Political Fiction: Murder On The Campaign Trail

A novelist imagines two desperate political parties thinking far, far outside the box.

The meeting was well-attended, everyone from party bosses to major donors. All were grumpy and irritable and vaguely intoxicated, taking a sip with each complaint so that manners only deteriorated. The numbers were in. It was not good for their guy, Andrew Warner, the Republican nominee. With less than a month before the convention, the incumbent, President Raymond Bailey, had a thirteen point lead, a number that had journalists using words like “insurmountable,” “hopeless,” and “hideous rotting corpse.”

Billy Hooker sulked. The corpse dig had made him groan, then chuckle, then throw a computer monitor at an intern. He assumed he’d been called to a Connecticut mansion in the middle of the night to be fired.

Hooker leaned his beefy elbows into his knees. He’d gotten even worse news: He was to stay on with the campaign and supervise the selection of a Vice-Presidential running mate, who would subsequently be assassinated.

He was not opposed to it, just ashamed that things had come to this. It was like masturbating to the nanny because you hadn’t had sex in six months. His kids’ nanny was seventy-eight.

“We’re just brainstorming,” someone said.

“It’d be a game changer.”

“Nothing else has worked.”

Hooker’s right knee inexplicably began bouncing. Dell Wheaten, a GOP insider, handed over a scotch. “Look, Hook, no one’s blaming you for where we’re at.”

“Thirteen down,” another said.

“Fact is we can’t lose this election. Too much at stake. For all of us.”

“Nothing else has worked.”

It was true. Two Supreme Court justices would be dead or retired in a few years, and whoever was in office could shape the Court for decades. The country was in a recession, but there were indicators the economy was improving; whichever party won would be credited with the comeback. Not to mention the last election, like every election, left the losers wanting revenge. Hooker could smell the testosterone in the room.

“We don’t have a message,” Wheaten continued. “It’s just … Warner lacks the …”

“Balls,” someone called.

“Balls, yes, to get this won. We need a message voters can get behind.”

“What message is that?” Hooker asked.

“Underdog. Rising from the ashes. Bloody but unbowed. That’s a message we can ride all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Hooker sipped the scotch. “Who’d you have in mind?”

“Higgins from Alabama. Clifford from Wisconsin. Mitchell from California. Any one of them could swing this election.”

“By being shot?” Hooker asked.

“We’re just brainstorming.”

“Nothing else has worked.”

“The Secret Service,” Hooker said.

“We checked. Never go for it with a sitting president or a nominee. But they’re willing to bend for a Veep.”

“And you think this will produce enough sympathy to swing the election?”

Dell Wheaten paced. “Let me tell you about a respectable member of the Republican Party back a few years. Went by the name Ronald Reagan.”

“Gip!”

“Here, here!”

“In 1980, his approval ratings were awful. Americans hated him. Only reason he was elected was because they hated Jimmy Carter worse. After the assassination attempt, his ratings skyrocketed. Any legislation he backed, it got done.”

“This is different,” Hooker said.

“How’s it different?”

“That was real. You’re talking about faking an assassination.” The room fell silent; Hooker gulped. “You know that, right? The Reagan assassination wasn’t staged?”

“Hell it wasn’t.” The voice came from an old man who removed an oxygen mask to speak. Hooker was twelve when Reagan was shot. He barely remembered and did not intend to argue with people who may or may not have staged it, and who might die if the debate grew heated. The old man sucked more charisma. “This’ll work,” he heaved. “Put the three names in the hat. Mister Hooker, pick out a name.”

The names were written and the hat made its way to where Billy Hooker slugged scotch. He knew how it went. There was no backing out, not with the dirt they likely had on him. He had taken the job; he had to see it through. He reached for a slip of paper.

***

U.S. Senator Ross Mitchell was asleep when the phone rang. There was no time to shower. He put on his Yale sweatshirt, brushed his teeth and kissed his dog goodbye. This was it. There were rumors Warner would tap him as his running mate. He had risen from law school through the GOP rapidly, and now at age forty-five he had gotten the call. He was told to be at his offices on Geary Street in one hour, alone.

Billy Hooker and Dell Wheaten had taken the first flight out to give a man the best and worst news of his life. Mitchell opened the door and offered coffee when they arrived, but the men motioned toward the desk instead. They got down to business quick; they needed a favor, a sacrifice of sorts.

“For the good of the party,” Wheaten said, tossing a folder on the desk. It contained all the dirt on Mitchell, information he was afraid might surface once the vetting committee began: embezzlement, one of two affairs in which he had partaken, enough information to trigger a whole series of ‘gates’ — Phoenixgate, Coffeegate, Toyotathongate. One did not get to where he was, as quickly as he had, without bending rules. None of the information was public, but it appeared it was enough to scare off the Warner campaign.

“Flew all the way here to tell me I’m not getting the Vice President nod?” Mitchell closed the folder. “Who is then?”

“You are,” Hooker said.

“I don’t understand.”

“Mister Mitchell, how dedicated are you to this country?”

“My voting record speaks for itself. I’m a staunch supporter–”

“I don’t care about politics,” Wheaten interrupted. “If given the opportunity to lay down your life to ensure a moral, safe, conservative America, would you do it?”

“Is this about my lack of military service? I may not have served in the armed forces, but I have backed every referendum in support of our military. Most voters see me as hawkish.” Mitchell smacked a fist into his Yale sweatshirt. “And I bleed red, white and blue.”

“So you’d do it?” Hooker asked. “You’d take one?”

“One what?”

“A bullet.”

It was explained. Senator Mitchell’s face went from confusion, to a complicit smile, to wide eyes, and then despair. If he did not go along with the plan, everything in the folder would be made public, and his political career and reputation would be destroyed. It would all disappear if he abided, and he would be remembered as one of the great Republicans of his time.

“Bobby Kennedy,” Wheaten coaxed.

“Lincoln,” Hooker added.

“Garfield,” no one said.

“United States Senator Ross Norbert Mitchell.”

Mitchell fingered the folder. He was waiting for them to burst into laughter, letting him know it was a joke. But these men did not joke. This was real.

“Couldn’t it just be a flesh wound?”

“We’ve run the numbers,” Hooker said. “We don’t get the sympathy vote without a corpse.”

“What if we fake it? I get shot, you announce I’m dead, I live in South America under an alias?”

“Ten percent of American voters still think Elvis is alive,” Wheaten said. “Too many cameras these days, too many cynics. Public needs a body.”

“Agreed,” Mitchell said. “Just wish it didn’t have to be my body.”

Hooker walked behind the Senator. He rubbed his shoulders and leaned. “We’re at a crossroads in this country, Ross. Family values, immigration, foreign policy. We need this election. This country needs it. And your party needs you.”

“Couldn’t you assassinate someone else, then name me as the running mate?”

“It’s been decided. You’re the guy.”

Senator Mitchell had a history of Alzheimer’s in his family, affecting the Mitchell men around the age of seventy. That gave him twenty-five years before his mind and body crumbled. The last thing he wanted was to spend the next fifteen of those years in courts, or prison, and what was in the folder would accomplish that.

“Can I assume the financials are in place?”

“Your grandchildren’s grandchildren will be reaping the benefits of your sacrifice.”

“And my legacy?”

Wheaten produced another folder. “The Ross N. Mitchell International Airport, Ross N. Mitchell Boulevards in seven cities and counting, even a new Budweiser-Ikea-Ross N. Mitchell Arena in Virginia to house the Kings’ new NBA franchise.”

“No national monument?”

“Shit, Mitch, you’re taking a bullet, not freeing the slaves!” Hooker regretted losing his patience. “Tell you what — we’ll call in some favors. If no one finds a cure for cancer or lands on Mars this decade, we’ll see about that monument.”

***

“Son of a bitch,” Chief of Staff Jay Garrison said. “Bastards are going to steal another election.”

That was the sentiment at Democratic headquarters the morning after Republican nominee Andrew Warner announced Senator Ross Mitchell as his running mate. The Democrats called an emergency meeting to brief President Raymond Bailey on the rumors they were hearing.

“It’s a game changer,” Garrison told the President. An analyst dispersed pamphlets with fancy pie charts demonstrating how a potential assassination would alter the race.

“The Mitchell announcement will give Warner a slight bump. However, if Mitchell is assassinated between now and November, Warner will get the independent vote, the female vote, even the senior citizens.”

“Bullshit,” the President counseled.

“Everyone loves an underdog. This could be the strongest campaign message from either party in decades,” Garrison continued. “Let’s hear it, people. We need ideas.”

The room broke into debate — whether or not it could be done, if it could swing the election, if Mitchell knew about it and, if so, what type of severance package had the Republicans offered. The ideas came fast: Double-down in Florida, more negative ads, why not go to the press with this news?

“We could beat them to it.”

The suggestion came from one of the aides. Everyone waited to be disgusted by the insinuation, and when no one spoke up with disgust, no one wanted to be first to shoot the idea down. President Bailey never vetoed the prospect, which made it a viable suggestion, and Vice President Benjamin Walsh was summoned to the boardroom.

“We just want to hear where you stand,” Garrison began.

“Where I stand?”

“All I’m saying is their guy is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. We owe it to the President, to this country, to talk it out.”

Vice President Walsh picked up one of the pamphlets with the fancy pie charts. “We have a sizeable lead. Won’t matter whether they shoot him or not.”

“The analysts say it matters a whole lot.”

“We can still beat them on the issues.”

“The issues don’t matter,” Garrison said.

“They’re going for the heartstrings.”

“It’s an important election,” said President Bailey, speaking for the first time. “We’ve got a lot at stake in this thing: Family values, immigration, foreign policy.”

The room fell silent. Vice President Walsh took a seat, suddenly sensing the massiveness of the situation. “Mister President, are you planning to have me assassinated?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Ben, we go back.” The President checked his watch. “Someone else will handle the planning.”

Vice President Walsh walked to the President’s desk. “I served in Vietnam. I’ve spent two decades in Washington. I served six years on the Committee of Ways and Means, during which members of both parties recognized me as a leading voice on tax reform. Mister President, I am worth more alive to the United States of America than Senator Mitchell is dead.”

“We ran the numbers.” Anticipating the discussion, Garrison produced a pile of fresh pie charts. “As you say you are worth more alive than Senator Mitchell. But when it comes to the election, a Mitchell corpse is priceless.”

“But we oppose the death penalty.”

“The death penalty applies to convicted murderers,” Garrison said. “Clearly this is a different discussion.”

Vice President Walsh, one of the most respected men in Washington, fell to his knees and wept. “Mister President, please. This is gossip. The GOP would never kill a senator, even if it meant winning this election. We’re better than this, sir.”

President Bailey sighed, furious at having to make the call. It could very well be subterfuge. Campaigns were always leaking false news to throw off the opponent. If he gave the go-ahead to assassinate Vice President Walsh and it turned out the Republicans were bluffing, he would be the laughingstock of the Beltway.

“Ben, get the hell up. I’d rather lose the election.” He helped Vice President Walsh to his feet. “And I happen to agree — they don’t have the guts to off Mitchell, that little twerp.”

***

As far as assassinations went, the Republicans performed flawlessly. A Hollywood production company handled the project. Mitchell hated his wife, tolerated the two mistresses, and barely knew the kids, so he only had to make a few phone calls to say his goodbyes rather than plan any exuberant vacations. The Secret Service intended to use the catastrophe to request a larger budget. Lips stayed sealed. It went down on the final night of the Republican Convention, when no major sporting events or television talent shows were being broadcast on competing networks; all of America tuned in. The bullet ripped through his neck — below his face, at a spot that would produce solid YouTube clips without being too gross for the major media, as agreed to in the contract — ensuring he was dead on arrival at the nearest hospital. To his credit, Senator Mitchell never tried to back out of the agreement.

Reporters reported. The media tweeted. A nation mourned. Municipalities began plans to change names of boulevards and parks. And Republican nominee Andrew Warner’s approval rating skyrocketed, making up six points on President Bailey before the body was cold.

***

Democratic insiders were split. Some expressed shock their GOP counterparts went through with it, others claimed they knew it would happen all along. Everyone was stunned and irritated and bitter they had not acted on the information, huddling inside a nearby Hampton Inn for an emergency summit. They drafted a strategy and phoned Chief of Staff Garrison, relaying the instructions he was to pass on to President Bailey. The President received the memo along with the latest polls, calling his Vice President into a closed-door powwow.

Vice President Walsh was anxious. To assassinate him now would be far too coincidental. That meant they had something else in mind, a backup plan, and he feared the worst. The President held up several newspapers, each with a picture of the surging Republican nominee, Andrew Warner, who was now only four points down in the latest polls. The daily headlines recycled the same words: Comeback kid, gritty, underdog, and “improbably re-animated corpse.”

“See that?” the President chided. “Already calling him Little Orphan Andy. He’s got the momentum. He’s got the voters. He’s got the message.”

“They’ve suffered a terrible loss.”

“Independents, women, they all love him. But there’s one demographic he hasn’t reached. And that’s where you come in.”

“Oh dear, Mister President, what now?”

“We need the homosexual vote, Ben. Not just the homosexuals who side with us because we support gay marriage. We need all of them — the ones who don’t care about gay marriage because they’re smart enough to know better than to get married. And you owe me, Ben. They wanted to kill you — everyone from Garrison to the bosses right on down to the aides. I wouldn’t allow it.”

“I appreciate that.”

“In one hour, you’ll hold a press conference at which you’ll introduce American voters to your lover, who you’ve been hiding from your wife and children for years.”

“But I’m not gay, Mister President.”

“You’re not a rocket scientist either, but you’ve been drawing a $3 million salary from our friends at Raytheon for eighteen years. See, Walshy, politics is like acting. We’re hired to play roles, and then we move on to new roles. Don’t look at this as a lifestyle change. Look at it as a new role.”

“I won’t do it, Andy. I’m married.”

“You hate your wife. You haven’t lived at home in thirty years. Besides — and I’ve never told you this out of respect — but she’s much too attractive for you.”

“I have children, Andy.”

“To camouflage your lifestyle. The speechwriters will brief you on the language to use.”

“Too soon after the assassination. It’ll seem like we’re faking it to win back voters.”

“Speechwriters thought of that,” the President said. “You’re coming out now because Senator Mitchell’s death made you realize life is short, how important it is to spend time with the ones we love, shit like that.” He pressed a button. “Send him in.”

The door opened. A man entered, early thirties, astonishing to look at. Both men, staunch heterosexuals, admired the way he crossed a room. He approached the Vice President and shook his hand.

“Nice to meet you, sir.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m your partner, sir. Nathan Kelly.”

“Congressman Kelly’s kid. From Idaho. She loaned him to us for the election,” the President said. “He’s willing to do whatever it takes for the party.”

“It’s an important election,” Nathan reminded the Vice President.

“Well, I’m sure you two have a lot of catching up to do.” The President stood and circled his desk. “Got a flight to catch for Chicago. Nathan, a pleasure.”

“Thank you, sir.”

He turned to Vice President Walsh. “Your party needs you, Ben. Your country needs you.

“But, Mister President, I’m not gay.”

“Good luck at the press conference. Really sell it out there. Don’t let the naysayers think we made a mistake not killing you when we had the chance.”

***

The Democrats’ ruse worked. President Bailey was elected to a second term by a narrow margin. Three months later he died of a massive heart attack brought on by the stress of worrying that his Chief of Staff was planning to have him shot to help pass gun control legislation. On April 1, 2013, Benjamin Jasper Walsh was sworn in as the first homosexual President of the United States of America. A national monument was erected in his honor. No one ever mentioned Senator Ross Mitchell, or the woman who cured cancer, again.

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