[The prologue from one version of Conspiracies of Men and God, my unfinished novel of politics and metaphysics.]
Prologue: The year 2000
It was the night Al Gore conceded. My wife and the girls were out Christmas shopping, and I was in my living room with the two Georges — my elder brother George and my son – watching the televised culmination of the election that wouldn’t end. Gore finished and the talking heads started. I hit the remote and the tube died.
“That’s that,” I said. “They got away with it.”
“For the moment,” my brother said.
My 28-year-old son, who came home from his first semester of college a conservative Republican and never changed, said, “What do you mean, got away with it? The court decided, so the recount’s over, and Bush wins. How can you say `they got away with it’?”
“Wasn’t hard,” I said. “Mostly a matter of practice. If you start talking early enough in life, after a while the words come out sort of automatically.”
“Oh, very funny, dad. Just because the election doesn’t go your way, the Republicans `got away with it’?”
“Not the Republicans, George,” my brother said. “The people who are using them.”My son said nothing. “Kind of a struggle to contain yourself,isn’t it,” I said to him.
He grinned. “I have too much respect for my elders.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s a nice development. Keep working on it.”
During Gore’s concession speech, my son had maintained a discreet silence. He and I were old political adversaries by now, and the thrill was gone, and he was fond of his Uncle George. And besides, his side had won. In politics as in poker, the winners smile quietly. The losers call for the dealer to deal the next hand.
“I can say it because that’s what happened, George. They got away with it. Gore won the vote count nationwide, and an honest count would have given him Florida and the election. And everybody knew it.”
“I don’t know it!”
“You don’t want to know it. One side wanted to count the votes and the other didn’t. That tells you all you need to know.”
“Dad, you can’t let people recount an election to death just because they don’t like the way it came out!”
“That isn’t what was going on. It was a matter of counting votes.”
“Well,” my brother said, “a couple of things were going on. One thing is that the margin of error was greater than the margin of victory. That made it next to impossible to come up with an answer that would satisfy everybody. But something else went on, too, and I suspect that ultimately it may prove to be more important than Bush winning the election. The whole recount fiasco gave people a close look at the election process. I suspect that they’re not real happy with what they saw.”
“Guess not,” I said.
“That’s why I said they got away with it for the moment. In the longer run, maybe not.”
My son said, “You mean you think Democrats don’t cheat at the polls?”
My brother looked at him and smiled. “Of course not. They both do it. Do I hear you admitting that Republicans do?”
George hesitated as he realized that he had trapped himself with his own question. “I think the Democrats do it way more than Republicans do.”
“Sure,” I said. “But the Easter Bunny is the worst of all. Either of you want another Guinness?” My brother nodded, and my son stood up. “I’ll get it. Dad, you want one too?”
“Thanks,” I said, and waited til he was out of the room. “This election make you wonder if we wasted our time back then?”
George shook his head decisively. “No, Angelo. What we did was more than Republicans versus Democrats.”
“Maybe so, but it looks to me like most of the guys that were on the other side then are on the other side now, just the same.”
“Probably. But it isn’t the end of the world. And you can’t win them all.”
“You and Tip O’Neill,” I said.
I could see him stop and search his data base. “O’Neill?”
George had the strangest gaps in his knowledge. Strange, even though I knew why. “Used to be Speaker of the House, back in the Reagan years, remember? Just after you came back. A few years before you got us into so much trouble.”
“Oh yes. He the one took John F. Kennedy’s House seat?”
“Yep. He used to say, in politics there are no final victories.”
George nodded to himself. “That’s for sure. Not just in politics, either.”
My son came back with three bottles of Guinness, opened. We thanked him and took that wonderful first sip. I said, “`This ought to take the sting out of being occupied, doesn’t it, Mr. Richard?’”
“Casablanca,” my son said in exaggerated resignation. “I think Dad’s seen that movie 23 times.”
“At least,” I said. “And it just keeps getting better.”
“Even though the plot’s ridiculous,” my brother said.
“Ridiculous? Ridiculous how?”
He smiled. “The real world of espionage doesn’t work that way. The leader of the resistance knows the names of all the other resistance leaders? And the Nazis have him in their custody and they don’t either kill him or kidnap him and put him in the next plane for occupied France and then Germany? And the two exit visas cannot be questioned, even though everybody knows that those are the ones the couriers were murdered for?”
I smiled too. “Well, that’s Hollywood, you know?”
“And – not least – when they arrest the man who murdered the couriers and stole the visas and hid them somewhere – they kill him before they make him tell who he gave them to?” George shook his head. “Granted, it’s only Hollywood, and they were turning out melodramas one a week, still it shows how innocent the scriptwriters were.”
“The whole country was innocent in those days,” I said. “But it’s still a wonderful movie.”
“Oh sure. Especially the scene where the German soldiers are in Rick’s nightclub singing The Watch on the Rhine and everybody gets up and starts singing La Marseillaise to drown them out. Great scene. They couldn’t save their country from defeat, but they could protest. Not much of a protest, but it was all they could do.”
“The guy who wrote that scene was crying when he wrote it,” my son said. “At least, that’s what it says on the tape dad’s always playing.”
“I can see why,” my brother said. “The war was still going on when he wrote it; he probably didn’t know himself how it was going to come out. Though, in retrospect there wasn’t much chance of our losing. Not with Roosevelt and Churchill working together.”
I smiled at that. My son is no fan of Roosevelt’s, regardless how he was raised.
George – my brother – sat staring at the bottle in his hands. “It does make you wonder, though.”
“Oh, how much longer does it go on, you know? How much more of this do we have to sit through? They kill our friends, and steal our elections, they steal people’s job security and their retirement plans and the value of the currency. They make huge profits on fouling up the air and the water and the land. They steal people’s hopes and pride, and then they pride themselves on being better than the people they victimized. They murder innocents. And innocence. And it just keeps going on.”
My eyebrows went up. This didn’t sound much like George. I said, “I didn’t realize you were such a big Gore fan.”
He made a vague impatient gesture with one hand. “Gore’s just a politician, Angelo, I know that. And I’m not all that wild about the Democrats, either. You know that. I wasn’t born yesterday. But it’s hard, sometimes.”
“Particularly given what you sacrificed,” I said quietly.
George said nothing, but my son picked up on it like a hawk on a squirrel. “Uncle George? What’s dad mean?”
George looked at him, considering. In all the years since he came back, I’ve never seen him treat any of the kids in any way other than totally respectfully. He never treats them like kids, in other words. “It was something a long time ago,” he said. “The time I came back and your father and I went away for awhile, if you remember it.”
“Back in 1984? When I was 12? I remember that something happened, but nobody would ever tell me what. I wasn’t even sure anybody knew.”
“Your grandpop knew. Maybe he told your grandmom, I don’t know. I don’t think anybody else knows, unless your dad told your mom.”
I shook my head. “I told Connie you wanted it kept secret, and that there was a good reason for it, and she accepted it. She’s used to me knowing more than I’m supposed to tell.”
“So was it something about politics, Uncle George?”
George paused. “Depends on your definition of politics, I guess. It wasn’t about Republicans and Democrats, exactly.”
“And you still don’t want to talk about it.”
George sat considering the bottle he held. “I don’t know, George. Probably it doesn’t make any difference now. But I don’t know how to tell it. Your father would be better at it than I would. He’s the Ace Reporter, not me. Or used to be, anyway”
“I was then, that’s for sure. Back when you and I were a bit younger. In 1984 I was 44 and you were, what, 48?”
“After my birthday I was.”
“Looked for a while like you weren’t going to get to see that birthday.”
“Boy, did it not.”
“So what happened, dad?”
“He really wants to know, Angelo, and it’s okay with me if you tell him. In fact, probably it’s a good idea. But George, two things. One, you don’t repeat this without asking me first. Two, there are some things your father doesn’t know and I’m not going to tell, and other things he does know that if he starts to tell I’m going to tell him to clam up about.”
“Okay,” my son said. So I told him the story. And after a few days, thinking about it, I went back and wrote it all down, expanding on it as I went along, filling in the blanks. Maybe reassuring myself that in fact all will still be well.