome said curtly. "It appears that you started too late and are reaping the bitter fruits of the SROs' advance preparation and media savvy. The collapse of the Commie ad is most distressing. Our opponents beat us to the punch, perhaps in possession of some of your internal tactical memos. And the collapse of Wal-Mart, while in no way attributable to you, has added immeasurably to their momentum and to the morale of the masses. There are grounds for dismay around this table. What do you have to say for yourself?"
Lobo rose and squared his shoulders. If there was ever a time for inner steel, this was it. "May I remind you, Jasper, that you signed off on the ad. Clever as Rapoport's response was, the seeds of doubt have been sown, and will flourish with the rollout of Wave Two later today. Our congressional allies are about to meet with the president to synchronize our opposition to the SRO avalanche of legislation and regulatory petitions. I've whipped the laggard trade and professional groups into a semblance of shape behind us. But the bottom line, as I've said time and again, is all of you. You're the only ones who can galvanize your immensely powerful but complacent corporate brethren. I've just recently crossed the aisle. They don't know me well, and they don't trust me. I'm your facilitator, your adviser, your agitator, and your cover for derring-do, but you're the armored division, the heavy lifters in Washington, the know-how. You're going to have to go all out with your power and prestige, and in the final analysis you're going to have to put yourselves on the front lines mano-a-mano with the Meliorists.
"It takes two hands to clap. Your hand is invisible, and while that may be fine in the world of Adam Smith, it's phantom suicide for your declared mandate to me. Even if you raise five times the two billion you've pledged, you won't be able to buy your way out of the SRO vortex. For the first time in your lucrative lives, your money will not be enough. If Bernard Rapoport hadn't gone out head and heart first, our Commie ad wouldn't have been shredded in twenty-four hours. Do I make myself clear?" Lobo asked with a withering look, then sat down and folded his arms across his chest.
An uncomfortably long silence ensued. The CEOs fidgeted. They had expected contrition from Lobo, not aggression. Their expressions reflected embarrassment, indignation, discomfort, resentment, and wariness, with an occasional flash of grudging recognition. Finally Hubert Bump, who hadn't said a word all month, rose slowly from his chair.
"My fellow CEOs, Lobo speaks the truth, disagreeable as he may be. In the face of an external threat like communism, we all know what it takes to get the masses and the politicians behind us, but this is a seismic revolt from within, a revolt from the very top by business peers who have seized our controlling ideology and turned it against us. We're done for if we think we can prevail merely by beefing up the old war chest and redoubling the old battle plans. To effect the counterrevolution, we must revolutionize ourselves. We must go where no business leaders have gone before, do what no business leaders have done before, and above all think like no business leaders have thought before. The debacle of the past weekend that has catapulted Bernard Rapoport to fame and made him a national hero illustrates perfectly the old way of thinking. We set out to red-bait a billionaire who made it the hard way, by his bootstraps, more Horatio Alger than Horatio himself. Who were we kidding? Soon the second wave will be underway -- scare 'em out of their wits. It may slow the speeding train a little -- to our financial disadvantage, incidentally, and not only in the stock markets -- but what if it doesn't stop the train? Then we're left with the desperation stand at the Khyber Pass, and even if we win on the Hill, we're assured of losing, both on Election Day and in terms of the SRO Agenda next year. And then where are we? Where is Lobo? What's left of our dominion, our reputation among our peers and countrymen? With or without our consent, our identities will be made public shortly. First impressions are critical. Do we hide and confirm the public's worst suspicions about how we use our formidable powers, or do we step forth with strength of purpose, real concern for the issues, and a healthy dose of humility?
"All my life people have made fun of my name, and I can't blame them. Who would name a child Hubert Bump? But the teasing hurt, almost destroyed me -- you know how cruel kids can be -- so when I was twelve, I told my parents that I wanted to change my name. It was then that they showed me their greatness. Mom and Dad sat me on the couch between them, put their arms around me, dried my tears, and told me about my ancestors on my mother's Hubert side and my father's Bump side, a long line of people who fought for our country, founded great enterprises, created jobs, became explorers and inventors. Did my valorous forebears allow their names to hinder them? What would they say from the heavens if they could see me now? 'Hubert,' my dad told me that day on the couch, 'always remember what Great-grandfather Silas Bump used to say. "The great ones turn adversity into success." Adversity into success, Hubert. Being teased about your name doesn't even come close to adversity. You're not sick, you're not bleeding, you're not dim, you're not poor, cold, hungry, and homeless. You're Hubert Bump, and you will rise to unprecedented heights on the shoulders of all the Huberts and Bumps before you."
"Those words changed my life. As you know, I kept my name and went on to some success in the scientific, academic, and business worlds. What my parents did for me we must now do for ourselves. Facing demoralization and disaster, we must turn ourselves around and ask this question: What is the purpose of big business if it is not to deliver an economy that provides sufficient livelihoods, a safe environment, and yes, even 'liberty and justice for all'? You may say that these objectives are not our responsibility, that our only responsibility is to run productive businesses and make a profit for our investors. That is a myth of a bygone age. Let us not deceive ourselves. We run this country. We own this government. We control capital, labor, technology, we shape expectations, and we can pick up our marbles and go overseas if any force defies us here. That is, until now. We must live in the present, not in our nearly omnipotent past. And living in the present, seeing what's coming over the ramparts right now, can we not think more grandly of our functions?
"Since January I have been closely studying and analyzing the activities and groundbreaking challenges of the SROs, the resources they have committed both in money and personal capital. If the rest of you have to hit your heads against this advancing wall in the next few weeks to learn the lesson I've learned, go right ahead. You're certainly on track to do just that. But I repeat: first impressions are lasting impressions, and first losses tend to multiply themselves. Consider these words well at this juncture when our saturation scare campaign is about to flow into millions of living rooms."
There was another long silence. CEO Roland Revelie broke it. "Hubert, thank you for your deeply felt and eloquently conveyed expressions. I'm sure all of us can read between your lines. I have always respected your intellect and your ability to connect theory with practice, but there are times when profound insight breeds pessimism and pessimism breeds unintended folly. As I listened to you, I couldn't help wondering why you didn't make this presentation at one of our earlier meetings. You speak flatteringly of our power, but whose power is it? Even conceding a new direction, we are merely a self-selected ad hoc group of concerned executives."
"If I catch the drift of the exchange between our two distinguished colleagues," said Wardman Wise, "the current situation presents us with a constructive hiatus to observe and deliberate, as long as the spotlight for the second wave and the media reaction to it shines on the Washington lobbies, PR firms, and law firms. That will give us a respite during which to make a considered evaluation from the sidelines. I don't think the Washington lobbies will mind in the least taking credit for the second wave. What say you, Lobo?"
After the pummeling he'd taken in recent weeks, Lobo was ready for a hiatus. "I believe that can be arranged, and I think it's warranted, because it gives us two bites of the apple if we're really going to consider revising our strategy along the revolutionary lines suggested by Mr. Bump. I believe that's the subtext to what I heard just now, but you may not want to get into it with me presently. That is at your discretion, and I am at your service."
"Thank you, Lobo," CEO Cumbersome said. ''We are all absorbing the subtext right now, but I don't think any of us wants to open that door at this time. Do I reflect the sense of the meeting?"
Most of the CEOs were too perplexed and alarmed by the unexpected turn of the discussion to do anything but murmur their concurrence.
"Very well, we are adjourned," Cumbersome said.
"By the way, Lobo was right about On Leadership. Read it," Norman Noondark added as Lobo was making his exit.
Back at his office, Lobo heaved a sigh of relief. He knew it was a gamble to come on so strong with the CEOs, but it had paid off and won him an unlikely ally in the person of Hubert Bump. Now all he had to do was steer the Washington lobbyists as per his instructions. He'd already worked with them extensively to get them on board, but to finish the job he'd need a Washington insider. He called Brovar Dortwist.
"I've just come from headquarters, Brovar, and I need you to head up our Washington office to strengthen and accelerate the Washington lobbies' opposition to the SROs. You won't believe the budget and staff you'll have."
"What took you so long, Lobo? The money may be in New York City, but the political power is here in DC. Why don't you come down pronto so we can discuss design and implementation?"
"Fine, how about Wednesday?" Lobo said.
"How about tomorrow?" said Brovar.
Meanwhile, as if Lobo and Wal-Mart and the subtext weren't enough to contend with, the CEOs learned upon returning to their offices that the greatest proposed shift of power since the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was heading toward public hearings in the House and Senate Judiciary Committees in the form of the last two bills of the Meliorist Agenda.
The first of them, the Electoral Reform Bill, was essentially the longstanding menu of reforms advocated by citizen groups for years but never passed. The bill called for public financing of campaigns, uniform and less restrictive ballot access rules, publicly sponsored debates, broadcast licensing adjustments to give all ballot-qualified candidates free airtime for six weeks before Election Day, elimination of the Electoral College, binding none-of-the-above for each ballot line, and a voting age of sixteen. Standing-to-sue rights for all citizens seeking to enforce the bill's provisions on a fast track because of election deadlines were also mandated.
The second bill, grandly called the Expansion of Dynamic Democracy Act, lived up to its name with its detailed provisions for an across-the-board shift of power from the few to the many. It interpreted the Constitution as authorizing an affirmative governmental duty to cultivate the political and civic energies of the people. The constitutional theory came from a little book crisply titled "Here, the People Rule," by distinguished Harvard law professor Richard Parker, and the preamble to the legislation, written by Dick Goodwin, would have made Thomas Jefferson proud. It explained clearly the functional relationship between democracy and what people want out of life. It detailed all the various levels of democracy from national elections right down to community spirit and individual aspiration. It distinguished between rights and duties, freedom and power, civic motivation and personal indulgence. It argued for the claims that true democracies have to make on the time and talents of their citizens if government is to work for their well-being. Finally, it spoke of civic personality -- that crucial trait that moves the aware mind to determined action.
The preamble was followed by the text of the actual legislation, which ran to several pages in the Congressional Record.
SECTION ONE: Every citizen of the United States, of any age, shall have legal standing to pursue claims in courts of federal jurisdiction without limit or exemption, whether private or public in nature, whether filed against the government or private persons.
SECTION TWO: Corporations, partnerships, and legal associations of any kind shall not be deemed "persons" for purposes of applying or interpreting the US Constitution. "Person" is hereby defined by law as "human being."
SECTION. THREE: The government of the United States, through its departments, agencies, and federally delegated authorities and incorporations such as the US Postal Service, shall facilitate affirmatively, and with all deliberate speed, opportunities for the citizenry to organize themselves vis-a-vis the mandates, activities, and pursuits of such departments, agencies, and delegated authorities. These civic associations shall be independent of government and open to all, with reasonable annual dues not to exceed $50. Their boards of directors shall be duly elected in accordance with bylaws promulgated by the Federal Trade Commission within six months of the enactment of this legislation. The Congress shall revisit this mandate each year through public hearings and reports in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
SECTION FOUR: All public corporations and their associated entities with revenues exceeding $1 billion a year shall provide well-promoted checkoffs so that their shareholders, customers, and workers can form voluntary associations to represent their collective interests in all public arenas where policy, grievances, and suggestions are considered. "Public arenas" are defined as the courts, the legislatures, the executive branch agencies, and all forums for mediation, voluntary arbitration, and the settling of disputes, be they governmental or corporate.
SECTION FIVE: Intermediary institutions shall be established to facilitate the organization of workers vis-a-vis their pension fund managers, and of viewers and listeners vis-a-vis their television and radio stations. There shall be similar facilitation of organized popular access to and participation in the control of commonwealth assets owned by the people, including the natural resources on public lands and the government's intellectual property.
SECTION SIX: The federal government shall require the public elementary and secondary schools receiving federal funds to introduce civic curriculums that engage students in the public life of their communities and their nation, and shall provide funding for such curriculums. The objective of this section is to graduate students with a broad array of civic skills and knowledge to match the demands and opportunities of a deliberative democratic society in the 21st century.
Unlike the reaction to previous Agenda bills, the media response to the electoral reform and democracy legislation was "Dullsville." Replacing the two-party elected dictatorship, abolishing the farce of an Electoral College that allowed a presidential candidate to lose the popular vote and win the election, giving the vote to young people who could legally work and drive a car, empowering the people to take control of every aspect of their government and their public life -- nope, just not sexy enough. But Promotions had anticipated the media's big ho-hum, and when viewers all over the country turned on their TVs on Monday evening, there was Patriotic Polly. Over a running caption with capsule highlights of the two bills and lists of federal phone numbers, the famous parrot squawked, "Build democracy! It's only your life!" Polls commissioned by the Meliorists a few days later found that "Dullsville" had a higher public awareness level than all the other bills except for health insurance and a living wage.
Tuesday morning, the president of the United States left the Oval office unobtrusively and went over to the old Indian Treaty Room, where so many promises had been made to Native American tribes and subsequently broken. Sitting around the large table were his key allies in the House and Senate, the core congressional enforcers of the corporate government, so trusted by the plutocracy that there was no need for any direct corporate presence.
Everyone rose as the president entered the room "Sit yourselves down, boys," he said with an impatient wave. "Listen, the White House switchboard is flooded. All the operators are hearing is Agenda, Agenda, Agenda -- support the Agenda, pass the Agenda. The country's going bananas. Are you getting the same heat on the Hill?"
''We are, Mr. President," said Senator Frisk. "Same thing with the congressional switchboard, same with our office phones and e-mail traffic. People are even flooding us with letters because they can't get through electronically. Quaint. But remember, we're still in control. Sure, we're conceding hearings to our pro-Agenda colleagues all this month, but they and we know the parliamentary rules. The issue is whether we want to win by impasse or by counterattack. The difference is highly consequential for the near and foreseeable future, as I think you'll agree."
"What makes you think we have the luxury of that choice, Senator?" asked Congressman Bullion. "Sure, in your body you have the filibuster and other forms of delay foreign to our procedures in the House, but read your history. Populist revolts have swept over Washington with far less organization, money, and high-powered backing than what's looming over us presently. The country has been on fire for some months now, and the flames are leaping higher and higher. You saw the response to the events of the Fourth and the Meliorists' news conference and the Rapoport ad. You saw the Wal-Mart announcement. You saw --"
"Enough, Bullion," snapped Senator Tweedy. "Why prejudge the fire this time either way? Why not develop ways to test it? No point running scared. Our CEO friends have just unleashed their media counterattack, and those ads are doozies. There's plenty of money and corporate clout behind them, both directly and from the whole K Street crowd here. The corporate fellows have had it pretty easy for so long that they may be surprised at their own power when they're up against the wall."
"Well put, Senator," said Congressman Beauchamp. "Let's see how the hearings play out but remain on full alert and stay close to the lobbies, without whom -- let's be frank -- we wouldn't be here right now. We owe it to them to give them a chance with their own counterattack before we say anything about an impasse strategy."
"Billy's right," said the president, "and time is on our side. There aren't too many legislative days left in the session, and the upcoming elections are starting to absorb everyone. And who knows, a hurricane here, a flood there, and before you can say 'adjourned,' the year is up."
"And what then, Mr. President?" asked Senator Thinkalot. "It could get worse next year, much worse, because the public will be angry over an impasse and there may be quite a different Congress."
"Well, you know my motto for political success: Take one year at a time. Foresight is great, but without myopia, you can't get across a busy street."
All joined in hearty laughter, the members from Texas slapping their thighs as if they'd come straight from Central Casting.
"I reckon you're right, Mr. President," said Congressman Bullion, "but if you ask me, we still can't go wrong with the old Boy Scout motto: Be prepared."
"I guess that pretty much sums it up, Bullion," the president said. "Let's adjourn to the dining room."