Another day glided to a pleasant finish as Cal Regan walked the four blocks from his office to Lucille’s Bar and Grill. He let his mind idle for a few minutes to enjoy the fragrant, warm April evening and the scent of the beautiful young woman who brushed by him and smiled when he caught her eye.
At thirty-four, he was impressively accomplished: he’d been a prodigy on Capitol Hill, where in six years he had risen from summer legal intern to chief of staff in the office of a Senate luminary famous for spotting and nurturing political genius; executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the election that returned Democrats to power; deputy manager of the president’s campaign (responsible for, among other things, placating and gently disappointing major donors, party VIPs, Hollywood celebrities, and useful reporters); and a deputy again, to the head of the president-elect’s transition team.
He had expected and was offered a coveted position on the White House staff, assistant to the president and director of the Office of Congressional Relations, where his practiced manner with sensitive egos could help assuage any distress caused by the president’s aloofness and his chief of staff’s brusqueness. He had turned it down, pleading the urgent need to settle a lingering student loan debt. In truth, he had correctly estimated that his market value at the time would not be increased by the position, and had decided to acquire wealth immediately. He had remained useful in various ways to his White House patrons in the expectation that he would return to public service in the second term, in a more prestigious capacity.
Two weeks after news of his availability caught the attention of Washington’s most prominent deal makers, he was made a partner in the preeminent Democratic law firm of Hanson, Strong LLP, and de facto head of its government relations practice. Even the most illustrious of his new partners valued his connections and talent, and regarded him with a mixture of relief and regret. They understood that his smiling presence in the richly appointed partners’ library would assure the firm’s continued mining of wealth from politics, just as it signaled the beginning of a quiet end to their own days of supremacy among Washington’s permanent elite. Thus it always was, they graciously conceded to themselves: the old must give way to the new.
Another, less valuable partner would serve officially as the firm’s director of government relations, sparing Regan the necessity of registering as a lobbyist—a distinction that could complicate his future plans. Both men understood the arrangement to be the kind employed in a city where appearances were more important than titles. Both knew who would be giving orders.
Regan had signed a new client today, an important one: the country’s newest software billionaire, a man much like himself who winked at the fussy guardians and moldier conventions of both their businesses, and paid them just enough attention to encourage them to get out of his way. Cal was flattered that his client recognized they had much in common. And now, as young, influential, handsome, and almost wealthy Cal Regan made his way to Lucille’s, he had few cares worth bothering about.
He entered unnoticed and, reaching the bar, placed a hand on his friend Michael Lowe’s shoulder. “Mick” to his friends, and “Mickey” when Regan was in an expansive mood, Lowe was short and muscular, the effect of habitual weight training that had caused one observer to describe him as “a squared-off fireplug of a guy.” He kept his hair cropped so short that people incorrectly assumed he was anticipating baldness. He had a menacing look and an incongruously soft, high-pitched voice, for which he compensated with the extra ridicule he used when defending his opinions.
Lowe and Regan were genuine friends rather than “Washington friends,” those utilitarian, affectionless acquaintanceships prevalent in the nation’s capital. They had been close since Regan had hired him to run opposition research at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and had recommended him for a bigger if less specific job in the ’08 campaign. Lowe had made his reputation by expertly sowing mayhem: conjuring from minor and ambiguously related facts in an opponent’s record hints of possible scandal, and whispering those hints into the right reporter’s ear. Regan had been the first to recognize his gifts, and Lowe was beholden to him.
Mick Lowe was a Cal Regan guy. They enjoyed each other’s company and valued their alliance. They looked out for each other. Lowe had recently opened his own public affairs shop, offering full-service consulting to corporate and political clients. He and his partners relied on Regan to recommend them to his clients, particularly clients whose competitors enjoyed unnecessarily positive reputations. Regan knew he could turn to Lowe for almost any favor anytime he needed one.
Lowe turned to greet Regan with a “Hey, man,” and nodded his head to indicate the table where Madison Cohan sat with her colleagues. Her familiar throaty laughter was distinctly audible over the din of the crowd. She saw them look at her and gave Regan a smile and a little wave. He returned the acknowledgment as casually as he could, careful not to appear delighted to see her.
Maddy Cohan always managed to make him self-conscious, causing him to premeditate every reaction to her, even simple gestures of greeting. Few people had this effect on him, and it irritated him. Were it not for the fact he was in love with her, he would have disliked her.
“She’s got something,” Lowe alerted him.
Mistakenly assuming it a reference to her sex appeal, Regan offered a crude reply: “Yeah, a great ass, the not-so-secret secret to her charm.”
“I never want what I can’t have, Mickey.”
“Is that so?”
Lowe knew his friend had a romantic interest in Maddy Cohan that had begun the moment she had introduced herself to Regan during the last campaign. She had been a very junior reporter, not long out of journalism school, when she walked up to Regan after a press conference and asked to take him to lunch. Senior staff on a presidential campaign seldom have the time or curiosity to sit down to an unscheduled lunch with a reporter no one has ever heard of before, but Regan had smiled and said, “Sure, give me ten minutes,” and gone to fetch his coat. A few days later, he had instructed Lowe to give her the first look at some opposition research the campaign had just finished.
“Why should we give it to a kid working for a fucking website startup,” Lowe had asked, “instead of the Times or Post?”
“What do you check first thing in the morning now? The Times? Post? Or that fucking website start-up?” Regan had answered.
“Kansas City Star.”
Lowe was a K.C. native. He had no intention of ever returning to his hometown, but he remained a sentimental booster of its attractions, especially its lackluster professional sports franchises.
“And after you find out the Chiefs still suck?” Regan teased.
Lowe had talked briefly to Maddy a few minutes before Regan arrived and had gotten the sense she was working on a story about the president’s reelection campaign, which had recently opened its headquarters in Chicago. She had only asked if he had heard anything from Chicago. But Mick Lowe prided himself on his ability to detect reporters’ ulterior motives even when they were disguised in seemingly innocent questions, or attractively packaged in the person of Maddy Cohan.
“That’s it? That’s all she asked?” Cal queried him. “I think that’s called a conversation starter, Mickey, you suspicious bastard. Is there news from Chicago?”
“Yeah, it’s still fucking snowing. I don’t know, but she does. It’s not what she asked but how she asked, with that superfly smile of hers.”
Neither Mick nor Cal was close to Stu Trask, the veteran strategist whom the president had asked to manage his campaign, but they weren’t adversaries either. Trask had come on board late in the last campaign. He had done work for several of the candidates competing for the nomination and had sat out the primaries. After O had clinched the nomination, Trask was one of the first calls Avi Samuelson, the president’s closest advisor, had made. He and Trask had worked together early in their careers in several losing campaigns, and friendships formed in failure often outlast those made in happier circumstances.
When Trask arrived in Chicago as a senior advisor without portfolio, he was shown deference by staff who had worked for the campaign since its unpromising beginning and had learned how to avoid Avi Samuelson’s displeasure. Regan had been careful to treat Trask respectfully, but neither man had been genuinely impressed by the other. Regan wasn’t surprised Trask hadn’t sought his advice as he assembled his headquarters or thought to include him in semiregular discussions with outside advisors, and he wasn’t troubled by it either. Everyone, including Stu Trask, knew the campaign’s command center wasn’t in Chicago but in Avi Samuelson’s West Wing office—just a few feet from the president’s—where Cal Regan was a frequent visitor.
Regan finished his drink and, on the pretense of good manners, went to say hello to Maddy Cohan. Lowe trailed after him.
“How are you, Maddy?”
“I’m well, Cal. You? You know Jeanne and Tim, right?”
Jeanne and Tim Sears, Maddy Cohan’s close friends and former colleagues, had left journalism a few months after they married. Jeanne had crossed the divide to work as communications director for a newly elected Democratic senator from her home state. Tim had traded the cachet of working for the latest multimedia venture for a living wage, shorter hours, and an office with windows at a midsize public relations firm. Neither regretted the decision.
Maddy motioned for them to sit down, and Regan pulled a chair next to hers.
Tim Sears greeted him with the information that they were now sharing a client.
“I understand you just signed or are about to sign Allen Knowles. He’s my account at Fenwick.”
Knowles was the client Regan had signed that day. He wasn’t sure which annoyed him more: that someone who had been in PR for less than a year was the lead on a major account, or that Sears knew he had signed Knowles before Regan knew that Sears had.
“Great. We’ll be working together, then. Look forward to it. Did I hear you’re changing beats, Maddy?” Regan asked, surmising that if she was working on a Chicago story, she would be leaving Capitol Hill, where she’d been assigned after the election, to cover the campaign.
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Can’t remember, offhand. Gossip I picked up somewhere. Back to the glamorous life of campaign reporting, I heard.”
“Well, you know more than I do, then. Will hasn’t decided, or he hasn’t announced anyway, who we’re rotating to the campaigns. I’m happy on the Hill, really. People talk to reporters there.”
Will was Willem Janssen, Maddy’s editor, who had left a promising career at a newspaper of record to start Body Politic with financing from a bored billionaire and a plan to make his new venture irresistible to Washington insiders by accelerating the news cycle from a day to an hour with hypercoverage of everything said or done by anyone with political credentials. His success at monetizing Washington’s self-obsessive nature had marked him as a potential savior of political journalism. He was much disliked by editors and reporters still working for newspapers with cratering ad revenue, and who felt demeaned chasing stories his reporters had broken first or, in the opinion of some disgruntled critics, “invented.”
“Who doesn’t talk to you, Maddy?” Lowe mischievously offered. “You’re as well sourced as they come.”
“Well, you never made much of a habit of it, Mick. I think I’m still waiting for you to return a hundred or so of my calls.”
“I’m the strong, silent type, Maddy. But my love runs deep.”
“More like the use ’em and lose ’em type. Your love is entirely transactional.”
Jealous of her attention, Regan cut short their teasing. “Let’s get back to discussing your plans for the future. Are you gonna cover the reelect?”
“Why the interest, Cal? Aren’t you too busy getting rich to worry about who’s covering the campaign?”
“Simply expressing an interest in your career.”
“Cal, when did you start taking an interest in careers other than your own?”
This stung him. He did not want to appear just another self-important, cynical Washington operator. Not to her. Were he to confess he’d been hurt by the remark, she would assure him she had just been teasing. But in Regan’s experience, people revealed more of their real opinions in jest than in gentler conversation. He felt an urgent necessity to make every effort to improve her opinion of him, and wouldn’t leave the table until he was certain he had made good progress toward that end.
Ninety minutes later, only Cal and Maddy were still there. The Searses had relatives visiting the next day, and Lowe had made his own excuses when he saw his presence had become superfluous. They remained there another two hours, talking quietly about themselves: families and old friendships; their simplest pleasures, rarely indulged anymore; early ambitions long abandoned and vague aspirations to other, more virtuous occupations. He showed her a picture of his recently acquired sailboat. She showed him a picture of a towheaded three-year-old, her niece. Progress was made.
© 2011 Anonymous
A Presidential Novel
A Presidential Novel
This is a novel about aspiration and delusion, set during the presidential election of 2012 and written by an anonymous author who has spent years observing politics and the fraught relationship between public image and self-regard.
The novel includes revealing and insightful portraits of many prominent figures in the political world—some invented and some real.