2006–2007: An Assassination Attempt …

2006: Vice-President Arlen Specter is nicked by an assassin's bullet and quits soon after.Photo: Illustration by Tomer Hanuka

President Gore, or “Little PAl,” as the right wing insisted on calling him, woke up suddenly. His first thought was that he was terribly uncomfortable, as if being racked by torturers, but then he realized that he was still in the Figure Eight Office (the replacement for the Oval Office in the New White House), lying on the floor. He had fallen asleep on the sofa and rolled off, onto his back. (Why on earth hadn’t the Secret Service checked on him?) He reached under himself and pulled out the thing he had been looking at before he dozed off, a battery shaped like an oversize pair of binoculars. Supposedly, you could set it in a window on a sunny day, and it built up enough charge to run an electric car for 200 miles. The president got painfully to his feet and took it over to the window, where he set it on its stand. Outside, on the 9/10 Memorial South Lawn, the three windmills and the ten solar panels that supplied the NWH with power sparkled in the sun. Gore groaned and stretched, then went into the bathroom.

At the sink, he splashed water on his face and stared into the mirror. His hair was utterly white. That’s what being president did to you. He’d thought himself completely prepared by eight years of watching Bill Clinton. In fact, he hadn’t been prepared at all, and he was already eager to hand the office over to whomever seventeen months from now, leave Washington, and never look back. And the candidates were already jockeying for position—you would think Iowa was a summer resort these days. Among the ten Dems, he pretended to favor Vice-President Hillary Clinton, who was campaigning on her “experience,” even though she’d just started the job a few months before, when Specter stepped down after the assassination attempt. And he liked Eliot Spitzer, though the New York governor seemed not to know how to have fun. Hillary’s divorce from Bill was becoming an issue. There had never been a woman in the White House, much less a single woman. That she was dating Dennis Kucinich was also a problem. The Republican candidate would certainly be Jeb Bush, now that George W. had joined a Buddhist monastery in California and taken Leonard Cohen as his guru. But really, since the president rather liked all three hopefuls and wished all of them well, he favored no one.

What had he done when he realized that the fallout from his Katrina response had driven his approval numbers down below 40 percent? Solar initiatives everywhere. All of northern Arizona and New Mexico were producing power now, and North Dakota was booming, windmills everywhere, buffalo grazing at their bases. The rest of the country’s electricity production wasn’t as reliable, but you could fly over any city in a private plane and be blinded: Every roof of every warehouse, every house, every public building was clad in solar paint. It was amazing what you could do in two years if you were determined, willing to go completely white and to speak to your wife maybe once a month. And so what if Al III had gotten arrested for going 180 up the I-5 in his electric car? Good advertising.

There had been a piece of luck when Saddam Hussein fell over with a heart attack, and the two sons fled to Syria. The Kurds broke away, and the Iraqi soldiers ran into the arms of their American frenemies. It had been a tense standoff till then, with American troops massing in Kuwait as Saddam kept mouthing off more and more erratically (the CIA believed he’d had a couple of minor strokes) and everyone had been waiting for the clash of armies. Instead, the whole thing had just petered out, and the Americans had stepped in, colonizing the place practically by invitation. Now every time you called Lands’ End to order a shirt, you got a call center in Ramadi or somewhere else along the Tigris. No, he had not been able to stem the exodus of American jobs.

He had kept the Dems in Congress together, and the budget still had a surplus. He could say that. Or rather, Hillary or Spitzer could say that when the time came. But the country was fragmenting. Between them, he and Bill had guessed that once the Republicans lost again, in 2000, they would return to the center. Al had expected the same thing in 2004. But it wasn’t to be. As the GOP got smaller, it got fiercer.

The attempt to impeach Little PAl (on the premise that he had “overstepped his powers” when he issued an executive order banning assault rifles in churches and schools) failed, and that’s when some nut, goaded on by a faction of the populace, had decided that assassination attempts were protected under the Second Amendment. It had happened at a Labor Day picnic in Fairfax. Owing to some spine-tingling instinct, the president leaned over all of a sudden, and Specter had been nicked in the ear by a bullet. The event had galvanized Gore’s presidency and got him his third vice-president. Specter had joined Bush at the Monastery (which was becoming a retired-Republican “Meditate, Don’t Think” tank), opening the door, finally, to Hillary.

He knew things could be much worse. What had happened with Hurricane Katrina was a perfect example. For three years before the storm, he had been portrayed in the New Orleans press as “the PAl who cried wolf”—wasting federal, state, and local dollars shoring up the levees to prepare for his “Fantasy Storm.” He’d talked about it plenty, but the bad press had led to congressional resistance on the funding, and the Army Corps of Engineers had taken forever to get going. Construction was only half-finished by 2005, and the first draft of the evacuation plan hadn’t even landed on Gibbs’s desk when Katrina hit. Nearly half of the Lower Ninth Ward had flooded. It could have been much worse—Gore knew that—but the consensus in the press was still “Why hadn’t Little PAl done more? Seventy-six people died!”

His dreams told him what might have been—his dreams were so intense and vivid. Quite often they turned on that moment in 2000 when the Supreme Court looked as though it was going to stop the recount. But the nightmares included other things—bodies floating in the gutters in New Orleans, war, torture, bridges and buildings collapsing, oil wells (remember them?) gushing into rivers and blackening beaches. The images were consistent, and he understood them only in light of string theory, whereby the universe is multidimensional. In some other dimension, the Republicans had won.

2006–2007: An Assassination Attempt …