The presidents daughter, p.4
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       The President's Daughter, p.4
 

           Ellen Emerson White
“Hunh,” Beth said, also staring. “I didn’t know there was one down here.”

  “This is the main one.” Meg let out her breath. “I’ve, uh, never been here before.”

  Beth looked surprised. “There wasn’t some kind of ceremony when it opened?”

  “I don’t know, maybe.” More likely than not, actually. “We just went to the one in Coolidge Corner.” Meg swallowed. “It’s big.”

  Beth nodded.

  “Really big.” Since the ordinary-looking storefront hid the fact that the campaign had also signed a lease for the entire second floor, and was likely to expand to another floor soon. Meg stared at the posters, trying to relate the smiling candidate posing with the elderly, minorities, soldiers, students, and other voting blocs, to the woman who did things like burn toast and swear under her breath. The woman in the pictures—the candidate in the pictures—looked as if she were perfect. Friendly, kind, intelligent—but, it was scary. Sort of like the semiannual reports her mother’s office sent out about what the Senator had accomplished lately—which, somehow, always gave Meg the creeps.

  “Kind of weird,” Beth said.

  Major understatement. “Yeah.” Meg looked at the photo of her standing in Iowa or someplace with some farmers, in the middle of a cornfield. “I haven’t seen her since the day after Christmas.”

  “Well,” Beth said awkwardly, “I guess she’s pretty busy.”

  “Yeah.” Meg started walking. “Anyway, let’s get out of here.”

  “You aren’t even going in?” Beth asked.

  Meg stopped. “Why should I go in?”

  Beth frowned at her. “You dragged me all the way down here, and now you’re not even going to check it out?”

  “Well—no,” Meg said, uneasily.

  “Come on.” Beth headed across the street. “Don’t be a jerk.”

  “No,” Meg said, “I really don’t want—”

  “What about that favor you owe me?” Beth asked.

  Oh, for Christ’s sakes. “All right,” Meg said—although she was very tempted to be surly, instead. Petulant, even. “Just pretend we’re regular people, okay?”

  “I am a regular person,” Beth said.

  “You know what I mean,” Meg said.

  “Yeah, I know what you mean.” Beth flipped up her jacket collar. “We’ll make them think we’re spies from the enemy camp.”

  “Swell,” Meg said, following her.

  Beth opened the door, and warm air rushed out at them. They stepped inside, and Meg was surprised to see the maze of activity going on. Normally, at this stage of a campaign, she would expect things to be pretty quiet. But, the main room was crowded with people talking and laughing, phones were ringing, and two large televisions were tuned—loudly—to different stations. There was a strong smell of coffee, both old and new, and doughnuts. The walls were covered with posters, and tables were stacked with buttons, bumper stickers, and leaflets. The volunteers were different ages, but there were a lot of senior citizens, and college students. Some were stuffing envelopes, some were sorting stacks of papers, some were working on computers, and most of the rest were on the phones, either taking or making calls, Meg couldn’t tell.

  They stood there for a few seconds, Meg feeling more and more uncomfortable; then, a girl from one of the long tables near the front came over, smiling, her hair tied back in a loose ponytail.

  “Hi,” she said. “I’m Lily.”

  “I’m Beth,” Beth said, shaking her hand.

  “I’m—” Meg hesitated. “I mean, hi.” She shook the hand the girl offered, not sure if she should have taken her glove off first. Her mother would have.

  “Is this your first time here?” the girl asked.

  Meg blushed, and Beth nodded.

  “Well,” the girl said, still smiling, “we have a lot of high school workers.”

  Were they about to be signed up for duty, or something? Meg shook her head. “No. We’re just kind of here because—well, we were just curious.”

  “Then, let me show you around.” Lily was very cheerful. “Do you know much about the candidate?”

  “Uh, kind of,” Meg said, not looking at Beth.

  “Well, then.” The girl began giving them some personal background on the candidate, as well as issue positions, while Meg tuned her out, wishing that she’d never had the stupid idea of coming down here.

  She focused on a photograph of her mother talking with energy officials—they all had on hard hats and everything. Her mother looked concerned, interested, informed. Ridiculous in the hat. So this was what was coming out of all of those late-night conferences around the kitchen table. Probably no one would ever know that slogans like “The Way to Honest, Open Government” made her mother laugh. “Message, Kate, message,” Glen would say. “Trite, Glen, trite,” her mother would say.

  As the girl explained the candidate’s deep interest in education and women’s issues, she couldn’t help wondering if workers had a speech ready for every kind of person who might wander in. If they were older men with thick, calloused hands, would they get a speech about unions and Social Security?

  “Have you met her?” Meg asked, interrupting.

  “Well, not personally,” the girl admitted. “But I’ve heard her speak. She’s wonderful. You can just tell how honest she is.”

  She liked to think that her mother was honest, but, in her opinion, the Senator was also awfully god-damned smooth sometimes. “How?” Meg asked.

  The girl blinked. “Well—it’s her attitude, mostly, although everything I’ve read substantiates it. Have you ever heard her speak?”

  “Yeah,” Meg said.

  “Me, too,” Beth said. “Once, when I was little.”

  Meg elbowed her.

  “Well, then, you know what I mean,” the girl said, apparently regaining her confidence. “She doesn’t hesitate when she answers questions, she doesn’t have stacks of notes up there with her, she’s not afraid to say what she thinks. I don’t know—I guess it’s sort of hard to pin down. But I know I could never support anyone I didn’t trust.”

  “Is it true that she completely supports the doctrine of preemptive war?” Beth asked.

  Meg shot her a look, which Beth returned innocently.

  “My God, no,” the girl said. “The Senator’s positions are strongly—”

  Meg looked around some more. Everyone in the room seemed enthusiastic and confident. Excited. It was pretty impressive to have so many people already working long hours—before the primaries had even started.

  And now, Beth was asking whether the Senator planned to appoint strict constructionist judges, and Meg wasn’t sure whether to laugh her head off—or smack her.

  The girl actually handled that follow-up curveball pretty well, but she was starting to look very tired.

  “What about—” Beth started.

  “Would you like a couple of buttons?” the girl asked.

  Beth nodded, taking one, and Meg blushed and shook her head.

  “We have a bunch at home,” she muttered, shifting her weight.

  “Is your family working on the campaign?” the girl asked.

  “Sort of.” Meg heard Beth choke back a laugh. “Is this place always so crowded?”

  The girl nodded. “Every time I’ve been in here. Like, tonight’s Tufts Night, and a lot of these kids are from there. Most of the colleges around here have Nights every couple of weeks. It’s crazy in here on Harvard/Radcliffe Nights, because that’s where she went. Plus, a lot of the unions have Nights, too. And church groups. She’s pulling in a lot of the church groups.”

  Hard to believe. “I thought people were afraid she might be, um, too secular,” Meg said. “And that her position on abortion was a problem.” God knows her mother got enough hate mail about it.

  The girl hesitated. “Well, I guess that it might be an issue, but we still get an awful lot of people in here. Oh, Bruce.” She moved to intercept a man in chinos and a blue Oxford shirt who was coming out of th
e office in the back. “Come over here and talk to some people.” The girl dragged him over, and Meg flushed, recognizing Bruce Gibson, who she’d met quite a few times.

  “Meg, hi,” he said. “What are you doing down here?”

  She turned even redder. “I don’t know. We were just kind of walking around and—”

  “Well, great.” He seemed very happy to see her. “You haven’t been in before, have you?” He turned to the girl. “Lily, this is Meghan, the Senator’s daughter, and—?”

  “My friend Beth,” Meg said.

  Bruce smiled. “And her friend Beth.”

  “Really?” The girl’s eyes got very big. “Wow. Why didn’t you say anything?”

  Meg shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I felt—” Like a jerk.

  “Well, come on,” the girl said. “We should introduce you to everyone.”

  “No, I—” Meg hung back. “I’d really rather not. It’s getting late, and we—well, we just wanted to—”

  Bruce rescued her. “It is dark out there. Do you two need a ride home?”

  “Oh, no.” Meg shook her head very hard. “We’ll take the T.”

  “It’s no problem for me to get a car for you,” he said, “and—”

  “Bruce, can you look at this, before we post it?” someone called from the back.

  He nodded, and motioned for Meg and Beth to follow him through the maze of tables, boxes, and workers to the cluttered office, half-empty coffee cups and pizza boxes everywhere.

  “How’re things going?” Meg asked.

  “Great,” he said. “Our big worry was your mother’s early fund-raising power, but the donations are pouring in. I think this quarter’s going to be even more spectacular than the last one. And once she starts winning, we’ll be up for the really big money.”

  “You’re that sure she’s going to win?” Beth asked.

  He nodded. “Absolutely.”

  Her mother sure could inspire dedication. Unreal. Meg was about to say something polite—and noncommittal—when her “My Favorite Things” ring tone went off, and she dug her phone out of her jeans pocket.

  “Where are you, Meg?” her father asked, sounding very annoyed, when she picked up. “We expected you to be home an hour ago.”

  “I’m still downtown,” she said. “I got sort of held up.”

  “You’re supposed to call when that happens,” he said.

  Yeah. In fact, her parents were absolutely adamant about that policy, and she had been grounded more than once for breaking it.

  “Well, where are you?” he asked. “I’ll have to come pick you up.”

  If he had to drive all the way into Boston, during rush-hour, he was going to be in an even worse mood. Meg sighed. “Dad, we can just—”

  “Where are you?” he asked, less patiently.

  “Mom’s headquarters,” she said. “Anyway, we can just get on the—”

  “Really?” His voice was more pleased now. “What are you doing there?”

  “Just looking around,” she said.

  “What do you think?” he asked.

  “It’s really busy,” she said. “There’s like, all kinds of people here.”

  “Well, maybe later on you can start doing some work down there,” he said.

  Ideally not—but this wasn’t going to be the right time to bring that up. “Yeah, maybe,” she said. “Look, we’re going to go out and get on at Government Center, okay?”

  “All right,” he said. “I’ll pick you up at the station.”

  After she hung up, she waited for Beth to finish her conversation with her mother—who was also cross—and then they went back out to the main room with Bruce. Everyone seemed to be looking at her, so Lily must have spread the word. Meg nodded at them, taking a button to pin on her jacket.

  “So,” Beth said, as they walked to Government Center.

  “Preemptive war?” Meg asked.

  “I was making conversation,” Beth said.

  Right.

  They took the D Line train back towards Newton, Beth getting off at Reservoir, Meg getting off a stop later at Chestnut Hill. Her father was in the parking lot and started up the engine when he saw her. The energy-efficient engine, it went without saying.

  “Where’s Beth?” he asked as Meg climbed into the car.

  “She got off at Reservoir,” Meg said.

  “Did she have a ride?” he asked.

  “Her mother,” Meg said.

  He nodded, turning on the headlights. “Next time, I want you home when you’re supposed to be.”

  “Yes, sir,” she said.

  He reached over to give her scarf a tweak. “And enough with the ‘sirs.’”

  She nodded. “Anything you say, sir.”

  He laughed, putting the car into reverse and driving out of the lot. “What did you think of the headquarters?”

  “It was okay.” Meg slouched against the seat. “I hate those pictures, though. She doesn’t look—I don’t know—real, in them.” She glanced at him. “Are they all staged?”

  “I don’t think they’re staged, so much as there are photographers following her everywhere she goes.” He braked for a stop sign. “It’s advertising, that’s all. You have to win the election before you can do anything.”

  Meg frowned. “So, you do anything to win?”

  “No, of course not. It’s just—” He started to turn the corner, then put on his signal and pulled over. “Sorry. I can’t talk and drive.”

  Meg grinned. “Kind of like walking and chewing gum?”

  He smiled back. “Kind of. Anyway, you really shouldn’t worry, Meg. Have you ever seen your mother do anything unethical?”

  Well—no. She shook her head.

  “Neither have I,” he said. “And I don’t expect her to change now.”

  How could she not change? “I don’t know,” Meg said. “I guess.”

  “Meg, all I can tell you is this: your mother is absolutely, totally, almost sickeningly honest,” her father said. “She doesn’t do anything she doesn’t believe in. She humors them—”

  “Them?” Meg asked.

  “Glen, the staff, you know. She humors them,” he went on, “but once she gets out there, she does what she wants. And she says what she wants. She doesn’t do things because they ‘look good.’”

  Maybe. “So, how come what she does looks so good?” Meg asked.

  “Because it’s what people want to see.” He let out a hard breath. “I don’t know what to say, Meg. I can’t believe that I’m sitting here telling you something you should already know.”

  “I guess.” Meg jiggled her knee up and down, thinking. “Is she going to win?”

  “I don’t know,” he said.

  One thing she was sure about was that her father was honest. “Do you think she’s going to win?” she asked.

  “I don’t know,” he said. “But I think everyone’s going to know she was in the race.”

  “Hmmm.” Was she brave enough to ask the obvious question? “Do you want her to win?”

  Her father didn’t answer right away. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I want her to be happy.”

  Which meant what, exactly? “Wouldn’t being President make her happy?” Meg asked.

  “I’m not sure,” he said, both gloved hands resting on the steering wheel. “It’s almost as if—she wants a woman to be President, she wants that desperately, and at this point, she knows she’s the only one around who can genuinely pull it off.”

  Meg frowned again. “What about ambition and power and stuff like that?”

  “I don’t know, Meg.” He shook his head. “I don’t think your mother’s obsessed with either—it’s more of a challenge thing with her. She’s a very complex woman. A very wonderful woman,” he added more quietly.

  If they were getting along right now—which wasn’t always the case—she definitely wasn’t going to get in the way of that, so she let a few respectful seconds pass. There had been too many times when her p
arents hadn’t seemed to be quite so much in love—maybe not even in love at all. Maybe not even in like. It hadn’t been that way recently, but that didn’t stop her from worrying, especially with her mother being gone twice as much as usual.

  She looked at her father, thinking about what a nice man he was. Probably the nicest man she knew. She remembered suddenly being the star of the Thanksgiving play when she was in third grade. The part had required pigtails and a little blue dress, both of which she had. The play was in the afternoon, and her father had come, one of the few men in the audience, sitting up front with Steven, who was in nursery school. After the play, he came backstage to get her, his smile very proud. He gave her some flowers—she couldn’t remember what they were; daisies, maybe?—then picked her up in a big hug, and the three of them went all the way in to Harvard Square to have hot fudge sundaes at their favorite ice cream place. Then, Trudy stayed with Steven, and she and her father went to the movies—at night. He had always been able to make them feel special.

  Seeing him next to her, his face healthy and wind-burned, as though he never sat behind a desk or read The Wall Street Journal, Meg obeyed an overpowering urge to hug him.

  “What was that for?” he asked, as she pulled free before he could hug back, embarrassed.

  “I don’t know.” She blushed, staring out through the windshield. She almost never gave in to urges to hug people. “I like you.”

  “Well, I like you, too,” he said.

  She hated conversations like this. “Steven’s probably making Trudy crazy right now.” Especially if he was hungry.

  “Probably.” He started the engine, then looked over at her, shaking his head. “You’re very much like her.”

  Meg flushed. “I am not.”

  “When your grandfather was alive, he used to sit there for hours, watching you,” her father said. “He said it was frightening.”

  “Well, I guess I look kind of like her,” Meg said. “But I mean like, she’s—and I’m—”

  Her father just grinned, glancing over his shoulder to check for cars, then pulling out into the street.

  4

  RIGHT AFTER DINNER that night, the phone rang.

  “I’ve got it!” Meg yelled from the kitchen. “Hello?”

 
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