The Family Brand

politicians

These were the days that Senator Johnson really loved his job. He stood in the middle of a packed reception hall. The walls and ceiling were colored an assortment of creams. There was recessed lighting and a large chandelier right in the middle. The thin gauze of the oversized curtains were lit with a soft glow from the landscaping lights outside. Everyone was always impeccably dressed. The men were all in black, and the women’s choice of evening dresses added splashes of color throughout the room. Most were socializing out on the floor, but a handful were camping out at the tables.

“Here’s someone I would like you to meet. I think he’d be enthralled by your ideas.” Senator Monica Sharp led the way across the floor zigzagging around the others. “That’d be right up Mr. Youngblood’s alley. You might call him a small business owner. He’s in the music production business.” The man that he had been introduced to had matched his tux with dark sunglasses and a large gold chain. Johnson hadn’t been star struck by the celebrity guests at these events since his wife had attended these things with him. But she’d quickly grown disenchanted with the city life. The kids had a few fights at school and she packed them up and went back to their country home.

Senator Sharp had walked away after a short round of small talk and Johnson was scanning the room for anyone that he might want to meet. In a room full of politicians picking his favorite was a hard task. Before he realized, Johnson had zeroed in on the roughhewn man surrounded by a gaggle of adoring women. “Mr. Youngblood, have you been introduced to Senator Bing McDougal?” Johnson led the way this time.

The young women seemed confused when Johnson and Youngblood arrived. They looked pulled in different directions. Before long, Youngblood wandered off and the ladies followed. McDougal said, “Thanks for bringing the big money. Now I have to start again from scratch.”

“You can pick up ladies anytime. But nothing beats talking a little policy.”

“That is the real reason we’re here. Isn’t it?”

As they talked, Johnson found Pearlman across the room. Pearlman motioned back. Thumbs up on one hand. Two fingers on the other, which seemed to feel more like a “V” for victory.

 

Senator Johnson sat at his desk jotting down notes on a yellow legal pad. “I think we’re really going to get some work done for our soldiers this time around. We’re not just focusing on the abstract bigger picture. We’ve got ideas for particular changes in veteran’s benefits. Senator Ames has some great ideas for revamping the GI bill. We found space in the budget and we can get the ten year limit on receiving benefits extended. They paid into this stuff they should get something out of it.” He leaned back and took a deep breath. “Shelly, the Judiciary Committee seemed to start off well. What happened after I left?”

She spoke, and he marked in one column on the pad, nodded to Bill, marked another, and to Jim, marked another.

His aids sat across from him. They were shuffling through the notes they’d been taking on their assorted electronic devices. At least, Johnson couldn’t think of a better word than shuffle. He much preferred the textured feel of paper to cold lifeless glass.

“And how did this sway the argument?” He scanned their faces looking for who to hear from first. They continued on discussing the particulars.

A black and white photo of his great-grandmother shaking hands with President Truman hung on the wall behind the desk. He had several pictures of himself and the last two presidents on the opposite wall but didn’t feel like they should be the focal point for anyone walking into his office. He wanted people’s first impression of him to be one of citizenship and patriotism not self-indulgence.

The window on the side wall was in the perfect spot to let in the afternoon sun. When he had a few free minutes he’d bask in the warmth of the rays and look out over the Washington D.C. skyline. He could see the purpled haze of pollution out passed the concrete and glass. It almost reminded him of the lazy sunsets over his riverside home in South Carolina.

During the recent renovations (They were calling them technological upgrades). The standard glass windows were replaced with smart glass that worked like transition lenses only better. They had a computer interface allowing them to be adjusted to individual preferences, but the windows ran off a central control that was operated by the maintenance department. He went through several rounds of emails before they’d sent out a tech. Johnson wanted the old window back. He could control a set of blinds, but they wanted a cleaner, streamlined look. Blinds were out of the question.

The electorate seemed to be looking forward to a representation upgrade.  The polls were favoring the upstart candidate. Four years ago, Bea Tailor had won a surprise victory and rose from obscurity to become governor of South Carolina. This former housewife, in her infinite wisdom, had decided that the Senate was the next logical step in her political career. This was the kind of unorthodox political move that could capture the public’s imagination. Johnson needed a cleaner, streamlined cause if he wanted to keep his seat in congress.

There was a soft beep, and the surface of Johnson’s desk lit up. Displayed on the desk was an IM from his secretary. The projection was distorted over the top of the legal pad. He moved the pad to his lap and tapped the icon on his desk that said Mildred. The message popped up. “Lunch w/ Pearlman in 5.”

Johnson raised a finger and silenced his aids. He shouted through the opened door of the office. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just tell me? You are right there.”

A new message popped up. “What? And strain my voice?”

He swiped his hand across the desk and the display turned off. “Ok, folks. Condensed versions. We gotta wrap things up.”

Johnson’s aids were jockeying to get in the last point when Senator Pearlman walked through the door. “Hey old man, you still on for lunch? I’m buying.” Pearlman had this way of lighting up any room he entered. Something about his tone of voice, his manner, maybe his genuine smile that could charm an angry gorilla. Although they had spent a lot of time in his presence, Johnson’s aids felt it too. They made polite smiles and a snigger or two at the old tired joke that would have gotten groans were it told by anyone else. The cafeteria, of course, was free for all senators.

“Hey, Isaac.” Johnson grabbed the folded newspaper off the edge of the desk and stuffed it under his arm. He dismissed his aids and met Pearlman at the door. Pearlman was one of Johnson’s oldest and best allies on the senate floor. Johnson wasn’t sure how he did it, but Pearlman was able to turn his name into political gold even though he had the most obvious toupee anyone’d ever seen.

“Not that one. The Times.” Mildred spoke to an intern that Johnson had not yet met. Mildred swept her hand over her desk. This motion was meant to speed up the intern, but it only served to wake up her desktop display. She waved her hand a few times to dismiss the display. The display refused to respond.

The girl pulled the newspaper out of the stack and switched it for the one Johnson had.  She couldn’t have been a year out of high school, but she was already dressed like an old lady.

 

The cafeteria had gone through its technological upgrade as well. The molded plastic tables along the walls had been replaced with the top of the line equivalent to the desk top projector that Mildred had forced on Johnson last Christmas (She had called it a “gift,” but he knew it was punishment for making her work so hard). The InfoGlass tables were the shiny glass top models that showed off fingerprints like a dog’s snotty nose print on a sliding glass door. The short black centerpieces double as an interface for portable electronic devices and as a basket for the condiments and napkin dispensers.

Johnson and Pearlman had arrived after lunch rush so they didn’t have to wait in line. But the InfoGlass tables were full, so Pearlman stood next to the one that was occupied by a rowdy group of interns. The four of them were hunched over the screen. They were so involved with the dogfight simulator that they had left their lunches uneaten on the trays pushed to the side of the table. Johnson walked up beside Pearlman and cleared his throat. The intern Closest to Johnson jumped, and the others looked up sheepishly.

“I’m sorry, Senators,” One of them said. They gathered their trays and picked their way through the late lunch crowd to one of the empty plastic tables to eat their now cold lunches. One of them lagged a little behind. He cleared their bunched up napkins and wiped off the dew rings from their cups. The screen went back to sleep, and the senators sat down at the table.

As they ate, Johnson read a newspaper, and Pearlman fiddled with his smart phone.

Without looking up, Johnson said, “Anything interesting?”

“Nah. The only news is the same old thing you got right there.”

Johnson folded the paper down so he could look Isaac in the eyes. “Not that. I mean, what’s sexy? What does the public want?”

Pearlman lowered his phone to match Johnson’s gaze. “You’re worried about this election? You’re a hard working senator. There’s nothing to worry about.” He swiped at his phone again. “High-tech. High-tech is good. Like right here. This is new.” Pearlman waved his phone above the InfoGlass interface. Johnson slid his tray off the screen and waited for the phone to synch up.

“High-tech is everywhere. It’s like toilet paper. No one has ever won an election on something they could wipe their ass with.”

The table lit up to display The Daily Bulletin web page. He placed his finger on the image, dragged it to his side of the table, and then flipped it to face him. The title read, “Technology Kills.” It was a short article with the top half of a young woman’s face waiting to load. The caption underneath the incomplete image said, Janie Sans Associate Blogger. As the rest of her came into view, Johnson wondered why someone who looked like her would want to have the picture so prominently displayed.

Pearlman said, “Someone just got killed. Says that it has something to do with Artificial Intelligence, but no one’s talking.”

“People are killed all the time. Was this a celebrity or someone important?”

“I am surprised at you, Jerry. Every life is important.”

Johnson just stared at him trying to match his feigned indignation, but the way he held his head back and shoulders stiff looked more like he was feigning indigestion.

“This article was written by Janie Sans. She can sniff out a popular uproar long before it ever happens. She saw the Chinese baby food debacle six months before anyone else. And she was one of the main voices speaking out against fracking leading up to the last bout of pre-election outrage.”

“And how do you know that this is one of the ones that’s going to blow up?”

“I don’t.” Pearlman pulled a business card from his wallet. “But if there’s any reason for this story to blow up, he can find out.”

Johnson took the card. “James Peterson, Private Detective?”

“He can find anything you need to know about this company and all of its employees: company records, company emails, payroll, medical records, bank statements, criminal records, and social security numbers if you want them. If it’s connected to the internet, he’ll get it. Tell him that he’s doing a favor for the CIA and he might even do the work for free.”

“This is the kind of thing that you do?”

“Use it or not. Next time there is a vote, make a motion to start an oversight committee. There is no harm in that. All it takes is the hint of wrongdoing and your name will be all over the place.”

 

Johnson’s first apartment in the city was large and homey, decorated by his wife. This one now was purely functional, but the roasting meat smell from the crockpot made it inviting enough. Johnson was standing in front of the opened fridge listening to his wife cataloguing the events of the day from the speaker phone across the room. He was looking for something that would go along with the chuck roast that he had cooking away. What he didn’t eat tonight would feed him for about a week.

“…And tonight Suzy and the grandbabies came by for dinner.”

“I swear if you weren’t such a good cook we’d never see the kids.” Johnson pulled out a Tupperware bowl of leftover green beans and popped it into the microwave.

“If I cook so good, what are you doing all the way out there?”

“There’s no way you would still love me if we were together every day.” Johnson lifted the lid, and the crockpot let out a cloud of steam. He switched off the pot and started to cut off a chunk of the glistening roast but discarded the knife when his fork sunk effortlessly through and separated tonight’s portion into shreds of meat.

She hesitated for a second thinking. “Oh. You know. I saw them talking about you on the television last night. Can you explain to me why you are going after industry? This isn’t our brand. Restricting industry restricts job growth. This country is nothing without its working people.”

Johnson put down the fork to concentrate on the conversation. “That’s a misrepresentation. You know how attack adds work.”

“You are kidding, right? Governor Tailor’s clueless. No this is straight from your people. A committee against artificial intelligence… I taught you better than that.”

“No, we’re just investigating the industry for wrongdoing.”

“I’ve got it word for word.” The pages flipped audibly over the phone. “It was Senator Springsteen. He said: We are all in lockstep behind Senator Jerimiah Johnson. There’s been a massive information dump on the internet. An anonymous whistle blower has leaked just about every company record and internal memo from Sapient Technologies, the industry leader in the applications of artificial intelligence. We have uncovered several breaches of the public trust, and we are currently looking into the state of the industry at large. We are in desperate need of a much larger debate of the industry.”

“What the hell is Springsteen even talking about? I haven’t read about anything in the papers.”

“God damn it. How many times have I told you to stop relying on the newspapers? Get your ass on the computer. Figure out what’s going on, and get your own voice heard on this subject. You can’t let them speak for you.”

Johnson forgot to say goodbye when he got off the phone. He was going to eat his dinner cold and for breakfast.

 

Johnson called the Peterson private detective office several times without receiving any answer. He had to search out his home number before he get a hold of him. “What is going on Peterson? I told you to let me review this information, so I could decide what should be released if anything.”

“You never got back to me.”

“So you took it upon yourself to release Mr. Nobhoj’s childhood arrest record.”

“I received authorization.”

“Bullshit! You did.”

“You didn’t respond. Pearlman looked it over and gave me the go ahead. He told me that you would ok it.”

“He told you? I told you not to consult with anyone but me.”

“Damn it. I told you that this was time sensitive information. I told you that I couldn’t get anything from their system without them knowing. I had to get it out there before they were able to get a story together to discredit this information. If you didn’t want this stuff out, you should’ve told me. Don’t try to put this shit on me. If information got out that you didn’t want out, it’s your fucking fault.”

 

Johnson wasn’t sure what to do next so he dialed Mildred. She sounded groggy and had trouble following the conversation but denied that she’d been asleep. “I need you to ring up the aides. I sent you an email with links to all the information. Have them review it and start drafting my rebuttal.”

“Rebuttal? Isn’t this your baby?”

“Things have spiraled out of control. Can we even get the interns working on this? I’m not sure what they can do, but this is an emergency.”

 

The office was already busy when Johnson arrived. Everyone had a cup of coffee in front of them and another pot was on the brew. Before he had his jacket off, he called Pearlman’s office.

Pearlman’s secretary answered the phone. “Sorry, Senator Johnson. Senator Pearlman is completely booked. He is even working through lunch. You might be able to catch him in the halls between about 1:30 and 1:45 this afternoon.”

“I’m sorry, but we are going to be meeting much sooner than that.”

“No Senator that will not be possible.

Mildred brought in a cup of coffee. “Have you slept at all? You look terrible.”

“Just leave it on the desk Milly. I’ll be back in a bit.”

“I assume, all our appointments are on hold?”

Johnson was already out the door and did not answer.

 

Pearlman’s secretary looked surprised. “Senator Johnson, he’s booked solid.”

“I’m pretty busy myself.” Johnson talked over her. “He’s going to take some time to talk to me. If this door’s locked, I’m kicking it in.”

The door was not locked. Pearlman and woman that Johnson didn’t know were conferring closely over a stack of legal documents. She was wearing an expensive looking dress, and Pearlman was resting his elbow on a folded up newspaper. Johnson hesitated the slightest second. For some reason he had imagined that Pearlman would be alone in his office hiding in the corner. Johnson said, “What the hell do you think you are doing?”

“Well, you are barging into a meeting, so I can assume that you are not asking about that.” Pearlman stood with palms out. “Senator Johnson, I can see that you are very passionate about something.” He hunched his shoulders in the tiniest shrug. “Mrs. Dickson, I know that your time is very important, but it seems like there has been some kind of emergency.”

“Should I make another appointment with your secretary?”

“Do that just in case, but I think I should be available in a few minutes, if you do not mind waiting.”

Dickson stepped out of the office and Johnson closed the door behind her. “Pearlman I thought you were my friend.”

“Calm down Jerry and take a seat.”

Johnson continued to stand. “How could you go behind my back like that?”

“Listen Jerry, I got a frantic call from Peterson. He said that you had not contacted him and time was running out.”

“But the sealed childhood arrest record, his home address, and family photos?”

“Jerry you let so much time waste. I was not able to vet all of the information. There was some incriminating stuff in there. We had to move before they were able to put together a strong denial, or we would’ve lost everything.”

Johnson lost his aggressive posture. “I guess you have an explanation for Senator Springsteen’s remarks too.”

Pearlman picked up a folded up newspaper from his desk and began to fiddle with it with both hands. “Yes. All we’ve done is what you have asked us to do. Senator Springsteen was speaking out with the blessing of the committee. We got together and nominated him to deal with the press since you, the committee chairman, were unavailable for comment.”

“Won’t you all look silly when I come out with my rebuttal this afternoon?”

“I just told you, this is your committee acting on your orders. If you come out against it, you’ll look like a waffler of the worst sort. You’ll look ineffective and incompetent. And you’ll definitely not get reelected.”

Johnson sighed and finally took the seat he had been offered. “This committee agenda is totally against my politics. If I stick with it, I will definitely not get reelected.”

“That is why you came to me in the first place. Your politics are not going to get you reelected.” He handed the folded up newspaper to Johnson. “Look at the first page. It is obviously you haven’t taken the time to read todays copy of The Times.”

Johnson unfolds the paper. The teaser for the politics section said, Senator Johnson Enlivens Campaign, Takes Criminal Corporation to Task. Page P-1.

Pearlman said, “You’ve got the first page of the politics section. You wanted public attention. You got it.” Pearlman leaned back in his chair and spread his arms out wide. This is your fate Senator Johnson. Accept it.”

Senator Johnson put his head in his hands. He did not know how to explain this to his wife.

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