Read an Excerpt
“Tara?” Marcus yelled, for the fourth time in as many minutes.
She held perfectly still and said nothing.
“Isn’t it your job to watch her?” he snapped at one of the Secret Service agents assigned to protect his wife.
“Not anymore, sir,” the agent said.
Tara almost smiled. She leaned back in her chair on the top floor of the Naval Observatory and watched the movers as they taped and then lifted the refrigerator-sized boxes onto the moving van. The movers had arrived two hours earlier, and everything in the house they’d inhabited for the past year had been packed in bubble wrap and carefully placed inside the boxes.
The agents had asked Tara if there was anything she wanted put aside for the trip before the movers started their packing. She had shaken her head and wandered up to the attic, where she sat watching the activity below. Marcus had run around like a madman, grabbing plates, bowls, and utensils so he could feed their eight-year-old daughter before the entire contents of their home was packed in boxes and all traces of Tara’s tenure as vice president were expunged.
Tara stared at the stack of official stationery she’d been holding in her lap and started again. “Dear Madam President,” she wrote. It was as far as she ever got. Every time she wrote anything else, the letter ended up crumpled on the floor beneath her.
“There you are,” Marcus barked, causing Tara to jump. She hadn’t heard him climb the stairs.
“What the hell are you doing up here?” he asked.
“I’m, um, trying to write a note to Charlotte,” she said.
“Do you have any idea how fucking traumatic this is for our daughter?” he demanded.
“I know, I know, I’m sorry. I’ll be right down.”
“Now,” he ordered.
She wanted to finish the letter to Charlotte before they left Washington.
“Can I have five more minutes?”
He stared at her. She stared back.
“Fine,” he said. Marcus stormed back down the stairs and slammed the door behind him.
Tara turned to her letter with renewed focus. She had wanted to leave a note for Dale as well, but the movers were working faster than she’d anticipated. They’d probably be miles from Washington, D.C., before Dale emerged from her grand jury testimony. She pressed her pen onto the cream-colored notecard. “Dear Madam President, I am so very sorry for everything,” she wrote. She chewed on the pen for a few seconds and then continued. “I would do anything to take it all back—to have never agreed to serve as your running mate or to have refused to assume the oath of office—anything to take away the suffering and embarrassment I have caused you. For the rest of my days, I will seek your forgiveness. With deep regret and sincere apologies, Tara.”
“Miss Smith, do you understand the rules regarding contact with your attorney?” the judge asked.
“Yes sir,” she said.
“You may stop the questioning at any time to speak with your attorney, but he will not be allowed in the room during your grand jury testimony,” he said.
“Yes sir, I understand.”
“Very well, then. We will proceed. Special Prosecutor Kirkpatrick will begin the questioning.”
Dale shifted in her seat and looked over at the members of the grand jury. The reporter in her wondered what their lives were like before they were summoned to jury duty. She watched one woman turn off her cell phone and imagined that her final text was to a babysitter or a nanny who was watching her children while she weighed whether White House officials had committed a crime by hiding the vice president’s condition from the public.
Dale would have loved to have done that story for the network where she’d worked before joining the White House staff. She leaned back and tried to listen to the special prosecutor’s question.
“Are you having trouble hearing me, Miss Smith?” he asked.
“No, I’m sorry, would you mind repeating the question?”
“Not a problem. Miss Smith, I’d like for you to tell us at what point—give me a week or a day or a month, if you are able to be that specific—at what point did it first cross your mind that perhaps the vice president wasn’t doing well, and who did you reach out to when, or if, you had those concerns?” he asked.
“What week?” Dale asked.
“If it’s easier for you to describe a situation or a period, that’s fine, too. We understand from your e-mail records that you were, quote, worried, about the vice president. In an e-mail to the White House chief of staff seeking guidance on press questions about the vice president’s frequent absences, you sought counsel. Is that an accurate description of those e-mails, Miss Smith?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” she said.
“And what were you told in response to e-mails seeking guidance about how to handle questions concerning the vice president?” the prosecutor asked.
“I was instructed to manage the situation. I mean, I was expected to manage the situation. It was my job.”
“And did you ever wonder why you were given this job? I mean, had you ever worked for a politician before you came to serve as one of the most senior advisors on the vice president’s staff?” the prosecutor asked.
“No,” she said.
“And it didn’t strike you as odd that you’d been given such a huge responsibility?” the prosecutor asked.
She looked him in the eye.
“I want to move on to the precise statements you gave to the press as you watched the vice president deteriorate. You described the vice president as tough and resilient in an article dated June 30. Is that accurate?” the prosecutor asked.
“Yes, it sounds like something I would say,” Dale said.
“Here it is, Miss Smith. I brought a copy of the article. The headline is ‘Vice President Increasingly out of Sight,’ and it goes on to quote unnamed White House sources who say she was struggling with the pressures of the office. And you, Miss Smith, are in the article saying that those quotes were uninformed and that she was tough and resilient,” the prosecutor said, reading from the Washington Post article.
“Yes, I remember that now,” Dale said.
“Were you telling the truth?” he asked.
“I mean, there were days in which she did seem tough and resilient,” Dale said.
“And there were days when she did not, is that accurate?” he asked.
“Is that a yes?”
“Yes,” she said.
“And was it your job to tell the whole truth or just parts of it?” he asked.
Dale turned to the judge.
“May I be excused to consult with my attorney?” she asked him.
“Of course,” the judge replied.
The prosecutor turned to the grand jury and shrugged his shoulders.
“Didn’t seem like a tough question to me,” he said to one of his colleagues. He spoke loud enough for members of the grand jury to hear him, and a few of them snickered.
Dale rushed from the room and into the hallway where her attorney was waiting.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Not good,” she said. “Kirkpatrick wants to know if it was my job to lie,” she said.
Her attorney smiled.
“That’s his specialty. He indicts the ugliness of politics, and then he gets the individual,” he said.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked.
“Tell the truth, Dale. It’s your only shot,” he said, putting his arm around her shoulders. “Tell these guys everything, and maybe they’ll see you as an innocent bystander, someone who kept quiet for the good of Kramer’s presidency,” he said. “They’re not after you, Dale. They want Kramer.”
“Madam President, are you ready?” the lawyer asked.
Am I ready? Charlotte thought. She nearly laughed out loud.
“Give me one minute, please.”
“Of course, Madam President,” he said, fading into the line of a dozen similarly dressed lawyers with briefcases who’d been assembled from Washington’s top law firms to defend the president of the United States in her impeachment proceedings before the U.S. Congress.
Charlotte walked over to the window in the House Minority Leader’s office. A group of schoolchildren stood huddled together watching a news crew from Philadelphia lug heavy equipment from its truck to the live-shot location. Another group of tourists stood behind the network anchors, waving. Charlotte watched a couple smile at each other as they carried twin boys up the steps of the Capitol in a double stroller. Instinctively, Charlotte glanced at her BlackBerry to reread the messages her twins had sent the night before.
“Give them hell, Mom,” Penelope had written.
“Don’t let the jerks get you down,” her son, Harry, had written.
She sighed and watched the activity outside the window. News trucks surrounded the Capitol, and reporters from across the country and around the world stood shoulder to shoulder in heavy winter coats and hats to shield them from the cold weather that had blown in for the occasion. From the television that was on in the Minority Leader’s office, Charlotte could hear one of the network anchors speaking in hushed, authoritative tones.
“All eyes are on the committee room as we await President Kramer’s testimony. If she does, in fact, testify, as we are told by White House aides she plans to do, she would become the first U.S. president in history to testify in her own impeachment proceeding. We can only assume that she is engaged in frantic last-minute preparations for this, the most important day of her career and quite, possibly, of her life.” Charlotte looked over at the lawyers. She’d hardly spoken to them since they’d wrapped up their practice session the previous afternoon. Before any of the attorneys interpreted her glance as an invitation to speak, she returned her gaze to the window.
Her first inauguration felt like it had occurred in another lifetime, but her second inauguration was still fresh in her mind. A year earlier, Charlotte had stood on the steps of the Capitol with her twins next to her and her parents and best friends, Brooke and Mark Pfeiffer, behind her. She had placed her hand on her grandmother’s Bible and sworn to uphold the Constitution—an oath she took as seriously as she took her responsibility as a mother and citizen. It was a cold January morning, but the sun was so bright, it had warmed the podium. She smiled at the memory of standing there after such a hard-fought reelection effort. Charlotte had believed that all of the struggles of her first term as president were part of the price she’d paid for what she’d hoped would be a less-trying second term. Now, she shook her head gently and wrapped her arms around her body. Someone had turned the volume up on one of the televisions.
“Stay with us. Coming up in minutes, President Charlotte Kramer will go before the House Judiciary Committee, which last week won a key vote in the House of Representatives to proceed with impeachment proceedings against the president of the United States of America. The impeachment resolution alleges that President Kramer behaved in a manner grossly incompatible with the purpose of the office she holds.”
Charlotte turned to face her army of lawyers. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and cringed. Her normally thick, blond hair looked thin and flat. It was pulled into a low bun at the nape of her neck. A few small pieces of hair had broken free and hung in front of her eyes. She pushed them behind her ears and noticed her pale blue eyes had turned gray, as they often did when she was sleep-deprived. She was wearing a light gray Armani skirt and matching jacket that she had purchased the year before. Both hung loosely on her now. She took a deep breath, pushed her shoulders back, and uncrossed her arms.
“I suppose it’s time to get this over with,” she said. She pushed the corners of her mouth into a closed-lip smile and tried to feign enthusiasm as the lawyers turned off their BlackBerrys and phones and nodded. They formed a huddle behind her.
Her Secret Service agent, Rich, walked alongside her and spoke more quietly than usual into the microphone in his sleeve as Charlotte walked out the door.
“Wayfarer departing hold room en route to committee room. Repeat: Wayfarer departing hold room en route to committee room,” he said.
“Rich, please don’t,” Charlotte said, placing her hand on his arm as they walked.
“Madam President?” he asked.
“Don’t whisper around me like I’m already dead,” she said.
Rich smiled sheepishly. They’d been around the world together several times over, including a dozen trips to the war zones.
“Sorry about that, Madam President,” he said.
As they walked down the long marble hallway, the only sound was the clicking of Charlotte’s high heels and the shuffling of a dozen pairs of men’s loafers. The gaggle slowed as it neared the door to the chamber. In a normal voice, Rich spoke into his sleeve again: “Wayfarer has arrived at committee room; Wayfarer has arrived.”
Charlotte turned and looked back at the lawyers one last time before nodding at Rich. “I’m ready,” she said.
© 2011 Nicolle Wallace