Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction
Mr. Bates Goes to Washington
[This is my first (and probably last ;-) attempt at political satire. We so often hear politicians claim that government would be much better if it were just "run like a business." What if we took them at their word?]
Grover Karl breathed deeply. Greedily. He loved the smell of the Oval Office on the first day of a new administration. It bore the unmistakable scent of freshly minted power. This day marked the crowning achievement of Karl's political career. He stroked the upholstered back of the chair behind the presidential desk: a chair he would never occupy but had frequently controlled. And he had done it again. He had elected a man whom all the "experts" claimed was unelectable.
He had done it by a landslide.
The pundits proclaimed - gleefully - that this candidate was too dull, too abrasive, too geeky, too filthy rich to ever earn the trust of the masses. Once again, Karl had forced them to eat their polysyllabic words. Sixty-four percent of American voters had cast their ballots for Karl's man. Sixty-four percent! The Dems had crawled into a hole to lick their wounds for the next four years, wondering how they'd blown another one so badly.
Karl grinned. The effect on his pallid, jowly face was quite disturbing. He heard a smattering of applause from outside the main office door and settled back into the woodwork: close enough to pull the strings, but far enough away to avoid the spotlight. Just the way he liked it.
The door swung open. Gil Bates - former chairman of Megaware Corporation and newly inaugurated President of the United States - stepped inside.
"Morning, Grover. Figured you'd be here already. Can't wait to start, can you?"
Karl put on his professional smile. It looked like something that had been embalmed and laid out in a funeral parlor for mourners to view from a respectful distance.
"History doesn't wait for us, Mr. President. It charges forward, and those not quick enough to stay ahead of it get flattened."
Bates chuckled. "And they say I'm dour. Point taken, though: I'm eager to get started, too. Busy day ahead, eh? So who's first on the agenda?"
"Senate Majority Leader Dewey Connors. He's a tough old buzzard, but he's wired into everything that happens in this town. We'll need his cooperation to get some legislative victories in the first hundred days."
Bates frowned. "Right. Bring him in."
Senator Connors stomped into the room as if the floor itself were a bitter political rival who needed to be bludgeoned into submission. He shook the new president's hand hard enough to dislocate a shoulder.
"Congratulations, Mr. President. It's great to have you on the team. I just wanted to take this opportunity to go over some ground rules, since you're new to this neck o' the woods. You've got things you want to get done. I've got things I want to get done. You help me, I help you, we both win. That's how it works here in Washington."
Gil Bates flashed a look that had torched the paneling on boardroom walls all over corporate America. "Actually, Senator, that's how it doesn't work here in Washington. That's the first thing we're going to change."
Grover Karl grimaced as if he'd just swallowed something rancid. What the hell was this? He saw the same look of confusion on Connors's ruddy face.
"Come again?" said the Senator.
"It's pretty simple," said Bates. "I was elected - by an overwhelming majority - on the basis of my promise to run this country like a successful business. You, as I recall, lauded that sentiment on stage at the National Convention. In business, Senator, we judge our employees by results... and the U.S. Congress has been underperforming for years. Current staffing levels aren't cost-justifiable. Instead of two senators per state, we're cutting it to one."
Karl stared at his man Bates, dumbfounded. Senator Connors, for his part, glanced nervously around the room as if searching for hidden cameras.
"Is this a joke, Mr. President?"
"Dead serious, Senator. Just thank your lucky stars you're not a congressman: my efficiency experts have determined that the entire House of Representatives has to go. We call it 'eliminating duplicative functions' in the private sector. All they do is craft redundant legislation that differs just enough from the Senate version to stall the whole process for months. Half the time, you can't reconcile the differences and the bill dies. Ridiculously wasteful. A successful business needs clear lines of responsibility. From now on, one senator represents the constituents from his or her state. One person is accountable. Congress becomes a leaner, more agile organization, and we save a substantial amount of money."
Senator Connors's face reddened so deeply that his silver hair looked like smoke hovering over a fire. "You're insane. Certifiable! The Republican Party won't allow you to downsize the United States Congress!"
"The Republican Party no longer exists," said Bates.
"What?" thundered Connors.
"The two-party system is a dismal failure: another clear case of 'duplicative functions.' We had the best political scientists at half a dozen Ivy League universities analyze the platforms of Republicans and Democrats over the past decade. Conclusion: on the major issues that affect our shareholders - the American public - no significant difference. The minor differences that do exist get blown so far out of proportion that they obscure the utter lack of insight on both sides for solving real problems."
Grover Karl had rarely been blindsided in his career, but this was one of those times. He fought to keep his voice steady. "Mr. President... it's important for a new administration to move cautiously out of the gate. You can't seriously mean to eliminate the Republican Party."
"Not eliminate - consolidate. We merged the Republican and Democratic Parties. Neither side liked the idea, but both National Committees were in hock up to their eyeballs after spending a billion dollars during the last election cycle. I bailed them out... after they agreed that a merger was preferable to a double bankruptcy. Gentlemen, we are now Republicrats. Our new mascot has an elephant's head and a donkey's backside."
Senator Connors had begun to wheeze, and sweat beaded on his craggy forehead. "That's beyond crazy. Hell, a critter like that would be too top-heavy to move!"
"Right," admitted Bates. "Funny thing is, we ran this by several voter focus groups, and they don't care. Seems they're used to their elected officials just lying around and not doing anything, so it works for them.
"Anyway, we had to cut one senator from every state. In the private sector, we base these decisions on performance reviews, so we aggregated the report cards compiled by several congressional watchdog groups. Senator Connors, it turns out that your rating is abysmal: seems the only bills you pass are at expensive lunches with fat-cat lobbyists. I'm afraid we're going to have to let you go. You've been in Congress for almost twenty years, though, so you'll be getting a week of severance for every year of service. I'm sure that will tide you over until you find something else."
Bates circled the desk known as the H.M.S. Resolute and took the Senator's arm to escort him to the door. Connors was wheezing badly and clutching his chest. "But... I'm a career politician. What the hell do I do now?"
"Your constituents have been asking that question for years. Now that you have insight into their predicament, maybe you'll come up with an answer."
Bates shoved the staggering ex-Senator through the door and closed it. "Ouch," said Bates. "No matter how necessary, layoffs are painful. I'm glad the Republicrat National Committee is handling the rest."
Grover Karl slunk out of the shadows, cringing like a vampire about to dissolve in the light of day. "Mr. President," he began in his most intimidating tone, "as your advisor, I must express the deepest concern over this... unorthodox strategy you're taking. You may be committing political suicide on your first day in office."
"Concern noted," said Bates. "But time is a President's most precious commodity, Grover, and second-guessing pisses too much of it away. So let's move on. I've got my own schedule planned for the rest of today, and it's packed." Bates pressed the button on his intercom. "William, please send in the Director of the Internal Revenue Service."
Karl listened in almost catatonic silence as President Bates informed the IRS Director that his entire organization was being dismantled, replaced by an automated tax assessment and collection system called CyberTax. CyberTax, of course, was sold exclusively by Megaware Corporation. The Judicial branch fared no better. Bates planned to eliminate all federal judges in favor of artificial intelligence software called AutoJustice, also owned by Megaware, and claimed it would plow through the two-year case backlog in four months. Karl had to admire Bates's profiteering style: very Fortune 500.
He also had to stop the SOB before Bates eviscerated every institution inside the Beltline.
Karl tried phoning every high-ranking bureaucrat in his personal power grid, punching speed-dial buttons on his cell like a man racing to disarm a nuclear warhead that has veered off course. That pretty much summarized his sense of impending doom. Nobody answered his calls as he watched the steady parade of government officials, marching in like lions and out like lambs... or maybe mutton.
When Bates informed the Director of the CIA that all intelligence gathering was being outsourced to India and Pakistan, Grover Karl decided he had heard enough.
"Sweet Jesus, Gil, you can't entrust our national security to foreign governments!"
"Of course not," replied Bates. "We'll keep our best senior people to provide strategic direction and quality control. We'll just leave the grunt work to cheaper resources overseas. We'll save a bundle, Grover."
"You can't sell this country out just to save a buck!"
"In the immortal words of Harry Truman, 'the buck stops here'... and we've been flushing too many bucks down the toilet in Washington. The CIA is no exception. We pay our analysts four times what their counterparts earn in New Delhi, and what do we get for our money? For the past decade, CIA stood for 'Can’t Interpret Anything.' Now our allies don't trust our intelligence claims any more than our enemies. Our offshore partners have more credibility, and they'll get better cooperation from the international community. Higher quality, lower cost: that's smart business, Grover."
Grover Karl's jowls quivered with fury. He was losing control... and control had always been his specialty. "Damn it, Gil, you're the President of the United States. Stop acting like the CEO!"
"Don’t forget: The voters elected me to be the CEO. This is the Executive branch, and it needs a Chief Executive who's willing to provide bold, decisive leadership. When your company's floundering, you shake things up." Bates stood and moved close enough to Karl that Grover could see the diamond dollar signs embedded in his gold-plated tie clip. "And one more thing, Grover. In this office, call me Mr. President."
"There are plenty of things I'd like to call you right now, Gil," snarled Karl, "but that's not one of them. You pompous, power-hungry Silicon Valley nerd. You had no political future when we met; zero chance of getting elected to anything more prestigious than local dogcatcher. I made you. I obviously picked the wrong man for the job. Luckily for this great nation, that's a correctible mistake."
Karl grinned like the grinch stuffing the last bag of stolen Christmas presents up the chimney. "We've never had a full-blown impeachment in this town... but I love a challenge."
Bates sat back down in his plush presidential chair and stared at Grover Karl. Karl saw no fear in those overcast gray eyes - just amusement, and a trace of pity. "Don't you think I know a thing or two about hostile takeovers? There's a reason none of your cronies answered your phone calls: they're on my team now. Your shadow government has been dismantled. And I did get some useful intelligence out of our friends at the CIA and the FBI. You cover your tracks well, but not all of your 'colleagues' are terribly loyal."
Bates opened a drawer, pulled out a thick manilla folder, and dropped it on his desk. "Illegal use of public funds. Diversion of campaign contributions. Bribery of government officials. Improper relationships with lobbyists." Bates tapped one sheet of paper in the pile. "We've frozen all your assets, Grover - including the secret accounts in the Caymans - and even the Swiss have been cooperative."
A nauseating rush of vertigo engulfed Grover Karl. He stumbled back against the wall, body numb, vision blurry. "You ruthless bastard," he croaked.
"I learned from the master," said Bates. "You've been a very naughty boy, Grover. You've got two choices. One: go to jail for a very long time, and get out a pauper. Two: sign a document my chief counsel drew up that guarantees you will never reveal any information about this administration or work for any other campaign in the future. In the private sector, we call these nondisclosure and noncompete agreements. I'm sure you're familiar with the concept."
Karl stared at Bates for a very long time. "Politics is my life. You're killing me, Gil."
"I'm helping you embrace a well-deserved retirement. Walk away now, and your frozen finances thaw. Your improprieties stay buried. You'll find other things to do: maybe write a book about your political adventures. Just make sure the final chapter ends before ours began."
"And if I fight? If I deep-throat you, you'll never undo the damage, no matter what you do to me."
"My favorite presidential perk is the Secret Service. You'll be under constant surveillance. If an agent sniffs anything suspicious... well, they never did find Jimmy Hoffa, did they? You've got so many enemies, it could take investigators decades to chase down all the leads."
Bates stood up, crossed to where Karl sagged against the wall of the Oval Office, and put his hands on Karl's shoulders. "I'm offering you a golden parachute, Grover. Do the smart thing: take it, and move on."
Grover Karl felt himself tumbling into a black and bottomless pit: a place where he had tossed plenty of opponents over the years. He could use a parachute right now. Sullenly - listlessly - he nodded. Bates took his arm and steered him toward the door, supporting him as he stumbled across the floor of the Oval Office for the last time. He remembered how Senator Connors had looked earlier, and knew he looked the same: like a doddering aristocrat being led to the guillotine.
President Bates left him at the door. For a moment, Karl lingered in the doorway, staring longingly as Bates strode back to that historic desk and sat on the throne of the Western world. Bates locked eyes with him and smiled.
"Don't take it personally, Grover. It's just business."
Karl's own favorite tag line had always been "it's just politics." Now he understood: you couldn't take the business out of politics, or the politics out of business. And Washington hardball looked like badminton compared to what they played in the big leagues of corporate America.
"Before you leave, Grover," said President Bates, "I'd like your advice. We've been in acquisition mode for too long in this country, so I'm considering divestitures to pay down the debt. Do you think the French would buy back Louisiana?"
Grover Karl shrugged and shuffled out the door. What could he say? The United States of America was under new management... and the future looked bullish.