"Don't call me 'chief'. How's business?"
The two old friends smiled as they shook hands and walked to a booth in the back of the brewpub, out of the way of the boisterous lunch crowd milling about the bar. The taller of the two, a breath under six feet, with broad shoulders, a ruddy complexion and tawny brown hair flecked with grey, removed a cowboy hat and waved to the friendly faces in the dining room.
"Who's on today?"
"Diane. She'll be a few minutes. She's got a bunch of out-of-town exec's up there who are clearly through with their meetings for the day."
Ben Kane nodded, placed his hat on the seat next to him, and started fiddling with a paper bar napkin left on the table. A moment later he sat back and looked up, taking in the sights and sounds of his fabulously successful American Outback Brewing Company.
"I miss this place. I really do."
"You want to switch jobs, boss? There are people who'll pay real money to see me in a suit!" Joe Adams chuckled. His unruly mop of jet-black hair -- now flecked with gray -- framed an otherwise youthful face sporting a perpetual five o¹clock shadow.A former party animal now in his early 40's, Joe worked for Ben as the general manager for the popular boutique brewery and restaurant.
"Not today. Ask me again in a couple of months."
"Gentleman, what can I get you?" Diane, a brassy blond of indeterminate middle-age, nimbly swept up the old napkin from in front of her boss and placed fresh place settings on the pine tabletop.
"Hey! Diane! Good to see you! How's life treating you?" Ben hadn't seen her in several weeks.
"Oh, same old stuff. Things could be a little quieter, I suppose." She motioned to the rowdy crowd at the bar.
"Should we send the wild man here up front to smack them around a bit?" Ben winked and nodded in Joe's direction. The three laughed.
"No, they're fine. Just enjoying the home brew a bit more than we're used to at this time of day." She pulled out her order pad. "What'll it be?"
"Why don't you get me a buffalo burger with a short beer. I've got a 1:30 I have to get back to."
"You got it! Joe?"
"Nothing, Dee, thanks. I'm just keepin' the boss company. You know how people talk when he drinks alone."
"They talk no matter whom I'm drinking with."
"OK, funny boys, I'll be back in a few minutes." Diane swiveled her chunky hips around and went to fetch Ben's glass of his own American Outback beer.
"Where do you think this One Nation thing is going?" Joe asked.
Ben sat back, shook his head and stared out the window at the Sanders Street mid-afternoon traffic. "I really don't know. I've been so wrong for so long about how far people would let this kind of thing progress. I mean, I wouldn't think you could find 10 people in a thousand-mile radius who would even suggest such a thing, much less vote for it. But here we are. That son-of-a-bitch Henderson has got an even-money chance of taking over the entire social inner-workings of the whole country. And he makes people feel cheated if we stand in his way. It would be wonderful theater if we weren't talking about our lives here."
"I was in Billings last week," Joe said, "visiting the Crow buffalo operation. Nobody's happy about this, and everybody's getting less shy about letting their feelings known. Even the Crow are laughing at us! They think it's funny -- they say all the white men are going to end up working for the federal government, just like them. But the folks in Billings, Ben, not pretty."
"Who'd you see?"
"I stopped into Hawk's place for lunch, then to Rino's parts yard to pick up some hardware for the Norton. Rino sees a lot of the motorcycle element -- you know, not really your typical political policy-wonk discussion group." Joe lowered his voice. "He says everybody's pissin' blood over this thing. True, these are people who'd be prone to an 'us-against-them' attitude under the best of conditions. But they're pissed. Everybody's pissed."
"What about the non-outlaw types in town?"
"Not a whole lot better. The local business owners understand we have more federal money flowing into the state than we have going out in taxes. These aren't stupid people. But if Washington takes over education and law enforcement it means local officials lose control over their own tax policy, along with everything else. Nobody likes their life being yanked out of their hands and being treated like a child."
Ben was staring out the window again, considering Joe's comments. The approaching aroma of a sizzling buffalo burger and a pile of home fries commandeered his attention.
"Thanks, Diane. Tell your boss you deserve a raise."
"Very funny. Enjoy!" She hurried off to attend to her paying customers.
Ben glanced at his watch and made quick work of his lunch. Joe flipped through paperwork, organizing it for later in the day when he would have to take a more serious look at it. Chewing the last of his meal, Ben looked up at the crowd at the bar as they started moving toward the door, cheerfully saying their good-byes to anyone who would listen. He drained his beer and started collecting the papers he'd scattered across the table.
"I've got to get back. Keep your ear to the ground for me. Things are going to get worse before they get better. And I'm not sure how they're ever going to get better."
"I'll walk you out. I have to run to the bank and pick up some change."
The two slid out of the booth and headed for the door. Joe waved to Diane to signal their departure; Ben stopped and said a few words to some friends at the bar. As they exited and entered the bright sunlight, both slipped on sunglasses. Ben snugged his cowboy hat to his head; Joe walked to the sleek, black motorcycle with gold lettering parked at the curb.
"I'll talk to you later, chief." Joe opened the fuel petcock, switched on the ignition, and with two swift kicks, started his vintage, meticulously restored 1972 Norton Commando and coaxed it to a throaty, rhythmic idle.
"Stop calling me 'chief'. Take care."
Ben watched Joe roar off, gently shook his head and smiled. He turned and headed south on Sanders Street. The Capitol building was only five minutes away, just one block over on Sixth Avenue. Benjamin Kane, the 25th Governor of the State of Montana, needed to get back to the office.
A half hour later, Joe was back at the bar, spread out in a booth doing the food order for the weekend, including a sizable supply of buffalo meat from local Crow meatpackers. The Crow Reservation was less than four hours southeast of Helena. The tribe owned a nifty portable meatpacking plant -- a large, specialized trailer they could truck out into the field to process freshly killed bison. The resulting product was as fresh as it gets, and was a huge hit with both the local patrons and the tourist trade. The Governor's brewpub moved some steaks and sausage, but it was the buffalo burgers everybody was crazy about: Big 12-ounce patties with almost no fat, grilled to perfection on the well-seasoned, open flame grill. Served with a frosty pint of fresh-draft American Outback beer, it was the simplest expression of gastronomical perfection one could casually enjoy in downtown Helena.
The television caught Joe's attention. The CNN talking head was pontificating on the promised benefits of the President's "One Nation" program presently working its way through Congress. The bill had just easily been passed in the House; the only question remaining was whether there were the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to break the threatened filibuster (promised by Montana's Senator Nancy Taylor, and a few others).
Joe dropped his pencil and sat back against the red cushioned bench. "Damn," he said out loud, to nobody in particular. Behind him, the entire bar was watching the broadcast in silence.
President Robert Henderson stood at the French Doors in the Oval Office, looking into the Rose Garden, hands folded behind his back. It was good to have a few minutes alone to contemplate the direction his administration, in office now for 5 months, was taking the Nation.
The intercom interrupted his solitude. "Mr. President, I have the Majority Leader returning your call, and Senator Taylor has just arrived."
"Put the Leader through, and show Senator Taylor to the study, Liz. Thanks."
Liz smiled at senator Nancy Taylor, the junior Senator from Montana. A conservative Republican, the 48-year-old was two years into her second term. This was her first private White House visit with the liberal President, called on short notice by his invitation. No shrinking violet, the tough-talking Nancy Taylor was seldom at a loss for words. She was afraid one of those rare moments was upon her, though.
"The President will see you now, Senator." Taylor followed the businesslike aide into the President's study adjacent to the Oval Office.
"He just picked up the phone, he'll come and get you in a few moments."
Nancy Taylor looked around the masculine, private study. While not terribly well lit, the small room seemed comfortable, deceivingly casual, and was impressively appointed with historical artifacts and artwork. The nice-sized fireplace looked too clean to have been used recently. It doesn't look functional. Didn't Harry Truman have it moved in here during a major renovation? An old, large walnut tree shaded the private terrace just outside the office. She could hear the muffled voice of the President through the door. In eight years, this was her first trip alone to the White House, her first glance at the inner sanctum of power. Leaning back against the doorjamb through which she'd entered, the door to the Oval Office to her left and in her sight, she reflected on the events leading her to this place.
Three weeks earlier the President had presented his "One Nation" package to the House of Representatives. With the smallest minority representation in 40 years, the Republicans stood powerless against the Democratic juggernaut. The proposal sought the federalization of all teachers, day-care workers, police, social workers -- including all child protective services -- and prosecutors as so-called "national agents of social enforcement." When it was first announced, Republicans, conservatives and the like-minded had been drop-jawed stunned that such an idea could even be suggested, much less seriously considered. But the President made his case to the people, the elected representatives parroted their daily talking-points, and the mainstream media provided the uncritical, supportive stage on which they were able to perform. The bill authorized the transfer of just over one trillion dollars directly from the state treasuries to the federal government to support the endeavor. While the bill's opponents screamed about blatant violations of the 14th Amendment, nobody seriously thought the Supreme Court would find fault with it. Sixteen years of Democratic administrations saw the high court stocked with progressive, left-leaning justices who rarely saw a problem with a generous, expansive interpretation of the Constitution. The only thing preventing the bill from becoming law was the U.S. Senate.
Now the bill sat in the upper house, where the Democrats held a 58-42 majority, just two votes shy of the 60 votes needed for cloture -- the ability to stop a filibuster and bring the bill to a vote. It was the threat of a filibuster that had brought Senator Taylor to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue .
The door to the Oval Office opened suddenly; Senator Taylor snapped to attention and turned to the tall, striking man with a Hollywood smile walking toward her with his hand extended.
"Mr. President," she said crisply, extending her hand to shake his. "A pleasure to see you again, sir."
He guided her into his office, motioned toward a chair, took his own, and filled a minute with the obligatory social chit-chat before regarding her directly. "Senator, I understand you have a few reservations about my One Nation package. Let's hear it."
So she explained her concerns, speaking openly, confidently and without a lot of political beating-around-the-bush -- or intervening questions from him. Her efficiency was providential, as it turned out. As she was just beginning to summarize her key points, he was already rising, flashing that celebrity smile again, and thanking her for "taking the time to share those most interesting perspectives."
Before she hardly even knew it, she was out the door once more.
"Liz, see if you can find Raul Fuentes. Put him through as soon as you get him. Thanks." Fuentes was the President's Special Assistant for Policy and Political Affairs.
"Yes, Mr. President." Bob Henderson spun around in his chair, grabbed a folder from his desk and headed off to meet an aide rushing into the Oval Office at full speed. The aide hit the brakes as he saw the President of the United States on a collision course.
"Mr. President, the Physician's Union people are assembled in the Roosevelt Room. We're ready for you." The aide was now walking backward as the President shot past him.
He got two steps past Liz's desk when she looked up. "Mr. President, I have Mr. Fuentes on the line -- he was at his desk."
Henderson spun around without missing a stride and shot back towards the Oval Office. "Paul," he shouted to the aide now behind him, still rushing down the corridor, "Entertain them for a minute, will you? I want to take this."
"Yes, Mr. President."
Henderson closed the door behind him, settled into the high-backed, black leather chair behind his desk and hit the speaker button.
"Raul! I'm glad I caught you."
"I was surprised to hear from you, Mr. President. There's a high-level staff meeting scheduled for this afternoon -- do we have a problem?"
"No, no, not at all. Just a little business I thought you might take care of for me."
"Yes sir, what do you need?" Fuentes hated special requests -- just something else (he sometimes cynically mused) that he would have to lie about in front of a Congressional committee someday.
"I don't know if you've heard the One Nation package just passed the House?"
"Yes, sir, I did. Congratulations."
"Thanks, Raul. Listen, I need a clear head on this. Nancy Taylor from Montana is hell-bent on stopping this thing -- she's threatening filibuster, and at this point I don't think we have the votes to bust it. I mean, if we have to, we can scare up the votes; most of those whores are just holding out for a bridge or a water purification plant or something. But it's going to cost us. She's a straight shooter; I don't think this is just a party-politics position with her. Find out what's going on, will you?"
"Sir, didn't we lose Montana by something in the neighborhood of 80 percentage points?"
"Yes, and Idaho, the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Indiana along with it. I know they love me out there, Raul, but nothing has stopped them from getting on the chow line before. I threw a lot of sweetener into this bill for those ungrateful cowboys; I need to know why all of a sudden they're not biting!"
"I'll check with our state-local team here; they should have a handle on what the local hot-button issues are out there. And I'll see what else we have. I should be able to piece together what might be percolating out there under the radar and let you know as soon as we have something."
"Thanks, Raul. See you this afternoon. Gotta go." The President hit the speaker button and once again headed out to his meeting.
"Mr. President, I put together a short briefing document." Fuentes handed the brief across the desk.
"Thanks, Raul. I appreciate you pulling this together on such short notice." The President opened the padded, black leather portfolio and studied the three sheets of paper within.
"Looks like pretty standard demographic migration stuff ... shifting voter patterns, income distribution ... the usual. How does this help me?"
"Well, you're correct about the demographic migration, but the patterns out there are not what we would traditionally call standard, sir. Normally, when we see these big moves from rural to more urban populations, you start developing a more collective voting preference."
"Right," agreed the President. "They change from rugged individualist, cowboy gunslinger to neighborhood-minded soccer moms and dads."
"Correct, sir. At least it's what we're used to seeing. But the patterns in Montana, and several of the other western states just aren't following suit. We're getting the traditional rural-to-urban migration all right, but voting preferences haven't changed accordingly. In addition, there's been a significant influx of new populations."
"You're talking about the Hollywood and media crowd, buying up the hobby ranches?" Henderson knew several close friends and contributors who had done just that.
"They're out there, sir, but aren't really a factor. I mean one person can buy up 10,000 acres, but it's still only one vote. The family who sold the property is now living in a three-bedroom ranch house outside of Missoula, and is still voting conservative. Very conservative. And the people who are moving into the state are coming in from the eastern and western coastal areas."
"Sounds like good news for us, no? It's an influx of more progressive thinkers who should eventually dilute the conservative voting bloc. Just like when New Hampshire became a bedroom community for Boston."
"Not so, sir. The people moving in are very conservative, libertarian, really. We're seeing lots of people moving away from the once conservative, now progressive suburbs to what they consider safer territory. And the local and state politics are reflecting that. They've got the highest percentage of libertarian politicians -- including the Governor -- of any state in the Union."
"That's why we can't get a Democrat elected dogcatcher out there."
"Yes sir. And from their perspective, this legislative package is right in their face."
"Almost 28 percent of the acreage out there is federal land," the President pointed out, taking a greater interest in the brief and eyeballing some of the statistics.
"Yep. And until very recently the federal government was the largest single employer in the state. Toss the Bureau of Indian Affairs into the mix, and you've got the most government-hating concentration of people in the country living in the middle of what is essentially a federal protectorate."
"We've pumped a lot of money into that state over the years," the President agreed.
The Special Assistant nodded. "Dependence can sometimes breed as much resentment as respect, I suppose. We haven't even touched on the gun issue ..."
"I understand the state government has been a little lax in enforcement."
"Understatement sir. ATF thinks practically every unregistered assault rifle hidden since the Brady Bill has made its way into the state."
"The Governor isn't going to give us any help with that, is he?" Henderson mumbled sarcastically.
"He's a real piece of work. I understand he's calmed down a bit since being elected governor -- he was a true bomb throwing, revolutionary nut job when he was in the legislature -- but the truly frightening thing, sir, is he was elected by huge margins. And he's incredibly respected in the neighboring states."
"So the bottom line is Nancy Taylor isn't holding out for a deal. She reflects the state. They believe all that stuff and so does she, so she's operating on principle," the President concluded.
The Special Assistant nodded affirmatively.
"Anything else?" Henderson placed the briefing folder on his desk.
"Well, I did find someone who has spent some time in Governor Kane's eating establishment -- you know he still owns the place. It's just two or three blocks from the Capitol."
"I remember reading as much."
"He used to hold court there before he got involved in elective politics. Now he just pops in for a beer once in a while. Anyway, the cocktail talk from off-duty legislators indicates all the noise over the One Nation bill is not just a lack of political support; there is serious talk of some sort of civil disobedience across the state. And of course the militia nuts are going berserk. Bill Barrett, the Flathead County state senator, is really worried about possible bombing or assassination attempts. You remember the book, Unintended Consequences? The one where the gun nuts go ballistic and start shooting all of the pro-gun-control politicians? It's the new Bible out there. And believe me, this guy Barrett is no friend of the federal government. If he's worried, we should be worried."
The President's cheeks reddened and his voice hardened a notch. "How the hell did I just go from trying to get a piece of legislation passed to possible assassination attempts?"
"Sir, when you went to president's school, do you remember the lesson about not shooting the messenger?"
"What's the governor doing about it?"
"We think he's planning a quiet trip up to Kalispell with Barrett to try to keep a lid on things."
"Keep me posted." The President shifted in his chair, now noticeably uncomfortable. "We've got a meeting to get to."
Henderson and Fuentes stood together. After picking up another briefing folder from his desk, President Henderson and his Special Assistant quickly headed out to their meeting in silence.