Self-Term-Limitation (Political Thriller, Fiction)
When a truthful governor meets power politics, only one can survive. "Self-Term-Limitation" is a completed 20,500-word political thriller about a governor working for the common good, who faces staggering opposition to her re-election from within and outside her party.
To deal with an onslaught of negative advertisement against her, 50-year-old California Governor Sheena McLintock brings in a veteran Washington consultant, while she battles the power hungry Senate President Pro Tempore who may not stop at murder. All seems lost when her husband, caught committing statutory rape, is subsequently killed under circumstances that make Sheena and her assistant/love-interest suspects. To spare him and save her legacy, the governor prepares to sacrifice her own life, when fate intervenes in the form of a powerful earthquake.
Another false alarm. The moment the California Highway Patrol cleared the bomb threat to the State Capitol, Governor Sheena McLintock rushed up the steep spiral stairs from the safe room. The benign euphemism disguised the strength of the steel-reinforced bunker beneath her first floor office, a necessity in a state prone to earthquakes.
When her executive assistant Charlie Depp caught up to her, her fingers briefly caressed the back of his hand out of sight of the two bodyguards behind him. The frivolous thrill punctured the tedium and dread that her job had become. No time to turn her head and steal a glance. The consultant from Washington, DC, would emerge from the re-opened security checkpoint in minutes.
A delicious delight swept through her as Charlie’s erection brushed across her skirt while squeezing past her to open the steel door. “Shall I bump the rest of your appointments?”
“No. This campaign thing won't take long.” She added to her excitement by blowing a kiss unseen by the men behind her. “I shouldn't take these meetings here, but you know my schedule.” Using a government-owned building for matters related to her re-election may constitute illegal financing, but avoiding unnecessary trips to her campaign headquarters also gave her more time to deal with the people’s business.
Charlie followed Sheena through the reception area into her office. “Boss, Chips are worried about all these bomb calls. Too many enemies to—”
“Baby, if you wanted to get rid of me, would you advertise it?”
“Dunno. Maybe a warning.”
“From whom? I've stood in the way of so many corporations' profits.” She dropped into her chair. “Besides, lobbyists fight with stuff they know—money, campaign ads, lies. Legal and effective.”
“Hit back, boss.”
Not the first time someone close suggested taking the silk gloves off. The consultant would surely advise the same. Something inside her still revolted against turning to the dark side. “The people elected me to clean out the filth here. I have to lead by example, not throw dirt like the rest.”
“Even if you lose?”
How she missed her movie star days. No matter how ridiculous the script, the heroine triumphed at the climax. Reality had an unkind habit of messing up her political happy end. Still, she clung to her belief in the good in people. “I haven't lost yet.” A note popped up on her computer screen with a bing, indicating the staff in the front office had returned from their forced break. “The wonk from Washington is here. We'll talk afterward, baby.”
Before exiting, Charlie held open the door for the consultant with silver gray hair and matching suit.
Harvey Mishkin twirled the tip of his moustache and got right down to business. "Nobody likes you, Governor! Even your own party wants your head, but that's why I'm here, isn't it?” The tall, lanky man paced around with his hands clasped behind his back. “On the bright side, you're, what, 50, going on 35? A stunning woman who looks good on TV.”
Sheena gazed at the sole picture on her desk, one of her dear Yorkie, Lila. Why had she not passed a law giving animals the vote? Cute critters do not deal in falsehoods. They fundamentally understand honesty, and helped by Lila as spokesdog, Sheena would win that demographic paws down.
Instead, she had to deal with her crumbling base of support among humans. “I am a good governor, you know, but I'm up against an onslaught of lies. No wonder my re-election is going to the d… um, hell. I need to fight back. Hard. Before the open rebellion in my ranks turns into brutal warfare.”
“Pissed off too many big shots, didn't you? But that's only half the story—grand ideals met beginner mistakes.”
She played with her pearl necklace to calm her pounding heart. Where did she go so wrong? The last governor's earth-shattering scandal had swept her, a political newcomer, into office. She had acceded to her reign with such high hopes. Unencumbered by the need for money and power, she pursued an agenda for the people, or at least what she thought the people wanted.
Why did so many of them ignore her real achievements and believe the distortions spread by her opponents, whom they derisively called misrepresentatives: promise one thing, vote for another? By contrast, she had promised over and over to tell the voters the truth and refrain from dirty campaigning. Yet, her fickle constituency now forced her into meeting with a veteran of the bare-knuckles-politics fight club. She was far from conceding defeat, nevertheless.
Sheena rubbed out a slight stain on the front of her teal blazer. “Okay, I made mistakes. That's why I brought you here, one of our party's top consultants according to my chief of staff. You've been through tough presidential campaigns. Clinton, when he had problems. Kerry, when he was unfairly smeared. Obama. You have the chops.”
Harvey studied the art on the walls, landscapes full of water and still lifes depicting fruits and flowers. “Thanks for the kudos. You picked these pictures, didn't you?”
“Yes. I find them calming.”
He turned to her with a look of disapproval. “I'm surprised your professional staff stood by you all these years. You screwed up even the basics.” His hand made a sweeping motion across the room. “Nothing projects power. Irises on wallpaper belong in a bourgeois living room, not in a governor's office.”
He lowered his gaze to the beige low-pile carpet. “For you as a Democratic< incumbent to trail by three points in California is quite an achievement, isn't it? To trail archconservative Wesson…” He turned to the Governor and approached the antique panel desk. “Let's face it, you were hired for your incredible good looks, and not your unincredible political heft, weren't you?”
Harvey placed his hands squarely on the oak wood top, looked down at the Governor, and interrupted her silent answer. “Correct me, if I'm wrong. When your predecessor, good-ol' Jimbo, left in disgrace and took the Lieutenant Governor down with him, the party, desperate for someone untainted, an outsider, turns where? Hollywood, of course!”
He pointed at her. “Hell, you guys here like actors in that chair, don't you? Handsome leading-man Ronald Reagan. Mr. Bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger. And now you, a McLintock. Oooooh…” He raised his hands like a ghost chasing visitors of a haunted house. “A name that inspires awe in friend and foe. And you have an Oscar on top of that. It's like the perfect casting for this role, isn't it?
“Well, I wasn't the only one under consideration.” She let go of her pearls and picked a loose thread from her shoulder. Not good. Falling back into my old nervous habits.
“Oh, I'm sure your husband would have loved to become governor himself, after all those years on the LA County Board of Supervisors, but he's too close to Jimbo and those lobbyists mired in that corruption mess, isn't he? So, hubby dearest decides to send in an innocent, pretty face where he can pull the strings. He Putin, you Medvedev.”
Harvey aimed his finger at her. “Except, unlike Medvedev, you had to get religion after the election and have a mind of your own, didn't you? Shed your blonde bimbo image just to kick that philanderer in the balls.”
Sheena's eyes followed the old man as he strutted around the room. How she yearned to choke him with his navy blue tie. Pull the knot tight to keep more words from leaving his mouth. “Harry, you've done your homework, except—”
“Sure, Harvey. As I was saying, my husband Mike was not an issue. I did what's best for the state.”
“Ah…there's dreams, there's reality, and there's perceptions. You know how to get what you want, particularly from men, so you got your bills passed, but—good policy isn't the same as good politics, is it?”
“C’mon, look what fabrications I'm up against.”
Sheena tapped the keyboard on her computer. A black-and-white commercial appeared on the flat-screen television on the wall across from her desk. Pictures of mean-looking men with subtitles like “Murderer” and “Child Molester” flashed by, followed by the word “Released,” interspersed over and over with a clip of her saying “We can't afford these prisons.” At the end the punch line, delivered by a female voice: “We can't afford Sheena McLintock.”
She motioned toward the screen. “Misleading. Out of context. Courts, parole boards ordered the releases. It has nothing to do with prison space. The governor doesn't have a say in these matters anyway.”
He directed his open palm at her. “Governor, did you have—”
“Sheena. Call me Sheena.”
“Fine, Gov…Sheena, did you have to pick a fight with a big employer like the corrections industry right off the bat?”
“I needed the money for my education reforms.”
“Sure, parents like more teachers, but that's not how it works. Power, Governor, power. The prison lobby has money for TV ads, the school lobby doesn't. And for every mother who worries about her child in school, there's a mother who worries about her child getting molested on her way to and from school.” His hands went up as he rolled his eyes. “You idealists never think about perceptions.”
Another bing, another note.
The Secretary of the State and Consumer Services Agency had arrived. If Sheena could only find more time in her day for important meetings. Small price to pay for a cabinet member to wait a few minutes. His job depended on her re-election, too.
Initially her popularity so intimidated her opponents, she could pass many innovative programs. Soon, however, the established machinery on both sides closed ranks behind the lobbyists. Untruthful issue ads surfaced. Legislation slowed to a crawl.
To salvage her dreams she had to continue to a second term. The political orthodoxy of a normal campaign took hold, all the things she had vowed to avoid: groveling for contributions, bending rules for donors, making nefarious deals, maligning her opponents, and dealing with people like this man.
Sheena ran a finger back and forth across her lips, her eyes fixed on the superstar consultant. How she loathed the dirty tricks necessary to win in politics, yet, here she was, talking to the master trickster.
She twisted around in her seat. “Can I fix this?”
“The jail stuff, maybe, but did you have to go after the energy industry in your first year and shut down the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant? Seriously, you're limited to two terms, aren't you? Do stuff like that at the end.”
“That's not fair! Like I could pick the timing of the Fort Irwin earthquake? Power outages—people in the dark, scared.” Her eyes narrowed to a glare. Sheena threw up her arm in a gesture of defiance. “I made sure the chaos doesn't repeat. Bunkered desalination equipment, solar generators, and decommissioned the plant. It can't withstand an eight on the Shoreline fault. I have millions of people downwind. Do you want a Fukushima-style meltdown there?”
“Nothing even close to that size has ever happened there.”
“Doesn't mean it can't! Remember what happened in New Orleans?”
“Guesswork. Anyhow, you went about it all wrong. Suing a big utility company and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, then pushing expensive, new technologies as replacement. Bad politics.”
Sheena pressed against the armrests. She regretted wearing her low-heeled pumps. With seven-inch platform shoes, she could at least have reached his chin. If she stood as is, she would confront his chest. Better to exert power from a seated position. She channeled her strength into a superior look and voice. “I consulted German experts. Their government went from nuclear to alternative long before us. A conservative government, I might add.”
“And what were their results? Lawsuits and price increases? Hell, it's a running joke with Republicans that government can't do anything right, particularly European governments, isn't it?”
She looked out the window, past the green drapes with raised oak leaf patterns. “It's been a falsehood for just as long. The thermal plants had startup problems, as do other power plants. We had to build up capacity for solar on rooftops. Train installers. The people will thank me when fossil fuel prices rise.”
“Ah.” Harvey exhaled loudly. He leaned on the desk and stared her down. Two of his fingers pointed at his blue eyes. “Perceptions, Governor, perceptions. Years from now doesn't help you, does it?”
Another annoying bing. How could she get anything done with the constant bing and boom interruptions?
CHP found backpack at far end of Capitol
She should quietly respond with a typed message, but given her embarrassing keyboard skills, she pushed the intercom button instead. “Unless they think I'm in danger, I'm not moving. We’ve already wasted enough time with bomb scares this week.” Hard to believe that the people of California hated their governor enough to kill her. Although a number of Hollywood leading ladies did die at the hands of real fanatics, moving from making movies to politics had its disadvantages. Twice the fans and twice the enemies. No more spontaneous autograph signings or usies, however. Her bodyguards made sure no one came close enough for pictures. If only they could get rid of liars and tricksters too. “Harry, don't you understand? It—”
“It's Harvey.” He leaned forward further. Their noses almost touched.
“Okay, Harvey. It still was the right thing to do.” She delivered the line methodically, her stare locked on his without blinking.
He retreated and paced around the room again. “Right, wrong, who cares? You, as a film star, should understand. What's real doesn't matter. Moving pictures on the screen, that counts! Something to see, that counts. You remember Bush's tax rebate checks? Or Obama's health insurance rebate checks? Cost money to send them out, but millions of voters saw tangible benefits in their hands. What do you do?”
Harvey stood in front of her with arms raised like a wizard conjuring a demon. “You pay for the shutdown of Diablo Canyon and your solar program with surcharges on electricity. Month after month voters see a reminder of your policies on their bills. That's not how you win elections! You have self-term-limited with nonsense like that, haven't you?”
An overwhelming urge to throw her computer and her consultant out the locked, bulletproof windows gripped her. Dealing with consumer protection could not possibly approach the humiliation of this conversation. “Harvey, Proposition 13 makes it virtually impossible to raise taxes for anything. I can argue with you forever about my limited options, but I have a cabinet member outside. Cut to the chase. Can you help me?”
He looked at the print of van Gogh's Sunflowers on the wall. “Maybe. I prepared a proposal with dollar figures.”
Harvey reached into his briefcase on the conference table and handed her a report with an air of resignation. “If you were president we could play Wag the Dog, you know. Invade some foreign country; make peace in the Middle East. As Governor…” He looked at her sideways. “You don't know anybody who can cure cancer, do you?”
She shook her head.
“Too bad.” His face scrunched up. “From what I've heard you're so unpopular with the state party leadership that you need all the outside help you can muster.”
“Bill Earnhardt‘s poisoned the waters against me from the start. California already gives the Senate President Pro Tem enormous powers, but he still wants more. He wants my job…by any means. And I want to emphasize any means.”
“Including bombs for questioning his balls? I'm sure he appreciated you calling him ‘Lil' Bill’. You didn't mean his imposing six-foot quarterback frame, did you, but what's dangling below?”
Sheena's arms flew through the air. “Gosh, I slip up once, and it's all over the news. What about the things his cronies say? Some of them talk about fucking me over good, and they don't mean it metaphorically.”
“Accept it, Governor, half the men in this state dream about fucking you, but that's why you have those, what, bodyguards out there, don't you?”
“California Highway Patrol? Without uniforms and motorcycles?”
“Well, since they merged with our state police, they also protect the governor.”
“Interesting. They can shield you from the wrath of Bill. Unfortunately, they can't keep away the wrath of the voters now, can they?”
Harvey Mishkin turned around, and swaggered to the door. He held up his index finger. “Frankly, if your—to use a term you'll understand—frenemies are right about you bungling things for three years, only one guy can save you, but he's much harder to reach than me.”
Sheena looked at him surprised. Her racing heart went into a final sprint for the finish line. Every muscle in her body tensed. She pushed herself forward as her red fingernails dug into the armrests. “Who?”
He turned his head without breaking his stride. “Isn't Bill's Inquisition coming tomorrow to set you straight? Ask him, the oh-so-all-mighty.”
She gave him a confused look.
His eyes twinkled mischievously as he opened the door. “The pun went right over your head, didn't it? The Almighty, get it? God! If he delivers a miracle, I'll deliver a victory. Start praying, Sheena.”