The stock market rose steadily during the summer. The country was awash with cash. The economy didn’t want the cash so speculators sopped it up. A few people became very rich. Max Perkins was not one of them.
Perkins was an ordinary man. He was not a player although there came a time when he found himself upon the stage.
It was during the pandemic in the months before the election, that famous election when neither major candidate, Democrat nor Republican, won. Instead an upstart, a nobody, rose out of nowhere to capture the attention of the voters so quickly, so completely that she arrived in Washington much like, some said, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem.
She is now known all over the world as Madam President, aka Charlotte Marie. She had no agenda, no movement. In fact, she had no plans to run for any office let alone the Presidency. It’s astounding. How did it happen? That is the question. How?
Max Perkins was like the hedgehog in the essay by Isaiah Berlin. He knew one big thing. He wasn’t a jack of all trades but he was a master of one. He knew people. He knew people better than anyone. He saw what others could have seen but didn’t, that Americans were desperate for someone to inspire, to lead.
The two presidential candidates were old white men, throwbacks to the last century. The world had moved on but politics was stuck in the mud. Barely half of those eligible to vote actually turned out, even less among those 40 and under.
Perkins was a political operative, an underling with practically no wins to his credit. He did, however, have connections and, as mentioned, uncanny people instincts. He was, like so many who succeed, simply at the right place at the right time.
During the surreal days of the pandemic a group of enormously wealthy men approached Perkins. They knew of his work. They offered a proposal—an opportunity to prove one of Perkins’ most outrageous theories—that a complete novice and unknown could be elected President. These men offered to front all the money for the campaign and to pay Perkins handsomely for his expertise.
The National bank had created a situation where endless money was available. These men were the richest of the nouveau riches, upstarts propelled by a superfluity of cash.
Max Perkins was no neophyte. He knew how the game was played. He understood the costs and the benefits, the risks and the rewards. He knew these wealthy patrons had an ulterior motive. They wanted to run the country from the shadows. They wanted to buy the Presidency, control the President and have things as they wished. On the first point, Perkins knew he could deliver. The Presidency was for sale. Perkins knew in infinite detail how to buy it. On the other points, however, Perkins had his own designs. He planned to arrange things so that he controlled the President. Then, he would run things as he saw fit.
You now have the background you need for the story that follows.
A pandemic grips America. Max Perkins clicks off his cell phone and walks to the end of the block. He hails a taxi. With his straight black hair, dark eyes, prominent features hidden behind a scarlet mask, frame tall, lithe, and bronze you could be forgiven if you mistook him for an Argentine gaucho.
Nearly an hour passes. Perkins enters the apartment of an old friend. They embrace. She lets him kiss her on both cheeks.
“Charlotte Marie! You are as beautiful as ever.”
“Compliments will get you only so far, Max. What is this urgent business that brings you here after all this time? How long has it been, three years? Longer?”
“What does it matter? I’m here now.”
Perkins looks her over carefully. She is perfect. Perfect. Charlotte Marie graduated at the top of her class. After that, law school. Then an overseas sabbatical where she learned Mandarin. A short but successful career on Wall Street bored her out of her mind. Recently she opened a restaurant. She was a beautiful girl. Brilliant, experienced. There had been no scandals. There were no skeletons. Perkins had done his homework.
“How’s the restaurant?”
“That’s why you came here, to pick my mind clean of all my culinary secrets?” She laughs then scowls. “How do you think it is with this pandemic, the shutdowns? I’m afraid I’m going broke.”
“Slowly or quickly?” Perkins had what Charlotte Marie thought was a smirk on his face.
“Let go of it, Max. Of course you were right to discourage me, you always are. But, that’s not why you’re here.”
Perkins knows Charlotte Marie like he knows the back of his palm. She prefers the direct approach, always the direct approach.
“Remember our discussion of a few years ago? How would you like to be President of the United States?
If he were anyone else, Charlotte Marie would throw him out and lock the door. But she knows Max. She can tell from his eyes. They turned from black to brown as he popped the question. He is serious.
“On this cycle or next?”
“This cycle, November 3rd to be exact.”
“That’s what, a hundred days away? Christ Max, it took Schlesinger 1000 days to write up Kennedy’s abruptly terminated time in office.”
“I’m not talking about your time in office. That’ll come later. I’m talking about your campaign. A hundred days is enough, not too long, not too short. Just right.”
Now Max watches her eyes. They had always been close. Once the seed is planted, there’s no turning back. He sees fire in her eyes. It’s probably there in her stomach too and he knows it’s in her blood.
“Don’t toy with me Max. You think some day millions of Americans who have never heard of me will actually vote me into the Presidency out of sheer randomness? That’s as ridiculous as winning the lottery.”
“I’m not talking about anything random. Everything has a cause. Every cause has an effect. I have a plan. We even talked about it once. I know it will work. What do you say, in or out?”
The idea seemed insane but Charlotte Marie knew enough about Max to believe, if just for a second, that he could actually pull it off.
“What about the money?”
“That’s why I’m here, Charlotte, I’ve got the money. There’s so much money sloshing around these days, it just fell into my hands. Luck, as Seneca told us, is when preparedness meets opportunity. We can make a go of it. You can win. We both know it.”
So, he is serious. Charlotte feels warm. Her breathing quickens. Outside on the street sirens blare. The ordinary world goes on. Bright sunlight shines through her window. She won’t deny it. She says yes and her life changes forever.
The money men quiz Perkins in a room with no windows.
“Why a young woman.”
“Because that’s what the voters want, that’s what the country needs.”
There are grumbles but they defer to Perkins. After all, he is the professional. And, a woman will create excitement, just what is lacking today. They agree.
“Okay, What is the plan?”
“We need a massive introduction campaign throughout the country. We’ll use social media and traditional advertising combined with endless public appearances. Our candidate will soon be ubiquitous. The country will fall in love with her. Her popularity will peak just in time for the election.”
The money men swirl like wolves in a pack. The richest of the rich grasps Perkins by his collar and pulls their heads together.
“How do you know this Charlotte Marie has the stuff, Perkins? How do you know she can pull it off?”
Max Perkins doesn’t blink an eye. He can smell thin mints on the man’s breath barely masking the smell of alcohol underneath.
“She was born to do it.”
He speaks with conviction. The room falls silent. The only sound is the sound of very rich men writing very big checks. Music to his ears.
Suddenly Charlotte Marie is everywhere all at once—on the news, on magazine covers, on television, throughout the Internet. Max Perkins delivers. The rich backers are happy. They slap each other on the back in self-congratulation.
“He’s our guy!”
“Let’s hope she’s got the stuff.”
“Oh yea, she’s got it. We’re in the clover boys.”
The interviews go well. Charlotte Marie—un-coached, innocent, open, truthful—the voters fall in love. She is all things to all people. While no one knows her everyone knows her. She absorbs negativity and projects positivity. Enemies melt into her. Everyone is anxious to work with Charlotte Marie. It’s as if she isn’t even there: “We can do this ourselves,” they say.
Her mantra is: “I know that I know nothing,” but she does not express it that way. She answers the tough questions enigmatically. She tells the voters to think for themselves.
“Are you a conservative or a liberal?”
“The color of the cat doesn’t matter as long as it catches mice.”
“What is your position on welfare?”
“A democratic country can provide an opportunity for each citizen to make the most of her life. Each citizen is best positioned to make the most of that opportunity.”
“What can the citizens of this country expect from your government?”
“Wrong question. The relevant question is what are the citizens willing to do for their country?”
“What is your position on global warming?”
“Nearly everyone believes the planet is warming. The disagreements are about the causes and what can be done. We need to sort that out, find a consensus, with science, debates and discussions. If there’s a will, there is a way.”
“No third party candidate has ever won. Why do you think you can win?”
“Well, I’m not a third party candidate, I’m an independent. We need more independents in this country and fewer partisans.”
“What is an independent?”
“An independent is someone who listens to all the options, who is willing to change her mind, who understands that compromise and negotiation are the only way a diverse society can survive.”
“In other words, you are someone who has no opinions of her own?”
“We are each entitled to our own opinions, even me, but not our own reality. Reality will reveal itself and that will set you free.”
“How will you deal with abortion?”
“I think you mean how will WE deal with abortion. There are many complicated issues that a free society must deal with. No one person has all the answers. In fact, there may not be a single answer.”
“Do you think there is too much inequality?”
“Are you referring to inequality of work or of income? Inequality of effort or of opportunity? Some inequality is inevitable. Inequality can foster jealously and hopelessness. Inequality can promote effort and creativity. Inequality is both detrimental and beneficial. If you are looking for an easy answer, look somewhere else because I don’t have one.”
“How will you deal with immigration?”
“The question is how will WE deal with immigration, legal or illegal. We are a country of immigrants. We are a melting pot. How do you interpret the words of The New Colossus embedded in the pedestal below the Statue of Liberty? As a country, we must answer this question together. It is true that we are a country of laws but we make the laws and that is a deliberative process.”
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
November 2, 1883
A journalist asks a young girl why she supports Charlotte Marie.
“She makes me think what it means to be an American, to be a human being. She doesn’t tell me. She asks me. Nobody has done that before.”
The Democratic and Republican operatives are blindsided.
“What the hell is Max Perkins doing?”
“Who the fuck is this Charlotte Marie?”
The political winds blow in isolated gusts followed by torrential waves. With the election quickly approaching there is no time to react. The old guard marches predictably through the five stages of grief. By November 3rd there is acceptance. Charlotte Marie wins.
The money boys smile their insidious smiles and move to collect the reward they expect. Max Perkins informs them they paid him only to get her elected. “Sorry boys, she’s mine, all mine and now you’ll do as I say.” There is panic. There is squabbling. But in the end, Perkins is right. There is no contract entitling the money boys to anything other than the services Perkins has already provided
Charlotte Marie watches the farce with disgust. She has made no pacts, no agreements. She is beholding to no one, not even Max whom she now sees as the manipulator that he is. She is her own person. She intends to keep it that way.
On January 20 she climbs the famous statue, Liberty Enlightening The World. With her voice projected throughout every country she speaks the inspired words of Emma Lazarus: “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp,” she cries. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Stoic, determined, facing southeast like the statue, Charlotte Maria sways in the wind but holds steady to her cause. She recites a few lines from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Rintrah roars and shakes his fires in the burdened air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.
Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow,
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.
Then the perilous path was planted:
And a river and a spring
On every cliff and tomb;
And on the bleached bones
Red clay brought forth.
Till the villain left the paths of ease
To walk in perilous paths, and drive
The just man into barren climes.
Now the sneaking serpent walks
In mild humility,
And the just man rages in the wilds
Where lions roam.
She stops. She looks out at the ocean, her eyes blazing.
“No more. No longer is the just woman banned to barren climes. The votes are in. The people have chosen. It is the people now who will decide. Together we stand, divided we fall.”
The crowd claps and yells their approval. There are smiles, there is happiness, there is optimism all around. Charlotte Marie listens but she knows her work has just begun. It isn’t over. Somewhere deep below that foaming sea, monsters slouch blindly crawling along in the darkness. A woman’s work is never done.