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Another Night at Camp David


McCain stared at him. Ever since September, when the SecDef had reversed his own policy on Eastern European missile defense—flipped what he’d set up for W, just to please the whim of His Coolness—McCain had been feeling contempt for his pliability, a dawning sense that simply not being Rumsfeld wasn’t qualification enough for the job.

“I’d like you there with me,” said the president, without irritation, but making it plain that this was the last time he was going to ask.

McCain held his temper, and kept the sentence forming on his tongue—You know, I’ve been forced to sign statements before—from escaping his lips. Instead, he just softly said, “Fortune favors the brave.” In the confused silence that he knew would follow, he explained, with an offhandedness so fake and stagey it annoyed even himself, that this was the motto of the U.S.S. John McCain.

“Well,” he continued, rising to his feet, “I will need a lift back to Washington. But what I need right now is a little bit of air.” It was understood that he would take a few minutes to think about the president’s request.

He stepped through the sliding-glass doorway and onto the lodge’s porch, leaving them to await his decision—and to make their policy without him. He looked up at the stars, and felt the burrito repeating on him. The small burning sensation in his chest forced him to confront a sudden one-heartbeat-away thought about Palin, who didn’t know plutonium from buffalo wings. Well, he wasn’t going to take that guilt trip right at this moment. He banished her with a mental image from ’92, a picture of Cindy, wearing way-too-short a skirt but looking hot, as she cracked a Champagne bottle against the bow of the U.S.S. John McCain.

He looked back through the glass door, toward the meeting he could still imagine himself running. He’d be putting its participants through their paces, not nodding at them as if they were some bunch of wired-up Frank Luntz voters he had to please. And no one would have bothered to ask the once-again junior senator from Illinois to participate. Nice guy, nice try, but who the hell would care what he thought?

And then, at 9:25 p.m., as McCain returned his gaze to the constellations, his mother called.

“The signal’s awful,” she said. “I’ve tried four times to get through. Exactly where are you?”

“Trying to decide whether I’m on board or just at sea.”

“Well, you left a folder here. Two folders, in fact. Both of them marked Indian Affairs Committee.”

McCain sighed. “I’ll send a kid from the office around for them tomorrow.”

“Good,” said Mrs. McCain. “Because right now I’m going to bed.”

His mind went back not to ’92 but all the way to ’52, when his mother, not in a short skirt but in hat and gloves, had smashed a bottle over the original U.S.S. John McCain, the one named for his grandfather alone. During the two years in solitary, the voice he had always heard in his head was the one he was hearing now—hers—the cheerfully sarcastic, get-on-with-the-job tones she’d spoken in whenever she had to suck it up one more time and move them all from Panama to Pearl Harbor or beyond. It was the voice she’d used when dunking him in cold water, with all his clothes on, when he’d start to pull a 2-year-old’s tantrum.

“Good night, Mother.”

“Good night, John.” He turned around and took hold of the door handle, feeling a familiar sharp pain in the hand they’d once smashed. He slid open the glass door and walked back into the lodge. Obama looked up, and McCain was struck, as always, not by the color of his old adversary’s skin, but by its unnatural, infuriating smoothness.

He didn’t take his seat. “Mr. President,” he said, “you’ll have my full support in the hours and days ahead.” There were grateful nods all around, and as Obama returned his gaze to a piece of paper, McCain added, “While you guys finish up, I’ll call and get Bush on board.”

“Which one?” asked Susan Rice.

“Both of them,” said McCain. He knew he’d never get a Nobel Prize, but there ought to be at least some service ribbon for talking to that lummox in Crawford.

Mallon is the author of fourteen books. Yours Ever: People and Their Letters was published this month.


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