2002–2003: Into Afghanistan …

2002: Vice-President Lieberman calls it quits.Photo: Illustration by Tomer Hanuka

The severed head was a little over the top, President Gore had to admit to himself, as he stood on the back lawn of the Greenbrier, waiting for the presidential helicopter to touch down in its usual green blizzard.

But damn, it sure wowed the hawks.

The security guys were already hustling over. One of them the spitting image of himself, right down to the POTUS windbreaker and those awful earth-toned suits Naomi Wolf was always on about.

“Mr. President, please! When you go out on the lawn, you must have your double with you at all times!” the one who wasn’t supposed to be him shouted. They were more terrified of some local mouth-breather creeping up behind a tree Deliverance style, he knew, than they were about Al Qaeda. Between the gun nuts and the laid-off miners and steelworkers demanding he get tough with China, he’d punted West Virginia by six points, and that had been almost as responsible as Florida for all the commotion on Election Night.

Well, tough titty, the president thought as he strode to the helicopter. Some people were going to have to get used to the idea that life in the new millennium wasn’t about tearing the tops off mountains just so you could grub some more lung polish. Besides, hadn’t he given the locals the Robert C. Byrd Clean Coal Research Institute as part of his omnibus energy package? Clean coal—riiight.

Meanwhile, his relocation had become the biggest jobs program West Virginia had ever seen. It was the logical choice, once Flight 93 had demolished the White House. All they’d had to do was spruce up the Bunker under the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, built there for Congress back in the Cold War days. The Secret Service loved it. Everything you could ask, all behind twenty-ton blast doors: dormitories, cafeterias, a state-of-the-art communications system, even a weight room. Everything, that is, except for the Congress. Capitol Hill was untouched; no need for them to come. He had the run of the place, and could call in anyone he wanted, whenever he wanted. Amtrak was running twenty trains a day in from D.C., and the town had doubled in size from all the media crews alone. He and Tipper took the presidential suite upstairs in the Greenbrier. They stuck Hadassah and Joe Leave-Me-Alone down in the Bunker itself, where he could keep an eye on them.

Coulda been a mistake, the president thought, frowning. Maybe that’s when he started to go all squirrelly on me—

He paused on the top step of the chopper, sucking in the sweet Allegheny air. God, it was intoxicating! Air like that, well, it gave a man an appetite. He smiled as he thought of Tipper, left back in the presidential bedroom just now in a state of flattering befuddlement.

Gave him other appetites as well, as the press had begun to notice. He looked over at the trim stomach of his body double. Would that guy have to start eating more, too? Maybe growing a beard would help …

The helicopter rose along with the two identical decoy choppers, the three of them zigzagging and changing places all the way to Andrews. He hated to leave even for a day, but he had to be in New York for the second 9/10 anniversary, at that damned hole in the ground. Who’d have believed two years could go by without a blessed thing getting built on ground zero? As it was, he’d had to intervene in every niggling negotiation between Pataki, that bastard Silversomething, and Mayor Mark Green, who had taken office following the tragic death of Rudy Giuliani in his emergency-command center. They’d even sent him the final designs for the replacement tower, which he tried to go over in the ’copter. There was something that looked like a giant hypodermic needle. Good Lord. That floating bone thing. No. A building that would stand exactly 1,776 feet high. Subt-le!

He shoved the drawings back in their portfolio, took out the day’s correspondence. First, a warm congratulations to George and Laura, who had just completed their respective rehabs. It had been quite an emotional moment when his 2000 opponent, face covered in unsightly boils, had gone on Oprah to admit he had fallen back into the bottle. And Laura right there beside him, holding his hand and copping to her own addiction to mood stabilizers. Now they were on the cover of People, looking tanned, rested, and ready.

In fact, the Republicans were finally showing some signs of life after the drubbing they’d taken in the midterms. They never stopped complaining about how long it was taking to rebuild the White House, what with the solar panels and the recycled water system he had demanded. All those jokes on Fox News about the Green House. Cheney got so worked up about the cost at one press conference that he’d set off his internal defibrillator, which sent him bouncing around the room like a pinball. The clip had been viewed so many times that it started a new catchphrase on the Internet: “going viral.”

“Makes me wish I’d invented the damned thing sooner,” he’d told Tipper that night with a roguish grin, just before turning off the lights.

The pushback never stopped, though. Now there was an entire movement of retirees with too much time on their hands who called themselves “the Wide Awakes,” after Lincoln’s supporters. They dressed up in shiny black capes, held marches, and carried lanterns like they had back in 1860, claiming they were on the alert for terrorists and illegal immigrants.

In the House, meanwhile, that ass Tom DeLay was demanding tax cuts. He’d had a good laugh over that one with Secretary Tyson and the new head of the Fed, Larry Summers. “Yeah, cut taxes in the middle of a war,” Larry had chortled, nearly choking on one of the Army-surplus cocktail peanuts that were a staple in the Bunker. “Who in human history has ever done that?

Truth be told, Afghanistan was beginning to seem like a rathole. Rahm and his Wall Street boys had dreamed up these miraculous new financial instruments to finance it, “insur-a-trades” or something, but it sounded too good to be true. The troop commitment was up to 50,000 now, and the generals always wanted more.

Especially since the head.

It had happened during the final assault on Tora Bora, where they had at last cornered Al-Zawahiri. The attack was made on the first anniversary of 9/10 and broadcast live, the Special Forces fighting fearlessly along with their British allies and Afghan trainees. Too many soldiers had died that day, though afterward all their companions had said was that they’d been doing their jobs. They’d overwhelmed the last caves, planted the flags of the U.S., the U.N., and the new Afghan Republic for the cameras …

… Whereupon one of the Blackwater mercenaries in the attack force emerged from the rubble holding a machete in one hand and the head of Al-Zawahiri in the other.

It hadn’t hurt at home. Dick Morris, surreptitiously back in the fold, had made it into an Internet clip and then posters. Internationally, though … not so much. First, “the head” deep-sixed the immense Mideast peace conference that he’d worked so hard to convene. Gore had to admit it had been stalled anyway. Who knew: More voices, more talk weren’t what the Middle East needed. After the head, everything blew up in an orgy of Palestinian suicide bombers and street riots, and so much settlement-building the Likud was telling American kids to chop down a tree for Israel. Worse yet, it wrecked months of work to squeeze Saddam and sons out of Iraq. It had been Holbrooke’s pet project, and he’d finally got Abu Dhabi to agree to take them.

The vice-president had never liked the idea in the first place—he’d pegged it as a disaster for Israel—and when negotiations broke down, Joe was literally off the reservation. Gore was aware that he’d been sneaking down to the Eastern Shore to hang out with Cheney and McCain, and the really scary one, Rumsfeld (thank God for the Secret Service!), but Lieberman’s speech had caught him by surprise.

The little bastard hadn’t even had the courtesy to let him know beforehand. He just popped up on Fox News one night with the usual suspects standing behind him like it was a dress rehearsal for Seven Days in May. The three amigos, with Lindsey Graham mooning over them; some retired brass, a few Murdoch sock puppets, and a couple of cashiered women CEOs. Oh, and Ted Nugent.

Looking disappointed but resolute, Pious Joe explained how he could no longer remain vice-president while this administration ignored the growing security risks in Iraq and Iran (Iran, too? Good Christ, just how many Muslims does he want me to kill?). Lieberman was resigning, he said, so he and the concerned American citizens around him could form a new, nonpartisan organization, the Committee on the Ever-Present Danger. Its motto would be “Country First.”

Just one more headache—so to speak. Who to make the new vice-president? Senator Clinton was already lobbying for it, in her usual, understated way: a vase of bloodred roses sent to the Greenbrier, with a note reading You owe us. May as well have been a bulletproof vest and a dead fish.

He supposed he did owe Thing One and Thing Two. But did he really want to go all LBJ-RFK with her? Gore sighed as his helicopter began its descent into Andrews, Air Force One waiting on the tarmac.

If it just hadn’t been for that damned head—

2002–2003: Into Afghanistan …