The presidents daughter, p.9
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       The President's Daughter, p.9
 

           Ellen Emerson White

  “No way,” Meg said. “Wear some frumpy gown on national television and have a bunch of Senators dance with me because they feel sorry for me standing all alone? You’ve got to be kidding.”

  Mrs. Peterson laughed. “What if the gown isn’t frumpy?”

  “Stand there all alone in some skimpy gown on national television?” Meg said. “Not a chance.”

  Mrs. Peterson laughed again, and then someone across the room motioned her over, and she gestured “Excuse me” to them and left.

  “You really wouldn’t go?” Beth asked.

  Meg shrugged. “At this point, it isn’t exactly an issue.”

  “Well, yeah,” Beth said, “but—”

  “Hey, where’re the smiles?” Preston sat down next to them. “Candidates’ kids have to smile. Constantly.”

  They all smiled.

  “Oh, good, very good,” he said, taking a swig of beer and looking terribly handsome in dark brown flannel slacks, ankle-high leather boots, a V-neck tan lamb’s wool sweater with no shirt underneath, and a brown fedora. “Some scene we’ve got here.” He tilted the hat over one eye, and then looked at them with the uncovered eye. “You know why your mother’s going to win?”

  “Because everyone loves her,” Neal said happily.

  “Not just that, little guy.” Preston took the hat off and put it on Steven, who tried to adjust it to the exact same tilt. “Because the lady’s got style. People like style.”

  Neal looked down at himself. “Do I have style?”

  “Sure, kid,” Preston said. “You’ve got the makings of one fine-looking dude.”

  Well, if jeans and beat-up, hand-me-down Lacoste shirts were considered chic, then, on most days, she was in good shape, too.

  “What about Steven?” Neal asked.

  “Ab-solutely. And Meggo here,” he draped an arm around her shoulders, “Meggo’s got it, too.” He nodded at the grey sweatpants tucked into her hiking boots. “Very nice. All you need is here.” He touched the neck of her ragg sweater. “A nice scarf here, and you’ll have ’em at your feet.”

  “Who?” Neal asked.

  “The world, kid.” He looked at Beth. “Good, the friend has style, too. Only, you might want this up.” He adjusted her collar, then studied the result. “Good. Very good.”

  Neal flipped up his own collar. “Does Daddy have style?”

  “Russell?” He shook his head. “No, I think Russell-baby needs some help.”

  “You call him Russell-baby?” Steven asked from underneath the hat.

  Preston shrugged. “Sure. What else? You can call him that, too, kid. Tell him I said it was okay.”

  Luckily, Preston had a deep sense of irony—or he would be too damn goofy and glib to have any credibility whatsoever. “What’s wrong with the way Dad dresses?” Meg asked, amused.

  “Well, Meggo, it’s like this—bourgeois. Upper bourgeois, maybe, but bourgeois. Moccasins, Oxford everything, still wearing the old B-school jackets—” Preston shook his head sadly. “No style whatsoever.”

  He had a point, although her father had, of course, gone to L-school.

  “Can you help him get style?” Neal asked, sounding as if he wasn’t sure whether he should be worried or giggling.

  “Sure,” Preston said. “Give me a few weeks of intensive—”

  “We’re now able to project—” the anchorperson on the third television began.

  “Shhh!” half of the room hissed, and Meg felt a sudden tension rippling up her back.

  “—Senator Katharine Powers, with an unprecedented—”

  The room exploded into thirty or forty different cheers.

  “—holding strong with almost thirty-five percent of the vote,” the anchorperson went on, “with her nearest competitor, Senator Thomas Hawley, taking away only twenty-seven percent of this—”

  Meg stared at the pandemonium in the room, at people jumping and yelling and hugging each other, and then at Steven and Neal and Beth, who all looked as stunned as she felt.

  “The early caucus results are in, and tonight, we’ve had an historic—” a commentator on one of the other televisions was now saying.

  “This makes her the front-runner!” someone shouted.

  “We’re gonna do it!” someone else yelled. “We’re gonna go all the way!”

  Neal yanked on Meg’s arm. “Does this mean she’s President?”

  “It means she might be,” Meg said, looking at the piece of pizza Steven had dropped facedown on the rug. The pizza looked like she felt.

  “I thought she wasn’t supposed to win,” Beth said quietly.

  “She wasn’t,” Meg said, feeling almost dazed. “All the polls said—” She shook her head. Projected—holding strong—unprecedented—historic—

  “Isn’t it great?” someone shouted at them. “Aren’t you proud of your mother?”

  They all nodded, Meg gulping some Coke to calm her stomach.

  “Now, we’ll move to the Des Moines Marriott, where Mark Wilson is on the scene,” a commentator on yet another one of the televisions said. “Mark?”

  “Thank you, Lila,” a man holding a microphone in a noisy, crowded hotel lobby said as the camera switched to him. “This is Mark Wilson, and I’m standing in the—”

  “Shhh!” several people in the room said, the celebration stopping so everyone could gather around to listen.

  “Sources have said that the Senator will be coming down to—yes, there she is,” he said. “We’ll be moving in to—”

  Meg watched as the camera focused on her mother, surrounded by people and flashbulbs, dignified in a deep blue dress. Her father was standing next to her, looking a little shell-shocked, but grinning, regardless. He said something to her, she smiled, and Meg thought she saw their hands touch before her mother turned to face the cameras. She waved briefly with her left arm and most of the hotel lobby, as well as the living room, broke into applause.

  “Senator, how do you feel?” a reporter shouted.

  “Very happy,” her mother said. “Very excited, very—very inarticulate.”

  The people in the lobby laughed in obvious camaraderie.

  “Did you expect to win, Senator?” another reporter asked, managing to get his voice heard over the others.

  “I make it a practice never to expect anything,” her mother said.

  “Where do you go from here, Senator?” the same reporter asked.

  Her mother’s grin got a little bigger. “New Hampshire,” she said.

  After the caucus, her mother was on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report—which really freaked Meg out. Everywhere she went, she either saw a picture of her mother, or heard people talking about her, or was otherwise reminded about how odd her family’s lives had become. There seemed to be kind of a bandwagon effect, and suddenly, people who had never given her mother a second thought were behaving as though they had been life-long supporters, and had always suspected that she might make a serious run at the Presidency one day.

  Since New Hampshire was an easy drive, they all spent the next weekend with her mother, and Meg found herself doing some old-fashioned, retail campaigning—which mostly involved handing out leaflets and buttons. Steven was all set to run around shaking hands, but when asked to concentrate on leafleting, worked with exhausting enthusiasm. At first, Neal helped them, but he was kind of afraid of the crowds and would spend most of his time with their parents, holding on to whichever one—almost always their father—had a free hand, probably winning hundreds of votes with his smile, which was currently missing two front teeth. Steven kept telling people that it was because of a gruesome hockey accident.

  On Sunday afternoon, while they were at a shopping mall near Concord, she and Steven ran into Senator Hawley’s children—three swaggering and obnoxious boys wearing ties. They surrounded Steven, knocked his box of buttons out of his arms, and told him he’d better get the hell out of there if he knew what was good for him. Meg hurried over to help, and the two
older boys—both of whom were bigger than she was, although probably only one of them was her age—made comments that were both chauvinistic and obscene. This infuriated Steven, who was ready to take on all three of them, and Meg was starting to get a little nervous, when one of the boys yanked her leaflets away from her, scattering them on the ground. For some reason, this struck Meg as being funny as hell, and as she stood there laughing, the three Hawleys apparently realized what jerks they were making of themselves and left, an angry Hawley staffer meeting them on the way and escorting them to a different section of the mall.

  People who had witnessed the scene helped Meg gather up her leaflets and Steven get his buttons back into his cardboard box, quite a few remarking that they were very well brought-up, and that that said good things for their mother. Meg thanked them, and everyone went off with a button and a leaflet apiece.

  And, with luck, mentally eliminated Senator Hawley from the list of candidates they were considering.

  The incident got back to her parents, and after that, Meg noticed that there was always an adult campaign worker lurking nearby. Linda pulled them aside, telling them that they were very well politicized and had handled a difficult situation quite gracefully. Meg still thought the whole thing was funny, and after he stopped being mad, Steven agreed with her.

  They would ride in an SUV or town car driven by Secret Service agents, with more agents riding in front of and behind them. Because the vehicles were so crowded, Meg almost always got stuck on a jump seat, which made her carsick. The Secret Service didn’t want them to open the windows, either. Her mother would be slumped against the backseat the whole time, gulping coffee and wearily reading the information packet her advance team had prepared about the next event, scribbling last minute changes in whatever speech she would be giving, while Glen practically had a heart attack.

  “Kate, every time you start ad-libbing, I age three years,” he’d groan.

  Her mother—who always ad-libbed—would just ignore this, and continue editing and rewriting.

  When they’d pull into the next town, her mother would get out of the car, suddenly cheerful and refreshed, projecting an air of relaxed, friendly confidence. Usually, the speeches went well—crowds were big, audiences receptive—but, not always. Sometimes, the advance team had over- or under-anticipated the number of people who would attend, and once, no one came at all because the staff had publicized the wrong time.

  Standing in the empty auditorium, Meg could tell that her mother was furious, but almost as quickly, she was amused and sent someone out to get hamburgers, which they ate sitting on the stage.

  “You gonna fire someone, Mom?” Steven asked, his mouth full of French fries.

  Her mother arched an eyebrow at Glen. “That depends on whose mistake it was.”

  “These things happen,” he said.

  She nodded. “They happen once.” Then, she grinned. “Enough said?”

  Seeing Glen nod, Meg glanced over at her mother. Kind of weird to see her being an administrator. And a rather cranky and demanding one, at that.

  “Well.” Glen finished his hamburger. “Why don’t we get out of here and head over to Sunapee.”

  Meg sighed, and looked down at her barely touched meal. She was kind of enjoying hanging out on the stage.

  “Is that really necessary?” her father asked.

  “No,” her mother said, to Meg’s surprise. “Glen, I’m going to take this as a sign that I need a break.”

  He looked alarmed. “But—”

  “Can we really stay here?” Meg asked. “I mean, for a while?”

  “Don’t make me feel so benevolent,” her mother said. “Of course we can. I think we all need it.” She yawned. “I know I do.”

  So, they sat on the stage, and ate hamburgers, and didn’t talk about politics once. It was Meg’s favorite afternoon of the campaign so far. Of course, right after that, they went out to the motorcade and went to Sunapee, and her mother made two speeches, but still. For a while there, it had been almost as if her mother wasn’t running for President at all.

  Almost.

  9

  THE DAY BEFORE the primary, the headline above the lead editorial in the Manchester Union-Leader—New Hampshire’s biggest, and most influential, newspaper—was: Katharine Vaughn Powers: Very Open and Very Presidential. It was a big deal, because just about everyone in the state read it, and the endorsement was also quite a coup, since the paper was traditionally conservative, and her mother—despite a bit of a favorite daughter status, since she represented a neighboring state—wasn’t the sort of politician the editorial board normally embraced.

  And, indeed, her mother won the primary, with almost forty percent of the vote, the media analysts saying that it would have been higher if the voters hadn’t been uneasy about her position on gun control.

  After that, primaries became the routine, with her mother doing very well in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, less well in the South and Midwest—where Senator Hawley talked a lot about Tradition and Family, the concept of Motherhood implicit in this. Funny, that no one ever asked where his family was. And when they were there in photos—the three boys standing behind their parents with toothy smiles—Meg couldn’t help wishing that everyone knew how rotten those kids were. Governor Kruger picked up most of the Rocky Mountain States, although her mother held her own, and outright won Colorado and Arizona.

  But, even though Meg was impressed by how well her mother was doing, and also kind of proud, she got tired of only seeing her on the news, or in articles, and only talking to her when she was alone in some hotel room, or on her way to yet another campaign event. Somehow, no matter how angry or resentful Meg was feeling at that particular moment, she couldn’t quite bring herself to say anything mean, because she kept picturing her mother being lonely and sad, hundreds—and sometimes, thousands—of miles away. So, on days when she knew she might say something rotten—not too often, because her father and Trudy would get suspicious—she managed to be in the shower, or on a walk with Kirby around the time her mother was supposed to call. In a way, Meg thought of it as doing her part to help The Candidate.

  When her mother did come home, she was always completely worn out. She would try to get up to have breakfast with them, and do normal parent things, but was always so tired that everyone was afraid to ask her. Among other things, Meg wouldn’t even suggest a game of tennis.

  Drifting around late at night, she would go into the kitchen or dining room, find a table covered with papers and graphs, stacks of folders, and cold mugs of coffee—and her mother, sitting up, but asleep, her head propped on one hand. Sometimes, after Meg woke her up, her mother would go to bed, but more often, she would fix herself more coffee and keep working. She got mad fast, too—probably too tired to control her temper—which would erupt unexpectedly, as if she had been holding it in for days, exploding into sudden fights which, as far as Meg could tell, were mostly only with her. She knew she should be understanding, and remember how much pressure her mother was under and how tired she was, but most of the time, her temper would come crashing out to meet her mother’s, and the fight would end only when one of them left the room.

  More often than not, this involved at least one slammed door.

  One night, around quarter of two, Meg found her mother hunched over reams of paper in the sitting room and woke her up as carefully as possible.

  “What?” Her mother jerked awake, looking around in confusion. “What’s wrong?”

  Meg jumped a little at the quick reaction. “Nothing. I just thought you should maybe go up to bed.”

  “I have work to do.” Her mother fumbled for her cup of coffee, tasted it, and shuddered.

  “You should go up to bed,” Meg said. “It’s really late.”

  “I think I can manage that decision by myself.” Her mother wearily pushed up her sleeve to check her watch, then frowned. “What are you doing up?”

  Meg shrugged. “I always stay up.”

/>   Her mother scowled, and lifted up a folder about health care or whatever else it was that she was studying. “Terrific, you always stay up. You wouldn’t if I were around.”

  “Yeah, well,” Meg tried—and failed—to keep her own temper under control, “you’re not around, are you?”

  Her mother’s folder slapped down against the table, and Meg couldn’t help flinching. “Let’s not start that again, okay?”

  “Yeah, really,” Meg said. “Wasted energy on my part.”

  Her mother’s jaw tightened, and Meg could see the flush of anger starting into her cheeks.

  “Well.” Meg folded her arms. “Guess I ought to leave—I’d hate to waste any of your valuable time. Maybe we can make an appointment to see each other next week.” She paused, knowing that she should just shut up and leave the room. “If you have time, that is.”

  “I said, cut it out!” Her mother’s voice was less controlled this time.

  “No.” Meg shook her head, still trying to tell herself to shut up—and still not doing it. “You said not to start again. I didn’t hear anything about cutting it out—”

  “Meg, get out of here!” Her mother jumped up so quickly that she knocked over her coffee. “Just leave me alone. Just—” She saw the liquid spreading across her papers. “There! Are you happy?” She picked up the mug and dumped out the rest. “Does that make you happy?”

  Meg backed up towards the door. “Mom, I didn’t mean to—”

  “Oh, yeah, you did!” her mother said. “You know damn well you—”

  “Kate,” Meg’s father said from the door, and her mother stopped, visibly trembling, taking a slow breath to try and get back under control.

  Meg glanced at her father and found an expression of such fury that she took another involuntary step backwards, her heart beating a little harder against her rib cage.

  “Go to your room,” he said.

  “Oh, good,” she said, nodding. “As usual, you’re going to listen to my side of it, too.”

  His eyes got colder, and she retreated another step, knowing that it was unreasonable to be scared, but scared, anyway.

 
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