The President's Wastebasket

I'm watching the President give his speech right now. My speech, I mean. All this week it's been the only thing I've allowed on my mind, and now I can't remember that I wrote it. Probably because I had to wake up at 2:00 this morning to finish the darn thing. It hasn't been a good weekend for me as far as sleep goes.

But the final product is always something I deeply cherish. All the adverbs are in the right places, the unwitting clichés of the first draft have been tastefully thrown out, and the rhetorical flourishes I stuck in toward the end are some of the best I've penned in my career. Hell of a speech, not to brag.

I hear him turn one of my carefully crafted phrases, and the crowd laughs on cue. The sleep deprivation was worth it, I tell myself.

Was it really? I can't tell anymore. This business isn't what it once was. I'm not a big fan of the new way of doing things. The old campaigns were different. The old speeches were different.

Most surprisingly, even Sherman is different now. I know the common syndrome - the slow, almost imperceptible transition from candidate to President, from lowercase to Uppercase, when the fragile skin of platforms, promises, and "practical idealism" is painlessly shed and offhandedly dropped into the Oval Office wastebasket.

Sherman wasn't supposed to be like that, though. He was never a candidate in any sense, unlike the others before him, whose names and faces were incessantly being tossed around by the mass media giants in a game of political hot potato, months before the actual selection had even been made.

But this man came out of nowhere; he came out of a north Texas suburb. There were absolutely no clues of any presidential ambition on his part. He seemed to be hiding, not just from the public eye, but from any and every eye. It's as if he knew they wanted to make him President, and he was doing everything in his limited power to make sure that never happened. Evidently, his plan failed.

His first act as President of the United States of America was to stumble through the White House double doors in a stoic malaise, feebly stare at a spot in the tessellated ceiling for half a minute, and ask to be left alone in the Lincoln Bedroom, where he then took an extended nap. I was with him that day. I could tell he didn't want to be there.

The laughter starts up again. I look up at the dusty screen and I'm confronted with Sherman's smiling, beatific face. He tries to solder his lips together, but two seconds later they burst open again. His radiance can't be hidden.

Gripping the lectern, he surveys the audience - his audience, this immense slice of America that has willfully assembled to hear words come from his mouth. His smile grows wider. He wants to be there.

And for good reason. America can't get enough of Sherman. He's already one of the most successful Presidents in our nation's history, at least according to the Delaware-700's predictions. This selection was supposedly 47,000 times more accurate than the last one, rendering it virtually infallible.

Which gave me something else to think about on Selection Day. I'm still not clear how these supercomputers work; I always thought we should have left them in the 1970s where they belong. But I do know what a technological singularity is, and I fully expect to witness one within my lifetime.

It's a scary thought, one that probably hasn't entered Sherman's mind yet. He can devise an algebraic proof to invalidate Kant's categorical imperative, but with technology he's more of a Luddite than I am.

We were good friends, though, in the first few weeks of the presidency, before the presidency itself had time to set in. We would cautiously wander through the whitewashed halls, planning the events of the day, joking about politics, discussing philosophy. It's strange - everyone in the administration seems to know more about philosophy than I do. I asked Sherman about that, and he said he hadn't even noticed. So I made it a point that day to introduce him to his entire staff and familiarize him with their various philosophical bents.

Rarely do presidents forge such bonds with their speechwriters. In many ways, I was his second Chief of Staff. I realized this early on, when I found myself informing him that his Cabinet members had all been handpicked by the Delaware. The look on his face was both terrified and terrifying.

I sympathized with him, of course. I wasn't prepared for this, either. I'd spent my entire adult life writing policy speeches for the mayor of Milwaukee, when one day I received the call. On the other line was a man that sounded like a machine, or possibly the other way around. In a calm, authoritarian voice, he told me for the next four years, I would be serving directly under the most powerful man in the country. I stayed on the line only because I had no idea how to react.

But I got used to it after a while. The act of writing speeches for the President wasn't any more difficult than it had been in Milwaukee, once I got past the realization that I was writing speeches for the President.

There was more editing to be done, and more late nights with the laptop, the desk lamp, and the coffee. But it wasn't anything I couldn't handle, and somehow it made my writing even better. I guess I work better under pressure, which is something I never had to experience in the work setting before.

And just when I thought I had landed the greatest job in the world, Sherman went and changed all of it by changing himself. He had always been popular, as the Delaware had designed him to be popular. But somewhere between Selection Day and tonight's town hall, he became aware of it. He was no longer the shy philosopher he was when America first pronounced his name, the cynical dreamer he was when the Secret Service dragged him out of his front yard. He became the person he hated the most - a politician.

I look up at the screen again, as if to prove my point to myself. He's in the middle of one of the more boring sentences, in which he talks about the national debt the same way we've been talking about it for the last century. I was too tired to go back and fix that part; fortunately, the audience is too enamored with Sherman's artificially hopeful gaze to notice or care about his faltering words.

My words, I mean. The ones I wrote last night, and this morning. The ones that no one but Sherman will ever hear me speak. When I handed over his copy of the speech, I was giving a part of myself away. Once the crowd hears those words, they belong to him, and I can never have any hope of getting them back. The best I can ever hope for is a footnote in a Huffington Post article.

What makes it even worse for me is the President's speaking style. He tries to make himself appear commanding and decisive, unfazed by the challenges of history, certain in his own intelligence. The only thing he feels he has to know is that he already knows everything. He's desperately trying to prove himself.

In doing this, he comes off as a brazen, presumptuous, and yes, arrogant at times. In our private conversations I'm usually okay with that, but with my words it's different. The speeches as he delivers them are far from how I envisioned them. He emphasizes words that were never meant to be emphasized, and he yells his way through sentences that were meant to be merely stated.

I could do so much better, I often tell myself. I was on the debate team all through high school, and though I never won many awards, I learned a thing or two about public speaking. If I was at that podium right now, I would be able to relate to the American people in a way Sherman never could.

My voice would be authentic and truthful, since I wouldn't have to proclaim a laundry list of lies in order to save my approval rating. I would gaze off into the future, but unlike Sherman, I would have a specific future to gaze off into. Unlike Sherman, I would have ideals to defend, instead of a counterfeit political legacy. I know I'm wrong to think this way, but right now, I want nothing more than to be President of the United States.

It's got to be one of the worst feelings in the world, being a few steps removed from glory and not allowed to climb the stairs.

I can't deny that I used to love hearing the President say my words. I loved it when he gave them form and texture, when he pulled them from the silent page and into an audible reality, when he performed the subtle miracle of turning abstract into concrete and was generously applauded for it. It made me feel like I was there with him, revealing myself to an appreciative public, throwing myself into the crowd.

But now, his speeches just makes me question myself - who I am and what I'm doing, and why exactly I'm doing it. After a long while of this questioning, after the lights have dimmed and the President has long since left the podium, I come to my sobering conclusion: it's not necessarily that I'm doing anything wrong, just that I'm not doing anything right.





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