His Excellency,
President George
Webenezer Screwdge

John Killinger


          It was the afternoon before Christmas, and the White House was in its usual hubbub.  His excellency, the president, was in a foul mood.  The press had not been kind to him lately, his party had taken a drubbing in the recent midterm elections, for which everybody blamed him, and his foreign policy had everything in the world looking like Spaghetti Junction at rush hour.  He was disastrously low in the polls and couldn’t shake the feeling that his enemies, who were now legion, were closing in on him.

          He had seen it before, down at Crawford, that slow, winding spiral of the buzzards as they circled their prey in a gulch.  Some poor, helpless little critter—a rabbit or a squirrel or maybe even an armadillo—was about to become their Christmas dinner, and there wasn’t much it could do about it except pray that the end would come quickly when it came.

          Screwdge was not a particularly greedy man, although he had enjoyed owning the odd ball team or oil well.  But he did like his privacy, and he had had precious little of that since becoming president.  He often got the feeling that he was living in a bubble—a great big, thick bubble where he was always on display, even though he didn’t see or hear much from his position on the inside.

          Now here it was the day before Christmas, and he wanted to be down at Crawford, riding his dirt bike or chopping wood or drowning a few worms in his favorite fishing hole.  And, damn it all, Laura had said they needed to spend Christmas at Camp David again, so it didn’t look as if they ran off to Texas a zillion times a year, and he wouldn’t get to go to Crawford until the day after Christmas.

          She was right, he guessed.  But it still didn’t sit well with him.

          And neither did having to wear his suit and tie and see all those people in the White House the day before Christmas. 

          It had been a hellacious kind of day, with back-to-back appointments, papers to sign, and aides pestering him about this or that every five minutes.  He could hardly wait till four o’clock, when he would get on the whirlybird and fly to Camp David, away from all the prying, gawking busybodies that paraded through the halls of the White House. 

          He had wanted to declare the White House off limits to visitors and reporters, and treat it as a “no-pry” zone, if only for that single day.  But Karl and Dick had told him to forget it, he would have to go up at least ten points in the polls before they dared to do anything like that.

          So he was doing his best not to display his pique as he went through the rigamarole of duties on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.  He didn’t know whose fool idea it was, but they had him wearing a Santa hat and handing out presents to all the White House staff so the press photographers could snap pictures of him that would adorn the evening news programs and next day’s papers.

          The presents were in a huge container that somebody had dubbed “the Christmas barrel.”  It was probably just a big trash drum that had been gussied up with wrapping paper and ribbons to look good in the photographs.  But it was full to the brim with gaily-adorned packages—Belgian candies and cashmere scarves and leather-bound desk calendars and lots of other appropriately elegant but only modestly expensive little gifts bearing embossed cards that read: “From the President of the United States of America, George W. Screwdge.”  The machine had even forged his signature on each one of them, or something that in its illegibility could easily pass for it.

          “Here y’are, Condi,” he said with his twisted little smile as he handed the Secretary of State a package that looked suspiciously like a bottle of perfume.  “Don’t get drunk on that!”

          A polite titter of laughter ran around the room, like a little mouse looking for a hole to dive into.

          “And this one—,” he said, screwing up his face and blinking at the tag, having a hard time reading it.  “This one—hell, I think it says it’s for Rummy.  Is that what it says?”

          Josh Bolten, his chief of staff, discretely reached out, took the package, which was soft and floppy, like a neck scarf, and squinted at the tag.  He nodded, and passed the package on to Bob Gates, murmuring, “Sorry.  Somebody goofed.”

          “There’s probably one in here somewhere for Scotty McClellan, too,” said Screwdge, reaching farther down into the barrel.  Then he stood up again, looked around with a wry little smile, thinking he had made a funny, and said, “Oh, I forgot.  He’s off somewhere writin’ a book, isn’t he?”

          This time, nobody laughed.  But that didn’t stop Screwdge from sniggering, if only to cover up his embarrassment that nobody else thought it was funny.

          There were presents for Tony Snow—a huge golden stopper that made the president guffaw when somebody pointed out that it was for his mouth—and Lynne Cheney and Dick Cheney and Mike Hayden and Alberto Gonzales and everybody else, including even the president’s daughters Jenna and Barbara.

          But there were still presents down in the barrel when the distance from the top to the packages began to exceed the length of the president’s arm.  Josh Bolten stepped up and offered to assist him, but, with the air of a little boy announcing “I can do it myself,” the president scowled at Bolten and said, “Why does everybody always think I’m such a nymphopoop?”

          And, with that, he threw himself toward the lower contents of the barrel with such deliberate force that his feet left the floor and his head struck the rim of the barrel, knocking him out cold.  Bolten, the first to realize what had happened, quietly extracted the president and gently laid him on the thick carpet.  A chorus of “ohs” and “oohs” ran around the room, and the sea of people surged forward to see their Commander-in-Chief lying like a turnip in the center of everything.

          “Give him air!” ordered Bolten.  “Call the doctor!”

          “Isn’t he here?” growled Cheney.  “He was supposed to be here, like everybody else.”

          “I think he had some last-minute shopping to do,” volunteered a meek little voice.  Everybody turned to see who it was, and those who were close enough for a view found themselves looking at the diminutive little lady who served as the doctor’s secretary.

          “Well, get a doctor—any doctor,” said Bolten.  And there was a flurry of motion around the room as twenty-three people raised their cell phones in unison and began trying to reach their own physicians—a task that was all but impossible on Christmas Eve.

          Meanwhile, the president’s face and hands were twitching as his unconscious was having a little private show of its own.  At first, everything around him seemed vague and murky, the way it had been the day after his first presidential election, when the Supreme Court ruled that his party had won in Florida and he was suddenly faced with the big question, “What do I do now?!”

          Then, out of the murkiness, there loomed a large spectral figure that looked vaguely familiar.  It towered over him, being much taller, and had a long, narrow face and a head of wild, disorderly white hair.  Even its eyebrows were long, hoary, and tangled.

          Screwdge couldn’t tell if the specter’s clothes were formal or informal, because they were so encrusted with mold that their original shape and color were quite indistinguishable.  But the one thing that was very obvious was a great coil of chains draped over the figure’s shoulders and chest, and trailing after it in jangling, clanking disorder.

          “Don’t you know me?” said the figure, its voice raspy and strained, as if talking were difficult.

          “Uh— uh— I think— you do look sort of familiar,” stammered Screwdge.

          “Come on, Webenezer, you can do better than that.  Surely you remember who I am.  I’m the one who brought the Party back to power after Nixon pulled that stupid Watergate gaffe.  Your daddy was my vice-president, for God’s sake.”

          “Ronnie?” asked the president hesitantly.  “Ronnie, is it you?  But you don’t look the same.  The white hair—and all those chains.”

          The specter appeared to swell and grow taller, and shook with obvious fury.

          “Dammit, Webenezer, you still haven’t learned any tact, have you?” it said.  “I always had more charm in my little finger than you’ve got in your— your damned tush—or, for that matter, in that whole stupid ranch of yours down at Crawford.”

          In proportion to the spirit’s swelling and growing, the president shrank and cowered.

          “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, raising his arm as if to shield himself from a prospective blow.  “I— I didn’t mean anything.  Don’t be angry, Ronnie.”

          “Arrghh!” voiced the specter, shaking its mighty head, so that its long, white hair waved back and forth like a banner.  “I had to stop coloring my hair after I died, you little dumbbell.  Otherwise it would have been dark and lustrous until I was a hundred and fifty.”


          “And your hair grows after you die.  Didn’t you know that?”

          “Uh— yeh— uh— ”

          “Yes, little guy, what is it?”

          “Those chains,” murmured Screwdge, quaking as he pointed at them.  “They look very uncomfortable.  What’re they for?”

          Again the spirit seemed to rise and grow until it filled the room, and it rattled the great chains with a terrible clanking noise that made Screwdge cower into a fetal position with his hands over his ears.

          When the commotion and noise had subsided, the spirit spoke, this time more humbly, and, Screwdge hoped, a little more compassionately.

          “Of course they’re uncomfortable,” he said.  “These chains,” he wheezed, “are the chains I forged in office, Tweedledee.”

          “In— in office?  I don’t understand.”

          “You don’t understand much, do you, little feller?  These chains represent all the bad things I did while I was president and all the good things I should have done but didn’t.”

          “You mean— ?”

          “Yup.  Iran Contra.  Letting some of the fat cats who bankrolled me get those lucrative contracts.  Not paying attention to the needs of the poor.  Making that damn fool speech in Berlin.”

          “You don’t mean ‘Tear down this wall’?  I always admired you for that.”

          “A lot of people did.  But Gorby and I were friends.  Was that any way to talk to a friend in front of the world?”

          “A president has to do a lot of things he doesn’t mean, say a lot of things he doesn’t believe.”

          Again the spirit reared up, as if unhappy with what Screwdge had just said.

          “Well,” Screwdge compromised, looking very apologetic, “some things, anyway.  Didn’t you find that true?”

          In response, the spirit simply gave his great chains a tug and they rattled like peals of thunder, which reverberated for several seconds around the room.

          “What I know to be true,” rasped the spirit when the noise had died away, “is that the chains you’ve been forging are going to be a lot bigger and heavier than these.  Yours will make mine look like the daisy chains we used to make as children.”

          “What— what do you mean, Ronnie?  You’re making me very uncomfortable.”

          “That’s why I’m here, Tweedledum, to make you uncomfortable.  You have a very high threshold of discomfort, you know.  Very high.  Not much seems to eat on you.  Take that war you started over in Iraq—damn fool thing to do—it never seemed to cost you any sleep at all.  Did you really think Saddam had WMDs hidden over there some place?”

          “I— ”

          “Don’t answer that.  They could impeach you if anybody overheard.  But even with things at their bloodiest, all those suicide bombers killing and maiming dozens of people every day, you haven’t seemed to worry much about it.  ‘We’re making progress,’ you keep saying, with that damned little smirk on your face.  Why didn’t anybody ever slap you in the face and wipe that silly expression off of it, Tweedledummy?  You just keep right on making stupid remarks and ignoring how much everybody is hurting.  All those grieving parents—all the servicemen coming back with their arms and legs blown off, their eyes shot out, their bodies pitted with shrapnel, their hopes and dreams blasted to eternity—all the poor Iraqis who have had to suffer because of what you did.  I can’t believe it, Beedlebaum.  You always seem as insensitive as a bedpost.”

          “I— I’m sorry.  I didn’t think a president was supposed to show emotion.”

          “Hell, you idiot, you’re in so deep over your head that the only thing you ever show is gross and implacable stupidity.”

          The president looked crestfallen.

          “Don’t try to pull that stuff with me, seedtick.  If it were left up to me, I wouldn’t be here, trying to help you.  I remember what a lump of coal you were at my funeral, and then at the service out in California.  You were happy to bask in the afterglow of my life, but I could tell how much you envied me and hated Nancy, and how much you wanted to get back on Air Force One and take your shoes off for a nap.  You were really glad I was gone and you could write ‘finis’ to my presence, weak as it was in those last years.  You’re a jealous little twerp, Tweedletedium, and you don’t really care about anybody unless they can help you look better in the history books.

          “Well, that’s what I’m here for, El Stupido, to try to save your bacon.  To help you get rid of some of the chains you’ve been forging since you came to this town.  It’s a big order, ninny, and it will take some doing.  But I had to try.”

          “What— what are you saying?  You can help me?”

          “Maybe, maybe not.  Depends.”

          “Depends?” asked the president plaintively.  “On what?”

          “On what you do about things, doodoo.”

          “What things?”

          “You’ll see.  You’re about to be visited by three ghosts, Hopalong.”

          “Ghosts?  But— but, aren’t you a ghost, Ronnie?”

          The spirit shook its mane of white hair so that it flowed gently, as if caught in a slight breeze.

          “Yup, little pardner, I guess you could say that.  I am a ghost.  But I mean three other ghosts—you know, like in old Dickens’s story, A Christmas Carol.

          “Dickens?  Was he in the last administration?”

          “No, you insufferable pinhead.  Didn’t you ever read anything, even that?”

          “Oh, I do read,” corrected the president, obviously piqued at a reference to his lack of cultural interest.  “I read history.  I do.  Washington, Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt.  And I read a book by Albert Cammus, that French feller.  And I read three Shakespeares.”

          The spirit laughed, quite heartily, until it choked on its own phlegm.

          “Oh, yes, you’re a big reader,” it said when it got its voice back under control.  “I’ve heard about that.  You and Rove.  And all those biographies.  Neat little adulatory stories about your predecessors, trying to figure out how to go down in history the way they did.  Too bad you couldn’t have won the Revolutionary War, or had an inquiring mind like Jefferson, or freed the slaves like Lincoln.  Those things would have been winners for you, wouldn’t they?  So you had to start a war of your own, and save the world from terrorism, you dingbat.  And in the process, to millions of people around the globe, you became the biggest terrorist since Genghis Khan and Adolph Hitler. 

          “You really need this, you know.  And if you don’t get a better spirit about things, well, I won’t be accountable for what happens to you, you little pain in the heinie.”

          Screwdge looked totally dismayed.  It made even the irate spirit begin to regard him a trifle more sympathetically.

          “Look, Screwdge,” said the spirit, “it’s not my place to ride you.  History’s gonna do that.  I’m here to tell you to expect some visitors—these three ghosts, like in Dickens’ Christmas Carol.  They’re gonna visit you in a little while, the way I have.  Only they’re gonna show you some things you need to think about.  And then—well, then, if you have any guts at all, and there’s anything inside that diminutive pea-brain of yours worth savin’—well, we’ll just have to see about that.

          “Meanwhile, visiting you like this has given me a headache.  I’m gonna go off and find me a place to lie down for a while.  I’ve played my part, and I think I’ve played it well.  Maybe not as well as in some of my Hollywood films.  But people’ll have to take into account that this really wasn’t such a great role.  Anyway, little guy, get ready.  You’re gonna have some strange callers.”

          With that, the spirit appeared to swell, then diminish, then swell again, very large this time, and finally to diminish to the point where it exited through a keyhole, trailing its chains and aura with it, leaving only a slight tinkling noise in its wake.