The presidents daughter, p.13
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       The President's Daughter, p.13
 

           Ellen Emerson White
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  Anyway, she watched him pour her father a drink, along with one for himself. Then he offered the decanter to the three of them—Neal giggling, Steven nodding, and Meg blushing. Preston kind of brought new dimensions to the word sexy. It was funny, though—out of all of the people in the campaign, who would have predicted that her father would hit it off with the young, super-cool guy? Preston still made fun of his B-school jackets, and her father called him “The World According to GQ.” They had a regular squash game together, and her father would wear grey, cut-off sweatpants, a shapeless Lacoste, and a hooded sweatshirt, while Preston would show up in very white shorts and a collared shirt chosen to coordinate with his warm-up suit. Now, standing by the window making jokes, they both were wearing grey suits, but the resemblance ended there.

  “You sure you kids got enough to eat?” her father asked.

  They all nodded, just back from going out to get cheese-steaks with Preston—who was a native Philadelphian, and had very strong opinions about where to find the best sandwiches in the city—along with a few other campaign people, and three Secret Service agents. Luckily, they had made this trip before changing into their debate clothes, because Steven, in particular, had dripped Cheese Whiz all over everything.

  “Stuffed their little faces,” Preston said. “Except for old Meggo. The kid wants to be as sickly as Madam Prez-to-be over there.”

  Her mother gave him a saluting wave from across the room, going through her voice warm-ups as two hairdressers and a make-up artist worked on her.

  “Are you hungry, Meg?” her father asked.

  “I’m fine,” she said, blushing more. Meggo. Be nice if everyone called her Meggo. It sounded—sporty. Very sporty.

  “Good blood, bad blood, good blood, bad blood,” her mother was saying over and over again, having finished her scales and now working on articulation. Early on in the campaign, some of the press had ferreted out the information that before she ran for Congress, she had taken three months of professional voice training, and the opposition had spouted about vanity and such, but her mother’s response had pretty much just been a “yeah, so?” shrug, and the story had disappeared after a day or two.

  “Why’s she doing that?” Neal whispered.

  “So her voice’ll be warmed up, and she won’t fall all over her words during the debate,” Meg said.

  “Red leather, yellow leather, red leather, yellow leather,” her mother was saying now, winking at Neal as he laughed.

  “Okay, Kate, now let’s go over it one last time.” Glen scanned his notes. “Relaxed, but not too relaxed. Pleasant, but not too funny. Friendly, but presidential. If things are going well, you should maybe even sit down while he’s talking. Or take notes. You look great when you take notes.”

  Her mother nodded. “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”

  “Be serious, but smile. Confident, but not arrogant.” He lowered his papers. “Any questions?”

  “How many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?” her mother asked.

  “Very funny.” He flipped through another stack of papers. “Just don’t let him rattle you—the man is famous for it. His people are going to want to make you look emotional or bitchy.”

  “Peter Piper picked altogether too many pickled peppers,” her mother said.

  “Don’t blow up if he starts getting sexist,” Glen said. “For that matter, if any of them do. Your national security credentials are a lot stronger than his are, so squelch them, but be calm about it.”

  “Friendly, even?” Meg’s father asked.

  “Peter Piper perpetuated pickled pepper pandemonium,” her mother said, which made her father grin.

  “Be serious,” Glen said, and motioned towards her hands. “Think we ought to put some slightly darker nail polish on her, Claude?”

  Her mother frowned at him—and at the make-up artist, for good measure. “I’m not a ‘her,’ okay, Glen?”

  “I know, I’m sorry.” He bent down, checking her profile from each side, and then studying her from the front. “You’re too thin, that’s what you are.”

  “The monitor put about ten pounds on her,” Claude said.

  Since, of course, the mock debates had been taped, to give Glen and the gang a chance to critique them endlessly.

  “She still looked emaciated,” Glen said. “Try to seem as tall as you can, Kate. Griffin’s a big guy.”

  “Linebacker,” Meg’s father said disparagingly.

  “If Russell-baby thinks that, you know the man’s big,” Preston said to Meg and her brothers.

  “Sisters assisting selling seashells at the seashore,” her mother said.

  “Any way you can fill her cheeks out a little?” Glen asked Claude, gesturing to his own face. “The video picked up some shadows.”

  “Sisters resisting selling seashells at the seashore,” her mother said, and glanced at her watch. “We don’t have time, anyway. I told you I wanted this half hour completely clear.” She squinted at the mirror, frowned, and then picked up a brush to redo her hair. “You may brief me to your heart’s content in the car.”

  Glen looked worried. “But, Linda has a roomful of them in the hospitality suite, waiting for a statement—”

  “On my way down,” her mother said. “Now, please. I need this.”

  “All right, but, do me a favor, and take off the damn watch, okay?” he asked. “If you look at it during the debate, it’ll be—”

  Her mother nodded impatiently, and pointed towards the exit.

  Preston, who was the last one out, paused at the door. “Moses supposes his toeses are roses.”

  “Moses supposes erroneously,” her mother said.

  Preston laughed and joined the others in the hall. After the door closed, it was very, very quiet.

  “Well,” her mother said.

  “Simple Ceasar sipped his snifter, seized his knees, and sneezed,” Meg’s father said, still standing near one of the windows.

  Her mother laughed, checked the mirror one more time, and put down the brush. “Do I look all right?”

  “Way pretty,” Neal said.

  “Not too thin?” her mother asked wryly. She sat down and clicked on a huge flat-screen television, just in time for them all to hear a solemn anchorperson saying, “Well, you have to assume it’s Jay-Jay Griffin’s election to lose. I’m inclined to believe that the polls don’t really reflect—” Her mother turned the set off, before he could go any further.

  Meg’s father came over to stand behind her, squeezing her shoulders. “Relax.”

  “I’m fine,” she said. “Meg, let me see if I can do something with your hair. It’s a little funny on the left side.”

  Meg stood up just enough to be able to get a quick glimpse in the mirror. “Funny-amusing, or funny-strange?”

  “Either way.” Her mother picked up the hairbrush, and Meg could see her hands quivering.

  “You’re going to be great, Mom,” she said.

  “I-I don’t think so.” Her mother shook her head. “I just don’t—” She stopped brushing, and looked at her hands. “I think you’d better do it. I’m only going to make things worse.” She paced across the room, pausing in front of Steven. “How’s your eye?”

  “Black,” he said.

  “My macho kid.” She gave him a gentle tap on the cheek, then went back to pacing.

  When the knock came on the door, they all jumped.

  “It’s time, Kate,” Glen said from the hall.

  “Well.” Her mother swallowed, and looked at Meg’s father, who nodded reassuringly. “Right. Okay.”

  “Kate?” Glen said, in his we’re-off-schedule voice.

  “Well.” She took one final look in the mirror, then strode across the room, stopping only long enough to give each of them a quick, tense hug. “Are we ready? God, I’m really worried about S’s.” She opened the door. “Simple Ceasar sipped his snifter, seized his knees, and sneezed. Simple Ceasar sipped his—”

  THEY HAD BEEN
assigned seats in the front row directly across from Mr. Griffin’s family: his wife—Bouffant City, a daughter, a son, and a daughter-in-law, all of them husky people with healthy New Mexico tans and strong, determined voices.

  “We look like twerps next to them,” Steven whispered.

  “Except Dad,” Meg said. “They look like—politicians. You think they took lessons?”

  He nodded. “Prob’ly. We look like little kids who watch cartoons.”

  Well, as it happened, the three of them had done precisely that earlier, while they were killing some time in their mother’s suite. “We are,” Meg said.

  “Yeah.” He leaned in front of her. “Dad, what happens if we forget and clap?”

  Since the debate wasn’t a town hall format, the live audience was supposed to be completely silent the entire time they were on the air.

  “Reform school,” their father said.

  Steven frowned. “Well, what if Mom says something funny?”

  Their father grinned. “Laugh as hard as you can.”

  Meg looked at him, noticing the tightly clenched right fist. So, he wasn’t as relaxed as he wanted them to think.

  Stagehands and television technicians were bustling about, testing microphones, filling the glasses of water on each of the two podiums, double- and triple-checking everything. There was more security than she could ever remember seeing, and the fact that there were SWAT officers and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling made her nervous. Neal, of course, had immediately wanted to pat the first dog he saw, but his handler had politely refused—much to Neal’s dismay.

  The moderator, and the four reporters who would be asking the questions, came out from backstage to sit down at the semi-circular table facing the two podiums, and everyone in the audience abruptly stopped talking.

  “Is it starting?” Neal asked, his voice sounding very loud.

  Their father nodded, putting his finger to his lips. As the two candidates walked onto the stage, Neal barely restrained a small squeak of excitement, which almost set Steven off, and Meg had to give them both a quick warning elbow.

  Her mother did look small up there, but not nervous. Mr. Griffin was more obviously jittery, fiddling around with the microphone, sipping water, and straightening his tie. Her mother looked calm and alert, and maybe a little bit excited, but also cheerful—which couldn’t be as effortless as it appeared.

  The noisy hush faded to silence as it got closer to airtime. Mr. Griffin was acting very jolly, as though his advisors had told him to come out and be Santa Claus. Her mother looked a lot more Presidential by just sitting there looking pleasant. She had won—or lost, depending upon how one looked at it—the coin toss, and would be going first in the debate. She stepped over to shake Representative Griffin’s hand, and he accepted with a too-solicitous air.

  “You look very nice,” he said, sounding like someone who had just met a hideously ugly blind date, but was trying to be polite about it.

  Meg imagined her mother saying, “Thank you, you sexist, unscrupulous puppet,” and almost laughed.

  “Thank you,” her mother said, sounding very amused. “I can see that we both primped for hours.”

  Mr. Griffin’s hand went to his carefully groomed head, which looked as if it could survive the most driving rainstorm. This time, Meg did laugh, and was thankful that a lot of other people did, too. She glanced over at the Griffin family, and saw four very tight smiles.

  Then, they were on the air. Her mother and Mr. Griffin were being introduced, and Meg could feel her father and brothers sitting as stiffly as she was. A member of the panel was asking his first question—the topic for the evening was foreign affairs—and her mother was answering in a clear, friendly voice. Simple Ceasar sipped his snifter, seized his knees, and sneezed. Mr. Griffin was leaning on a casual elbow, hands folded, as though he was neither concerned by, nor interested in, her answer.

  “Thank you, Senator,” the reporter said, sounding surprised by the lack of campaign rhetoric in her answer. After he asked his follow-up question, the moderator called “Time” just as her mother was finishing up, and it was Mr. Griffin’s turn to respond to the two questions.

  “I must say,” his voice was jovial, “with such an attractive opponent, one almost wishes that there didn’t have to be time limits.”

  The Griffin supporters in the audience all grinned, and a couple of them actually whistled; her mother’s supporters sat up straight. Worried, Meg looked at her father, who had both fists clenched now, and then at her mother, who appeared to be entirely unruffled. Lots of times, debates could be lost for really stupid reasons—like, just for example, a candidate checking his watch; which reminded her to look at her mother’s wrist, where—damn it—she was still wearing hers, despite having been strongly advised not to do so. Although Meg suspected that if Glen hadn’t made such a big deal of it, she might have taken it off of her own volition. He had also said that Mr. Griffin was going to come out swinging, playing up every possible suggestion that a woman—or, at any rate, her mother, in particular—would be inadequate for the job. “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs,” her mother had said, and Glen nodded.

  Mr. Griffin ran overtime on the follow-up, and Meg wondered if his campaign managers were backstage committing suicide. Her mother leaned forward, then paused.

  “I’m sorry, Representative.” She moved back, very gracious, her expression so friendly that even her worst enemies wouldn’t—quite—be able to describe her as being bitchy. “Did you get a chance to finish?”

  Now, her mother’s supporters grinned, and her mother went into her rebuttal, speaking logically and succinctly, finishing with time to spare.

  Meg could almost hear her father’s unspoken “Good, Katie, good!” as he strained forward in his seat, eyes fixed on the stage.

  Her mother was sitting with one leg gracefully crossed over the other, listening with obvious attention as Mr. Griffin fielded the next question. When it was her turn, she responded with clear specifics, providing a casual underlining of the more general answers he was giving. The panel of reporters seemed pleased—not something Meg could pin down exactly, but more like a feeling in the air. She turned enough to locate Preston, two rows behind them, and he nodded, giving her a thumbs-up.

  Further on in the debate, her mother absently slipped off her blazer, hanging it over the back of her chair, and Meg pictured Glen fainting backstage—and the rest of the high-level campaign people toppling over right after him. A candidate wasn’t supposed to be too relaxed. But, her mother always said that blazers were masculine—and boxy—and spent more time taking them off than putting them on. Her action didn’t go past Mr. Griffin, who, after finishing up his remarks, glanced over and commented that if he’d known this was going to be casual, he would have worn a sports shirt. Her mother’s only reaction was to smile.

  “I’m sorry,” she said, with just the right note of endearing self-deprecation, gesturing slightly behind her. “A habit of mine.”

  The moderator and all four reporters smiled back at her, and the simple elegance of her silk dress was suddenly more Presidential than the blazer had ever been. The dignity came across even more as she answered the question as if she had never been flustered in her entire life. As she sat down, quite a few people in the audience clapped, and television crew members frowned at them until they subsided. Her mother’s expression was, as it had been throughout, utterly benign, and now Meg wondered how she was managing not to grin. Broadly.

  Mr. Griffin didn’t make any more unnecessary remarks, trying to create his own air of gravitas, but it seemed like too little, too late. When the debate ended, her mother initiated a closing handshake with damn near majestic confidence and, interestingly enough, Mr. Griffin didn’t seem quite as tall as he had earlier.

  Game, set, and match to the Senator.

  Meg wasn’t sure if the cameras were panning to the candidates’ families, and it probably wouldn’t look that great to be cocky
or overconfident, but she grinned anyway, so proud that she was kind of embarrassed. Then, the lights came up, indicating that they were off the air, and Meg saw her father and brothers grinning, too. Her mother, on her way to shake hands with the moderator and the panel members, looked over, giving them a very, very small wink.

  LATE THAT NIGHT, after a noisy and crowded celebration in the living room of her parents’ suite, Meg went down the hall to the smaller suite she was sharing with Steven and Neal, and checked several different cable channels to see how the press had reacted—without any of the biased spin from her mother’s staff. She felt more comfortable watching the coverage privately, anyway.

  “The turning point was the blazer incident,” a political analyst was saying on CNN. “Not only did Mrs. Powers show a remarkable sense of poise, but in the simple act of taking off her jacket, demonstrated the special quality a woman could bring to the office. Mr. Griffin was outclassed from that moment on. I think we were privy to something very special this evening.”

  They were already calling it The Blazer Incident? She switched to another channel—which was taking a similar approach, and was also showing results from polls taken both before and after the debate—and her mother had jumped eight points. She and Mr. Griffin were almost even.

  Almost even.

  Meg turned off the television, and went over to the window, looking out at Philadelphia. The city where Rocky ran up the steps.

  Almost even.

  Good God.

  12

  HER MOTHER DID very well in the second and third debates, and the pundits decided that the election was too close to call. At school, everyone seemed to be wearing either a Powers button or a Griffin one, and would either grin at her in the halls—or smirk. Teachers weren’t supposed to show political bias, so none of them wore buttons, but Meg could tell from their attitudes—and sometimes, her grades—whom they were supporting.

  Then, Mr. Bucknell came up with a swell idea. On the Friday before the election, the school would have a mock election and—the idea got even more swell—Meg and David Mason, the South Senate president, could play the parts of the candidates and give speeches at a school-wide assembly.

 
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