Thursday, October 26
It's always odd, meeting someone famous. On television, they never look at you, unless they're giving a speech or staring at the camera in a commercial, and in those cases, they are perfectly made up, every hair in place, rouge spread across their cheeks by artists who make lucrative livings helping people appear better than they actually are. In newspaper pictures, they are staring down or straight ahead or off at some distant point, dead still, like a corpse. But in person, their eyes move as if some mannequin has sprung eerily to life. They have blemishes, hair is out of place, and your blood races the first few times they use your name.
It was like that on a perfect autumn dawn amid the rolling hills of Congressional Country Club, the type of day when the air is as crisp as an apple and the bright red and orange leaves look as if they were painted by the hand of God himself. It was just after 6:00 A.M., Thursday, October 26, when I wheeled my five-year-old Honda Accord into a space between a hunter green Jaguar and a Lexus. Before I could even pop the key into my trunk, a rather becoming woman flashed a Secret Service badge at me, spoke my name, and asked apologetically if I would raise my arms while she scanned my body with a handheld metal detector. A couple of older members happened by, glanced at my car and at the agent frisking me, and shot me a look as if I must be some horrible criminal -- or perhaps worse, a trespasser.
But their expressions changed abruptly when a man in golf cleats came clicking across the parking lot, looking all loosey-goosey with a putter in one hand and a can of Coca-Cola in the other. "Jack," he called out to me from about ten feet away in a voice as familiar as Sinatra. "Jack, Clay Hutchins. It's a pleasure to meet you."
The introduction was hardly necessary, but I wondered what else you do if you're him: Clayton Hutchins is the president of the United States. He was taking a break from the rigors of a heated election campaign to play an early-morning round of golf. Me? I'm a Washington-based reporter for the Boston Record, and if you ask my editors, a pretty damn good one. If you ask me, a very damn good one, but I'm trying to get that problem in check. And what was I doing playing golf with the president at his private club in one of the wealthiest towns in Maryland? Good question. One day I called his press secretary on a story about presidential pardons, a few days later I'm summoned off the campaign trail and onto a golf course with the president himself. I suspected I'd find out the reason soon enough.
"Mr. President, the pleasure is certainly mine," I said, somewhat flustered, reciting words I had rehearsed in the car on the way. "I'm quite honored by the invitation."
"What do you say we hit a few putts before we head out, Jack," the president said.
Some sort of valet in a jumpsuit came running up and grabbed my golf bag. An advance man spoke into a walkie-talkie, and in the distance a caravan of golf carts moved around the practice green. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the female Secret Service agent politely shooing away the two members who had given me the evil look, and I turned and graced them with a sizable smile.
As I walked toward the putting green with the president, past the ancient, graceful clubhouse, a man in a pair of knickers, a brightly colored argyle sweater, and a golf beret happened out the front door. The president leaned in toward me and whispered, "What a complete horse's ass, but he's the best the pro tour could do for me this week."
Louder, in that booming voice of his: "Jack, I want you to meet Skeeter Davis. Skeeter, this is Jack Flynn. He's the young man I told you about earlier. Skeeter's going to give us a few tips today, turn us into pros. Right, Skeeter?"
We all made proper introductions and swapped small talk and a few one-liners, though I fear mine weren't all that funny, tempered by some loose butterflies floating uncharacteristically about in my stomach. On the practice green, I retreated to my own little corner to take measure of the situation. Here was the president of the United States, in a pair of rumpled khakis with a navy blue polo shirt and a drooping yellow V-neck sweater, treating me like his new best friend. And Skeeter Davis, one of the country's foremost golf champions, ready to give me lessons. There were a dozen golf carts lining the green, some with burly Secret Service agents talking into their wrists and listening through clear plastic earpieces. Two other carts carried four agents dressed in full black Ninja jumpsuits, armed with what appeared to be surface-to-air missile launchers and laser-trained automatic rifles. Over in the distance, on the other side of the caravan, were a few members of the White House press corps, mostly photographers with zoom lenses. There was a lot to think about here, but most of all, what I was thinking was this: Please don't duck hook my first drive into the woods.
"You boys ready?" the president boomed. His voice was like steel, meant to last, maybe even at times make history. He held his hand up toward the brilliant blue sky and briefly looked around at the pageant of colors that made up this fall morning. "It's going to be a memorable day."
On the tenth hole, Hutchins cut to the point. By then, he had already sliced six, maybe seven balls deep into the woods, in places where no federal employee had ever gone before. I started to wonder if the Secret Service agents were wearing their considerable gear to protect themselves against an assassin or Hutchins's errant golf shots. And after each ball floated aimlessly over the tree line and into the woods, I'll be damned if Skeeter Davis wasn't right there saying, "Excellent swing, Mr. President. Let me just make one small suggestion." I swear to God, Hutchins could have sliced a ball through the windshield of a school bus and caused forty third-graders to careen off a cliff. The air would soon be filled with the sounds of ambulance sirens, and later, mothers wailing over the greatest misery they would ever know. And Davis would have said, "Nice swing, Mr. President. If you'd allow me to make one small suggestion."
Well, for what it was worth, my game was on, not that anyone really noticed. The Secret Service were looking for trouble. Davis was looking at Hutchins. Hutchins was looking at God knows what, but it wasn't me. Not until the tenth tee, when he asked Davis in a polite but imploring tone, "Skeeter, could you grab us all some lemonade out of that cart over there?"
As Skeeter made his way off, Hutchins turned to me with a businesslike look on his face and asked in a voice that sounded uncharacteristically timid, "How would you feel about coming over to the White House after the election, taking over as my press secretary?"
Jesus Christ. I was about to open my mouth, but to say what, I didn't know. Luckily, Hutchins cut me off just as I began to stammer.
"Look, you know my situation. I have no doubt I'm going to win this election. I'm two points up in our internal polls right now. That's off the record, I hope. But I haven't had the chance to actually govern yet. I have a staff I inherited, and they have no loyalty. Me to you, I don't think most of them are all that good. Not my type, anyways. Pointy-heads. Intellectuals. Wingnut conservatives. Think they know everything, when all's they know is what they read in those far right journals of theirs or get from all that hot air on the Sunday morning gabfests. I've got to get my own people around me. People I respect."
He paused, checking, I think, to see if his sales pitch was having any impact. I was still in shock, not sure myself if it was or not.
Skeeter came back, carrying three cups of lemonade over ice. After the brief talk of politics and such real-world considerations as career moves, he suddenly looked ridiculous in his knickers, knee socks, and sweater, like he was the host at some golf theme restaurant on the Grand Strand in South Carolina.
"Ah, you're a real man of the people, Skeeter," Hutchins said, grabbing his lemonade. Skeeter beamed, missing the irony. To me: "We'll finish this conversation later."
Hutchins then pushed a tee into the moist turf, took one of those funny half practice swings that some golfers do, then stroked his best drive of the day, the ball soaring a good 220 straight down the fairway before gently bouncing along the tight grass like a little lamb trotting across a dewy meadow. Davis seemed to be about to have an orgasm, shouting, "Perfect, Mr. President. Perfect."
I got up and duck hooked my drive hard against a tree ninety yards out, and from the sounds of it, the ball hit about four more pines as it zigzagged deeper into the woods.
"Would have made that offer earlier if I had known it would help me this much," Hutchins said, a twinkle in his eye. And as I made my way down the fairway, disgusted with my drive and bewildered over where this day was taking me, I couldn't help but begin to like the guy, or at least respect his ability to look for good staff.
"You're starting to suck, Jack."
That was the president, on the fourteenth tee, after I hit my fourth consecutive drive into the woods. He nurtured a reputation as a guy who liked to speak his mind, a no-nonsense businessman who had inexplicably flourished in the house of mirrors known as national politics, all the while remaining as blunt as he had when he started out a political neophyte in the state capital of Iowa a mere ten years before. He wasn't much different out here, and these words were spoken with a lopsided grin and a dose of self-satisfaction.
Golf is like a political campaign, and a good political campaign is like life. You can devise great strategies and practice until you can't even see straight, but the game is long, and hazards will arise that you can never predict. There will be twists and turns that will torture the soul, ups and downs to test every cell of your very being, some of them absurdly unfair. And in the end, simple perseverance is often the key to who wins and who loses, who sits in the White House and who appears on Visa commercials in the Super Bowl, the lovable, powerless failure.
I bring this up because how could I predict on this day that the floor would fall out of my game because of an offer to be the presidential press secretary, one of the most visible jobs in America and a position that would eventually lead to great fortune for anyone who did it with even a modicum of success? There would be eventual book contracts, a sprawling office with plush carpet and a private bath heading the public relations division of a Wall Street investment house, grossly overpaying appearances performing punditry on network television. Not to mention that while you're at the White House, you might be able to work for what you believe in, perhaps even do some good for the country, if only for a short time.
Hutchins seemed to understand the reason for my golfing collapse, and he was reveling in it. There are two types of golfers, best as I could ever tell: those who just care about the score, the final outcome, whether the eight-foot putt hits dead center or skims by left, and those who luxuriate in the human element, the give and take, the frazzled nerves standing over that same eight-foot putt. The former usually are athletes, the latter are sportsmen, and I'd count Hutchins in the sportsmen's category, all toothy, even giddy, as the witness to my collapse, extending the occasional needle about being in need of a compass and a thermos as I made my way into the woods in search of an errant drive.
He, meanwhile, began hitting fairways off the tee with what I gathered was an unprecedented regularity. He began clicking his five iron off the fairway as pure as silk, his ball attracted to the green like a magnet. I heard one advance man suggest into his handheld radio that they might want to allow a network crew out onto the eighteenth hole for a candid look at the president at play, hitting soaring woods and deadly irons. I heard yet another aide use the word miracle on one particularly accurate approach shot, a seven iron from 140 yards that came within a club's length of the hole. Hutchins heard him, too, and shot him a look that would bring a Russian leader to his knees.
On the sixteenth hole, I skimmed four balls along the fairway and ended up inside a cavernous sand trap in front of the green, my ball pancaked hard into the grain. Hutchins, on the other hand, hit two beautiful shots, but caught a bad break and wound up in the same trap. It was as if we had stepped into a parallel universe.
"Here we are, Jack, together at last," he said, stepping onto the sand, so happy with life he hardly seemed able to contain himself.
Skeeter stepped into the trap as well and began giving us a few tips, looking, actually, far more at the president than at me: weight on your toes, club face open, come down hard into the sand an inch behind the ball and make sure you follow through. He demonstrated one shot and hit it within a few feet of the pin. Hutchins shrieked in delight. In my mind, I told him to go fuck himself -- Davis, not Hutchins.
What happened next is the subject of considerable debate, a few moments in history that were to be picked over by news reporters, defense lawyers, federal prosecutors, and FBI agents for weeks to come. But before they all trampled my thoughts, making the rapid-fire events melt and twist around into each other, here are my recollections, virgin as an overnight snow:
I gave Hutchins a nod, indicating, You should hit first. He addressed his ball, and I stood about six feet behind him. As he finished what I thought would be his last practice swing, there was a dull crack. Water began shooting every which way.
"Fuck," Hutchins yelled. "Fuck." Two aides raced toward him with golf umbrellas and dry towels. On the other side of the fairway, I saw the Secret Service swat team leap from their carts and take aim at sites unknown with their automatic rifles. The four agents around us all pulled their guns and surrounded the president, serving as a human shield.
One of the agents, speaking furiously into his wrist, soon nodded and holstered his gun.
"The sprinkler system was mistakenly activated," he called out loudly. "It should be off in a minute."
Then I saw a golf cart carrying two maintenance workers race up the fairway toward a small shed in the shallow woods. One of the guys leaped out, and within a few seconds, the spouting water retreated into a light spray, and then to nothing, as the sprinkler heads ducked back into the ground. Several aides helped dry Hutchins off. The Secret Service agents walked away, the sense of impending doom having been replaced by a rainbow that hung in the air over the green. Hutchins returned to his ball and took one of those foolish half swings, eager to return to his game.
And then, much louder this time, crack. It was jarring not just for the sheer volume, which was immense, but for how out of place it seemed on this magnificent day, in this beautiful setting.
And then, again, crack.
I saw Hutchins fall hard into the sand. I saw the quick spray of blood. I heard Davis scream, though it was more like a wail, like something I had never heard before. I felt a strange sensation in my lower chest, as if someone had pressed a hot iron against me, then tried to dig the sharp end of that iron into my burning flesh. And I remember falling down hard in the sand myself.
Then there was bedlam. Three more shots, to the best of my count, though my hearing might have failed me, and the dull thump I heard as my body hit the ground may have meshed with the shots and shouts. Huge men rocketed across the fairway and into the sand trap, diving over the president, then squatting low and carrying him between their hulking bodies to an ambulance that had suddenly appeared beside the green. Paramedics were racing all around. I remember this because one of them kicked sand in my face as he ran toward Hutchins, and I wondered, Is this how I'm going to go, surrounded by rescue workers, choking on sand, bleeding to death on the nicest golf course I'll ever play?
Finally, three rescue workers slammed a stretcher down beside me and picked me up. In the distance there were screams, though they seemed to melt away as air rushed into my ears while the men ran me toward the ambulance. When I got there, they were loading Hutchins inside, and he was still conscious. I heard him, livid, tell one of the Secret Service agents: "This was going to be the best fucking round of my entire fucking life."
It's odd to say this, but the next thing I recall is my father standing over me -- odd because my father is dead. He was with Gus Fitzpatrick, his fellow worker in the press room, who pulled a sheet across my chest, smoothed it out, and told me I was going to be fine. Then I heard a phone ringing -- a loud, cutting ring that must have jarred me out of a deep sleep. You hear a phone, no matter where you are, no matter what has happened, and the reaction is always the same. Barely awake, I remember reaching for it, and as I lifted my arm, I saw, with horror, that needles, tubes, and wires extended up my forearm to my biceps, and there were ominous, blinking machines all around me. Still I reached, reflexively, and as I got my hand to the phone, a middle-aged nurse, breathless, appeared at the end of my bed, muttering, "Who could be calling this line?"
When I had the receiver in my hand, I found I couldn't speak, my throat still thick with the remnants of a long sleep. On the other end, there was the proper, crystal-clear voice of what sounded like an elderly gentleman, but not someone even remotely frail.
"Mr. Flynn, is that you?" he said.
I couldn't speak. I struggled to clear my voice and summoned the energy to mumble a rather warped "Yes."
"Mr. Flynn, I want you to listen carefully to me," he said. "Nothing is as it seems. Do not believe anything that they tell you. There are strange, complex motives involved in this shooting. I will call you again soon."
He hung up without my saying another word. The nurse, oddly exasperated with me, snatched the phone from my hand and slammed it down, then yanked the cord out of the wall. More gently, she pushed my head back against the pillows and stuck some sort of paper thermometer into my mouth. I had never been in a hospital before, but from watching television, it seems that they are always doing that, taking your temperature, health care workers as pollsters. I remember her departing, distant steps, the soft squeak of her rubber-soled shoes on the hard floor. Then I remember floating on a raft in a bobbing sea, very much alone, finally asleep.
Copyright © 2000 by Brian McGrory