The senior senator from Michigan, Frederick B. Thurston, stared into a black cup of coffee. He watched reflected light flicker across the surface of the black liquid and disappear. He had come too far, too soon to lose an election this close without a fight, and he meant to use every back alley trick he’d ever learned from his blue-collar childhood to the rarefied air of the Senate to win.
He considered himself lucky to be the Democratic nominee. That honor rarely fell onto the shoulders of a forty-one year old up-and-comer. He knew most of the tricks already because he was a quick study and because in Michigan politics he had to learn faster than someone from Utah.
High up in the Pacific Arms Hotel in the dirty city of Detroit, Fredrick Thurston looked up from his coffee cup. His six-foot, one-inch body was lean and lithe. His skin did not yet sag anywhere on his body, except perhaps a little under the eyes, but that could be attributed to the frenetic pace of the last few days of the campaign. So could the condition of his muscles, which pulled and ached under his skin. His right forearm and hand were red and callused, having been shaken, yanked, pulled, scratched (and bitten twice) during the campaign. His neatly trimmed hair, wavy and black, hadn’t been combed in five hours.
For the past hour, he’d been secluded in a sitting room in the hotel with his closest staff members examining the election returns. There was Jesse Epstein, his campaign manager, who went back ten years with Thurston as his original administrative assistant when he was a freshman congressman; Terry McAvoy, his press secretary, with his perfectly straight, well-cut red hair; Brian Gilbert, his long-time law partner in Detroit, personal friend and advisor; and Steven Ressler, a toy manufacturer from New York who was introduced to him by McAvoy three years ago. Ressler helped with Thurston’s campaign for reelection to the Senate two years earlier and was now a top strategist.
“What time is it?” Thurston asked no one in particular.
“Three o’clock,” McAvoy answered.
“Well, let’s take it from the top,” Thurston said after a pause.
Epstein shuffled dozens of papers in his hands and raised his head with a skeptical look that always characterized him. He was a short, dark-haired man with pudgy cheeks and full lips.
“Are you going down to the ballroom?” asked McAvoy, the press aide. “They’ve been screaming at me all night.”
“No, not yet,” said Thurston. “Let’s have a rundown, Jess.”
“Right,” said Epstein, looking down at his papers and figures. “We’ll win the popular vote.”
“Who gives a fuck … now?” asked Thurston wearily.
“Right, that doesn’t make any difference now. We’ve taken twenty-six states to Senkirk’s twenty-four, and that won’t make any difference, either. With the electoral vote even, the only way to keep it out of the House is for one or more electors to go against somebody. That shouldn’t happen because of all the state laws around to make them keep their word, but if we could get only one to come over to us in a state that doesn’t have such a law, we could keep it out of the House.”
“Senkirk’s people will try whatever we try,” said Gilbert.
“We’ll know by morning or tomorrow afternoon if we can count on all our people, and who on the other side might be,” Ressler used the word archly, “persuaded to join us.”
“If the electors start breaking ranks, it’ll end up in court,” said Epstein.
“We don’t want to see Bush-Gore again,” said McAvoy.
Thurston put his cup down on a side table and fell into a chair opposite Epstein, who spread all his papers out on top of other papers, reports and files on the coffee table.
“If it’s that much in doubt, I think we better support straight voting in the Electoral College and take our chances in the House. We ought to do better there, anyway. We have a great majority in the House, and I’d rather have a big majority there than one vote in the College. I’m just worried to death over some little elector somewhere who thinks he can play king-maker.”
Epstein looked hard at Thurston.
“What’s the matter, Jess?”
“I just want everybody to remember one thing. This election year, everybody’s going to be a kingmaker, whether it’s decided in a recount, in the College or in the House. Just don’t anybody hurt anybody else’s little ego. We’re gonna need them all.”
“You’re right, Jess. Let’s go on.”
“Well, let’s take it from New England and work our way across,” Epstein began. There were knocks at the door. McAvoy jumped up and answered it, admitting not only the pretty head of Peggy Thurston, but also the sounds of dozens of voices, telephones ringing and computer printers from the room beyond.
“Can I come in?” she asked, peeking round the door.
Thurston got up and crossed the room and kissed her.
“Not now, dear,” he said. “We’re trying to work out a little strategy. I was going to call you and tell you to get some sleep. Why don’t you?”
“I thought I’d wait up. You’ll have to go downstairs, won’t you?”
“Yes, but not for an hour or so.”
“I’ll wait up for you, then we’ll both go to sleep.”
“Okay, honey, we’ll be out in a little while.” He kissed her again.
She left and McAvoy closed the door. Thurston went back to his chair and sat down again, rolling up his shirtsleeves. McAvoy resumed his lethargic position on the sofa.
“Okay,” said Thurston, trying to relax by leaning back. There was another knock at the door. “God damn it!” he said, sitting up. He motioned to Steve Ressler with his head. “Get out there, will you, Steve? And tell them to leave me alone in here until I get ready. No exceptions.” Ressler jumped up and went to the door, opened it, and pushed the man there out as he talked to him, closing the door behind him as he went.
“All right, let’s try again.”
“Breaking the nation up into the usual eight regions, it lines up like this. In the Northeast, six states. Out of those, we took only Massachusetts. They got Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and Rhode Island. It was close in Rhode Island, but it’s theirs. Out of five Middle Atlantic States, they got only Pennsylvania. We took the rest: New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware. Thank God for little states like Delaware or we wouldn’t have a tie. In the South’s ten states, we took most: Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Texas and Virginia. They took Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana. The real clincher down there is Louisiana. It’s never voted Republican – ever! There’s one Republican representative. Everybody else is a Democrat: two senators, the governor, all the other congressmen. Nobody voted along traditional lines. It’s this damned foreign shit!”
Thurston lit a cigarette.
“I didn’t believe it about Louisiana, either,” he said. “Difference in votes?”
“Fifty, sixty thousand.”
“Not enough to contest.”
“No, that’s a lot down there.”
“In the five Border States, they took Oklahoma, no surprise. We got Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, West Virginia.”
“Did all right there,” McAvoy commented. Steve Ressler opened the door and returned, sitting in a corner behind a writing table. Epstein continued.
“In the Midwest, we got it bad. They got Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana. We kept Michigan and Minnesota. Six states there. The Farm States: Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas. We lost them all.” Epstein paused and shook his head sadly. “I’d have bet my mother’s teeth we had Iowa and North Dakota, especially in this election. Our polls showed they hated the Russians four to one out there. You know how those people feel.”
“You never really know how they feel until they vote,” said Thurston, quietly and with no trace of emotion. He crunched the butt of his cigarette in a tray. “You forgot Kansas.”
“Yeah, sorry: we lost Kansas, too. The eight Mountain States. They took Colorado, Utah, Wyoming. We took the rest: Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.”
“Surprise, surprise,” said Thurston quietly, referring to what they all knew without having to say it. They expected to take both Colorado and Utah easily.
“Then the last five states out West.”
Ressler lowered his eyes as if feeling pain, for he and the others all knew what Epstein was going to say.
“We got Hawaii and Alaska. They got the rest.” He half-crumpled the papers in a helpless gesture and leaned his aching back slowly against the rear of the sofa. They’d lost California, Oregon and Washington. Each state hurt a lot, and all had been undecided that morning.
The rundown revealed in a more formal and cohesive way what had come to them separately and in bits and pieces all night long, from the very first few returns in Maine and New Hampshire. People were indecisive, angry, confused over the foreign issue and seemed to have voted on the basis of that alone. All predictions based on past data were now proved useless in helping to foresee the crazy way in which the states had combined to bring about the present haphazard situation.
Thurston stood up, put his hands in his back trouser pockets and began pacing back and forth. His tie long since had been jerked loose. He sweated in the warm room.
“Gut feeling – we’re going to the House.”
“I’ve already got people going over our files on all congressmen, both sides of the aisle,” said Epstein.
“Good,” remarked Thurston, still pacing. “We’ll be doing a lot of face time with them between now and the new session. How much material on the freshmen coming up?”
“Plenty,” said Gilbert, “but we’ll get more.”
“Get a lot more,” smiled Thurston. “After a week or so we’ll know the exact final vote, and if it’s with us, we’ll lay it on thick, raise some hell!” Thurston’s voice began to move faster, rising a little in pitch. The aides knew he was ready to give orders.
“We’ll have to come out supporting changes in the Constitution to get rid of the Electoral College, moving for direct popular vote. The small states will kill it, but we have to say it.”
“You’ve been against that in the past,” noted McAvoy.
“I just changed my mind. Once the popular vote is in and pretty definite, we’ll move for recounts where we think we have much better than even chances. Less than that and we won’t move.”
“Right,” said Ressler, who would have his staff begin arranging details the next day.
“For now we plan as if we’re going to the House. Terry, go out and announce that I’ll be coming downstairs shortly.”
Terry McAvoy jumped up, found his coat somewhere in a corner on the floor, and straightened his tie before leaving the room in a rush.
“After I talk downstairs -- oh, something on the order of carrying this thing right through to the end, fighting for principles, all that crap -- Brian, you get Niles Overton and Stan Rifkin on the phone. Thank God they were reelected.”
Niles Overton of Minnesota was majority leader of the House. Stan Rifkin of New Mexico was majority whip.
“I’ll have to talk to them tonight. After them, I’ll talk to Lamar Perryman.”
“What’s Perryman got to do with any of it?” asked Epstein. He never liked the inimitable, irascible congressman from Virginia.
Thurston stopped pacing and looked at Epstein.
“Because I’ve decided he’s going to be speaker in the new Congress.”
The room erupted in protest.
When the noise subsided, Ressler spoke.
“Fred, you can’t be sure of Perryman. Nobody can. Why him and not Niles? It’s supposed to be Niles since the old man died. Everybody knows what. Shit, Perryman didn’t even endorse you!”
Ressler referred to the “old man,” who was the former speaker of the House. This venerable congressman died during the campaign before Congress adjourned. Overton was majority leader at the time and Perryman merely a congressman with a powerful committee chairmanship. When the speaker was struck, less than two weeks before adjournment, Perryman was elevated to the chair at the old speaker’s personal request for the remainder of the session. The honor was designed to cap Perryman’s long career.
Thurston’s suggestion to keep Perryman in the chair shocked everyone because the man was known to be fiercely independent. He bowed to no one, had a mind of his own, and his position on the Sino-Russian situation was even at this late date unclear.
“I am aware that he didn’t endorse me, but he hasn’t endorsed anyone for years, and he certainly isn’t for Senkirk. The main point is to keep Overton free prior to the session so he can work on individuals. If Overton tells the caucus to go with Perryman, it will. After the election, Perryman will resign and Overton will take the chair the way it was supposed to be. Brian, after I talk to Perryman, have White ready.”
It would be unseemly for him not to call his running mate, the Honorable Dexter White, Governor of Florida, so he would do it, in its proper turn of importance.
“And that ought to do it,” he said. Gilbert and Ressler were scribbling notes. Epstein found a cigarette somewhere inside his messy clothes and started smoking it after bumming a light from Gilbert. Thurston went into the bathroom nearby and washed his hands and face a long time until soap obliterated his features. He dried himself, combed his hair and arranged his clothing, getting his coat from the closet.
“You ready?” asked Epstein. Thurston nodded. Epstein went over and opened the door. Gilbert and Ressler went out.
“Jess,” said Thurston as Epstein was leaving, “will you ask Peggy to come in here? Then we’ll go down.”
“Sure,” said Epstein as he closed the door behind him. Peggy Thurston came in half a minute later, fresh, beautiful, blonde, creamy-skinned, and bringing with her the scent of fine perfume. Really upper crust, thought Thurston to himself as he looked at her coming to him. He wondered how she always managed to smell so fresh after these long election nights, and especially this one.
They hugged each other and kissed deeply.
“How are you?” she asked, with a mildly worried look coming into her eyes.
He laughed from his throat, deeply, quietly.
“I haven’t been asked that all night. Every time it’s been, ‘How’s it goin’?’”
“Well, I’m asking you. How are you? How do you feel about it?”
He broke away from her softly, rubbing his upper lip with a forefinger, and walked over to look out the window at the dingy cityscape. Most of the lights in the buildings downtown had been off for hours. A few blocks away he could see into the only lighted floor of a tall office building. A cleaning woman in a long, shabby dress and a scarf around her hair was dusting a desk. More than likely, he thought, that woman did not even vote today, had no interest whatsoever in who was elected president of the United States or which party might control the new Congress, or cared even slightly what the FTC, FAA, CIA or ICC might do tomorrow to change her life and the lives of millions of others. If she was even legally in the country.
“I really don’t know how to feel,” he said, holding his forehead with his left hand. “I know what I’m going to say downstairs in the ballroom,” he chuckled, darkly, sardonically. “I always know what I’m going to say in public, don’t I? But I don’t know how I feel. It’s so unexpected, this, this tie.”
He drew his lips tightly over his gums as he clenched a fist. Several times without stopping he hit the back of the heavily padded armchair where he’d been sitting.
“This damned feeling of having it so close and yet still being able to lose it is what gets to me.” He looked at her almost pleadingly. “We’re so close, Peggy.”
“I know,” she said, a little wistful. She knew what he was going through. Throughout their marriage, she was keenly sensible of his urges to achieve, succeed, rise in the world. She did what she could to soothe him when his frustrations built to the point of breaking. Long ago she gave up trying to solve them completely. They were too many, too personal in some instances for him to be frank with her about them.
“But every time I get mad at myself I remember that Senkirk’s in the same boat I am. He could just as easily have gotten an extra electoral vote as I could’ve, so I count myself lucky. I’m younger and stronger than he is, and we control the Congress. It’ll work out. It just has to work out.”
“It will, darling. It will,” she said softly, moving over and kissing him.
“Look,” she said, pointing to the television in the corner that had remained on the whole time in the room with the sound down. The camera image just shifted from an exhausted anchorman to the ballroom of the Pacific Arms. “They’re downstairs now.”
“Turn it up,” said Thurston. Peggy walked over and punched a button. Thurston came over and stood beside her, looking down at the crowded ballroom packed with people of all ages who were waiting for them to appear. The picture shifted instantly to show a reporter, one of the more important reporters who followed Thurston from his first primary down to this night. Thurston knew him well, and as he listened, he appreciated the sometimes thin, sometimes thick wall that separated their professions.
“. . . And now we’re back here in the grand ballroom of the Pacific Arms Hotel in downtown Detroit. You all heard the announcement a few minutes ago by Terry McAvoy, Senator Thurston’s press secretary, saying the candidate would be down shortly to issue a statement.”
“Come on, let’s not ruin his timing, honey.” They smiled at each other, kissed once more, then left the room to face the world.