Leo's voice was passionate. "This is something people watch while they're kicking back. This is something people hear on the radio in their cars or while they're jogging or while they're working for minimum wage. This is a situation where we don't have the luxury of misspeaking. They're going to hear everything we say, and because they're out there in their kitchens and living rooms and cars, instead of in this building, they're the ones we have to convince. They're going to be the most important people in our lives during the next couple of years."
Which is good, since they've been the most important people in our lives during the last couple of years, the President thought, but Leo was making a good speech and he didn't interrupt.
"As it stands we have a very slim shot at re-election. We're going to increase the margin. We're going to win back our people, and we're gonna be fine. But as it stands we have a very slim shot, and that means we've got less than two years definite. We've got to make the best of it. We're gonna light firecrackers. We're gonna reclaim the legacy of public debate, and to hell with everything else." Leo fixed them with an invigorating stare. "We're gonna get some things done."
Bradbury. Now there was a man who was inspired.
Odd thought stuck in the President's head all morning. That, and morning itself -- one of those clean-washed mornings, charged air heavy with something that isn't humidity -- and sharp. That's how he felt. Sharp. Sharp as he could be without a cigarette.
They make those patches now, he thought. And the gum. Nicotine gum. And he laughed, and maybe senior staff thought it was because Josh said something funny. His staff was sharp this morning, but he really wasn't, not in the way that a President should be when he was sitting in the Oval. He wasn't sharp and he wasn't chewing that damn gum. Because who needs gum when you've got ghosts and the floors of churches?
Were there pictures?
At the cathedral, he wondered. Were there reporters in attendance? He felt sure there were, except he didn't remember ... he hadn't registered any faces, any cameras. Hadn't registered much of anything that actually took place. CJ in tears. A lot of them in tears. Donna and Sam and Carole and that girl ... He couldn't remember that girl's name, but Mrs. Landingham had always seen to it she had a cookie. Girl from public affairs, maybe? From accounting? If there were pictures, he thought, they and their story would be buried in the back of the paper. Front page was going to be the press conference, not the cathedral.
Bradbury. Now there was a man who was inspired, with the way he could put tingles down your spine just by picking up a pen. Like Toby. Ink was born to grace yellow legal pad pages at that man's urging.
"...if we're committed to it." Leo surveyed the room. "Are we committed to it?"
"Yes, sir," they chorused, except, no, it wasn't really a chorus. They were a little out of sync, none of them hesitating but each answering at a different speed. Josh and Toby slow and respectful, relishing the re-election gear the whole place had shifted into. Sam and CJ fast and definite, ready for anything.
"Then let's do a job," Leo said, and he was met with grins.
"Thank you all," said the President as his staff left the Oval. Faithful, and loyal, each one of them, he thought. He thought about how extraordinary they were, Josh and Toby and CJ and Sam. He thought about how inspired they were and he wondered if any of them had a cigarette on them.
"You read Bradbury?" the President asked Leo.
Leo was studying something Sam had given him; he didn't look up. "Hmm?"
"Do you read Ray Bradbury?"
"He's inspired, isn't he?"
Now Leo glanced at him. "What's this about?"
Jed shrugged. "Nothing. I wonder if he ever smoked?"
"You've got the joint chiefs in an hour, sir," Leo said. Look at him, Jed thought. Avoiding the President's gaze because he knew he couldn't help grinning if their eyes met. Kids in junior high. He was practically bouncing on the balls of his feet.
"You can grin, Leo," the President offered.
Leo looked up, grinning already. "Well then I think I will, sir, thank you."
Jed didn't grin, but he came damn close. "Is this one of those mornings when we're going to ignore the, you know ..." He waved a hand.
"Pending grand jury investigation?" Leo supplied.
Leo nodded. "Yes, it is."
"You need anything?"
"I'll send him in." Leo nodded and headed for the door. "Thank you, sir."
Leo left the Oval Office still grinning. And, yes, bouncing, to the careful eye. Too damn good to be true, this morning.
Well, okay, they were the subjects of a grand jury investigation. And the Democratic party did not want Jed Bartlet to run. But, hell, it hadn't been a picnic getting them to accept him in the first place, yet here they were.
And now something had changed -- one big thing had changed. Here they were with a man, a President, a scholar, a statesman who wanted -- who *wanted* to run. This was new. And this was what the sharp air was charged with today.
"Hey, Leo, does it bother you at all that to say the President is 'running' could mean either thing?"
Leo's grin went away. "Come again?"
"Well," CJ said. "He could be running for office. Or he could be, you know, running."
Leo cocked his head. "Yes. Now that you mention it, it does bother me a little. To say nothing of it surprises me how often *I* get the urge to run." There was no question which meaning he meant. "What are you doing now?"
"I've got press."
Leo snorted. "Have fun."
CJ turned her head to scrutinize him. "You're almost bubbly this morning, Leo."
"And when we all suspected I'd be having a little bubbly this morning, CJ."
"That isn't funny," Margaret admonished, appearing like an apparition out of the wall, or maybe a door he hadn't seen.
"I'm making a joke, Margaret. Take a breath, would you?"
"Yeah, 'cause the story I need this morning is that an unnamed junior staffer overheard the Chief of Staff's assistant hyperventilating when she learned he was threatening to drink again. Would the two of you think about waiting a day before you ruin my life?" CJ protested.
Leo was staring at her with a cross between admiration and disapproval on his face. "You really do have an uncanny knack for looking on the dark side, do you know that?"
"In this White House? You'd have to be on Sesame Street to keep from developing that knack," CJ said with a careless wave as she left them for the briefing room.
"Keep it simple in there," Leo shouted after her.
"Yeah!" But she was practically skipping.
When she realized she was practically skipping, she consciously slowed her step, and started thinking. Disjointed words associated with the coming days and weeks and months and press briefings filled her mind. Grand jury investigation. Subpoena. Cover-up. Democratic party. Republican Party. Lied. Subpoena. Multiple Sclerosis. Multiple Sclerosis. Multiple Sclerosis.
But she was practically skipping. Re-election. Campaign. Let Bartlet be Bartlet. Do a job. "We're going to raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy ..."
"Because if we quit now, that's the sound bite," she said to whoever was beside her. Turned out to be Toby.
"The 'I was diagnosed with MS' clip?" he asked.
"If he didn't run, that was it."
"But he's running."
"Let's call it campaigning."
This stopped Toby for a second. "What the hell, CJ --?"
"Running sounds like he's running -- like -- from office."
"Only if you've had 30 minutes' sleep in four days, but okay."
"So, he's campaigning."
"Entering the race."
"I don't think that word means what you think it does."
"Then what the hell --"
CJ sighed in mock defeat. "So what's the sound bite going to be?"
He looked at her as if she'd just announced her own candidacy. "It's going to be the President saying, 'Sandy, by way of answering your question --'"
"--'I would like to make it clear, right now, --'"
"I was there, Toby."
"'--that I intend to stay in Washington--'"
"And while I'm not trying to belittle its spectacular nature," CJ said, "I do have press in a very short while --"
"'-- until my work here is done --'"
"Toby, swear to God --"
"'-- and with one in five children living in poverty, that day isn't here."
"You shouldn't ask questions if you don't want them answered."
"I would have settled for 'We are now calling California and/or Florida for Bartlet' as the lasting sound bite, but okay."
"Well, I'll certainly play that tape for myself for the rest of my life if we get it," Toby admitted, and he veered away, heading for his office.
He was waylaid by Sam. "Toby."
Sam laughed. "You're really going to stick with the grunt?"
Toby turned his head slowly. "What're you --"
"It's Thursday and we got through Wednesday with more gusto than a magician at a fifth birthday party. The President blew the doors off the place, and we all have futures after all, and you're really going to stick with the grunt as a means of greeting your coworkers?"
"'A magician at a fifth --'"
"It's a metaphor."
"And a bad one."
"We're all about to face a grand jury, Sam."
Sam nodded. "Yes."
"The President's in some trouble now."
"The First Lady is also in some trouble now."
"To say nothing of I'd put money on the President is in trouble with the First Lady now."
"What of it?"
Toby stared at Sam in disbelief. "Until yesterday we didn't know if the President would run, we didn't know, but there was a chance he might, and that didn't matter."
"It didn't --"
"Of course it mattered," Toby revised, "but yesterday this mess was a bad thing either way. And now --"
"It still is, Toby, but there are good --"
"And now you people are fairly convinced our lives have turned for the better just because the President --"
"He wants it." Sam's voice was quiet, but it stopped Toby, who looked suddenly not quite as grim as he liked to.
"And that's what we focus on," Toby slowly agreed. "Between now and ... who knows. Between now and forever, we focus on what he wants."
"Less poverty and better teachers?" Sam suggested.
The corners of Toby's mouth twitched. It was about as close to a smile as he ever came, except when CJ was doing the Jackal, which, rumor had it, she'd be doing tonight. Sam watched Toby walk away before he continued on his own path, looking for Josh. Hard to look anywhere with the sun coming in through the windows brighter than ever. Mornings after storms. One of his favorite kinds of days.
Josh would, undoubtedly, be working on big tobacco. Because, what better way to get through a grand jury investigation than by ignoring it? Toby had a reasonable point, and there were other things to concentrate on.
"Yeah." Josh didn't look up from his desk.
"Have you heard?"
"We ignore it."
Josh sighed. "What?"
"The grand jury investigation."
Now Josh did look up. "Okay, but I think they ... kinda get mad when you do that."
Sam snorted impatiently. "I don't mean we ignore it."
"And yet you said ..."
"Almost hard to believe we're not a shoo-in for re-election."
"Also that this is only the first time we've been accused of high crimes."
Josh waved a hand. "What's your ... plan, whatever?"
"We ignore the grand jury investigation. And by that I mean we address it, but ..."
"In the campaign?"
"We don't allow them to focus on it."
"It's going to be hard."
"I don't care."
Josh hesitated. "It's going to be impossible."
"No, it won't."
Josh studied Sam for a moment. "You think?"
"There are issues," Sam said. "Real issues that people want to focus on."
"Lying is an issue, Sam."
"So is education. So is foreign policy, and campaign reform, and all the other chapter headings in my Political Science I text."
"You still have your Political Science I --"
"The point is --"
"No, I get the point," Josh said. "And I'm with you, but good luck floating that past ... well, the press corp, for one."
"Are you grinning?"
Josh thought about it. "Well, yes, I am."
Sam laughed unexpectedly. "What a weird day."
Sam left, and Josh went back to his crossword puzzle. He'd have to remember to yell at Leo for getting him hooked on these things. Intellectual stimulation, his boss called it. As if the wordplay in this crazy establishment didn't qualify.
Ignore it. Well, what an interesting idea.
Josh glanced at CJ on the screen. The press was going nuts, and CJ was totally in her element. The room looked empty without Danny Concannon. Danny'd be back, he was only taking a book break ... he'd be crushed he missed last night, but knowing Danny, he'd be back as soon as he turned on the TV.
They had lost others for good. They'd lost Mandy. Lost her to a fight she didn't want them to win, and a congressman who could offer better benefits. And they'd lost a few assistants here and there, and more lawyers from the counsel's office than could possibly be natural.
They'd lost Mrs. Landingham.
And they'd gained a few. Ainsley Hayes, for one. Oliver Babish. Joey Lucas and Kenny Thurman. They'd gained Charlie, and what would they do without Charlie?
They'd lost the Greystone Amendment for the continued education of teachers. Gained the Family Wellness Act. Lost Harrison and gained Mendoza.
Lost a lot of voters and maybe the Democratic party. And gained the mind and brilliance and at long last the ambition of Josiah Bartlet.
"Have you combed what's left of your hair in like the past year, Josh?" Donna asked from the door.
Josh looked up and fought a grin. "I look better this year than at this time last," he said off-hand.
She walked to the desk, tugged a stack of papers from beneath his crossword, stole the pencil from his hand and started writing. "You're going to be on camera a lot today. Don't you want to look ... you know. Competent?"
"I always look competent on camera."
She gave him back the pencil. "You almost never look competent on camera."
Josh shrugged. "Yeah, but you're usually in the shot, and you look competent on camera."
Donna picked up his crossword puzzle again and replaced the stack of papers. "What good does that do?"
"People know you're my assistant."
"And you haven't blown up the White House yet, so it's almost hard to believe I don't get job offers."
"You do," Josh said. "I'm saving them. I'm going to make a little scrapbook."
"Have you ever seen mail that hasn't already been sorted by me?" As she spoke she dropped a stack of letters into his lap.
Josh frowned and turned his head to consider. "You know that's going to bother me now?"
"Don't you have work to do?" She was eyeing his crossword.
"I'm taking five."
Josh looked at her till she cracked a grin. "Bradbury," she said.
"Ten across. The author. It's Bradbury. Inspired, that man. Not unlike myself. You've got Congressman Davies in half an hour."
Josh looked down at his crossword. She was right, because, when wasn't she right? And she was practically skipping when she left his office.
After a moment, Sam took her place in the doorway. "One more thing."
Josh looked up again. "What were the previous things?"
This seemed to stump Sam, who frowned. "I can't remember."
"You'd think," Josh said, "after a certain number of times, that we'd start writing things down."
"You would think that."
"What do you need?"
"Are you working a crossword?"
"I'm taking five."
"Then I don't suppose a smoke break has the same appeal to you that it does to, say, the President?"
"Although rumor has it the President is quitting for good."
Josh's eyes widened. "God, Sam, please preface that by making it clear that you're talking about cigarettes."
Josh backtracked. "The President is going to stop smoking?"
"What do you need, Sam?"
Sam frowned again. "Well."
Josh stared at him for a long moment and ran a hand through his hair, trying not to be amused. "You forgot, didn't you?"
"Sometimes I wonder if I'll vote for us again."
He said it lightly, but they were both silent for a moment after he did, wondering who else would make a similar decision. Then Sam looked at Josh, and Josh looked at Sam. "We're going to New Hampshire," Sam offered, and Josh grinned, something of a chill working its way down his neck.
"Yeah," was all he said, and he watched Sam leave the room.
"Hey, Toby," Sam called, catching up to his colleague. "I left Houston on your desk."
"I'll presume you meant the remarks and not the actual city."
"Where are you --"
"I'm talking to CJ."
Sam hesitated a beat and then went ahead. "You're going to confirm whether or not she's --"
"If she's doing the Jackal, you'll let me know?"
Toby laughed. Toby. Laughed. And continued on his way. It really was a great morning to ignore pending grand jury investigations. But then, Thursdays usually were.
"Hey, there, CJ." He caught her coming out of the briefing room.
"Hey, there, Mr. Happy Guy."
"What the hell?"
"There's a bounce in your step."
"You've turned a corner somewhere."
CJ shrugged. "In this White House? You'd have to be a potted plant not to turn a corner or two along the way. I'm saying there's an honest-to-goodness bounce in your step."
"It's a Thursday," he said.
He shrugged. "I like Thursdays."
"And press conferences that don't end with Sam and me writing remarks of apology, yeah."
"It was one time," CJ protested, leaving him behind as she headed for Leo's office.
"Per week!" he called after her, and she pretended not to hear him.
Leo was concentrating on a piece of newsprint in front of him; he glanced up when CJ entered. "Real subtle, there, CJ," he scolded lightly.
"What'd I do?"
"You were grinning the entire time you were briefing. Even the part about the 30-foot seas off the coast of--"
"It was a look of sympathy."
"It was a mirthful countenance."
CJ was already grinning again, because, really, who didn't grin when they were ignoring a pending grand jury investigation? "Leo, the reason I came in here --"
"Was to ask permission to light the fire on tobacco?"
"That was an unfortunate choice of words," Leo conceded. Then he waved a hand. "Go. Do a job. We're going to put off firecrackers everywhere except in these hearings."
"Then we're going to ignore it."
"The grand jury investigation?"
"We're going to ignore it?"
He looked at her sternly. "We are going to face it like adults."
"I meant otherwise. In the rhetoric. Are we going to ignore it?"
"And concentrate on being an administration? Yes."
She was grinning, more deeply than she had all morning. "Good."
Leo was grinning, too, as she left. It was the grin of someone who suddenly realized he had everything to gain and only one big thing to lose.
He put down his crossword -- intellectual stimulation be damned, he couldn't concentrate on 10 across anyway -- and wandered toward his friend Jed Bartlet's office. He knocked lightly as he opened the door, but the President didn't notice, and Leo didn't say a word.
The President sat at his desk, silently and with his hands in his pockets, thinking about a pending grand jury investigation and the best way to ignore it. He knew Leo was there, but he didn't look up. Didn't need to see the grin, or he'd start grinning himself and wouldn't be able stop, and he had other things to do today.
Sharp. He needed to be sharp. Presidents had to work in all sorts of conditions, one of which was while they were trying to quit smoking, and he needed to be sharp.
Bradbury. Now there was a man who was inspired. Ray Bradbury; and the senior staff, who would walk into fire if he told them to.
"Leo," he said, acknowledging his old friend without looking at him.
"One in five children live in poverty."
"No matter how many times I hear that stat, I never get past it."
"Well, I would hope that you wouldn't, sir," Leo said gently.
"One in five. And three thousand kids get addicted to nicotine every day. Did you know that?"
Leo nodded. "Yes."
"Do you know how many kids can't really read by the time they reach junior high school?"
"I don't, either."
"I mean, that's not a stat I have at my fingertips."
"But if the number's more than one," Jed said, "it's too many and I'm going to change it." The President looked at his Chief of Staff. "Leo."
"We're gonna need a whole truckload of firecrackers."
"Well, we got a staff full of 'em, Mr. President."
"Okay." Jed nodded. "Okay." And he allowed himself to grin.
16 May 2001