The Senator sat patiently, waiting for the President to enter the room. He looked at his surroundings again. He had visited this room multiple times during his career but had never been in it by himself before. He hoped the President was not keeping him waiting deliberately. Either way, he took advantage of the time to examine the room more closely.
It truly was an oval. He sat on one of the two couches that were centered in the space, separated by a low coffee table that mimicked the shape of the overall room. The visitor’s entry to the room was at his back. In front of him was a door that led to a covered veranda, overtopped by a triangular pediment. The door was flanked on either side by two windows which allowed ample natural light into the room during the day. The night was cloudless, and the moon was full, so the lawn and garden beyond the veranda were illuminated enough for him to make out the general contours of the outside spaces. To his left was a fireplace with a large portrait hanging over it. Immediately to the right of the oval table was the pattern of the Presidential seal embedded in the carpet. Further to the right sat the Resolute Desk, first used in the office by John Kennedy. Every President since Jimmy Carter had used it except the first George Bush.
The Senator was enough of a history student to have known that detail before he entered this office for the first time in his first term twenty years before. He had become a much keener student of history in the last couple months as he had begun to prepare for this night and what he expected would follow. When he first allowed himself to be talked into running for office, he had never imagined that a day like this would come, but now he saw no other course of action.
He had originally been recruited to run for office because he fit the part. He was tall, fit and well built, handsome in the rugged way that comes to older men who have spent a lot of time outdoors. Having just turned sixty, he would easily pass for a man ten years younger if he were not so well known. His hair was parted on the left, not overly short despite being freshly cut. His clean-shaven face was not as deeply tanned as it would be come summer, but it was also not as pale as those of his colleagues who came from northern states and spent even the warm months cooped up inside their offices.
He was well acquainted with the President although not precisely friendly. Their relationship was that of respected colleagues, but their differences, both personal and political, were enough that they never cared to pass over into the type of friendship that sometimes happened across the aisle when all the dominos fell exactly right. Because he knew the President and it was a weekend night, he was dressed casually despite the surroundings. His chief of staff and the President’s were also well acquainted, even friends, which was probably the sole reason this meeting was taking place. They had arranged the dress code when the meeting time had been finalized. He wore tan pants, the fabric heavy enough that they were really jeans even though they did not appear so. He had on a fresh flannel short over a solid grey t-shirt and he wore his most comfortable pair of casual boots, newly polished. He had laid his coat across the arm of the couch when he came in despite the offer by the aide to hang it up.
The Senator’s perusal of the room was quickly finished. His preoccupation meant that none of the details sank in anyway. Looking at the grandfather clock to the left of the veranda door, he saw the President was now five minutes late. He began to think back about his personal story and career. What had brought him to this place and time in history?
His family was mostly ordinary. His father was the Vice President of a company in his hometown. His mother was a homemaker who had taken up weaving as a hobby when her children were old enough that she did not feel the need to devote all her attention to them. (The scarf tucked in the sleeve of his coat was handmade by her.) She was gone nearly twenty years, a victim of lung cancer brought on by a combination of genetics and smoking, the only bad habit she ever had. His was a bottom end upper middle-class upbringing where nothing was wanting, but his family was by no means rich. He had played all types of sports growing up but had settled on golf in his teenage years, mostly because they belonged to a local club. But in truth, he never worked at any of his athletics and spent more time in the pool than on the driving range.
He graduated near the top of his high school class without trying and got into a good college. His parents could afford the tuition so he should have had no debt when he graduated. But he was a little wild in his youth and left school early. When he concluded he needed to finish, he borrowed enough money to pay for his senior year on his own. While he was off, he had invested in a no money down real estate venture and when that sold, he was able to pay off the loan in one fell swoop.
Not having been much of a student in college and not having any firm direction in terms of career, he went to work for his father after graduation. He had a passing interest in politics and became the party’s representative in his local precinct. When the post of town chairman came up, he was selected for that, but he only served a short time before moving out of town in favor of a small piece of land in the country.
His father became ill and was only able to work sporadically before going on disability full time. His innate ability allowed him to quickly rise through the ranks at work. This gave him additional exposure in his hometown. When the old congressmen decided to retire, he was recruited. It was a safe district and he won easily. In two terms his star rose enough that when the sitting senator decided to retire, he was recruited again. It was a safe state, and he won again easily. The primary in that Senate race had been the only stiff competition he had ever faced in an election but that was just the way it worked out. He had not ever planned this career for himself, but here he sat.
He thought about his wife and three sons. He thought about the pain he still felt from losing his youngest son in a car accident less than two weeks after his 17th birthday. He remembered fondly the way the community rallied around his family to offer their support. He thought about the faith of his family, how it had carried them through that difficult time, and he took a moment to thank God for the many blessings in his life.
He looked at the clock again. Ten minutes past the appointment time and the concealed door to the right of the desk opened and the President walked in. The Senator rose to his feet. The President’s dress was similarly casual, but he was wearing a face mask. He skirted the Senator and moved to stand in front of the opposite couch.
The Senator spoke. “Thank you for seeing me Mr. President. I am sorry to bother you at this unusual hour.”
The President replied. “Not at all.” He motioned for the Senator to sit, sat himself, and took off his mask. “What can I do for you?”
“Sir, I know we have spoken several times in the last weeks. I just wanted to meet with you once face to face to ask you to reconsider. Are you sure you will not soften your stance and meet us in the middle on a couple of these issues?”
“I have my mandate. I believe I know why the people elected me. It is to carry out the agenda that I have established. I believe this is what the people want me to do.”
“Sir, you spoke of unity in your campaign and inaugural address. The country has never been more divided. Some compromise on some issues would show the people that you are genuinely interested in the unity you spoke of. Are you sure you do not wish to follow that path?”
“Senator, I appreciate your perspective, I truly do. I have spoken at great length with my staff and the leaders of my party, and we believe that passing our agenda is the fastest way to unity. We believe that our agenda will be successful and that it is this success that will unify the country. This is the mandate we believe we have been given.”
“Sir, there were 150 million votes cast. Nearly half voted against you. It would take a shift of less than 100,000 votes to change the outcome of the election. Many who oppose you have questioned the integrity of the election. That hardly constitutes an overwhelming mandate. Those who did not vote for you will not unite with you even if you are successful. The division in our country is deep and rooted in ideology. Economic success in the last administration did not unite us. It will not in yours either.”
“Don’t talk to me about the last administration! They attempted to destroy our democracy and our country! The country is facing crisis on several fronts! Swift decisive action is what is needed! What you and your colleagues should do is unite behind our policies and join my vision! This is not a time for ideology, it is a time to place your country ahead of any ideology you might hold dear!”
“Sir, you know that we cannot do this. You know that we hold the political principles of the founders as more important than any crisis. The country has faced many crises in the past and we have overcome them all because of the political principals that were handed down to us. We will not sit idly by as they are compromised.”
“Those principles have outlived their usefulness. It is time for the country to evolve beyond them. Our agenda will allow it to do just that. The country will become greater than it ever was, and this is how it will be unified.”
The Senator paused. This is how he had expected the conversation to go. He had hoped it might be different, but he knew in his heart that it would not be before he ever stepped into the room. One last attempt.
“Sir, you have the chance to be one of the greatest Presidents we have ever known. Please. Embrace a path of compromise and unity. The very existence of the country is at stake.”
“I am aware of the existential issues that face us. I will follow the course of action that I deem best for the country. When I succeed, I am sure that the opinion of history will take care of itself.”
The Senator knew that the President had not understood his last comment. Despite the warning signs, the President did not believe his opposition could ever be so bold. He simply did not understand the level of discontent in the country.
“We will see, sir. We will see.” The Senator rose to his feet. “Thank you for seeing me, Mr. President.”
The President rose as well. He reached down and placed his mask on and turned to face the Senator. The Senator waited for him to offer his hand, but he did not.
The President might have simply been concerned about his health.
But to the Senator, it was a fitting summation of the meeting.
It was a sign of the times, capturing the state of the country perfectly.
Even that simple gesture was not worth the risk.