This excerpt takes place during the first presidential debate.
The first thing the people saw were two beams of light rising high into the sky and cutting a tattoo across the clouds. As the beams got closer and closer the excitement rose until finally the Studfire arrived at the arena, stadium, or theater. Despite the stakes and the possibility of slipups, Mr. Victor had no set speech or standard onstage routine. It was a political spectacle unlike anything ever seen in American politics.
Senator Ball’s campaign events fit into a more familiar pattern. Blundering Belinda was a boring, predictable speaker who rarely spoke a word that had not been scripted. She was a shrewd woman, and she took what others might consider weaknesses and attempted to turn them into virtues. She was by her own admission “as charismatic as a peanut-butter- and-jelly sandwich.”
As the Democratic candidate saw it, the fact that she wasn’t a showman like the boss made her reliable, honest, and trustworthy. As she went on in her speeches detailing the minutiae of her proposed policies, she was like your mother forcing you to eat your spinach before leaving the table.
The two candidates had never met each other, and each side sensed that the first debate had the potential to determine who would win the November election. The Democrats were insistent that the initial debate take place in Chicago. It did not matter a great deal to the boss, but once he went along, he understood why Ball’s campaign had been so obstinate.
The Democrats intended to make the case that political discourse had made a catastrophic descent from the exalted discussions of John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in the first televised presidential debate in 1960 in Chicago to the vulgar malarkey of Vincent Victor five decades later.
As we flew west to the Illinois metropolis for the debate, Mr. Victor watched an hour-long discussion about the upcoming debate on PBS. The boss considered public television the house organ of the Democratic establishment and political liberalism. He watched as all but one of the experts treated him as a distasteful mountebank who had turned political discussion into an endless series of mindless sound bites.
“I can’t stand looking at this shit, Bax,” the boss said, hitting the mute button on the remote. “Kennedy and Nixon got eight minutes for their fucking opening statements. Nobody would put up with that now. It’s a minute if you’re lucky or they’ll zap the channel. Is that my fault?”
“No way, Mr. Victor.”
“All these jerks on PBS do is import British crap and promote Democrats. When I’m president, they’re through getting bucks from Uncle Sam. And they know it. That’s why they’re pulling this shit.”
The two sides negotiated every last detail of the two-hour event. Like the Kennedy-Nixon debate, there would be no audience. The temperature in the CBS studio would be sixty-seven degrees. To make Senator Ball appear as tall as her opponent, she would stand on a fourteen-inch-high box.
Mr. Victor was so much better a speaker than Blundering Belinda that I thought he would fight hard to make sure there was an audience. But he said that the network and the Democrats would have seen to it that those given tickets were overwhelmingly pro-Ball, and he preferred to face her alone.
The boss believed that left with Blundering Belinda in a studio, he could intimidate and break her. Mr. Victor said it was not Nixon’s language that failed him in that first debate, but that he began to perspire. That made the Republican candidate seem anxious and insecure, while Kennedy appeared elegantly cool. Mr. Victor did not have a chivalrous bone in his elongated body, and he was prepared to do whatever it took to leave Senator Ball bloodied and bowed.
Mr. Victor and Senator Ball were only minimally civil to each other before the red light came on.
“Senator Ball won the toss to give the first opening statement,” said Alan Reed, the CBS Evening News anchor.
“As a young girl, I watched when Senator John F. Kennedy debated Vice President Richard Nixon,” Ball began. “It was a studio much like this one, and I can hear President Kennedy saying, ‘I don't want historians, ten years from now, to say these were the years when the tide ran out for the United States.’ I don’t want that tide to run out now, and I stand proudly in the footsteps of the thirty-fifth president of the United States.”
The boss felt opening statements were a waste of time. He decided he would give Blundering Belinda fits by starting out attacking.
“Time is running out for America,” he said, looking at his watch. “It’s five minutes to midnight. We have no time for self-serving, boastful statements. No time for you, Senator, to wrap yourself in the mantle of a great man, pretending you are something you are not.
“You’re standing on a box, Senator, so you look my equal. I got something to tell you. It’s not how tall you are that matters. It’s how tall you stand. And, Senator, your whole political career, you’ve stood on boxes pretending to be taller than you are.”
Seventy million Americans were watching this evening. Mr. Victor intended to give them entertainment to be remembered. When Senator Ball laid out a serious, thoughtful rationale for a limit on assault weapons, he came raging in over the top of her saying that she was going to end the Second Amendment. When she talked about a multifaceted plan in the Middle East working with our allies there, he said he would go in there on this first day of office and blow the radical Muslims into smithereens.
Senator Ball could not hide her frustration. “This is not Monday Night Wrestling,” she said. “It’s a contest to be president of the most powerful country in the world. Mr. Victor’s life is nothing but a Ponzi scheme. The only way for him to keep the scheme going is to become president. I stand here telling you that…”
As Senator Ball said that, she began to sink. Blundering Belinda had suffered through any number of afflictions during the campaign, and she did what she always did. She pretended everything was fine. But as she sank ever lower, she had no choice but to accept that the box on which she stood had cracked. A worker on his hands and knees pulled the broken box away.
“As I was saying…” the senator continued.
“Oh, no,” Mr. Victor injected. “Senator Ball’s box has collapsed. Senator, let’s get you some telephone books to stand on, or maybe I can just hunch down so we’ll be the same height.” As he said that, the boss leaned down over the podium.
“We’re going on, Mr. Victor,” Senator Ball said.
They did go on for another hour, but all anyone talked about afterwards was the broken box, and that was the lead in all the stories the next day. The Democrats suspected that someone had replaced the wood with plywood. The Ball people were so angry and suspicious that they made excuses to cancel the two other debates.
The debate gave Mr. Victor an opportunity to indulge in one of his favorite campaign activities. Tweets. He loved them. They were short. They were quick. They could be mindlessly offensive. The boss tweeted: “Blundering Belinda weighs 190 lbs., too big for the box.” He knew that she only weighed around a hundred sixty-five but was unlikely to correct him. The tweet outraged any number of women’s groups who condemned Mr. Victor as a sexist bully who mocked everything but himself.
On the plane back from Chicago, Mr. Victor laughed hysterically. That didn’t mean the campaign had replaced the box, only that it could have. After all, this was all a gigantic game to the boss, a pleasurable indulgence, a joyous romp, and he would have loved to mess so dramatically with Blundering Belinda.
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