Thursday evening after work, I stopped by the Round Robin Bar, as I often do. About halfway through my Macallan 18 on the rocks, Higganbotham slid into the booth next to me and tossed an envelope on the cocktail table.
“Count it,” he said.
I knew Higganbotham, as most Beltway insiders do, as a notorious Republican bag man and fixer, so his behavior was hardly surprising.
“I will,” I dryly replied, “but not here. This is a consultation fee, I presume?”
“You presume right,” he growled. “Take that money, finish your scotch quick and follow me. We’re going for a little ride.”
Outside in front of the Willard Hotel, a black stretch limousine with darkly tinted passenger windows and federal government license plates awaited. “Hop in,” Higganbotham directed as he opened the door. “We’ll bring you back here when you’re done.”
Now, those darkly tinted windows I mentioned were really, really dark – I couldn’t see squat. And I knew from experience there was no point in asking the driver where we were going, and he was, of course, separated from me by a thick piece of ballistic glass. So I counted the money on the way – it was my standard fee in unmarked, circulated twenty dollar bills, none less than three years old with, apparently, no two serial numbers in sequence. From the length of the ride, given typical Thursday night traffic in Washington, the number of stops, the direction of turns made and changes in vehicle speed, I concluded that the limousine was driving through the city to some location in Northwest, probably up Massachusetts Avenue. So it was likewise no surprise when a Secret Service agent opened the door and I stepped out at the Naval Observatory. In moments, I was ensconced in a windowless basement office. A moment later, Vice President Pence walked in.
“Mr. Collins,” he opened. “Glad you could come.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Vice President,” I cordially responded.
“Call me Mike,” he requested.
”Okay, Mike,” I agreed. “How can I help the Trump administration this evening?”
At that, he scowled slightly. “That was my money, and the advice is for me.”
“Certainly,” I replied as he motioned toward a pair of plush mahogany chairs upholstered in soft, dark green leather. I selected the one to his right and sat down. “What can I do for you, then, Mike?”
The vice president sighed deeply, casting his eyes heavenward. “Well, you know what happened yesterday.”
“Sure,” I confirmed, “President Trump put you in charge of managing the coronavirus outbreak. Congratulations, Mike.”
“He said I didn’t have anything to do,” Pence noted ruefully, “so why not this.”
“The president had a point, you know,” I observed. “It was John Adams, after all, who opined, ‘My country has, in its wisdom, contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.’”
Pence’s face drew up in a hideous rictus of bewilderment. “What – you mean the Secretary of State?”
“Today, maybe,” I conceded. “But when he wrote that, John Adams was referring to the vice presidency. It’s well known that the constitution says nothing about the office other than its holder shall preside over the senate and, if necessary, vote to break tie votes. Other than that, there’s no power, responsibility or duty assigned to the position. That’s why you’ve spent your entire term as vice president swearing in various cabinet officials, going on tours of mostly B-list foreign countries, leading US delegations to international events of no political consequence, such as the 2018 winter Olympics, sitting in on White House meetings and telephone calls, and, of course, acting as an apologist for President Trump. So you’re not the first US vice president who basically has nothing significant to do. That part of the position description is more or less baked into the federal system, Mike.”
“I know President Trump is busy,” Pence whined, “but when anything important happens, it seems he always manages to leave me out of the loop.”
“Again,” I elaborated, “that’s not unusual. Look at Harry Truman – he knew absolutely nothing about US intelligence code breaking of Purple and Enigma, the secret agreements made at Yalta, preparations for invasion of the Japanese home islands, Operation Paperclip, German rocket scientists defecting to the West or the Manhattan Project until FDR died and suddenly he landed in the Oval Office. Actually, Mike, when you think about it, compared to the way Roosevelt treated Truman, you’re practically in the center ring of the circus that is the Trump administration.”
Pence’s eyebrows shot up. “Circus?”
“I meant that circus metaphor in a good way,” I lied. “Sort of like, there are three rings in a circus, with stuff going on in them all together, simultaneously, but the most important performance is always in the center ring – and that’s where, metaphorically, you are, Mike.”
“Oh,” Pence grunted, sounding vaguely confused. “Okay, I see. But to tell the truth, Tom, I don’t feel like I’m out there training the lions or riding the elephants or swinging from the high trapeze; no way it feels like that.”
“Well,” I consoled, “it sure looks like President Trump has given you something you can sink your teeth into now, though, doesn’t it? The world wide coronavirus crisis is about as historically significant as something gets, short of a world war, and here you are, in charge of saving the United States of America from a deadly threat of foreign origin! Sounds might heroic to me, Mike.”
“Except,” he groaned, “I’m a lawyer, not a doctor.” Suddenly, he looked down at the carpet regretfully. “Mom always wanted me to be a doctor, but I’m no good at that kind of thing – all that math and anatomy and chemistry and.. and you have to… you know… touch people. And… smell them… and things like that.”
“There’s really nothing to worry about there, Mike,” I assured him. “You’re going to be in a leadership position. There are whole armies of doctors at your command. They can do all that math and anatomy and chemistry and touching and smelling people. You just have to evaluate their findings and issue grand strategic directions that will affect the course of human history.”
“And take what they tell me,” he complained, “and then turn around and say something that boosts the president’s poll numbers, enhances his re-election prospects in November, sends the Dow Jones back up to twenty-nine thousand, and makes him look like a stable genius.”
“And,” I reminded him, “does something to mitigate the risks posed by the covid-19 virus to the American public.”
“Oh, yeah,” he concurred with an indifferent shrug, “that too, I guess. But Trump told me not to let any of those doctors say anything, you know.”
“Yes,” I acknowledged, “I know they’re going to be told not to make any public statements regarding covid-19, no matter what happens. But they can talk to you, and you will know what’s actually going on.”
Pence leaned forward as if to let me in on an important secret. “Trump told me to keep my big mouth shut, too. He said to let him do all the talking. And frankly, that’s fine with me. He said his staff is going to prepare any public remarks I make in advance, give me all the talking points, and coach me on answers to press questions in advance of every interview.”
“So, in that case,” I inquired, “what’s the problem?”
Pence leaned back and crossed his arms across his chest defensively. “The problem is, I know what’s really going on here.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“God is punishing the United States for letting secular humanist liberals, illegal immigrants, shiftless Negroes, lazy welfare cheats, gun-control fanatics, drug addicts, ivory-tower intellectuals, sexual deviants, alternative culture weirdos, free-trade internationalists, global warming hoaxers and people who want to stop us from smoking get away with the atheistic, perverted and downright evil things they do every day to pollute the moral purity of honest, hard-working loyal, patriotic white Christian Americans!” Pence proclaimed.
“People who want to stop us from smoking?” I wondered. “Why would God be angry about that? There’s nothing in the Bible about smoking – it wasn’t practiced in the Old World until the sixteenth century. I mean, I assume you’re referring to smoking… tobacco?”
“Yes,” he nodded, “and there’s nothing wrong with it at all. It’s completely safe. All that stuff about it being dangerous was invented by the liberals, socialists and communists back in the 1960’s. And of course God is angry about that. He’s angry about wimpy cowards who want to take our assault rifles – in direct contradiction of the Second Amendment, too – and there’s nothing in the Bible about assault rifles, either, is there?”
“I would have to admit,” I told him, “that there is absolutely no way to argue with logic like that.”
“There certainly isn’t,” Pence agreed. “And anybody who does argue with it is being a complete fool for wasting their time trying.”
“True… but,” I probed, “hasn’t having Donald Trump in office as president for three years and one month been punishment enough?”
“Apparently not,” Pence huffed indignantly. “It looks like there’s no telling how angry the bad Americans have made the Lord God Almighty.”
“Understood,” I noted, moving on. “So – are you planning to address the crisis by appealing to God for mercy by calling for national repentance and prayer?”
“Prayer?” Pence snorted derisively “How could I possibly convince all those secular humanist liberals, illegal immigrants, shiftless Negroes, lazy welfare cheats, gun-control fanatics, drug addicts, ivory-tower intellectuals, sexual deviants, alternative culture weirdos, free-trade internationalists, global warming hoaxers and people who want to stop us from smoking to repent and pray to God asking forgiveness for all those sins they’ve committed? Anyway, do you have any idea how many Hail Marys, Our Fathers and Stations of the Cross it would take to satisfy God for all that sinning? They’d be at it the rest of their lives, probably, and I bet a lot of them wouldn’t live long enough to finish their penance, either.”
“So,” I surmised, “I take it that you’ve come to the conclusion that massive prayer by the God-fearing, upright citizens of America won’t be sufficient to deal successfully with the impending covid-19 pandemic?”
Pence suddenly became pensive, stroking his chin contemplatively. “Hmm… pandemic… yeah, I’ve heard that. What does it mean?”
“It’s like an epidemic,” I explained, “but it’s everywhere – all over the place – that’s what the ‘pan’ means. It’s from the Greek word meaning ‘all,’ or ‘of everything.’ It’s a portmanteau of ‘epidemic,’ also from Greek, combining the words ‘epi,’ meaning ‘upon,’ and ‘demos,’ meaning ‘the people,’ with the prefix ‘pan;’ hence, a plague upon the people everywhere.”
“Sounds like socialism to me,” Pence opined. “And what’s a port… portmanteau?”
“A word that combines the meanings of two or more other words. And as for it sounding like socialism, I have no doubt,” I assured him, “you would see it that way. So, as I said, you’ve come to the conclusion, apparently, that that massive prayer by the God-fearing, upright citizens of America won’t be sufficient to deal successfully with the impending covid-19 pandemic?”
“Well,” he allowed, “I’m confident that if those people pray for deliverance from the… um… pandemic… the Lord will deliver them, just like prayer by the righteous turns away hurricanes and tornadoes.”
“So,” I concluded, “no problem there, as far as you are concerned. All the righteous peopled in the Red States have to do is pray and they will escape the wrath of God as embodied in the vicious covid-19 virus?”
“It kept them from getting HIV, didn’t it?” Pence offered. “I mean, it’s not like wearing condoms did anything to stop spreading the stuff. After all, everybody knows that condoms are completely ineffective for prevention of any kind of venereal disease.”
“Oh yes,” I disingenuously agreed. “As you have publicly stated on numerous occasions, condoms are completely useless for disease prevention, and, of course, have no place in the appropriate practice of intercourse within the context of sanctified holy matrimony.”
“None at all,” he affirmed, “and anybody who uses one to keep from getting pregnant is going straight to hell.”
“And so… given all that we have determined so far,” I pressed, “what specific… problem… do you have, upon which I might offer some of my exquisitely expensive advice?”
“Oh, yeah, uh-huh, I was getting to that,” Pence confidently asserted. “You see, I know that all I have tell the public is what the White House writes for me to say, and since the government doctors can’t say anything to anybody but me, and I probably won’t understand all their yammering about their evolution-inspired fake biological science and don’t believe in it anyway, I won’t have to tell them anything much more than to go back to work and report to me next week or something like that. And I also know that God will pass over all the righteous white American Christians who pray to Him, his son Jesus and the Virgin Mary for mercy when this covid-19 thing hits the United States.”
“Um… right,” I gently prodded. “And so?”
“But by the same token, I’m concerned about when the Lord Almighty smites the secular humanist liberals, illegal immigrants, shiftless Negroes, lazy welfare cheats, gun-control fanatics, drug addicts, ivory-tower intellectuals, sexual deviants, alternative culture weirdos, free-trade internationalists, global warming hoaxers and people who want to stop us from smoking with covid-19 and a bunch of them die from it.”
“Yes,” I uttered with an intentionally expectant tone, “and then, you are concerned about what, specifically?”
Pence leaned back and took a deep breath, then spoke, quietly, slowly and with great determination. “I’m concerned that when God smites all those sinners with the agonizing deaths they so richly deserve, President Trump will start tweeting bad things about me not doing my job leading the Covid-19 Task Force. I’m worried he will say I’m a bad Virus Czar or whatever, and that I’m sad and failing and look funny and make up a nasty nickname for me, and all the other kinds of things he says in his tweets and then…” his voice trailed off weakly.
“He will drop you from his 2020 ticket,” I interjected.
“Yes, yes,” Pence confirmed, choking back a sob. “I’m afraid he… he… “
“Set you up to fail so he could get rid of you?” I ventured.
“Yes! Yes!” Pence spat out vehemently. “I’m afraid he did this to get rid of me!”
“In fact,” I posited, “his thinking, if you can call it that – and if he has actually done any thinking, instead of just acting on impulse the way he usually does – is probably more devious and self-serving than you presume. You see, if he didn’t just act on impulse by grabbing the first person handy and telling them they’re in charge of this mess, do something, then it’s more likely he figures there are three possibilities. The first is, this coronavirus thing isn’t going to be that big a deal and the US public health system will be able to avoid any significant disasters. In that case, Trump can pat you on the back, say good boy, and then elbow you aside to take credit for preventing what he would no doubt describe as the greatest plague ever experienced by mankind. The second possibility is the coronavirus outbreak will, in fact, be one of the greatest plagues ever experienced by mankind. That would definitely tank the stock market, in which case, yes, he will certainly blame the outcome on you and pick somebody else to run with him in November. The third possibility would be that a bunch of people would die, but covid-19 infections will subside by the end of winter or early spring, and there wouldn’t be so many deaths and so much economic disruption that it depresses the stock market all the way through the spring and fall. If that happens, he will use you to attack the Democrats for ‘weaponizing’ the coronavirus to discredit him, and, of course, he will keep you on the Republican ticket. So, given what’s known now, which admittedly isn’t much, it’s at least two to one against you losing your job as vice president, if that’s what you’re worried about. Furthermore, given that the probability of the second scenario is probably less than either of the others by a factor of fifty percent, I’d be confident in saying that there’s only a one in five chance that Trump will use the covid-19 outbreak as an excuse to find another running mate.”
At that, Pence bowed his head, closed his eyes and clasped his hands in a gesture of prayer. “Thank God Rand Paul told me about you. Now I can face the television cameras with renewed faith. All I have to do is ask God to stop killing sinners with the coronavirus by the end of March.”
“Make it April fifteenth,” I suggested, “just in case He’s got a bigger list of sinners than can be taken care of by the end of March. So long as covid-19 is gone by the first of May, you should be good.”
“Right,” Pence murmured quietly, nodding his head slightly. “April fifteenth it is.”
“And you are confident that God will answer your prayers?” I asked.
Pence raised his head, opened his eyes and gazed sincerely at me. “I asked Him to make me vice president,” he confided, “and that worked, didn’t it?”
In closing this post today, there is another matter which I feel I must note. Over the last couple of months, regular readers of this Web log may have seen strange things happening, including, but not limited to weird renderings of this blog’s content in their browsers, inexplicable service outages, and arcane error messages. Well, there’s a reason for all that.
On January 2, 2020 a sinister Bulgarian black hat hacker group calling themselves the Groznakurva Chickidjyas tried to hijack Tom Collins’ World Wide Web Log for their own nefarious purposes. The Friends of Tom Collins immediately came to the rescue, waging a protracted Internet battle lasting until just a few days ago. It spanned proxy servers and Dark Web haunts on every continent including, I am told, a clandestine data center located in Antarctica. During that time, many loyal readers were unable to access the site, receiving strange and disturbing error messages as possession of my archive of contemporary geopolitical and social history was wrested away from its rightful owners and then reconquered, over and over, in an arduous struggle that handed out rising and falling tides of e-victory and e-defeat, as if the Internet were Olympus and its computers the gods, favoring first Agamemnon and then Priam in a protracted cycle of strife on the sands of Troy.
Now, the contest has ended, and the Friends of Tom Collins have won. Tom Collins’ Word Wide Web Site is back in business, unmolested, in the proper hands, and thanks to some astute cybersleuthing by the Friends of Tom Collins, the miscreant members of Groznakurva Chickidjyas have been tracked down and captured. They are currently, I have been informed, enjoying multiple occupancy accommodations courtesy of the Bulgarian State Agency for National Security in Sofia. It seems that, during their extensive and convoluted cybershenanigans tussling with the FOTC, they engaged in conduct deemed a threat to Bulgarian national security.
According to what my contacts in Interpol tell me, the guys (and they were all guys, apparently) in Groznakurva Chickidjyas comprised some eight scruffy, pimply, unbathed and scraggly Eastern European geeks all of whom were over thirty, six of whom still lived at home with their parents, and only one of whom had anything resembling a real job. As might be expected, all demonstrated a serious lack of social skills and none of them had a girlfriend. Despite some very vigorous interviews with SANS agents, what they planned to do with my web site remains unclear. As nearly can be determined, somebody offered them about twenty-five thousand Euros to take it over, but exactly who that was seemed to depend on which one of them the interrogators were waterboarding, so we may never know for sure. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that none of those fellows is going to be allowed anywhere near a computer for at least a decade. But considering the kind of information extraction techniques the SAN uses, I wouldn’t be surprised if they still weren’t able to type well enough to use a computer, even by then.
So anyway, much thanks and many kudos to the FOTC and may I express my heartfelt sympathies to Google, Bing, Amazon Cloud Services, the Livermore National Laboratory, Deutsche Telekom, the US Central Intelligence Agency, Telegia, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, Locaweb, Openhost New Zealand, China Telecom, TelBru, TFLcom, Vodafone, Wix, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Hostgator, SoftLayer, TransIP, Fresh Mango, Bic Cayman Islands, Exabytes Brunei, Aruba Italy, Ultrasitios, GoDaddy, BlueHost, 101Domain Cook Islands, SiteGround, Web4Africa, Heberjahiz, ADK-Media, Naja7Host, UOL Brazil, Stockholm University, the Mayo Clinic, the government of Slovakia, ASTM International, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Republican National Committee, the United States Army Academy at West Point, the British Houses of Parliament, the Wharton School of Business, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, NORAD, ViaSat Jamaica, the Brookings Institution, the government of Tuvalu, the Dumbarton Oaks Trustees, the City of South Bend Indiana, the Juilliard Conservatory of Music, the Ford Foundation, NTT East, the OECD, KT Corporation, SK Broadband, Moscow FSB, and NATO Headquarters Belgium, for the unfortunate unauthorized use of their computing, security and network infrastructures during this incident.
And let me be the first to admit it: those Groznakurva Chickidjyas may be a bunch of pathetic losers, but they certainly knew how to hack. In the immortal words of Albert Camus, Gentleman, hats off!