ONLY THE SUPER-RICH CAN SAVE US!
Labor Day USA was one for the books. Record crowds came out in city after city, but it wasn't just the turnout that made the day so memorable, it was the quality and substance of what was conveyed across the land.
In St. Louis, Missouri, a quarter of a million people lined the streets to watch the floats, the pageantry, the fife and drum corps, the flags and banners. Beyond the superficial sights and sounds -- sidewalk vendors selling snacks and balloons, activists handing out buttons and bumper stickers -- the deeper message was clear. In the union contingents, the labor rank and file marched proudly, surrounding their leaders, not following them. Along the parade route, other union members in the work clothes of their various trades held up giant murals of men and women working in the steel, auto, coal, textile, and construction industries. These full-color, historically precise murals had been loaned to the specially constituted Missouri Mulers for Labor Justice by the Wall of America, a nonprofit collaborative that was portraying the entire history of American labor in what would eventually be combined into one massive painting, 120 feet long and four stories high, to be housed in a nineteenth-century Connecticut textile factory that was being converted into a permanent museum. The visual power of the renderings awed the densely packed crowd and drew attention to big placards mounted behind them, featuring each of the Seven Pillars of the Agenda for the Common Good, with a website address for those wanting further information. News photographers and television cameramen bounded back and forth recording the extraordinary display while the spectators used their cell phones to transmit these images of beauty and truth to friends and relatives across the country and around the world.
The members of Congress from Missouri and southern Illinois had been invited to be present on the parade platform. Like all the politicians and "dignitaries" who'd been asked to attend the Labor Day parades around the country, they were given to understand that they were there to look, listen, and absorb -- with one exception. If they'd already endorsed the Agenda or were now willing to do so, they'd have two minutes to speak about their support and the reasons for it. Under no circumstances were they to march in the parades. They could only be there on the platform, either coming out for the Agenda or standing out like silent sore thumbs. This was a new Labor Day, a Labor Day of, by, and for the people, and the workers wanted action, not cheap posturing. If the politicians weren't going to march for the Agenda in Congress, why should they be invited to strut their hypocrisy on the avenues of St. Louis or any other city? As for the politicians, the opportunity to make a statement before such huge crowds was either a public relations dream or a nightmare, depending on where they stood on the Agenda.
The climax of the Labor Day parades across America was the reiteration of support for the Agenda from already committed legislators, along with new declarations of support from the hitherto uncommitted. It would have been a brave soul from Capitol Hill who showed up, sat down, and remained silent. Naturally, no one in that camp was stupid enough to appear, but the names of the absentees were read aloud over the public address system. In Missouri and Illinois, the number of committed legislators rose from 20 percent to 45 percent, and in other states the percentages varied widely. The results were a little disappointing to the parade organizers, but they realized that some lawmakers probably thought they were being hustled into an intimidating situation and didn't want to be show horses. Others may not have been willing to commit to the whole Agenda because they had reservations about some of the bills or wanted to fine-tune others.
Nonetheless, the wide coverage of the parades and the labor leaders' clear-eyed responses to questioning on the Sunday morning talk shows were an impressive tribute to the organizers, and especially to the indefatigable Ann Mora of the California Nurses Association. With half a dozen nurse colleagues, she had journeyed to each of the fifty states, using shame, guilt, and pride to blast the unions out of their defeatist mind-set, as she'd done earlier at the AFL-CIO. All over the country, the unions contributed millions of dollars, much of the money raised at potluck suppers as urged by Ann, to make Labor Day a raging success, with a long arm reaching to Washington, DC. More than 10 million Americans marched in the parades, not all of them in the big cities by any means, and millions more men, women, and children crowded the sidewalks and eagerly took the posters, bumper stickers, Seventh-Generation Eye buttons, and DVDs handed out by the junior parade marshals drawn from the "Read all about it!" brigades. Other young women and men circulated with clipboards for anyone wishing to sign up and join the movement or receive timely information about what they could do in the fall. The marchers had already registered their names and addresses with Parade Central and had been well briefed, showing in their demeanor and interactions with reporters and neighbors that they knew exactly why they were marching. Ann herself spoke at the New York City parade, 1 million strong.
The Labor Day events this year went far beyond the parades and platforms. There were concerts featuring the great classic protest songs from the historic struggle for unionization, going back to the days when it was defined as a struggle against "wage slavery" and the plutocracy's definition of labor as a "commodity." Many young people learned of these songs and the dramatic efforts they described for the first time in their lives, since in the past half century "organized labor" had been all but moribund and anything but organized.
In general, one of the delights of this Labor Day for its vigorous, visionary organizers was the youth turnout. Young people in their teens and twenties packed movie theaters to see a wide selection of the best films on labor battles with management, such as Norma Rae, and came away discussing what they had seen. Productions of plays like Odets' Waiting for Lefty also enlivened the weekend's festivities. There were special events for preteens where workers demonstrated skills that had long preceded the mesmerizing Internet. Sailors in the merchant marine showed them how to tie all kinds of knots. Carpenters showed them how to fashion simple tables and chairs, while metalworkers dazzled them with welding displays and glassblowers entranced them with their ancient art. Surgeons held them in fascination with a mockup of a broken hip and how they went about repairing it. Cooks and chefs concocted appetizers, main courses, and desserts that were enthusiastically sampled. The world of work came alive in all its dailiness and necessity as the youngsters watched wide-eyed. They saw how seeds were planted and how crops were harvested to make the packaged food they took for granted in the grocery store. They saw how paper was made and turned into magazines, newspapers, and books. They were shocked by movies showing the sweatshop working conditions in China and Indonesia and Vietnam where their iPods and cell phones and shoes were manufactured, and the poverty of the workers and children who hand-made the baseballs and soccer balls they played with. On television news, the world of work was largely reduced to statistics about unemployment or layoffs, but these young people got a bracing dose of reality that they wouldn't soon forget.
All in all, it was a Labor Day that shook America. Commentators marveled not only at the turnouts but at the variety and vitality of the speakers and the power of their arguments for a new economic order where the people would be supreme over the corporations and sovereign over their government. It was a day when working-class dignity took a stand and left the country feeling that this stand would not be denied in the coming weeks and months.
High above Manhattan, in a private dining room on the 103rd floor of the Bank of the Globe building, fifteen Goliaths, as they were known in the slang of the business world, gathered for an emergency dinner meeting on Labor Day evening. These powers behind the throne of international business operated at a rarefied level far above that of Lobo's CEOs. They were new to the agitations of the Meliorists because of their global preoccupations and a knowledge base about what was going on in the world that relied on unexamined assumptions rather than empirical observation. Now they were trying to appear in casual self-control as they watched a bank of live screens showing the culminating Labor Day events around the country, but they were visibly rattled. Long ago, the Goliaths had written the United States off as a large but steady-state economy. What you saw was what you were going to get. The big money was to be made in the Third World and in parts of the former Soviet Union. The Bank of the Globe was already reporting that 70 percent of its profits came from outside the United States even though it was the second-largest bank in the country. Why? Wild profit margins overseas. Fractional costs. Little countervailing power either in government or civil society, if the latter existed at all.
The Goliaths talked while they dined.
"When you boil the whole day down." said Hugh Mongous. "it seems to me that the message is 'Workers of America, unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains!' Sound familiar, my brethren?"
"Are you joking, Hugh?" said Stan Selitoff. "It seems to me that they just want a piece of what we owe them. If you think a Marxist-type revolution is what they're pushing, revolution must be going down deep into the minor leagues. They're not trying to replace us or seize the reins we hold."
"Unless they're taking it in stages. Do they have a theorist?" asked Manny Tentacles.
"Not as far as our staff can tell," said George Gargantua. "Unless you think these Meliorists are doubling as theorists or economic philosophers. The problem I see is the spillover effect into the Third World. I'm not worried about Canada or Western Europe. They'll just look at what's happening as the US playing catch-up with them after years of neglecting labor, health insurance, electoral reform, and so on."
"No theorist, no beliefs. No beliefs, not to worry," Manny remarked.
"That gives me an idea! Damn, this avocado salad is good!" said Sy Clopean. "Why not launch a global ad campaign that paints the Common Good Agenda as just what George called it -- a modest catch-up, no big deal after thirty years of no gains for those who will benefit if these bills get through Congress. We can also inform the countries of South America, Asia, and Africa that the Agenda will increase US labor costs and put their economies in an even more competitive position."
"Hold on!" expostulated Cole Ossal. "As an American, you're talking economic treason. And you're running an American company to boot!"
"Who says I'm running an American company?" Sy retorted. "When it comes to big multinationals like the ones we all run, there is no nationality. Callus global straddlers or anational corporations."
"I like Sy's idea," Stan said. "It will pretty much take care of our concerns and responsibilities. The Washington trade groups have been asking us for big bucks to fight the Meliorists, and we keep telling them that it's their fight, not ours. Now we have an initiative to back us up here, a very credible argument that we should all take care of our own business priorities first."
"You mean, essentially, domestic takes care of domestic and international takes care of international, right?" asked Hugh.
"Exactly," Stan said, "though I don't suppose it will hurt to throw our domestic brethren a bone by getting some big foreign companies to announce that they're suspending planned investment projects in the US indefinitely, until they get a better read of the business climate after this congressional term. Do we have a consensus, gentlemen, for our new global economic order?" He laughed as his colleagues around the dinner table nodded their vigorous assent, some with their mouths full.
"Then I guess that does it," Hugh said. "We've had a distasteful day watching the masses, so let's continue with our dinner. I think we've earned a little epicurean relief."
The Tuesday after Labor Day marked the return of the 535 denizens of Congress and their thousands of staffers from an August recess that was either bruising or energizing, depending on their views. An army of freshly tanned and rested lobbyists was waiting for them with their checklists and political cash registers, but the lobbyists knew the ring of the cash registers was beginning to sound a little tinny. Congressional Quarterly reported that 54 percent of the House and 55 percent of the Senate were already committed to the Agenda for the Common Good in writing and that the Bulls' approval ratings were continuing to decline.
Attendance at the pro-Agenda public events of August had reached magnitudes that could only be accommodated by the largest indoor arenas in the country -- the Target Center in Minneapolis, the Boston Garden, Madison Square Garden in New York. Each time one of the Meliorists made a surprise appearance, the audience went wild, as if Shakira or the Rolling Stones were performing. Clearly, the Meliorists had become the justice equivalent of rock stars.
When Yoko stepped onto the stage at the Oakland Coliseum, there was a near riot of acclaim. Had any of the CEOs been scanning the crowd in front, they would have spotted the enthralled, catatonic face of Lancelot Lobo, who had come out on an afternoon flight from JFK and returned on the redeye to be back at the office bright and early so as to avoid arousing suspicion. The obsession lived on.
The Meliorists' increasingly confident and savvy allies in Congress had worked with the Bulls to complete the extensive hearings on the various parts of the Agenda by the end of July. During August, sufficient staff had remained on the job to complete the committee reports with majority and minority views. That meant the committees could now schedule the first meetings to mark up the legislation and vote on sending it to the House or Senate floor. The Double Z resumed their tireless daily trek to congressional offices so that they could provide steady feedback to Promotions, Analysis, and the Meliorists themselves.
Just as Congress was settling back into its routine, Lobo blanketed the airwaves with the opening salvo of his investment strike strategy. It was Lobo at his ferocious best. The ads were verbal velvet gloves conveying iron-fist determination. Using data from the Commerce Department, and an advertising firm with a far subtler touch than Horatio Hadestar's, he analyzed proposed or tentative investments geographically and then saturated the local media with suspension announcements from one company after another in region after region. Naturally, local television, radio, and newspapers gave the announcements top billing. In a reversal of his previous strategy, Lobo made sure that as many of the companies as possible were situated in localities represented by the Bulls, on the theory that the Bulls would be so furious at the Meliorists that they'd dig their heels in on the Agenda.
For example, Zintel Corporation suspended negotiations for locating a billion-dollar computer chip factory on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas, in the district represented by Sid Swanson, longtime chairman of the House Labor Committee. The suspension of a large hotel, condo, and retail store development near Atlanta would surely get the attention of Senator Duncan Dredge, chairman of the Finance Committee, which handled all matters involving tax legislation, public investment, and business subsidies. Senator Dredge, up for reelection, had already touted his role in bringing these jobs to Georgia in his campaign literature. Back in August, the seventy-six-year-old senator had met with William Gates Sr. and told friends he was charmed, but he probably wasn't charmed any longer.
In addition to the suspension announcements, Lobo launched some national media displaying silver-haired, avuncular spokesmen -- actually paid actors -- delivering a somber message about dislocating our great economy through risky social engineering promoted by disgruntled has-beens from the business world. Three labor unions broke ranks and supported the campaign of fear, with actors playing workers who declared in one-minute spots that they didn't want anyone experimenting with their livelihoods either. The tag line was the demand that Congress "stop the Meliorist Mania."
A day or two after Lobo's first ads broke, the syndicated cable and radio hosts picked up on them and began devoting the entirety of their allotted time to another round of guests and talk denouncing "the bleeding heart Common Goodism that would wreck our free enterprise system," in the hyperbolic words of Bush Bimbaugh. Not to be outdone, Pawn Vanity trumpeted in hysterical tones the probable job losses in every locality struck by a suspension announcement. He called for congressional investigations. Immediately! The Wall Street Journal put out a special edition with maps of the localities and profiles of the communities and profuse statistics on how the suspended investments would have alleviated unemployment and other local problems.
Lobo's last-gasp smear campaign was fully underway, flooding the airwaves and the right-wing blogs with ruthlessly false and lurid accusations against the Meliorists by name and against anyone associated with them, including their congressional allies and the "subversive" new CUB and Congress Watchdog organizations. The lecturers were compared to the Wobblies -- members of the Industrial Workers of the World, so many of whom were maliciously prosecuted as Communists after World War I. It was a mass media convulsion, a final desperate lunge of the deluders, distracters, deriders, defamers, and would-be destroyers of the social justice movement.
A puzzled, uncertain stock market steepened its slide by the day. The baying pack kept up its jeremiads against the Meliorists and darkly wondered whether "these ex-business tycoons" were making big money by selling short. Bush Bimbaugh and imitators evinced a sudden touching concern for the trillions of dollars in worker pensions invested in stocks and how the retirement of "millions of hardworking patriotic Americans" was in jeopardy.
It was a full week before Promotions started a comparable media counterattack, though it put out short rebuttal press releases right away. Barry's top lieutenant, Evan Evervescent, came up with a sharp idea. The Double Z had been working closely with the progressive members and staff on each of the pertinent committees, helping them to write their sections of the committee reports on two levels: the quantitative data and evidence supporting passage of the bills, and the human abuse, fraud, and devastation resulting from the conditions the bills were designed to reform. Citing House and Senate committee reports had an authoritative ring in the public mind, so Evan saw a chance for a double whammy here: he could rebut the yahoos with "official and verified heartrending material" and at the same time focus the public on the congressional process regarding passage of the Agenda.
Evan called on Bill Hillsman, who produced a series of ads that were funny, acidic, and so creatively specific that they made news themselves and got another play in the media that way -- his trademark. People everywhere were talking about them because they zeroed in on the injustices of their daily lives -- indecipherable overbillings, medical or hospital malpractice, depressed wages that forced them to work second and third jobs, price gouging by the oil companies, waste of their taxpayer dollars, unaffordable housing and healthcare, loss of their pensions, layoffs due to corporate flight, long waits on buses and trains to get to work, daycare that was too expensive if it was available at all, while the rich had daycare and chauffeurs for their dogs! What a stinking way to have to live! In particular, the ads directed at Bush Bimbaugh became instant website classics and the rage of college campuses. Up against the Minnesota maverick, Lobo and his propaganda were laughed out of town. It didn't help when two whistle-blowers revealed that their own companies had faked investment plans in order to suspend them.
The attack and counterattack between the CEOs and the PROs lasted for two weeks and cost both sides a bundle, but when the dust settled, the center had held. Horatio was still at the bridge, and the polls were still trending steadily in favor of the Agenda. All Lobo had accomplished was to exhaust his arsenal of fear-mongering.
Lobo knew that he and his team were just about cornered. The options were quickly being reduced to one -- the Khyber Pass. The CEOs had once again rejected his recommendation that they take up residence near Congress for September and October, so he reluctantly set about finding some worthy, aggressive surrogate CEOs or entrepreneurs, as his bosses had directed. He and his captains interviewed dozens of preselected candidates and winnowed them down to seven who accepted: Dexter D. Delete, scion of the nation's largest private detective firm, well versed in winning through silent intimidation by dossier; Sally Savvy, CEO of a trendy lingerie company whose customers included Hollywood's most glamorous female stars; Elvis Inskull, founder and jovial CEO of a chain of lucrative psychiatric hospitals; Adam Agricoloff, the self-styled third-generation Asparagus King, who owned half a million acres in California's Imperial Valley and employed thousands of migrant workers; Steve Shredd, principal designer and manufacturer of cluster munitions and late-release napalm bombs; Gilbert Grande, CEO of the venerable Arthur D. Small consulting firm, whose clients included more than seven hundred New York Stock Exchange companies; and Delbert D. Decisioner, chief executive of Conflict Resolution, Inc., a chain of arbitration centers specializing in business-to-business disputes.
Though their business specialties differed, they had many traits in common. They were right-wing, presentable, energetic, gregarious, and congenial. They wore their ideology proudly and articulately, and were able to convey a convincing apprehension about the threat posed by the Agenda. They all liked Lobo and were prepared to work closely with the strong-willed Brovar Dortwist. Lobo cleared them with the CEOs and installed them on the second floor of the hotel, which he'd already reserved in hopes that the CEOs would change their minds. He nicknamed them the Solvents -- the force that would dissolve the opposition. In mid-September they began attending intensive briefings by Dortwist's specialists on all matters and locales relevant to their assignment They were grilled in mock interviews, press conferences, and meetings with friendly and hostile legislators. Theirs was a tough challenge -- to be the human and authoritative face of the business community, spontaneously volunteering for duty, in contrast to the trade group execs who were viewed on Capitol Hill by friend and foe alike as yesterday's soup.
When Luke Skyhi heard of the arrival of these new kids on the block, he turned to his chief of staff and said, "This is good news. Lobo has planted the seeds of dissension between the CEOs in New York City and the hard-charging new dynamos down in DC. They're bound to disagree, and that will take up valuable time, blur their focus, and breed internecine disputes that will reduce their flexibility on the Hill. A Hydra is born, but it only has two heads, and they'll be paralyzing each other instead of striking out at us. Be careful what you wish for, big boys." He laughed into his omnipresent mug of root beer. "This is Lobo's biggest mistake, just watch."
Committee markup time for contested legislation on Capitol Hill is normally a work in regress. Formerly these markups were conducted in private among the legislators and their staffs only, but after the sunshine reforms of the seventies, the markups became public, like the hearings that preceded them. Not surprisingly, the real markup work retreated to the back rooms, where tradeoffs, deals, and legislative language were bargained over and decided. Lobbyists swarmed over these supposedly secret markup sessions, rushed to the lawmakers' offices afterwards, huddled in the congressional cafeterias, and ingratiated themselves with reporters by giving them "inside tips." Or such, at least, was the prevailing style of influence peddling before the Age of the Meliorists.
This September things were decidedly different. The corporate battlements were crumbling, and the lobbyists were scrambling to see how much they could salvage instead of how much they could get. They were also adding to their ranks as fast as they could. The drug industry, which already had the largest lobbying corps, with some 450 full-timers, was adding another hundred extracted from the state capitals. The already bursting Washington hotels were turning away guests. Suites in new condo buildings were being taken sight unseen. The demand for apartments spilled across the Potomac River into the busy Virginia suburbs. Every day there were industry-specific meetings, trans-industry meetings, meetings of manufacturing trade groups, financial trade groups, organizations of utilities, raw materials producers, food processors, real estate investment companies, communications and broadcasting companies. Lights burned even later into the night than in August, even at the AFL-CIO headquarters' where ordinarily anyone standing near the entrance around 5:00 p.m. would have been in mortal danger from the employee exit stampede.
For decades the corporate supremacists had been in charge almost to the point of boredom. They'd plundered tax dollars and pillaged the government. They'd brazenly tried to take over Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. They'd demanded and won outsourcing of the most established governmental functions, such as some of those involving military services, national security recruitment, data management, and space exploration. Their domination was so complete that earlier in the year a satiric street-theater troupe had conducted tours of the US government without visiting a single government building. Instead they drove the tourists past the Chamber of Commerce building, the American Forest and Paper Association headquarters, the modernistic home of the National Association of Broadcasters, the inverted architectural specimen housing the National Association of Realtors, and the American Bankers Association edifice. But those days were over. The corporatists were now in a state of near panic.
In a state of total panic were the Bulls, who knew with greater and greater certainty that they were facing the prospect of unemployment come January. The various committees and subcommittees had reserved the usual dozens of amendments, tax loopholes, and appropriations riders that had been carefully nourished by campaign money and junkets from the merchants of greed. "Get rid of them!" the Bulls bellowed to their chiefs of staff. "We don't need these lightning rods to complicate our situation."
Meanwhile, the Meliorists' congressional allies, still trying to remain under the media radar, were methodically working the Agenda bills through markup. Before the August recess, they had succeeded in persuading the Bulls to produce majority committee reports on the legislation in neutral, analytic terms. That wasn't hard to do, given the storm the Bulls knew they were facing on their return home that month. Neutrality helped them avoid controversy. Neutrality made them appear above the fray, statesmen conveying considered assessments for the deliberation of their colleagues. In their dealings with the minority, they had reached a state of unexpressed awe, realizing that these Meliorist allies were the hands and hearts of the American people. Still, it was all upside down to them. The majority in Congress represented a shrinking minority of citizens, while the minority in Congress was speaking and acting for the majority in the country.
That said, the Bulls were no fools. Given their tenure, they had steadying reserves to draw on, and none of them more than Raymond E. Tweedy III, the prestigious chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. Justice Tweedy, as he was known to one and all, surveyed the realm and decided it was his duty to call for a weekend retreat of all the Republican Bulls in Congress. He quickly secured the assent of his counterpart in the House, Chairman Sebastian Sorrentino of New Hampshire.
By Friday noon, three dozen Bulls had arrived at the palatial Bunkers Hotel in Virginia's fox country, a favorite gathering place for congressional leaders over the years. It was secluded, confidential by strict management decree, and oh so inviting in decor, luxury, and cuisine. But this weekend's running of the Bulls was all business. No golf. No tennis. No entertainment. Nothing but serious talk about what to do in the face of the tidal wave of popular power and the relentless internal and external pressure for complete floor votes on the Agenda before the session ended.
Justice Tweedy opened the meeting. "Ladies and gentlemen, perhaps for the first time in our long careers of public service, we don't know what to do. We are facing a barrage of what can only be called ultimatums. To be sure, they are not delivered bluntly or coarsely. They are delivered by inference, by expectation, by a gentle suggestion to look out the window and see what's coming in a daily drumbeat from all points.
"The Meliorist Agenda has been distilled into the most professional legislative presentation in my memory, together with meticulous section-by-section analysis and constitutional backup. As a longtime baleful eye on sloppy, ambiguous language in bill after bill, I quietly admire their competence. You surely noticed that the preparation of the minority during your committee hearings in June and July was most thorough and most impressively backed up by their staff, by the finest if not largest law firms, by the so-called progressive think tanks, and by the thoughtful, learned cream of the nation's law, business, and graduate schools. That is the first of their concentric circles of support.
"The next and wider circle is comprised of the institutions and grassroots organizations established by the Meliorists, with paid membership rising into the millions. The third concentric circle embraces the currents unleashed by the Clean Elections Party and its candidates. The fourth is the daily mass media and Internet attention to every thrust, every move, every advance, every everything. If we put our collective finger to the wind, can any of us doubt that this is the most powerful and encompassing gale we have yet encountered? It's like a category five hurricane, like Katrina -- you can be told it's coming, you can watch it coming on television from afar, but you have no idea what it's really like until it hits.
"For what it's worth, here's my political assessment. The Meliorists have a majority of the Congress already, but not a veto-proof majority. Unless our corporate friends engineer an unlikely rollback, that means the spotlight moves to the White House. The next month will tell if the president will have the votes to sustain his vetoes, but it's not that simple. If the momentum continues from week to week back in the districts, what's at stake is not whether we can defeat a veto override in one or both houses but whether we're willing to pay the price of a landslide that throws our party out of power, throws some of us out of Congress, and bids fair to take over the White House in two years. That is the unpleasant macro scenario. There are, however, many micro scenarios that may present opportunities more within our jurisdictional and procedural control. At this point, I seek your views at any level."
Benjamin C. Bullion, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, adjusted his spectacles on his nose. "The Seven Pillars are conceived in a way that for the most part nullifies my major institutional objection. As far as I can tell, they do not cost the Treasury. Am I right, Paul?" he asked, deferring to the chair of the Joint Budget Committee.
"Right you are, Ben," said Senator Paul Pessimismo. "We're almost done with costing out all the bills, and our findings support your seat-of-the-pants assessment. The provisions having to do with what the other side calls 'shifts of power' don't draw on the Treasury at all, nor does the living wage. The CUBs and Congress Watchdogs are funded by member dues and Meliorist cash. The electoral reforms are either taxless or rely on voluntary contributions on the 1040 forms and on free television and radio time. Payments from companies for the use of public assets actually contribute to the Treasury. The main drain -- and it's a big one -- would be universal health insurance, but the opposition will counter by saying that public opinion decided in favor of Medicare for everyone long ago. They'll say that a single payer means huge savings from greater efficiencies and an end to widespread billing fraud. Federal, state, and local government already pays half of the two-trillion-dollar annual bill anyway, and big business would love to have an anticompetitive financial burden lifted from its shoulders. Finally, new taxes imposed on financial transactions in the options markets will bring a torrent of revenue into Treasury, even with the abolition of federal income tax on people earning less than a hundred thousand dollars a year. I wouldn't say this publicly, but the whole package is brilliantly choreographed for defense as well as offense."
"I wonder whether we should find this news so grim," Bullion remarked.
"Perhaps Ben has a point," said Harry Horizon, chair of the House Transportation Committee. "Our friends on the outside have a generous expectation of our ability to delay all the way and close the Agenda down before the election. Everybody else is expecting the same thing, including the media. All this makes me uncomfortable. They expect us to sit on top of a volcano that's ready to erupt. No way. Power is perceived to be unchallengeable until it's challenged. Not that our power is going to cave in like papier-mache, but we around this table know its limits better than anyone. It does, after all, come down to the votes we have in our committees, and bottling things up isn't really going to work this year. The Seven Pillars have been skillfully positioned as ideas whose time has come. I'm losing members to the Meliorist side every week."
Martin Merchant, chairman of the Senate Commerce and Industry Committee was nodding. "The Meliorists' allies have been taking regular internal polls of Congress, showing a steady increase in their votes, and they're doing another one next week. I suggest we take our own poll of ourselves. How many among us are hard-liners? How many are still prepared to say with Calvin Coolidge that 'the business of America is business' and that the Meliorists are cooking the golden goose?" He looked around the table slowly. Many of his fellow solons were smiling nervously or shaking their heads wistfully or sighing. A few were gritting their teeth.
Billy Beauchamp spoke up. "Last month all of us met with one of the Meliorists. Did they pound their fists and threaten us, shout us down, display quiet cunning and shiftiness? From my experience and what I've heard from the rest of you, the answer is no. Whatever they may have been thinking, they respected our intelligence, laid their wishes out calmly, and listened to us. If they had an attitude, it was 'What's the Big Deal? We've Earned It!' and their fervent belief that the Agenda is great for the USA. Listen, I'm from one of the most conservative districts in the country, and I've slipped below fifty percent. My opponent is a newcomer to electoral politics, nominated by a brand-new party nobody had heard of a few months ago. They're tapping into a deep vein of resentment among voters against the rich and powerful. Obviously, more than a few are our voters -- or were.
"In my judgment, the struggle this fall comes down to one question: Are we prepared to go all out, pull out all the stops with our frantic business partners, to deny the American people a decent livelihood, a rightful voice in government, and a political and economic system that will no longer betray them and abandon them? If we are, we may destroy our party's control over the three branches of government for a generation, if not longer. And that's assuming we can beat the Meliorists. We may very well end up losing to them and losing our seats in one heave-ho."
"You've all made it easier for me to speak my mind," said Francine Freshet, chair of the House Environment Committee. "As I read the tea leaves, we have two choices left: either we surrender with slow-motion grace, or we take the Bulls by the horns, as it were, and ride the Agenda wave to victory, getting some get credit for it and saving our party in the process. I don't happen to think the Meliorists are revolutionists."
Duke Sabernickle, chair of the House Commerce Committee, slammed his fist down on the table. "I've heard enough! What disgraceful defeatism, and well before any defeat can be considered imminent. Look around. We're the leadership. We're still in charge. And we still have the nuclear option."
"And what, may I ask, is that, Duke?" inquired Daniel Dostart, the energetic speaker of the House.
"The nuclear option is to choose the right time and announce adjournment. Under the Constitution, the president can order us back, but not this president!"
"Adjournment?" exclaimed several Bulls at the same time.
"Exactly. Close up shop, take off, go on some European parliamentary junket." Duke said, almost spitting the words.
"We can't do that," objected Elaine Whitehat, chair of the House Education Committee. "Aside from the Agenda, there are vital defense and health-education appropriations bills that make up about three-quarters of the government's operating budget and that still need to be reported out of committee, debated, passed, and reconciled with the other body."
"So?" replied Sabernickle with curled lip. "We'll pass 'em and then vamoose."
"It won't work," Whitehat said levelly. "The other side has anticipated you by not allowing much distance between these must bills and the Seven Pillars. Besides, anyone who votes for adjournment would be best advised to flee the country. It would be political suicide."
"What an opportune moment to pause and reflect!" interjected Justice Tweedy. "Let's break for dinner and resume on a full stomach."
Everybody nodded to that except for the furious Sabernickle, who swore under his breath, "Goddamn jellyfish!"
In the large dining room, a mustached pianist with a permanent smile and practiced fingers was playing the old standards in subdued octaves so as not to intrude on the diners' conversations. There wasn't much to intrude on. A weariness had settled over the Bulls, perhaps because each of them had hoped to hear more fire and brimstone and defiance from the others than they were feeling themselves. Some made desultory small talk about their "quality time" with their grandchildren or a recent spectacular performance at the US Open or Yankee Stadium. After dessert and brandy, they reconvened in the conference room.
"What an excellent meal!" said Justice Tweedy, trying to start things off on a positive note, "Shall we continue our exchange of views?"
"Well," said Senate Majority Leader Tillman Frisk, "since our room for maneuver is contracting, the ball is more in the Senate court than over at the other body. As my distinguished colleagues in the House know full well, Senate rules allow for unlimited debate, the filibuster, the endless offering of non-germane amendments, and an armload of parliamentary obstructions that our full-time parliamentarian spends years trying to figure out and interpret from one vague precedent after another. However, given the weekly attrition of our numbers, one rule becomes paramount, in that it can dissolve all these obstructions. I refer to the discharge petition to move bills out of committee. If more than sixty percent of the vote is there, down go our historic tactics of delay and blockage."
"In the House," said Speaker Dostart, "these same discharge petitions can overcome the temporal prerogatives, shall we call them, of the committee chairs. And don't you think the other side isn't planning for that eventuality even as we sit here?"
"Of course," said Senator Frisk. "Once an idea whose time has come comes -- and this one is coming on eighteen wheels -- all bets, all old ways and means, go by the board, I hazard."
"Defeatism, defeatism, and more defeatism!" thundered Duke Sabernickle, pounding the table again. "Maybe I've had one too many dinners with our business friends, maybe it's because I'm younger than most of you and because I want to and can stay in the House longer than most of you, but aren't we the last stand of the free enterprise system, as many of you have repeatedly stated in the past? Aren't we the last stand for economic freedom against social engineering and the leftist plan for America's decline? The Seven Pillars? Hah! They're Seven Slides down the slipperiest slope in American political and economic history. I know whereof I speak in these matters. The Meliorists are always talking about 'Redirections.' What's our direction? Where is our courage? Or are we now no more than lily-livered, Janus-faced opportunists?"
A protracted silence followed Sabernickle's tirade. Then, slowly pushing back his chair and standing ramrod tall, Armand Armsbuckle, former air force captain, veteran decorated in two wars, and immemorial chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, commenced a reply to this junior Bull's unusual dressing-down of his seniors.
"As someone who has faced enemy fire and paid the price in combat, I should take umbrage at your taunts, Mr. Sabernickle, but that would only dignify them with an attention they do not deserve. Instead, I wish to make a personal statement before my colleagues. Brave as I was in war, I became a coward in politics. I didn't start out that way. I entered politics with a patriotic fervor to keep our country strong, honest, and prosperous. and a determination to respond to my constituents. As the years passed and my reelection became just about automatic, I slowly but surely came to see my constituency as the defense manufacturers who treated me so well, the helpful majors and colonels assigned to my office as Pentagon lobbyists, the corporate PACs and their handlers who made sure my campaign coffers were overflowing, the business associates who golfed with me, wined and dined me, and enjoyed my company and my family's at many social occasions."
By now the other Bulls were hanging on every word of this extraordinary confession from the normally reserved, proud chairman who commanded the disposition of half the federal operating budget.
"It was a comfortable life, full of accolades, flattery, and deference -- just so long as I was following orders from the military-industrial complex, as Ike put it so well. I learned to say yes to every weapons system, every inflated military contract, every foreign adventure, every episode of 'so sorry' collateral damage costing the lives of so many innocent dark-skinned civilians in those God-forsaken countries abroad, every fabrication by my presidents, secretaries of defense, and secretaries of state, every drain on our national budget to appease the defense budget Moloch. I learned to say yes to it all, and I did it at the behest of those desperately looking for enemies overseas both before and after the Soviet Union collapsed, and at the expense of needy people and their children, public services. and the preservation of our precious natural resources here at home.
"Like you, I have watched the awakening of our fellow citizens of all backgrounds and opinions. It made me start thinking about myself, ourselves. When I saw on one television program after another the salt of the Earth, our American people, taking stands, attending rallies, challenging the greed, power, arrogance, and imperiousness of their masters, even while knowing it could mean their jobs, their livelihoods, and their modest ambitions for their children, shame overcame me. I asked myself, What have I ever done for these people, other than giving some of them jobs manufacturing cluster bombs, napalm, missiles, artillery shells, bombers, aircraft carriers, submarines with multiple nuclear warheads, chemical and biological lethalities? Talk about weapons of mass destruction. My answer embarrassed and humiliated me.
"Like many of you, I enjoy spending time with my little grandchildren. I praise them, admonish them, play with them. They know of my position, of course. What can I say to them when, at a young age of curiosity about the world and its injustices, they sit on my knee and ask, 'Granddaddy, what have you done to help?' Do I keep quiet? Do I lie to them? Or do I tell them I did nothing because I was too busy making sure our country acquired enough weapons to blow up their entire world three hundred times over and send the rubble into outer space?
"The Meliorists were wise to avoid completely matters of military and foreign policy, including the gigantic waste and theft in military budgets. You may be thinking, since their Agenda for the Common Good excludes these areas under my jurisdiction, that this battle is none of my business. You're the ones dodging the brickbats. Things are relatively quiet over at the Armed Services Committees. But I am a United States senator, not just the senator from Lockheed-Martin, as one poster put it cruelly. I am a veteran, a lawmaker, a husband, father, and grandfather, and I am determined in this final stage of my public career to be faithful to the responsibilities inherent in those fundamental roles.
"During the recess, Paul Newman called and asked to meet with me, and I agreed. We've all enjoyed his movies over the years and marveled at his continuing skills as a professional racer at age eighty. What I did not know was that he fought in World War II, and that many of the other Meliorists did too. He is a thoughtful gentleman. We had a thoughtful meeting. No bluster, no posturing, no dissembling on his part. He met me elder to elder, as part of a generation whose wisdom has for too long been neither offered nor requested. He used a wonderful phrase about his children and grandchildren. For them and for their generation, he said, he wanted to be a good ancestor. He was so different from the legions of high-powered lobbyists and CEOs who come to me for their special procurements and favors. He didn't even ask me to support the Seven Pillars. He just wanted to explain personally who the Meliorists were, where they were coming from, and what they hoped to leave behind for our beloved country during their remaining years. He spoke about their past achievements and described their decision to move from success to significance, to work for a country where the rights of power are replaced by the power of rights. I never felt better than when I let him take me to dinner.
"Lest you think I'm going soft" -- the senator looked straight at Sabernickle -- "let me define what being tough means. Asserting moral courage is being tough. Waging peace is being tough. Standing up to arrogant power is being tough. And until we have the deeply just society our people deserve, doing the right thing even if it costs us in the short run is being tough. What's being soft? Not thinking through why we are in Congress is being soft. Kowtowing to the interests that fund our campaigns and our appetite for power is being soft. Rallying behind every warmongering political charlatan who sends others off to kill and die is being soft. How do I know? Because up until now I've been soft in all those cowardly ways. But no more. On Monday morning, I will hold a news conference applauding the Seven Pillars and announcing my support. I would welcome it beyond gratitude if any of you were to join with me. Thank you for hearing me out." Armand Armsbuckle slowly sat down.
In the hushed room, four chairmen looked down at the table and blew a ripple of air through their lips. Another muttered, "I'll be a buzzard's uncle." Two others leaned back and looked up at the ceiling with their hands clasped. Several kept their eyes on Armsbuckle with expressions of serenity. Harry Horizon and Francine Freshet clapped twice and broke off. Billy Beauchamp nodded with understanding. Benjamin Bullion furrowed his brow and put his fingertips to the bridge of his nose.
"Oh, for God's sake. This is too much. Iron man turns bleeding heart. Give me a damn break." Duke Sabernickle said disgustedly.
Several chairmen who had been trying to remain neutral shot him a dirty look, and one said, "Duke, you're out of order." Senate Majority Leader Frisk said quietly, "Thank you, Armand, for your service to your country," while Speaker Dostart added, "Ditto, Armand, and don't be so hard on yourself." Half a dozen chairmen who silently agreed with Sabernickle's views if not his tone instantly began thinking about how to marginalize Annsbuckle after the news conference, assuming he couldn't be dissuaded from that point of no return. Finally the chairman of the House Labor Committee, Walter Workman, who had been silent until now, said in a loud voice, "Bravo, Senator Armsbuckle, bravo!"
Justice Tweedy sensed that matters were getting out of hand. The strategic analysis and consensus he had hoped would come out of the retreat had been extinguished by Armsbuckle's announcement. And he was going public on Monday, no less. Justice Tweedy stood up gravely.
"Armand, who among us does not respect your experience and your views? Who among us has not entertained doubts over the years about the declining state of our country in the midst of growing capabilities? As events move faster and faster, I myself feel that things are spinning out of control -- just look at public and private debt levels, for example. But we came here to see if we could forge a common understanding regarding what we need to do vis-a-vis the Meliorists' drive through Congress. Not perfect agreement. Not an iron-clad united front, desirable as that would be. But common ground that permits us to move to the next level in handling this challenge. Now you tell us that on Monday the nation will watch you supporting the Agenda for the Common Good. If you go forward with your plan, you will have aborted the whole purpose of our being here this weekend. We need time to get our bearings, to determine our current power, our bargaining possibilities, the state of our allies, our options for revision. We've just returned from the hottest August of our lifetimes, and we need some time to digest that roiling month. The press, the lobbies, and our worthy opponents in Congress are all knocking on our doors for interviews, meetings, statements, committee schedules. As you noted, because the Seven Pillars do not cover the defense budget and military policies, you are not on the receiving end of these insistent entreaties. If you tie your immense prestige and credibility to the Agenda, that becomes the story of the week, followed by who knows what consequences. Can you give us another week, Armand? Let me ask all of us, how many would urge our distinguished colleague to defer his news conference by just another week?"
All raised their hands except Duke Sabernickle, who sat silent and grim-faced with his arms crossed.
"Armand?" asked Justice Tweedy.
"Your words and our long friendship touch me. I'll relent for another week, but we'll have to meet again next weekend to digest what has transpired in the intervening days. Agreed?"
Justice Tweedy scanned the faces around the table. "Does anyone disagree? ... Very well, it's unanimous. At this point, I think it best to adjourn, get some sleep, and get back to Washington tomorrow. I'll be in the breakfast room in the morning if any of you wish to exchange additional thoughts. It's been an arduous day for all of us, so thank you and good night."
As September wore on, the hordes of business lobbies found themselves in growing disarray. Most of them were not yet at the point of every lobby for itself, but they were thinking more and more along those desperate lines. The urgent need to hold together a united business front fully backing the united front of the Bulls was at the top of the pile of worries afflicting Brovar and Lobo. Brovar had intercepted an internal PCC communique revealing that Luke Skyhi had formed a task force of progressive business owners devoted to just this divide-and-conquer strategy. Already the thriving businesses of the sub-economy were in close coordination, urging from the inside that each lobby look out for its own interests on Capitol Hill before it was too late. Brovar called Lobo and told him to come down to Washington for the duration. He said that if the Meliorists succeeded in splitting the offense, it could spell disaster for the entire mission. This was no time for corporate narcissism. It was bad enough that the CEOs were obsessed with beating back shareholder approval of their enormous compensation packages. Lobo knew that Washington was now ground zero and agreed to spend most of his time there with a small, elite staff.
Meanwhile, the anonymously passionate progressives in Congress were shaping, moving, and troubleshooting both bills and Bulls with the crucial assistance of the Double Z. The task was enormously complex, but the Agenda allies were at the top of their spirit and expertise. They did not disdain diplomacy. On the contrary, getting things done in the hidebound Congress required hand-holding, face-saving, the generous allocation of credit, and the avoidance of public posturing and criticism. Fortunately, these were not needed to motivate the public, for in this epic struggle, the shift had begun: the followers were now leading, and the leaders were following. It helped mightily that the Meliorists, directly and by stimulating private donations large and small, were making sure the invoices were paid on time. Besides, the allies had had a taste of the public mood and civic activity in their districts in August, and they were still savoring it, especially those who had committed themselves to the Agenda from the start. On their return home for the congressional recess, their constituents had hailed them as heroes, and there wasn't any better adrenaline than that.
Every evening the allies met in their own boiler room, a block from the Rayburn office Building, to assess the day's progress and make assignments for the next day. They took turns chairing the meetings, without regard to seniority or congressional protocol. It was all about getting the job done -- check your ego at the door. They had been famished and ridiculed for so long that a massive reservoir of human energy awaited release. They felt no weariness, no exhaustion. Why would they? They were making history.
On the second Tuesday of September, they devoted their meeting to the matter of distracting and splitting the business offense. They'd invited Luke Skyhi to present the latest intelligence from the sub-economy.
"It always amazes me how bad habits breed more bad habits," Luke began. "We've become accustomed to management spearheading leveraged buyouts of shareholders at undervalued prices so they can turn around and make a killing by selling the company off at its true asset value. They get away with it because present law doesn't prohibit this secretive breach of fiduciary duty or address the conflict of interest between management's responsibility to represent the best interests of their shareholders and management's greed fed by inside information. The noted financial writer Ben Stein says such management buyouts should be criminalized and banned. Distraction number one.
"Then there are the efforts of the individual trade groups -- the timber and mining industries, the credit card companies, the oil and gas moguls, the insurance and banking companies, the retail chains, and so on -- to carve out some immunity, some exception, some privilege. They're not looking at the big picture. They're just fending for themselves, which will shortly mean fending against each other. Corporate cannibalism is in their nature once they're cornered, and they do believe they're cornered. If you think the Bulls got heat in August, our reports reveal that the pressure on the companies was immense from every direction and every point of contact, right down to the surge of whistle-blowers inspired in part by the regular valedictories at the National Press Club.
"Some of our sub-economy merchants have turned out to be very gregarious and energetic, volunteering for task forces that get them included in high-level strategy sessions of their various trade associations. You'll be interested in what they tell us. The meetings -- and there are plenty of them -- often end inconclusively, which is a departure from the-past. The participants are expressing doubt, anxiety, anger, indecisiveness. They're torn between charging ahead ideologically in total opposition or bending pragmatically to look out for themselves. The Lobo/Dortwist axis is furious, fearing that any possibility of a united coalition is swirling down the drain. Increasingly, the two men are going it alone with their own huge budget and their new public spokespersons, a bunch of parvenu CEOs they call 'the Solvents,' who are about to debut."
The progressives listened intently and asked pertinent questions about the coordination between the business groups and the Bulls. "No one on the other side is happy with that situation," Luke replied. "The plugs aren't connecting with the sockets." The conversation continued into the wee hours, until the allies finally called it a night and went home to sleep for a few hours and resume their anonymous legislative labors the next day.
If anybody was more upset these days than the corporate lobbyists, it was the congressional press corps. Used to grandstanding from publicity-hungry lawmakers, the media found it difficult to get interviews, a quote or two, or even background remarks from the progressives. David Roget of the Wall Street Journal, widely considered the most perceptive of the reporters on the Hill, wrote that the progressives were "like modern-day Buddhas, quiet, meditative, self-disciplined, friendly to their adversaries, focused, and almost scholarly in their attention to detail. To many observers, that makes them dull, but this is a luxury they can well afford."
When the opinion polls started to register not only victories for the Clean Elections Party in one district after another, but some landslides, the Oval office took notice. The president summoned his top advisers to a meeting in the Indian Treaty Room, whose fraught history was the farthest thing from the minds of those assembled.
"Well, friends and seers," said the president genially, "it looks as if we don't have much choice but to go down to defeat or bet the store -- our party, our White House, and our Congress -- against the Seven Pillars. They're sure worth a lot to the people, but are they worth that much to us? Would any of you geniuses care to comment?"
"Yes, sir," said Chris Topper, his chief of staff, "From our recent rapid-fire meetings with a wide range of our core constituencies, two contradictory impulses emerge. First, they are defiant and expect us to issue a magisterial call to battle, but when we probe deeper, they seem weary, exhausted from being pounded and pulled asunder week after week by the Meliorist swarm -- their favorite word for the popular agitations of recent months. They seem rootless, as if their predicates, frameworks, ideologies, and energies have vanished into the ether. Remember, they're not used to sacrifice, discomfort, or challenges equal to their own resources. Only in this room would I say that they're behaving like bullies finally being called to account."
"But is there any doubt that we can stop all this nonsense in its tracks by summary adjournment?" the president asked.
"There is grave doubt," said Lester Linx, his congressional liaison. "The defense and health-education appropriations bills have to be passed. The Allies can block adjournment as long as these bills are still pending. They've got or will have the veto-proof votes to arrange for simultaneous passage of these bills and the Seven Pillars, just as in a delicate exchange of hostages."
"What if we adjourn, block the Pillars, and take up the key appropriations in a lame-duck session, which I can unilaterally call after the election?" asked the president.
"That won't work because we don't have the votes for adjournment," Linx said. "Can't we get used to our minority status?"
A minute of anxious silence elapsed before Linx spoke again. "We just aren't holding the cards anymore," he said firmly.
"Well, there's always a putsch;," said one of the president's special assistants, trying to break the tension. "Remember the Reichstag?"
Nobody laughed. The president shot him a look of irritation. "Let's turn the subject around for a seditious moment," he said. "Would the country be stronger and better with or without the Seven Pillars? Let's start with a clean slate and be completely candid. What do you say, Hal?"
Harold Featherstone III, a rising star among the special assistants, looked his boss directly in the eye. "I say, is this why I joined the Dartmouth Review, then went to work for Forbes, wrote for the Wall Street Journal, and edited the National Review? If this is the beginning of a new course you're charting for us, Mr. President, you have my resignation."
The president reddened. "Your mind is more than closed, Hal, it's foreclosed. You're so blinkered you can't even contemplate hypotheticals in the privacy of this room."
"As long as they remain hypotheticals, I can play the game, sir," Featherstone said, "but once you start down this perilous hypothetical path, where do you stop? You're not positing a steady-state hypothetical. I posit that there can be no steady-state hypothetical with hypothetical limits, boundaries, and ambitions. That's my historical, realistic, and experience-based hypothetical, sir."
Shelburne Sherwood IV, Featherstone's chief rival among the assistants, rolled his eyes. "Whatever that may mean, I say our choice is either to fight the war and lose it, or to fight the battle and lose it but remain in position to fight the war again. I have a distinct preference for the latter. Instead of betting the farm, why not give in, stress the conservative dimensions of the Pillars, ride the wave as if the victory were ours, and survive for the presidential race two years hence?"
"You're sliding into tactics here," the president said. "Stick with the hypothetical question I asked."
"As your adviser on community and ethnic relations," said Clarence Fairchild, "I've come to the conclusion that the country would be much stronger standing on the Seven Pillars. Let's not kid ourselves, Harold. This is all about the redistribution of power, wealth, and income in accordance with the people's just desserts and their long-ignored constitutional rights. I think you're confusing your pretensions with intellect."
Featherstone's eyes fairly bulged out of their sockets. "And I think you're displaying your true pink and yellow colors. You're jumping off our party's platform and besmirching it with mud. You're tearing up our president's speeches and replacing them with idiot Agenda babble. How revealing to see what passes for your inner thought process finally oozing out of your duplicitous mind."
"In the interests of time, and out of respect for you, Mr. President, I'll refrain from commenting on Featherstone's vapid bilge," Fairchild said.
"Enough," snapped the president. "This is getting us nowhere. Here's how I see it. Our base economically consists of the rich and powerful who respond to our deeds -- like the Houston Petroleum Club boys, for instance, just to pull an example out of the hat. Our base politically consists of the tens of millions of people who respond to our words. I act as a business booster, but I speak as a politician. When our economic base becomes dangerously weak, as it has for the critical time being, we're left with our political base, who are abandoning us in droves week by week. We have fewer and fewer people who can speak persuasively to their skeptical ears. All of us in this room would describe ourselves as conservatives, but let's admit it -- we've allowed the corporations to maul and usurp our conservative beliefs and have become their tribunes. So what do we find ourselves defending, promoting, and falling on the sword for? Global corporations that have no allegiance to the country that nurtures them and sends its soldiers abroad to protect their interests. Is that true conservatism, Hal?"
Featherstone sat in stony silence, looking in the direction of his feet.
"Come on, Hal, speak up. How do you feel about the loss of our sovereignty to a World Trade Organization that circumvents our courts and moves disputes with other countries to private tribunals in Geneva, Switzerland, where secret judicial proceedings force us to obey their dictates and repeal our own laws and regulations?"
Featherstone looked up. "Sir, I --"
"Do you support all those subsidies and giveaways to business, paid for by the taxpayers, who are then prohibited by our own judges from challenging these handouts in federal court?"
Slowly, Featherstone shook his head no.
"All right." said the president. "Now, you and I do not like regulations on business, but do you approve of businesses lobbying to keep our courts fully open for companies and restrict access for wronged individuals?"
"No," Featherstone mumbled.
"As a devout Christian, do you approve of corporations riding roughshod over any moral or religious constraints and making tens of billions of dollars from gambling, pornography, and other sin industries?"
"Would you applaud a neighbor who put some capital into an enterprise while you put in the hard work, and who left you with so little pay at the end of his super-profitable day that you couldn't begin to support your family or pay for healthcare?"
"Should companies be allowed to pollute our God-given air, water, and soil just to make more profits when the result is sickness, private property damage, and medical expenses?"
"Should companies escape prosecution if they sell you a product or expose you to a chemical whose dangers are known to them but hidden from the public?"
"Well, there are plenty of other questions where those came from, but I think you're probably getting my point by now. Those questions are also answered in the negative by the Seven Pillars you've been fulminating about. If, over the years, the big corporations have appropriated our conservative power for their own objectives -- recall Mammon from your Bible -- and left us with our conservative rhetoric to fool our faithful followers while we advanced ourselves, why should we object if the Meliorists and their supporters are pushing us closer to some of our conservative beliefs? Like privacy, sovereignty, civil liberties. Like real freedom of contract, not the one-sided, fine-print contracts we all have to sign. Like clean elections, and control of our borders, which so exercises the cheap-labor interests puffed by the Wall Street Journal. Sure, the Meliorists stand for things we will never abide, but you and your charming wife probably don't agree all the time either, do you, Hal? It's not a matter of black and white. It's how the Seven Pillars add up, and I can see them adding up to a stronger USA. I can certainly see plenty of people being happier, healthier, freer, and able to pay their bills and spend more time with their children. The Institute of Medicine reported recently that eighteen thousand Americans die every year because they can't afford medical care. I'm sure my well-bred, well-paid, well-covered staff doesn't know any of these fellow Americans. But think about it. What is the big deal? I'm tired of mouthing the corporate catechism and suppressing my resentment over it. Maybe the Meliorists have made it possible for us to free the conservative movement from its commercial shackles. What do you say, Chris?"
His chief of staff was staring at him. "What do I say? I say I'm speechless. It's going to take me a while to digest your words. Unless they were just a Socratic exercise," Topper ventured hopefully, but the president made no response.
"What about all those suspended investments and dire warnings about a declining business climate if the Pillars are enacted?" asked Shelburne Sherwood.
"Chicken Little," the president said. "Just tactical bluffing. They're also trying to get me to threaten vetoes so as to shore up the Bulls. Check out the Budget Committee's report next week."
"What about your veto thinking, sir?" asked Lester Linx.
"It's not relevant to the present escalating situation. As Shel said, it would be betting the farm, even if the vote is decisive -- or should I say, especially if the vote is decisive." The president paused and looked at his advisers one by one, knowing that many of them were shaken or dispirited. "Cheer up, fellas. We don't have time for gloom and doom. Just go back to your offices and consider what I've said. We'll meet again in a few days, and meanwhile, no leaks. Repeat, no leaks. Keep your eyes, ears, and antennae on full alert, and as Abe Lincoln said, keep thinking anew. Chris, get me the latest read on the CEOs in New York, and be sure to ask them for their views on the Solvents. I suppose it's just barely possible that some new blood may be able to put a new spin on things."
For a solid week, virtually around the clock, the Solvents had been preparing for their debut at the National Press Club, scene of so many stirring speeches and valedictories in the past months. They'd been briefed to the gills on the Agenda and the Meliorists. They'd crafted their statements with the utmost care, reviewed them as a group for overlap and consistency, and committed them to memory so they could deliver them flawlessly. They'd studied profiles of the reporters who were likely to show up, and drilled each other with the questions that were likely to be asked. Lobo and Brovar had made sure the event was massively publicized and that the Solvents had all the resources of the CEOs and the hardline trade groups behind them.
As they strode to the dais and sat down to arrange their papers, they sensed an unusual atmosphere in the Press Club ballroom, not the usual kidding among the camera crews and scribes, but a kind of disdainful amusement. Well, thought Dexter Delete, he and his colleagues would soon wipe those smiles off their faces. They were there to communicate unyielding resolve in opposing the Meliorists and everything they stood for and intended to do to the country. Their concise and focused presentations would lay out the battle lines for the autumn showdown in Washington, DC. They had to avoid bluff and bravado and show the nation exactly what was at stake. They knew that because of the intense media interest their words would reach some hundred million people or more, and that they were already "personalities," which was fine by them if that was what it took to awaken the masses to the Meliorist peril.
Dexter Delete led off. He vividly portrayed the shakiness of the investment community and the stock market, and the devastating imminent effect on jobs, exports, and small businesses on Main Street. As a corporate private investigator, he had cause to know from the inside of his clients' premonitions and fears. "Our economy is formidable, our companies energetic," he declared, "but taken as a whole they are vulnerable precisely because their very energy overextends them in the credit and other markets. This overextension is vital to our continued economic growth, but it carries within itself the seeds of a sudden contraction in the face of trauma, as is well known to economic historians. The Meliorists are that trauma."
Next up was Gilbert Grande, the business consultant chieftain. "The pace of globalization these days means an enhanced inclination for capital flight under adverse pressures. The rapidly expanding economies of Asia, in particular, are happy to accommodate these shifts in plant, equipment, and startup industries that will become the big factor in coming years. Wherever these companies go, momentum, worker training, infrastructure, and R and D will follow. The Meliorists understand this very well. They cloak it in their continuing outcry that transnational corporations have no national loyalties, but in fact they are abetting it. The convulsions they've caused in our society since early this year are distracting my clients from the business of America, which is business. Their employees are either attending the lunchtime rallies or following the action on their computers and ignoring their work. Then they go home and are bombarded by media reports, excited neighbors, evening meetings, and the like. Productivity is declining as a result. Motivation is plummeting. Economics starts with psychology, contrary to the dogmas of the dismal science, and this Meliorist-inspired mass psychology is a catastrophe for our nation."
Elvis Inskull took the podium. "The Meliorists present a fascinating psychiatric profile. They're successful business people nearing the end of their active lives and searching for meaning, for their place in history, no matter what the cost to others of a more tender age. What do they have to lose if their gamble boomerangs on our country? Nothing, because they can blame it on the opposition's intransigence -- not to mention that they're all billionaires. This is the hallmark of the dogmatic mind, a messianic belief in the rightness of its cause, which can only be derailed by the machinations of evil foes. The media persistently describes the Meliorists as rational, cool. gradualist reformers. That is completely at odds with my assessment based on long experience in treating psychiatric patients and establishing healing residences for their cure. It is vital to go behind the PR dazzle and plumb the psychological depths. The Meliorists clearly have no economic motivations or political aspirations. Logic points to residual psychiatric disorders as a probative explanation of their behavior and the lengths to which they are prepared to go to satisfy their unacknowledged psychological cravings."
Some of the reporters were nudging each other and snickering as Steve Shredd rose to speak. "I come from a hardheaded business too often misunderstood, so I know it won't surprise you when I say that the task at hand is immediate, all-out opposition to the so-called Agenda for the Common Good. This battle with the Meliorists and their many tentacles here in Washington and throughout the country will be the most ferocious, well-financed struggle in the history of the American corporation. Simply put, it is a battle over who will lead this country -- the invisible hands of bustling, innovative corporations or the palsied hands of frustrated corporate retirees? I am authorized to inform you that three billion dollars and thirty thousand full-time lobbyists will be deployed on Capitol Hill not only to block this Agenda but to preclude its return forever. A cluster of advocates representing many categories of economic activity will be assigned to each member of Congress, both here and in their states and districts. Back home, these advocates will torpedo the Clean Elections Party wherever it is fielding candidates against incumbents who are committed to the defense of our great nation. The overall command will be in the hands of Lancelot Lobo and Brovar Dortwist."
Delbert Decisioner stepped up to play good cop to Shredd's bad cop. "Resolving conflicts has been my business for thirty-five years," he said in honeyed tones. "Short of warring spouses or outright war, there's scarcely a conflict I haven't produced arbitrators to resolve. However," he said with a rueful smile, "I regret to inform you that this conflict with the Meliorists is not resolvable by any other means than their total defeat. They won't give an inch. They maintain that the Agenda's very modesty and the careful drafting of all its interconnected parts precludes compromise. To which I say, balderdash! I personally am mobilizing the enormous world of conflict resolution firms to demonstrate that even those most skilled in settling disputes believe there is no chance of making so much as a dent in the Meliorists' authoritarian stubbornness. That will send a very clear message to the American people."
As Decisioner sat down, Washington Post columnist David Roader leaned over to Zack Lermond of the Baltimore Sun, his longtime competitor, and whispered, "I can't figure out their game, can you? Isn't this just recycled claptrap, or am I missing something?" Lermond shrugged his shoulders as Sally Savvy, the Lingerie Queen, took the mike. The press corps perked up perceptibly while the cameramen refocused and clicked away.
"You may wonder what I'm doing here. Well, I've had fantastic success in clothing my customers transparently, and I can clothe these Meliorist emperors the same way. I represent the textile industry, where the labor reforms of the Agenda spell extinction. There aren't many domestic clothing operations left, and we're hanging by a thong. The minute the Agenda passes, we're all outta here for Bangladesh or Vietnam."
"All of which," said Adam Agricoloff, the Asparagus King, stepping forward and gesturing to his colleagues, "is why we're sponsoring an open source competition for the seven best detailed proposals for stopping each of the Seven Pillars in its tracks. The prize for each winning idea is a million dollars, along with a budget of another million to publicize it and expose the fatal flaws in the corresponding Meliorist idea. Full information about the contest is available on our website, www.crisiscountdown.com. We cordially invite the millions of you watching on television or listening on your radios, both here and abroad, to participate. And now we'll take questions from the press."
As dozens of reporters rushed from the room to file their stories about the three-billion-dollar war chest and the thirty thousand lobbyists, David Roader stood and asked pointedly, "Just what are you trying to convey to the American people with this mishmash of declarations and accusations?"
"The grim reality of the political equivalent of war, Mr. Roader," said Steve Shredd, "and the urgent necessity for every American to enlist in this struggle against the Meliorists and for the twenty-first century."
"If things are so grim and so urgent, why aren't the CEOs here instead of you, their eleventh-hour substitutes?" Zack Lermond asked.
"Just my point," said Elvis Inskull. "The role of psychology is decisive. The CEOs are upstanding, successful, and very generous with their contributions, but they're all introverts. They're not publicity hounds like the Meliorists."
"I find it hard to discern anything new here other than yourselves and the three billion dollars. We already know what the business community has been doing. Just what are we supposed to find newsworthy in your statements?" asked Basil Brubaker of the New York Times.
"Intensity, all-out defiance, no compromises, a fight to the finish," said the Asparagus King. "In my business of growing fruits and vegetables by the zillions, we are in a seasonal fight to the finish against pests, fungi, rats, and drought. Only those growers with a focused intensity and a take-no-prisoners drive prevail. Those are the qualities we have conveyed this morning to a television audience of millions. What you write for tomorrow's newspapers will be your own take, through your own filters, and we can't do anything about that. Our side has had the upper hand in resources, manpower, and superior congressional contacts. What it lacked was what sportscasters encapsulate in the phrase 'the will to win.' That is what it has now, in us, and that is why we are here today."
"What are you going to do about the divisions and conflicts among the various business lobbies?" asked Linda Lancet of the Wall Street Journal. "Some would say that a lot of them are looking out for themselves at the expense of the overall opposition."
"That's a good probe," said Delbert Decisioner. "We know our opposition would like nothing better than to split our offense, and we're in the process of gathering detailed intelligence on the nature and depth of these divisions, with the goal of resolving them as quickly as possible. One of the reasons Lobo, Dortwist, and the CEOs brought us Solvents together was so that we could use our outsider status in the service of healing these potentially mortal clashes. We have no axes to grind."
"Pat Boylan of Newsday," said a craggy-faced man chewing on an unlit cigar. "The Las Vegas oddsmakers are putting your chances of stopping the Meliorist juggernaut at one in six. They have a good track record for being on the money. What do you say to those odds? And how much of the three billion is going into the campaign coffers of Republican senators and representatives?"
"We can't answer that last question," said Gilbert Grande. "Ask the Republican National Committee for their estimates. As for Las Vegas, let them stick to blackjack and roulette, and we'll stick to saving the Republic and the free enterprise system for which it stands."
"And would you add 'with liberty and justice for all'?"
"You're a smart aleck, Mr. Boylan," said Steve Shredd.
"It's a simple question. Please answer it."
"It's heckling. Next question, please."
Back at headquarters, Lobo and Brovar winced. All it took was one nasty remark to give the press their lead. They held their breath and waited for the other shoe to drop. Boylan was a war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner. He wasn't going to be dismissed by the likes of Steve Shredd.
"Wait a minute, I want an answer," Boylan shouted. "Mr. Grande just used a Pledge of Allegiance metaphor in describing your group's ideology. I want to know if the metaphor embraces the entire Pledge, including the last words. If you want to dodge the question, that's your prerogative, but don't call it heckling."
Delbert Decisioner saw the press conference starting to unravel. He moved in, nudging Shredd to one side. "Of course, Mr. Boylan. We all believe in every word of the Pledge of Allegiance."
"So we can write that your opposition to the Agenda for the Common Good is in furtherance of liberty and justice for all, correct?" Boylan said.
Laughter erupted in the ballroom.
Decisioner calmly waited for it to subside. "Naturally, you can write whatever you like, Mr. Boylan. Just let your journalistic conscience be your guide."
Lobo and Brovar breathed a cautious sigh of relief but were soon wincing again as a number of reporters asked questions about the group's contacts with the Bulls, the CEOs, the White House, the PCC, and the trade associations. It became apparent that the Solvents' vaunted networking operation had yet to leave the gate, and the remainder of the press conference did nothing to dispel the media's general impression that they were greenhorns.
David Roader returned to his office at the Washington Post in a reflective frame of mind. He sat at his desk deep in thought for a good thirty minutes, and then he began to write.
In my fifty-one years of journalism, I have never witnessed anything like what is now almost certain to occur in our nation's capital -- a bloodless popular revolution against the bastions of corporate power. Nor have I ever witnessed the retired super-rich taking on the entrenched super-rich. I have never witnessed the mobilization of the populace behind such a comprehensive leap forward for our country as the Agenda for the Common Good. I have never witnessed what increasingly looks like the wilting of the corporate supremacists under pressure coming from all directions in all dimensions.
Perhaps Thomas Jefferson would not have been completely surprised by these developments. As you may recall from American history class, Jefferson foresaw that when the 'monied interests' grew extreme in the pursuit of their goals, the political sphere -- the voters -- would arise to counteract them. What neither he nor any of our political ancestors foresaw was that the voters would arise with the help of other 'monied interests,' selfless and patriotic billionaires with a conscience and a passion for justice. No one foresaw it as recently as a few months ago, for that matter.
The popular movement set in motion by the Meliorists is spreading on its own, contagiously, even as it continues to receive guidance, publicity, and funds from these remarkably astute elders. We in the press can't begin to keep track of all the activity on Capitol Hill, much less around the nation. In the absence of some deus ex machina on the corporate side -- and the Solvents clearly don't fit the bill -- the Meliorists may be on the brink of total victory. Certainly that is what the polls are registering in an upward curve for the Agenda and the Clean Elections Party week by week, and a corresponding downward curve for the incumbents, especially those of the majority party in Congress. Local newspapers are reporting on the electric atmosphere back in the districts, the spreading sense that it's time for a real change, a mood that is very difficult to counter, even with the saturation media scare we've been treated to of late. Normally, clever political advertising can work to undermine its targets because there is no one on the ground in the communities to cry out, "Nonsense, we know better!" Now, however, there is a growing rampart of civic knowledge. Harry and Louise never had a chance for an encore this year for that very reason, though it didn't hurt that Patriotic Polly was waiting in the wings, as it were.
My congressional sources tell me of infighting and depression among the leadership and the committee chairs. "They seem unable to get it together," said one high-placed source who asked not to be identified. "The disarray on the Hill reflects a similar disarray among the K Street lobbies, and there are no corporate lawyers of towering stature whose strategic experience and wisdom could begin to unite them. Part of the problem is that there has been nary a sign that any part of the Agenda deck can be cut. There are no deals on offer." And indeed, part of the genius of the Agenda's congressional backers has been their consistent message that they will not allow the Seven Pillars to be watered down or traded off against one another. The Pillars have been very effectively presented as an interlocking legislative package that will shift the power in our political economy away from the corporations and toward the citizenry. The architectural metaphor is apt. The pillars of a building are integral to its structure. None are expendable.
More and more, it appears that the Bulls and their 'bears' are left with one option, short of unconditional surrender: to jump on the Agenda bandwagon and try to avert a public relations and electoral disaster. They can try to adjust to the new balance of power, regroup, and hope that reformist fatigue sets in so they can reassert their power in coming years, just as their predecessors did after the populist-progressive wave petered out before World War I. The corporations roared back with a vengeance in the 1920s, with the Depression and FDR only briefly slowing their inexorable march toward a corporate state in the decades since. As the Meliorists said only a few remarkable months ago, stay tuned.
Roader's column was not well received on K Street, nor on Wall Street, State Street, LaSalle Street, nor Wilshire Boulevard. The unease in the corporate suites proceeded not only from the substance of his piece but from the fact that he had made public in the 380 newspapers that carried his biweekly column what they privately knew to be the case. Other commentators and editorial writers were sure to pick up Roader's prediction. Most had already weighed in with similarly dismissive appraisals of the Solvents. High in their stories was the Boylan exchange with Shredd, whose business was described by one of them as "the manufacture of advanced cluster bombs widely condemned by human rights groups."
"We'll have to lower our expectations of the Solvents," Lobo said to Brovar a couple of days after the news conference. "They're not the heavyweights we'd hoped they'd be, and the press has no use for them. Damn, but I hope that open source contest brings in some new ideas."
On the weekend before Armsbuckle Monday, the Bulls reconvened at the Bunkers Hotel. Justice Tweedy called them to order with a sobering introductory statement.
"Friends and colleagues, our backs are to the wall. We interpret the wall in various ways, I know, but my own evaluation of the situation since we last met is that the Meliorists are gaining at an accelerating rate and the people out there know it. Editorial cartoonists are cruelly caricaturing us as relics heading for 'the dustbin of history.' The late-night comics have millions of viewers laughing at our expense. The Agenda allies are breathing down our necks to give them the schedule for final committee votes. They're being very cagy about not letting the defense and health-education appropriations bills get out in front of the Seven Pillars. Our retired colleagues in the Zabouresk-Zeftel group are proving invaluable to them in this regard. Personally, I'd like to see us come to a unanimous decision this weekend, rather than each of us going our own way or trying our own blocking maneuvers."
"You mean we should all go down with the ship together," said Duke Sabernickle sarcastically.
"Or maybe save ourselves together," said Elaine Whitehat.
For the next three hours, the committee chairs went over the same old ground and came to the same conclusion: their only options were to accept the Agenda and "heed the loudly declared will of the people," as Harry Horizon put it, or to cling to the slim possibility of defiance to the end, with the attendant likelihood of a double defeat on the Seven Pillars and on Election Day.
Dinner came and dessert went. At the evening session, they once again discussed the possibility of cutting deals on the Agenda, but they came to a dead end simply because they didn't have the votes. Adjournment was not a possibility for the reasons given at the earlier meeting. They shifted their attention to the White House. If the president dramatically vetoed all the bills, he would doom his party, and he would be easily overridden by lawmakers looking to save their own necks on Election Day. Another dead end. Even if the Bulls didn't care about being reelected -- and they were already getting subtle offers of lucrative positions, which disturbed them because they knew why -- their own junior followers would rebel if they tried to block the Agenda. They ended their meeting and went to sleep knowing that the inconclusiveness of the day's deliberations could not be repeated on the morrow.
After breakfast, an unusually silent repast, they reassembled in the conference room. The meeting was mercifully short. Within an hour, they had agreed to ride the Agenda wave and make the best of it. Armsbuckle would drop his plans for a press conference, and the group would prepare a statement for a joint press conference next week. The decision was unanimous. It was obvious, even to Sabernickle, that it had to be. Self-preservation is the cardinal instinct of legislators.
Once the decision was made, there were certain courtesies to be arranged. The Bulls would have to ask the president for a personal meeting, with no aides present on either side. Lobo and Brovar were next in line to be notified, but the Bulls knew Lobo would insist that the CEOs be included, at least via a closed circuit teleconference, to protect his hide and forestall any rumors that he was two-timing his reclusive bosses. A suitable representation of other corporate leaders would have to be notified personally as well. The problem here was an almost certain leak to the press, whether directly or indirectly, so the meeting would have to be held on the eve of the announcement, with apologies for the short notice. Major contributors and political friends and backers would only be informed on the morning of the news conference that an announcement was forthcoming, which would put their noses out of joint, but that couldn't be helped. The Bulls felt they had to keep things under wraps as long as possible to derive the maximum public relations benefit from their startling decision to come out in support of the Agenda.
Some of the Bulls were deeply upset by that decision but felt they had to go along. The majority knew they had done the right thing to avoid a nightmare of conflict and threatened retribution, but no one felt good about it except for Armsbuckle and a few others. Certainly, their former hardcore ideological backers would accuse them of cowardly treason -- or worse, cut them off entirely. There would be a terrible backlash from those quarters. Fortunately, the deadlines for qualifying a right-wing party or candidate had passed in every state. And none of the Bulls could deny the one indisputable advantage to riding the wave. There would be no discharge petitions to overturn their authority in their committees, the ultimate humiliation. If chairing a committee meant anything, it meant remaining in charge.
Before returning to Washington, they had what Justice Tweedy called their last lunch. It was polite enough and not entirely humorless, even displaying some grace, for they all knew that this would be the last time they assembled as the unchallenged masters of Congress in the old political style of a bygone era. As they said their goodbyes in the hotel lobby, it was probably a coincidence that the piped-in background music was Frank Sinatra singing "September Song."
Three days later, the omnipresent White House press corps sighted a stream of congressional committee chairs alighting at the White House one after another. To reduce their visibility, the Bulls arrived in ordinary cars, not limos, but that only served to arouse the reporters' suspicions. Something was up. White House Press Secretary Teddy Dodgem issued a one-paragraph statement saying that the president was meeting with his party's congressional leadership for a normal post-Labor Day review of pending legislation.
In the Indian Treaty room, the president greeted each of the Bulls personally. When they were all seated around the conference table, Justice Tweedy delivered the news, and was surprised at how calmly the president absorbed it. "It is most fortunate," Tweedy went on, "that none of us chairs has yet taken a stand on the Agenda. Our majority reports were scrupulously analytical and neutral, in contrast to the vigorous endorsement by the minority Agenda allies. Our circumspection will pay off during tomorrow's difficult news conference."
The president listened patiently until Justice Tweedy finished. Then he said, "Friends, you have made the politically expedient decision, and for once, paradoxically enough, that happens to be the best decision for the American people."
All around the table, jaws dropped. Evidently the president had been even more circumspect than the Bulls over the past months.
"Now that you've made your courageous decision, and I know it couldn't have been easy" -- here the president shot Duke Sabernickle a look -- "your challenge, I think, is to make your announcement and your subsequent engagements with the allies authentic not only in appearance but in reality. Some advice along these lines. Examine the Seven Pillars carefully for the provisions that are foursquare with conservative philosophy. Think about it. You don't oppose all government regulation. You decry corporate crime just as you decry street crime. While you may disagree with the environmentalists on the details, you too want to conserve our God-given Earth. You oppose corporate welfare and waste in government contracting because you believe the taxpayers' money should be wisely and efficiently used. You approve of the voluntary nature of membership and dues in these CUB groups. And why shouldn't the government behave like a business and get a fair market return for the use of public assets instead of giving them away? The Agenda also demands shareholder control over executive pay and company policies. Well, isn't it a basic tenet of capitalism that owners should control what they own? As for the raising of the minimum wage, isn't it just a first step toward fair pay for an honest day's work? What Christian, or for that matter what Jew or Muslim, could object to that? I could go on, but you get the drift. The Agenda for the Common Good may be the best thing that's happened to conservatism since Edmund Burke."
Just then, waiters arrived with coffee and cookies. The president took an Oreo and munched for a moment. "Your announcement will have to be carefully prepared with the help of your top staff and advisers. The press will be incredulous and therefore aggressive. They'll probe for cracks, for a hidden agenda. They'll remind you of some alleged inconsistency in your past remarks and hope for a slip of the tongue. They'll push you on the parts of the Agenda you abhor. You'll have to be on full alert for this major first impression. Damn, but I'd like to see the expressions on the faces of the Meliorists and their allies when they watch your press conference. The thing I love best in politics is turning the tables on my adversaries, surprising them, blasting their stereotypes of what they can expect from me."
"I'm not so eager to see the expressions on the faces of the CEOs and the Solvents when they find out," said Benjamin Bullion.
The president took another Oreo and dipped it in his coffee. "The Solvents are inconsequential, and the CEOs have made themselves irrelevant. Sure, it's not going to be all roses, Ben, but which side would you rather be on? And where are the CEOs and their cohorts going to go anyway? Off to start a new corporate party? They already have one or two now. Besides, the history of reform demonstrates that once the line is drawn in the political sand, the corporations will adjust and go happily on their profitable way. They're amazingly opportunistic and expedient institutions, in the best sense of those much-abused words. Take some of the major restraints aimed at corporations -- the ban on child labor, breakups under the antitrust laws, and mandatory safety standards, to name just a few. In every case the corporations adjusted and grew and became more profitable by the year. I see little in the Seven Pillars, despite some pretty fundamental shifts of power and wealth, that uproots the basic system of private property and market enterprise. The only exception is full Medicare, which will put an end to the insurance HMOs, but they asked for it with their profiteering, bureaucratic, wasteful ways, and in any case it's not irreversible.
"We conservatives like to say we favor clean, honest elections, but many of us don't welcome the public financing approach in the Agenda. To that I can only note that the financing is voluntary on the 1040, with a ceiling of three hundred dollars per taxpayer, so I can't see any real conservative downside here. Who among you likes to raise money? Most of us in this room don't have to because the money boys come to us, but for our more junior colleagues, fundraising is distasteful, forcing them to grovel and walk that fine line between bribery and extortion. Wouldn't it be refreshing if all the companies and lobbyists knocking on our doors had to make their arguments on the merits, not on the money?
"The Meliorists are pay-as-you-go types, except for emergencies. They don't want Social Security surpluses hiding the government's true annual operating deficit. Our nation is heading for a big debt-deficit entitlement crash if we don't turn things around, and the Meliorists are giving us that opportunity. Ending the bulk of corporate welfare reduces spending. Taxing securities transactions, pollution, and the addiction industries brings in revenue while cutting individual income taxes. There are many parts of the Agenda that you've resolutely opposed, but by and large it sure beats the French Revolution. Instead of going to the guillotine, you can share in the credit.
"History will beam down upon us in the wake of the Agenda, and in that light I've been coming around to your position on my own in the past weeks. Nothing like watching an irresistible force overtake an immovable object to help your common sense along and flush out your better instincts. I think we needed a cold shower to jolt us out of our knee-jerk complacency. And if you don't make it in November, it's not the end of the world. In two years, I'll see you in the private sector."
"Mr. President, what a breath of fresh air!" exclaimed Francine Freshet. "You've always been able to express what some of us feel but weren't ready to say out loud. Thank you."
"Sometimes the hardest decisions, the most agonizing decisions, turn out to be the greatest decisions," said Billy Beauchamp. "I'm immensely relieved that we are all on the same page. How do you plan to make your announcement, Mr. President? I presume you wish to follow ours, or am I mistaken?"
"Well, Billy, political ego tells me to go first and show that I'm leading the Congress, but institutionally it's better if you take the lead, resolve the present deadlock, and pass the legislation for my signature. That's the sequence laid out in our Constitution, of course, and I'll follow it. As for exactly how and where to respond to your enactment, I want to consult with my advisers."
"Mr. President," said Duke Sabernickle, "you've allayed some of my short-run concerns about the Agenda, but none of my long-term worries that they represent the first steps toward totalitarian socialism. Once the masses organize, once they taste victory, what's to stop them from going all the way?"
"You mean all the way with the backing of the Meliorist capitalists?" asked the president.
"Before long, they won't need the Meliorists," Sabernickle replied. "The Agenda essentially gives them all the gold on public lands, and that's just one example of the wealth that will be theirs under its provisions."
"It already belongs to them, Duke," said Billy Beauchamp. "They are the people, after all."
"To respond to your long-range worries," the president said, "I'm not clairvoyant, but I do have enough confidence in the American people and their institutions to believe that totalitarian socialism isn't in the cards. And now you'll have to excuse me. I have a meeting with the prime minister of Chad, where the situation is heating up. Stay in touch and keep me posted. You know any of you can always reach me by secured phone. Good day."
"Good day, Mr. President," chorused the Bulls.
As they left the White House one by one by a back exit and walked to their cars, the Bulls were again accosted by the press corps. "What's up, Congressman Meany?" a fresh-faced young reporter asked the chairman of the House Administration Committee.
"Just preelection politics, sonny, have a nice day."
That evening, Lobo and Brovar met in their office suite and ordered in dinner from Luigi's, a gourmet Italian restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. They had expected to review the Solvents' semi-debacle and the responses to the open source contest, but on the agenda prepared by Lobo's chief of staff, Lawrence Nightingale, a new item caught their attention: Rumors of Collapse. Lobo called Nightingale in and asked him to explain before they started on their appetizers. Nightingale was anything but an alarmist, but he'd received a call from a staffer friend over at the Senate Armed Services Committee that he thought Lobo and Brovar would want to know about. The friend had overheard Chairman Armsbuckle speaking with his wife. The gist of the conversation was that Armsbuckle was canceling a press conference at which he'd planned to make an important announcement, and would appear instead at a joint press conference with the other committee chairs, who had "come around on the Agenda."
"Thanks, Larry," Lobo said. "We'll call you if we need anything else."
Brovar picked up a jumbo shrimp and studied it as Nightingale exited. "Something's up for sure when you add that to the other tips we've gotten," he said. "I don't know about you, but my appetite's dwindling. We've racked our brains, but nothing's working. The open source ideas are ludicrous or worse. There were several suggestions about inducing a terrorist attack against some major public target in such a way that it couldn't be traced back to our side. 'This is a tough choice,' one guy wrote, 'a choice only for patriots brave enough to see that such an attack is the only way to save our free enterprise system from these insidious capitalist turncoats.' He didn't say whether any of his 'patriots' would be willing to go down in the attack as the ultimate test of their sincerity. Can you believe such evil rot? These people float wild schemes like that because they're not close enough to the scene to come up with any remotely applicable strategy or tactic."
Lobo nodded. "I'm not impressed with open source problem solving either. It never seems to produce a formula that addresses people's lives and failures where it counts. It's good for solving some slice of a software program or easing some marketing delivery problem, but it's not ready for prime time on the important struggles."
Brovar poured them both a large glass of Chianti. "Here's to us and our faltering counterattack, Lobo. May the end be swift and merciful."
"Do you know more than you're telling me?"
"No, it's just the feeling I have more and more. And what are the Bulls up to with this press conference? It can't be anything good."
Lobo drained his glass of wine and poured himself another. "I knew we were in trouble when the CEOs wouldn't put themselves on the line like the SROs do. Conflicts have to be personalized. People want to see passion, fireworks. Instead I end up with a bunch of shrinking violets who want to stay in the back room when backroom business as usual is exactly the issue. You'd think they were monks instead of some of the most powerful men in the country. No wonder my poor dog gets such a workout."
"I know what you mean," Brovar said. "When I'm stuck with something, I take my dog for long walks too." He sipped his wine. "You know, one of our main problems has been the lack of vivid imagery that grabs people and makes them remember something and talk it up with their friends. Take the Beatty campaign steamrolling over Schwarzenegger out in California. Ask any ordinary Californian about that race and you'll get, 'I was bowled over by Warren Beatty and his buses of billionaires going around the state demanding that they be taxed more to eliminate the state deficit and make life better for people like me.' That's enough right there to beat the muscleman, even with all his flexing. Now, there's much more to Beatty's platform, plenty of proposals that mean something to voters, but just ask them to remember anything else. It's the imagery and what it conveys day after day. With all our media saturation and lobbying campaigns, we've never come anywhere near the equivalent of those billionaire buses. And we never could have, no matter how hard we tried. You know why? Because we're not perceived to be on the side of the people. We can tell them we are until we're blue in the face, but they aren't buying. They simply know more now."
Lobo took a big gulp of Chianti. "I guess I have to agree, but that doesn't change the fact that I haven't fulfilled my contract with the CEOs."
"No, Lobo, the CEOs are the ones who haven't fulfilled the contract. They never went as far as they led you to believe they would -- not that it would have helped, more than likely. You know, what's amazed me throughout this entire battle is that we tried all the boilerplate tactics that have worked so well in so many other showdowns over the decades and none of them came through for us. Some, like the attempt to delegitimize our adversaries, actually backfired. Right now my imagination -- supposedly the envy of my peers -- is shooting blanks. I'm tapped out."
"Well, there's only one solution," Lobo said, hiccuping. "More wine. We have to keep our spirits up. Let's change the subject and enjoy this fine meal. How's life with your new bride?"
As September drew to a close, the Meliorists intensified their focus on the Congress. Without being overbearing, they personally called the members and some of their staff people, and made it clear to the Bulls that they were available to meet with them at any time. They knew they already had a majority. Now they were going for a veto-proof Congress. Nor did they ignore the president, whom many of them had met at public occasions in the past six years. Warren Buffett made sure that word was very politely conveyed to the White House that the Meliorists were prepared to speak with the president at his convenience, should he so wish.
Meanwhile, if Brovar and Lobo were exhibiting signs of despair, the trade associations were in free fall, frantically fighting each other for preferred positions, grasping at straws to pacify their anxious memberships around the country, and trying to keep track of their newly expanded corps of lobbyists, many untutored in the ways of Congress and the capital. Luke Skyhi's early-alert system in the sub-economy kept him fully informed on the flailing of these elephantine organizations, and he made sure that the PCC exacerbated the strains among them. Perhaps too eagerly, he sensed the collapse, not just the defeat, of the K Street crowd.
Two days after their meeting with the president, the Bulls scheduled a news conference in the main hall of the Cannon office Building to announce their support of the Seven Pillars as a unitary package. They took pains to point out that they had never really opposed it. After all, hadn't they held prolonged public hearings of impeccable impartiality? Didn't their majority reports hew to an analytic, informative standard for committee and congressional deliberations? Hadn't they eschewed delaying tactics, of which they had plenty in their quivers? They knew the room would be packed and tried to anticipate as many questions as possible in their statement so the event wouldn't drag on too long. Politicians tended to lose in the course of an extended Q and A. Fortunately, their announcement was so astonishing that many reporters rushed off to file their stories before any questions were asked.
Those who remained were largely from the regional papers and television stations. Their questions were routine: When did you all decide to do this? Were there any dissenters? Did you discuss this with the president, and what did he say? Do you think this will work decisively in your favor in November against the Clean Elections Party? What's the reaction from K Street? Do you expect that your support of the Agenda will cost you in campaign contributions? Do you intend to urge the president to sign these bills?
As he listened to the questions and the responses from Justice Tweedy and others, Billy Beauchamp thought to himself how easy it was to answer when you'd done the right thing. He and the Bulls were wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
Just then, Reginald Sesko of Business Week stepped forward and asked sharply, "How do you propose to stop the downward drift of the stock markets and the decline in business confidence in the United States both at home and abroad?"
Billy jumped on that one. "I'd say that a living wage and universal health insurance are very good for the economy's prospects because they'll enhance consumer demand. Many European nations have some version of these same provisions, and their economies are prospering. Sometimes I think this 'business confidence' stuff is nothing but economic saber rattling so that the big companies can get what they want from Congress and the White House. It's far more important that the people have confidence in business, and the Agenda will advance that confidence."
The veteran reporter for the Oklahoma Constitution could hardly believe this was the Billy Beauchamp she knew. She was about to ask how he reconciled his newfound support for the Agenda with his past positions when Sam Sniffen of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said, "How are you going to pay for all this?"
Senator Pessimismo, chair of the Joint Budget Committee, took the question. "Our staff has conservatively concluded that the savings under the Agenda exceed the added expenses of new programs, mainly universal healthcare. Please note that the Agenda shifts healthcare costs from the business and nonprofit sectors to the government. They are still assessed, but minimally compared to what they're currently paying. Note too that although the government is absorbing more health costs, it will realize large savings in lives, paperwork, fraud collection, and so on. Moreover, the estimates of revenues from the new tax on securities transactions, replacing some individual income taxes, are also very conservative."
"This Agenda has legs," said Zack Lermond of the Baltimore Sun. "Once you pass it, those legs may march most of you out of office in a few weeks. How would you assess the impact of enactment on Congress in the coming months and years? Does it spell the end of the old ways of doing business on Capitol Hill?"
"Well, Zack," said Senate Majority Leader Frisk, "we're not prophets, and we'll certainly know more after the elections, but I think it's safe to say that a shift of priorities and orientations is probably in the cards for the next couple of years at least. It can't but be, it seems to me. Still, I wouldn't count the traditional lobbies out. It may take some time, but they'll regroup. Too many goodies up here for them not to."
There were a few more questions, and then, just like that, the press conference was over. A strange mixture of relief and foreboding seemed to settle over the Bulls as they dispersed quietly and walked back to their offices with their aides.
Over on K Street, twenty-five grim-looking trade association heads were already gathered at the law offices of Crusher, Vine and Clamber for an emergency meeting of the Temporary American Coalition for Economic Freedom (TACEF). The venerable senior partner and victorious veteran of many battles against "the rabble," as Chives Crusher privately called the American people, sat down at the head of an enormous mahogany conference table and began the meeting.
"Friends, we are defeated, notwithstanding our extreme exertions for weeks now. There is no hope on the Hill. Even Sabernickle has thrown in the towel. Constitutionally all that's left is the president, and even if he had the votes to sustain his veto, he may not use it for fear of destroying his party. All this you know. So what else do I have to say? Nothing. For the first time in my sixty-year legal career, I have no strategy, no tactics, no glimmer of a second-strike capability. We can always fight the appropriations process, the proposed regulations, the enforcement, and we will, but the sperm of the renegade oligarchs has germinated, and the hungry child of the rabble is about to be born. I just got off the phone with Dortwist, Lobo, and Jasper Cumbersome, and they are as speechless as your humble counselor. I invite your reactions."
"Brother Chives," boomed Horace Heath, the grand chief lobbyist of the rapidly consolidating HMO giants, "where the hell are the drinks?"
"Hear, hear," shouted the dispirited group in unison.
With a barely concealed smile, Crusher pushed a button under the table, and in came two valets with two large carts stocked with expensive whiskeys, bourbons, gins, and vodkas, along with a variety of enticing canapes. "I couldn't foresee the depredations of the barbarians even when they were at the gates, Horace, but I did foresee your thirst. Let's drink to our doom with the finest liquor this -- what does the press call us? -- this 'powerful and prestigious law firm' could sequester."
Whereupon the lobbyists began drinking with the zeal they usually reserved for their labors in the congressional fields. As evening darkened to night, their cheeks grew rosier, their ties looser, and their trips to the john more frequent. Mordant words and snide remarks directed toward their adversaries in the early hours of imbibing began to turn against their comrades-in-lucre: the CEOs, the Bulls, Lobo and Dortwist, the business media, the president. As the hours wore on and more refreshments were ordered in, they began to light into each other for perceived lassitude, narcissism, miscalculation, and utter stupidity. Then a forearm knocked into a shoulder, a hip into a torso, and the fracas commenced. Glasses clattered to the floor and shattered. Brother Chives got in a few good licks and then called security. It all ended with a clutch of limousines in long and loyal service to the powerful and prestigious law firm of Crusher, Vine and Clamber taking the soused and battered defenders of the plutocracy home to their respective mansions.
The scene in the penthouse boardroom the next morning was more sedate but no more upbeat. The CEOs had watched the press conference live on their plasma TVs, and the near life-size images had unnerved them, as if the Bulls were right there next to them. Now, as they waited for Lobo, they were angry and demoralized. They'd been checking their stock portfolios, which were dropping every day. The last-ditch effort to block shareholder authority over their compensation packages had collapsed, though they'd escaped a legislated maximum cap. Their multibillion-dollar drive to stop the SROs was in tatters.
A somber Lobo arrived at 8:45 a.m. and sipped some fresh orange juice while waiting to be summoned. He had one more idea in his arsenal. It had come to him during an intense "Besame Mucho" exchange with his pit bull. He saw the boardroom door open and heard CEO Cumbersome call, "Come in, Lobo." Entering, he noticed that the eyelids were heavier and the jowls weightier around the familiar table.
"We have three questions for you, Lobo," Wardman Wise began without preliminaries. "What went wrong? What did you do wrong? And what's next?"
"Are you firing me?" Lobo asked. "I haven't earned my dollar yet."
"Just answer the questions one at a time," said Wise.
"What went wrong? In a nutshell, the business community wasn't hungry enough, smart enough, or fast enough. No one took Dortwist's early premonitions seriously. In fact, he was ridiculed.
"What did I do wrong? Ultimately, nothing, because by the time we started, there was no way to win. Dortwist and I gave it all we had and more, but we were up against an irresistible force. In hindsight, even if you'd paired off against the SROs in early April, it probably would have been too late, but as you'll recall, we didn't get going until late June. After all these decades, the Agenda's time has come. Even the seemingly bottomless well of popular apathy has run dry.
"As for what's next, you have more than a billion dollars left. You can give it back to the donors through some prorated formula, or you can use it for independent expenditures to help save the Bulls in November. That's our last clear chance. Barring a White House miracle, the Agenda will be enacted, but we can prevent or delay or blunt implementation next year and the year after. To repeat, there will be enactment, but there doesn't have to be implementation. Riders to appropriations bills have stopped implementation of enacted legislation cold in the past, and they can do it again. The downside, of course, is the aroused fury of the citizenry and an encore confrontation with the Meliorists."
"That downside is decisive, Lobo," said Sal Belligerante. "I, for one, am not interested in another groveling defeat involving a struggle that might further radicalize the people."
"Nor am I," said Norman Noondark.
"The time has come to let matters cool down, Lobo," said William Worldweight. "It's over as far as I'm concerned."
Murmurs of agreement followed.
"By the way," asked Wardman Wise, "is there any indication as to whether the president, futilely or not, is going to veto the Pillars?"
"The indication is that he's going to sign them, and do so in a mass media event at some undisclosed but highly symbolic location. The politics of it is that the majority party wants to 'ride the wave' and steal the credit from the progressives, who have gone out of their way to avoid publicity. They may pay for their modesty by being coopted."
CEO Cumbersome looked around the table. "Lobo, the consensus here is that your services are no longer required. We thank you for your selflessness, your peerless dedication, and the candid honesty you brought to this most arduous mission. Will you join us for lunch at the Four Hundred Club?"
"Forgive me, gentlemen, but I have to take my pit bull to the vet. It's something of an emergency. My staff will be in touch with yours about an orderly windup of operations. Good day." And with that, shorn of his trademark swagger, Lobo got up and left the room, closing the door quietly.
The president was thinking grandly. Having sunk in the polls because of his perceived disinterest in the needs of ordinary people, his extravagant White House lifestyle, and his foreign misadventures, he wanted to give the historians a contrasting display of political courage. A very big contrasting display. He had decided that the signing ceremony would take place at Mount Rushmore, beneath the imposingly sculpted faces of four great presidents. The television networks would go wild over the spectacular visuals, but there was more. Prominently seated at the ceremony would be the Bulls on one side and the Meliorists on the other -- yes, the Meliorists themselves. Such, at least, was the president's plan. He called his advisers together to get their reaction over dinner.
"Welcome, gentlemen, take your seats," he said with a flourish as they filed into the residence dining room. "My chef has prepared a meal worthy of our lofty deliberations. The entree is Chilean sea bass."
Harold Featherstone III remained standing. "With all respect, Mr. President, I feel compelled to say at the outset that swallowing one bitter pill is difficult enough but swallowing seven of them is taking the Kool-Aid. The Agenda is so utterly and entirely at odds with everything we've fought for, campaigned for, and stood tall for during the last six years that it sears my soul to contemplate your signing it into law."
"Sit down and listen up, Hal," the president ordered sternly. "We're not in slumberland anymore. The alarm clock has gone off, and the people are awake. They're done with eating deception for breakfast, distraction for lunch, and rah-rah for dinner. So if you don't mind, let's talk about the signing ceremony."
"The Dakotas gave you your highest statewide percentages in the last two elections," said Chris Topper, the chief of staff. "They won't be pleased that you're signing off on the Agenda beneath Mount Rushmore. These people are not the type to demonstrate or march in protest, but they do have newspapers, broadcast stations, and blogs. Is there a public works project in the pipeline that you can preannounce? And the day before the signing, why not set up an exclusive teleconference with the major editors and television anchors, at least in South Dakota? The local media always appreciates these courtesies."
"Excellent ideas, Chris," said the president. "Put them in motion. We only have a few days."
"Why do you want the Meliorists there?" press secretary Dodgem asked. "Isn't that rubbing the noses of the Bulls and the party in the dirt?"
"Better they play second fiddle to our party's triumphant demonstration of compassion and action out at Mount Rushmore than that they have their own extravaganza in Washington and take full credit for what they forced us to do. It's possible that they'll have their own event anyway, but it will have to come after the signing, and it will be a distinct anticlimax."
"What if the Meliorists decline your invitation, Mr. President?" Shelburne Sherwood asked.
"They can't afford to decline. We'll be the big story dominating the media for days, and they'll want to be there to try to dilute our impact. No, they won't decline. They'll be confident that they can squeeze something out of their participation, but we'll get more out of them than they'll get out of us. I can see the headlines and leads now: 'Statesmanship of the highest order,' or 'The president displayed extraordinary grace with his erstwhile adversaries, rising above the partisan fray as our great presidents have done throughout our history,' or 'It's been a long time since the nation has seen such an extraordinary display of political unity in the interests of the American people,' or 'On this glorious morning in South Dakota, our president has demonstrated his generosity of mind by putting his John Hancock to the first steps toward a functioning democracy that will benefit millions of American families,' or 'The effects of the president's farsighted act on this historic day will be felt far from Mount Rushmore. Bravo, Mr. President!'"
Featherstone, who had been picking at his escargot appetizer, mustered himself. "Excuse me, sir, but I can see those leads and headlines too: 'No president in American history has so cruelly betrayed his political base as our current president did yesterday at Mount Rushmore,' or 'This day of infamy will be known as the Mount Rushmore Massacre, with untold consequences for the future of the president's party,' or 'Six leaders of the party's right wing e-mailed hundreds of thousands of their supporters today, inviting comments about the advisability of forming a new party dedicated to the principles just abandoned by a cowardly president,' or 'The Business Roundtable issued a rare warning to the president today of severe volatility in the securities markets in the wake of his signing the Agenda into law.'"
"You've always been a contrarian, Hal, and I appreciate that, but now you're bordering on gibberish. Where are these right-wingers and the business community going to go, especially after Rushmore broadens our base? Besides, you're looking at things from a narrow political viewpoint that simply doesn't recognize what's happened this year. Didn't you write an article for the National Review called 'The Challenge of Change,' on the ossification of the political world?"
Lester Linx, the congressional liaison, looked up from his cell phone. "Mr. President, I've just received a text message saying that Speaker Dostart and Majority Leader Frisk have a new vote count and that the Agenda is now veto-proof They'll put in a call to you once we've finished our meeting."
The president nodded. "Well, we were expecting it, weren't we? It makes Rushmore all the more important."
"Indeed it does," said Chris Topper, "and I have a few thoughts on your remarks, sir. Besides describing how the Pillars address real needs and injustices, it might be wise defensively to say a few words about past reforms that were initially opposed by business but were later seen to enhance profitability. You'll need a similar nod to your right wing about all the conservative principles adopted by the Agenda. You should also recognize the younger generation of Americans with a spirited appeal to their idealism and optimism. Finally, Mount Rushmore faces southeast and has good exposure to the sun. If you mention this in connection with the solar energy conversion envisioned by the Agenda, it will not go unnoticed either by the locals or by the growing number of sun fans, though of course you'll need a contingency plan in case of rain."
"Again, those are excellent ideas, Chris," the president said. "Thank you."
Clarence Fairchild, the community affairs adviser, cleared his throat. "If I may raise a rather sensitive historical point, sir, the US Army took the Black Hills from the Lakota tribe by force in 1876-77. Feelings on the subject run high among Native Americans, who regard the hills as sacred ground. Recognizing this in your remarks will go a long way toward salving old wounds."
"And you should bear in mind, Mr. President," said Lester Linx, "that many members of Congress besides the Bulls will want to attend. Ordinarily the number of congressional VIPs is limited by the number of seats on Air Force One, but you can bet that for this occasion plenty of representatives and senators will get there on their own. My advice is to take the usual VIPs along according to the usual criteria but announce that seats will be reserved for members of Congress near the visitor center. Courtesy also requires seating for the governor of South Dakota and other state dignitaries. Invariably there will be ruffled feathers, but as long as we have clear explanations of space constraints and guest protocol, we should be all right. It won't be easy to accommodate everyone who wants to attend, even in the great outdoors, but I guess we can always move the Meliorists and the progressives to folding chairs along the Presidential Trail, which is out of sight."
The president chuckled. "Very amusing, Les. I leave the logistics to you. Is there anything else?" he asked, looking around the table. "All right, let's proceed to the sea bass."
"Excuse me, sir, but I have a prior engagement with my conscience," said Harold Featherstone III, rising and walking stiffly out of the dining room to write his letter of resignation.
The last Friday of September was a crystalline fall day. Half a dozen eagles soared high above Mount Rushmore in a symbolic aerial spectacular as the president prepared to make his counterintuitive debut as a progressive political progenitor. With his first lady, he bounded up the stairs to the long rectangular outdoor stage and greeted the Bulls one by one, and then the Meliorists. Even in the outdoors, the media crush was apparent. TV news helicopters circled overhead. The wildlife on the ground didn't know what to make of it and scrammed. With his back to Mount Rushmore, at just the place where a fifth presidential head might be carved one day, the president, just three days after Congress passed the Seven Pillars, began his address to the nation.
"My fellow Americans, here at home and all over the world, what you see before you is the grandeur of our nation -- the rugged mountains and majestic forests, the eagles that represent our freedom and our strength flying across the wide blue skies, and these magnificent sculptures fashioned from solid granite to memorialize George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, four of our greatest presidents.
"It is a historic day. Our country is about to take a great step forward and upward. This did not come about by chance. It was inspired, and continues to be inspired, by certain leaders of our business community, now mostly retired. They call themselves the Meliorists, a modest name for a truly revolutionary movement that has remained true to its high ideals and has liberated the people to take their lives and their future into their own hands, which is the finest expression of freedom. By their force of example, dedication, brilliance, and perseverance, the Meliorists brought the country to the Congress. It was there that an unprecedented bipartisan effort unfolded. It was there that the exhausting, meticulous work of the public hearings, the committee reports, the markups, and finally the televised floor debates and votes transpired. It was there that the veteran committee chairs of my party cleared the way and actively supported the Seven Pillars of the Agenda for the Common Good. Let us have a round of applause for the Meliorists and the committee chairs." The president gestured toward both groups as the audience of invited guests clapped and cheered enthusiastically.
"Those great presidents," he went on, pointing to the sculpted faces, "came to their high office with many signal accomplishments of intellect and deed, but they also grew as they served. They grew not just through their own reflections and observations but because they had sufficiently open minds to listen to their countrymen and countrywomen, to heed their demands and their hopes and their impatience with inaction and misfeasance. Over the past nine months, I too have had the opportunity to grow, whether I liked it or not. Day after day, you the people made me take notice of your discontent with politics as usual, favoritism for the privileged few, the misuse of taxpayer dollars, and the abuse of your trust. With your minds and hearts, with your marches and rallies and new organizations, you demanded change after decades of unacknowledged patience. That demand made me realize that vested ideas are more impervious to change than vested economic interests or even vested bureaucratic interests.
"When I took the oath of office, my mind was closed. I was certain what I wanted to do and what I wanted to prevent. Too certain. Then came the fresh breeze of the Meliorists. At first I scoffed, then seethed, then resisted. Then I reflected, revised, and opened my arms to their good works and their vision for our country -- a catchup vision, an accountability vision, a democracy vision, a civic vision with staying power into the distant future. They grounded this vision in fertile soil and watched the seeds grow into a bountiful harvest of populist power, and they did it all in record time and with their own fortunes. Not a cent of tax money was involved. These are Americans who believe that from those who have acquired much, much is expected. Well, they have delivered and then some, and so will I."
The president paused and swept his arm toward a stack of documents on a table beside the podium. "There are the Seven Pillars, which I will now sign with presidential pens made entirely of industrial hemp, in soy ink, on paper also made from hemp -- the same kind of paper on which our Declaration of Independence was written in 1776."
As cameras clicked furiously, the president sat down at the table with the Meliorists and the Bulls on either side, methodically signed each of the bills numerous times. and gave the pens to those assembled around him. When the last bill was signed and the last pen handed out, there was a momentous silence, and then the audience burst into applause, joined by some 150 million viewers nationwide.
The president returned to the podium and spent the next fifteen minutes concisely reviewing the benefits and conservatism flowing from each of the Seven Pillars, with the aim of laying the public groundwork for implementation over the next two years, when the furious interest groups would reconnect with their congressional collaborators to set up treacherous hurdles to derail the reforms. He made it clear that he expected Congress to heed both the content and the determined tone of his words, which he had written himself, and to implement the bills without delay. He would be president for another twenty-seven months, and he wasn't interested in a Pyrrhic victory. During this oratorical performance, those who knew him best found themselves wondering if they'd ever known him at all, including the dumbfounded first lady, who managed to keep a smile frozen on her face even though she'd assumed, like almost everyone else on her husband's team, that his endorsement of the Agenda was a ploy.
When he concluded his tour de force, the president engaged in some hearty backslapping with the Bulls and mingled with the Meliorists. He shook hands with Warren, who said, "I'm curious, Mr. President, about why you chose not to meet with any of us. Was it because you didn't want to be accused of coming under the influence of us 'subversives'?"
The president smiled. "You're not only a shrewd investor, Mr. Buffett, you're a shrewd political analyst as well. But I kept myself informed about your activities, and today you see the result. I'm grateful to you and your colleagues for being here, by the way. Your presence made my themes of unity and implementation more credible. I'll catch hell from my longtime supporters when I get back to the White House, but those are the lumps of the job."
Bill Gates Sr. and Joe Jamail urged the president to appoint a special White House Task Force on Implementation, with regular reports to the public. They noted the almost total absence of federal reporting on industry compliance with health and safety laws, for example. The president reacted favorably and said that he'd keep the task force on its toes by locating it in the White House, as part of the office of Management and Budget complex.
Bernard told the president that he could use some help with his after-school Egalitarian Clubs. "They're going well where they've been set up, but in too many places the initiative is flagging. You've said that no child should be left behind in the schools, Mr. President. These clubs address the needs of youngsters left behind in the afternoons, when they often get into real trouble, especially in the cities. You could help give the effort a high profile."
"Your clubs sound like a perfect complement to my school program, which is also flagging a bit if the truth be told," the president said. "Let me know when you're free and I'll set up a meeting at the White House with my secretary of education, the PTA, the League of Women Voters, and the Urban League."
The other Meliorists all had words of praise and advice for the chief, who listened attentively. For his part, he cautioned them against continuing to support the ouster of the Bulls, who could be very useful during the implementation phase as known quantities who endorsed the Agenda. Phil Donahue immediately jumped in. "Sir, I think you have the wrong impression. We have no connection with the Clean Elections Party, whether operational or monetary, as required by federal law." The president winked. "Well, you know what I mean -- you all have moral suasion."
As the crowd at Mount Rushmore was dispersing, people all over the country were gathering joyously in parks and public squares, carrying posters of the Meliorist emblem and the Seventh-Generation Eye. For so long their marches and rallies had centered around the public demand for the adoption of the Agenda for the Common Good. Now, at last, they were celebrating, not demanding. Bars offered free champagne. Toy and novelty stores handed out free gifts and ice cream to children. From the village greens of New England to the sunny plazas of California, the people hailed their representatives in Washington with a roar of recognition and gratitude.
And they had reason to be grateful. Out in Tucson, Eugenia Lopez was thinking about how she would be able to reduce her debts and buy her three children the things they needed now that she'd be earning $4 more an hour. In Seattle, Tim Fullwell felt a crushing anxiety lift from his shoulders as he realized that he wouldn't have to go without food or fuel anymore to pay for his prescription drugs. In St. Louis, Martha and Albert Slayton breathed a sigh of relief: They'd moved to a more expensive suburb to avail their two children of better public schools and were feeling the pinch, but now they'd be able to keep up their mortgage payments with $20,000 in tax savings on their combined annual income of $100,000. In Philadelphia, Chesty Fuller, a full-time baker and part-time super-activist, was thinking about the millions of people who'd cut their civic teeth with the Meliorists and had their appetites whetted for more victories. He'd received dozens of e-mails from similarly energized friends in other states noting that all the new groups inspired by the Meliorists would be welcome and powerful allies in their many worthy but previously losing causes.
For Tony Lazzari, a World War II vet and union organizer of legendary fame, the Agenda was a dream come true. After many organizing successes in the fifties and early sixties, Tony had hit a wall. Taft-Hartley, the notorious antiunion law, was kicking in, and soon became the attack vehicle of choice for the union-busting industry of consultants, law firms, and their executive clients. Now, in his mid-eighties, he would live to see a resurgence of unionism in the fast-food industry, many other retail chains, and the vast pool of fortune 500 office workers.
In a Georgia mill town, Morgan Moses, known as the resident curmudgeon, wasn't scowling today. For years he had been the scourge of the wasters in local government, and once in a while he'd give the hotfoot to the state's congressional delegation about reckless spending in Washington. Now, finally, he could go to court with his Northeast Georgia Taxpayers Association and tackle these federal boondoggles. "No standing to sue," the despicable phrase that had been hurled at him for so long, was now consigned to the dust heap of legal history. His phone and e-mail traffic with taxpayer groups all over the country reached record levels as he threw himself into the fray with renewed intensity, along with countless other long-thwarted activists who saw the new day dawning at last.
There were scowls aplenty at Republican party headquarters the next morning when the newspapers hit the stands. "President Signs on to Meliorist Revolution!" the Washington Post trumpeted. "Seven Pillars Signed by President! Meliorists Can Claim Victory!" blared the New York Times, while the tabloid Post screamed, "President Kowtows Seven Times!!!" 'The visuals on the television news were good to both the president and the Meliorists, who had diplomatically declined all press interviews, saying through Jeno that this was the president's day and that they would hold a news conference of their own next week in Washington.
Despite their displeasure, the Republican operatives were in the business of winning elections. Their jobs and their reputations were at stake. For now, ideology would have to take a back seat, and so would placating the fat cats. All that mattered was the winning political move, and they smelled a big turnaround in the forthcoming polls. They didn't care where the dramatic presidential makeover came from as long as it reversed what looked like a landslide for their opponents. Ideological concerns could reassert themselves once the Republicans maintained their majority. As for the Agenda, they were convinced that what the president had said about implementation at Mount Rushmore was a fine example of his political cunning. Surely there would be many a slip between the cup and the lip in the implementation stage. Apparently they hadn't bothered to examine the legislation, which was tightly crafted to anticipate any betrayals or delays after passage. Except for universal healthcare, the bills required little in the way of appropriations and imposed deadlines and penalties on the officials charged with their execution.
On the Monday after Mount Rushmore, ahead of the release of the major polls, the political pundits rushed into print with their predictions as to how the president's surprise signing of the Agenda would affect the midterm elections. Their observations and their hasty "man in the street" interviews were good news for the president, but his party didn't share in the glow. The Clean Elections Party candidates were quick to claim a major victory even before their predicted Election Day triumph. With help from Dick Goodwin, they took credit in their campaign material for pushing the Bulls in the right direction, and then they focused on the all-important implementation stage, declaring that CEP electoral victories were indispensable to insure against backsliding, and that none of the incumbent corporatists could be trusted if they were returned to office. They also reminded the opposition that their party's pledge to go out of existence depended not just on the enactment but on the full implementation of the Agenda's electoral reforms.
Most of the business columnists took the signing of the Agenda hard. They foresaw business volatility, the resurgence of union bosses, overregulation, and trouble of all kinds from the newly organized groups of workers, consumers, and taxpayers. A prominent exception was Patrick Paydown, a persistent critic of the huge public, corporate, and consumer debt spirals, which he believed were unsustainable. To him, the Meliorists' main virtue was their fiscal restraint, their aversion to postponing hard decisions by laying on more and more credit, deficits, and debt. He favored their emphasis on true efficiencies and their tax on speculation in the securities markets, especially the $500 trillion a year in computer- driven derivatives trading, and said so in his widely syndicated column. But the bulk of the business press, led by the Wall Street Journal, kept attacking the Meliorists, and the more they did, the more the voters saw the necessity of electing the CEP candidates. There were so many fulminations and alarms coming from the upper classes and their mouthpieces that they were losing their propaganda value. This time the folks back home had the shield of knowledge and of their own mobilization, and now they had the president too.
Meanwhile, the business lobbies were huddling and wondering how to assuage their enraged members, who were demanding to know why all their dues, all their PACs, and all their macho lobbyists had gone down to ignominious defeat. The solution the influence peddlers came up with was to storm back to Capitol Hill and play the victim. They would strongly imply that the Bulls had let them down and therefore owed them this tax break and that pending subsidy, this proposed weapons system and that opening of federal lands to logging or mining, this escape from an industry's further pension obligations and that waiver of law enforcement.
The Bulls took umbrage. They knew a shakedown when they saw one. They had just done what nearly the entire country believed was the right thing to do, and now the corporate boys wanted to reinstate the old way of doing business and exact their payback. Duke Sabernickle, of all people, sadly explained that he'd had to go along on the Agenda even though he didn't want to, but that he'd be happy to put some of these bills, amendments, and riders into play. However, they would never make it through the Rules Committee, and did the business groups want to taint the bills as losers in case they wanted to start fresh next year? The stunned lobbyists took Sabernickle's advice and dropped their demands.
The congressional progressives were not so restrained. Seeing the seismic move in their direction, they seized every opportunity to offer the amendments that had been solicited from the traditional citizen groups at the behest of the Meliorists weeks ago. In went the reinstatement of the seventy-year-old, very successful, recently repealed Public Utility Holding Company Act, which blocked future pyramid mergers and the kind of holding companies that collapsed in the 1930s. In went a ban on all leveraged buyouts by management of publicly traded companies, as being so riddled with conflicts of interest and insider shareholder sabotage as to be illegal per se. In went a requirement that the entire texts of all government procurement contracts, leaseholds, and grants above $250,000 be posted online, together with a list of recipients, so that competitors, citizen associations, the media, and scholars could review and monitor them at their leisure. These and a host of other provisions, like tougher government purchasing standards for software, food, and fuel, found their way into the giant appropriations bills or were introduced and passed easily on the floor.
All in all, as September gave way to October, the business opposition was not only defeated, not only distracted by their sudden vulnerability in the November elections, not only facing the aroused critical energies of the people -- they were plumb exhausted. Political scientists took note of the new phenomenon of the rich but powerless and slated it for intensive research in the near future.
As Mount Rushmore was the president's day, the following Wednesday was the Meliorists' day. The Press Club ballroom was packed with an avalanche of reporters, editors, columnists, foreign correspondents, producers, camera people, sound people, and bloggers, along with some invited guests from the Hill, the White House, and various citizen groups. Warren opened the proceedings.
"Welcome, one and all, and thank you for coming. The Agenda for the Common Good is now law, and our nation is the stronger for it. I think you've heard enough from all of us in the past nine months, so let's get right to your questions."
For the next half hour, the Meliorists responded to the press graciously and succinctly. Several reporters asked questions designed to elicit signs of boasting, gloating, contempt for their adversaries, lust for power, premature declarations of victory in November, and the like, but none of the core group took the bait. They were asked in a variety of ways how they had accomplished such a fundamental redirection of the country, to which their replies were variations on the theme that what they had done was provide critical material resources, well-calibrated, timely strategies, and solid infrastructures to engage the passion, intelligence, time, and talent of the American people in a broad-based movement for change, as was the proper way for a democratic society to conduct itself. A few reporters were still harping on the claim that the Agenda reforms would create a tumult in the economy, but the Meliorists were old hands at fielding such questions and dispensed with them handily, with wit, wisdom, and a little barnyard humor from Ted.
More difficult were the questions about their future plans, because they hadn't yet discussed them. That was at the top of the agenda for their next Maui meeting, which they'd postponed until the coming weekend because of the Rushmore event. The press wanted to know how much money they had left and what they were going to do with it, whether they were going to continue funding the infrastructure, what role they intended to play as a group, and whether they would continue their involvement with their pet projects, like the Posterity Trust, people as corporations and vice versa, the People's Court Society, dead and live money, the Sun God festivals, and so on. The Meliorists replied frankly that they were undecided about their collective role but would continue to pursue their individual projects.
The room grew quiet as the doyenne of the White House press corps, Helen Promise, stood to ask her question. "Tell us candidly why you think the Bulls and the president -- not exactly beloved in the country -- changed their minds so dramatically and so quickly?"
"Ms. Promise," said Bill Gates Sr., "I respectfully submit that no one is better qualified to answer that question than you and your colleagues. You saw how the American people joined their hands and hearts and started to take control of the country over which they were supposed to be sovereign. All we did was give them a programmatic lift, a head start, a shoehorn, a bullhorn, a sense that we would be with them all the way with all the means at our disposal. The people did the heavy lifting, turning easy hope into hard reality against all the odds, and despite the message they and we have absorbed since elementary school that those odds are unconquerable. Let this be a lesson to all those who believe that apathy is immutable. Once the people found their cadence, they found their confidence, and there was no stopping them. The Bulls and the president saw this overwhelming force coming and decided to represent it instead of resenting it."
Yoko rose and held out her hands to indicate that the question period was at a close. "But we do have another response to your question, Ms. Promise," she said, "a musical one," and before the startled eyes of the audience and millions of television viewers, Patti Smith and her entire band came on stage and invited everyone to join in on "The People Have the Power." Perched on Patti's outstretched arm was Patriotic Polly, who had been taught the inspirational refrain and more or less blended right in. The press corps had never seen Patriotic Polly in the flesh, and they were transfixed. Some of them even abandoned their professional objectivity and started singing.
"It's truly a Hollywood ending," Paul said to Phil, "except that it's real."