Their first candidate was a youngish fellow with a list of minor achievements and small qualifications, plus a handsome wife willing to attend some portion of the rallies and fundraising events. He was the brave soldier who stepped forward when the state’s less-popular political party couldn’t find anybody who might win. The conservative opponent was unbeatable. Even agnostic voters considered the current governor as being Chosen. Once the invisible lieutenant governor, he stepped into the office when his predecessor’s Blackhawk went down in a freak hailstorm. Proper words and a few strategic tears at the funeral cemented the man’s rule over the sprawling state, and the new chief executive had served twenty-two months without scandal, scrupulously accomplishing nothing that tested his base supporters while avoiding becoming the enemy of those inclined to stand against him.
Wise tongues decided that seventy percent of the vote would be a disappointment, and more importantly, that the governor’s mansion was only a way station before becoming the state’s next Senator.
Into the slaughter, the liberal soldier pressed on. Little problems came, and in the way of all campaigns, never quite left. But everything could be endured, right up until the wife decided that nothing was as boring as rallies and her smile muscles were awfully, awfully tired. Even worse were matters of finance: a candidate was supposed to generate interest and dollars, and the interest was lacking early and the dollars dried up. His skeletal staff was competent enough to run a compelling student election but nothing more. Then the wife who was no longer on the campaign trail filed for divorce. That’s when the campaign died. One hundred days before the election—after half a year of mastering nothing in politics—the candidate released a poorly composed, grammatically questionable press release blaming the lack of party support and certain unspecified threats against his loved ones, leaving him no choice but to pack up and head home early.
His party was appalled. That is, except for quirky souls who saw opportunity in one man’s incompetence. Thankfully, an organizational meeting was scheduled for a few days later—the kind of non-event usually controlled by retirees and the most desperate political hacks. A replacement candidate would have to be appointed there. Various names were mentioned and discarded. Wealthy men and one famous widow with liberal tendencies were approached, but none said “yes.” That led to a second tier of names and biographies that were scrubbed and analyzed until a suitable candidate was found. But then several discrepancies were found in what seemed like an otherwise fine life story. No, the gentleman had never quite served in Iraq, and he did have more than two DUIs in his past, and the college that he always claimed as his own couldn’t find evidence that he was ever on campus, much less kicked the winning field goal in the ’98 game against the hated Bulldogs.
The media had gathered, expecting a new face and name, and the state deserved some kind of choice, no matter how uninspired. On that pragmatic note, the powers of the party gathered next to the overchlorinated pool at the Day’s Inn, and after a few drinks and some deep gazes into this endless mess, one voice in the back called out, “Okay. Me.”
“Me” was Morris Hersh. Quiet and polite and generally presentable, Morris was one of those individuals who leaves a good impression with strangers yet makes very few friends, and who despite a withering intelligence in several fields, can hide his gifts while sitting among half-drunk liberals, knowing the best moment to speak and what voice to use and anticipating which questions would be asked before being led out before a pack of reporters working on deadline.
Morris’s candidacy was launched quietly—a few words about persevering through difficult times but winning in the end—and the candidate’s first week was little different from the incompetence of his predecessor. Long profiles appeared in the state’s surviving newspapers. The retired professor of chemistry was a widower with three grown children and a long history of public action. Past flirtations with splinter parties and odd causes were mentioned and quickly discounted. He was a true believer now, and the liberals were happy to have him, and that’s the attitude that reigned until the State Fair and a choreographed not-really-a-debate debate against the reigning governor.
First to speak, the conservative held forth about the state’s wonderful residents and their justified suspicions about change and those high-minded, over-educated ideas from Washington and other sorry, ill-informed places. He promised jobs and minimal taxes and a thriving environment for good businesses. Of course he would do everything in his power to maintain agricultural supports from the bureaucrats in Washington. Of course he talked about the sanctity of education and the need to defeat waste. Then, in summation, he stated how much he loved this state and its good-hearted and exceptional, strong-willed and unquestionably honest people.
Standard applause led to polite silence. Morris took a few moments to flip through a towering stack of index cards that he left where he was sitting. Dressed in a suit that had been worn in the high halls of education, the new candidate stepped to the podium, looking out at an audience that nobody else could see. That was the first impression of careful observers. He stared at a place above every head, and he tried to smile at whatever he was seeing. Then the expression flickered and died, and he sighed as if suffering some small pain. Not a bit of nervousness showed. Indeed, he probably had the slowest heartbeat on the stage. One long finger needed to scratch at the white hair above an ear, and again he sighed, and then the other hand took hold of the microphone and he said, “We are in such deep, deep trouble, my friends.”
It was a strong, distinctly angry voice.
“Our world is moving into a time of catastrophe and extraordinary danger,” he continued. “The life that we believe that we have earned and deserve is about to vanish. Climate change and nuclear proliferation are two of the players in this ongoing tragedy. I’m sure a few of you agree with me on these counts. Blame can be given to overpopulation and wasted resources and carbon dioxide and the simple lack of good manners. But a full accounting of the villains would take too long. Suffice it to say, each of us is guilty. I am guilty and you are all guilty and the governor is culpable as well. We are the agents of change, and we have built this new world, and events will come soon enough that all but the oldest and luckiest of us will discover what misery means and how the universe deals with pests who dare infest one of its pretty blue worlds.”
At that point, Morris paused. Everybody needed a deep breath. But the old man didn’t give people time to rest, and he certainly didn’t wait for applause. Lucid and sober, almost cheerful, he offered up a list of vivid predictions for what would happen in the coming decade or two. Nobody listened to every word. Even the Greenest voter—a college girl who rode her bike halfway across the state to support this man—was numbed by the relentless awfulness of what was being predicted. The earth was wounded. Ice was melting and droughts were looming and millions would soon move toward the high ground blessed with reliable aquifers. “Which is here,” he said. “We are living on what will become a promised land.” But he also promised tipping points, maybe several at a time, and governments would fail, and even the United States was subject to collapse. “We don’t have the money we think we do, and we don’t any time left, and decisions will have to be made on the fly, and our state would be smart to make preparations for when it will have to take care of itself.”
Then came another brief pause, another shared breath by the audience.
At that point, Morris paused. But he still had twenty seconds for introductory remarks, which is why he offered a wide smile, thanking the Rotarians for sponsoring this event, and singling out Mrs. Gina Potts for her delicious lemonade.
Throughout the non-debate—with the opening statement and everything that followed—the governor stayed on track. He clung to his marks when he spoke and sat motionless while waiting his turn to speak again, smiling in that vacuous fashion common to people who can compartmentalize every portion of their lives. He wasn’t an exceptionally smart fellow. He had a pleasant, not-quite-handsome face made older by the baldness that had begun in his twenties. But he had always been blessed with competence and luck, and his wife was lovely and at least as ambitious as he was. The governor also had a gorgeous golf swing that had served him well in fifteen years of public life. Sitting on a folding chair, listening to the ex-professor’s diatribe, he not only understood that he would win the election by a four-to-one edge, but his opponent was doing his cause grave, irreparable harm. And being a considerate church-going person, the governor felt empathy. Taking an old man out of his element and putting him on public display like this…it was the kind of mistake he would never make. Governance was the magic done through a multitude of tiny, imperfect steps. If key details could be identified and the worst errors avoided or later denied, then it was possible to do just enough, leaving the world better than it otherwise would have been.
The event was scheduled to last sixty minutes. With ten minutes remaining, Morris threw a hand at the sky, saying, “If lightning strikes and I happen to be win this election, there will be no greater champion making this state ready for what is to come. I’ll use these final weeks to make clear what is necessary and essential. Changes will be necessary if we are to hold onto a portion of our rights as citizens, retain some sliver of our present wealth, and not lose ourselves to the panic and reflexive violence sure to claim billions of unready, untested souls.
“I don’t believe in God,” he proclaimed, “but I believe in Laws. The Laws of Nature, the Laws of Cause and Effect.
“And there are no other Gods but Them.”
On that peculiar note, Morris Hersh returned to his folding chair and sat on his forgotten note cards.
The moderator took the microphone, but he had no voice. He looked at his watch, discovering the extra time. Not wanting to leave things in this uncomfortable place, he rolled his free hand in the air, inviting the governor to respond—a breach of the rules, but nobody complained.
The governor stood without hurrying.
With a big wink, he convinced half of the audience that he was looking at them, and then he stepped to the podium and smiled, waiting for the perfect response to come to mind.
He settled on a story from his teenage years—detassling corn from four in the morning until dusk every day, for minimum wage. Avoiding mention of his opponent or mental illness or the wild claims that would be splashed across newspapers and web sites for the rest of the week, he spoke only about himself and his ethic of hard work, and by the end of those ten minutes a large portion of the audience nearly forgot about madness and doom. People were smiling for no reason other than to hear how this round-faced golfer once wore his hands raw under a hot July sun. And then the governor sat, smiling at his lovely wife and their three darling children and a certain young aide lurking near the stage. A leader could do only so much. At the end of the day, almost nothing was possible, and very little was planned, and no person could claim total responsibility for the silly and the great decisions that he managed to make, every minute of his life.