It all started with a desk made from the hull of a British ship, the HMS Resolute, a gift from Queen Victoria. The President’s desk, sitting in the Oval Office of the White House, has certainly seen some action from the Presidents who have sat behind it and made the decisions that have affected the history of the world. In this highly entertaining romp through American history, Shaun Micallef takes us inside the Oval Office to observe each President at work at the desk. Capturing their widely varying personalities and traits we see the evolution of the most powerful country in the world from the men who have sat at the desk. Certainly this is an alternative history of the US with an outrageous, adsurdist re-imagining of everyday life as President and an entirely new view of some of the events that have shaped the land of the free, America.
This extract is from The President's Desk, by Shaun Micallef published by Hardie Grant Books - to purchase, move curser to bottom of page and click on 'Buy'.
Don’t get me wrong, I love America – but I sometimes wonder why so many people want to go over there and blow it up. What is it about America that both attracts and repels us, often at the same time?
America is like some distant, dangerous, beautiful and slightly backward cousin. The picture postcards she sends us from abroad are alluring, but you know deep down that to answer her siren song would be not only fundamentally wrong, whatever delights she had in store would wear thin pretty quickly. Dancing with Rain Man might look like fun in a twenty-second montage but in real life it would be tedious and weird.
Most of us only know America through the rosy window of Hollywood, that former back-suburb orange grove taken over by immigrant belt-buckle salesmen at the turn of the last century to peddle the ction of assimilation: the illusion that anyone can make it in America regardless of race, creed or colour. The American Dream: Horatio Alger and Cinderella walking the Ugly Duckling on a leash up Sixth Avenue; waving to the paparazzi for one last fusillade and then ducking inside Radio City Music Hall to catch the premiere of a movie of a newsreel chronicling how popular and loved they are.
Of course, in the old days, the Dream Palaces were just places for Mom and Pop to while away an hour or so; losing themselves in a bag of popcorn and the idealised versions of themselves ickering back from the big screen. These days they sit and stare at the huge rectangle on the wall of their lounge room as gross parodies of their children strut and fret their fteen minutes; padded out to half-an-hour with commercials.
Fame. America invented it. The intoxicating paranoia of everyone watching you and wanting to be you. What started as a naive fascination with the trappings of success has soured into a morbid obsession with excess and the inevitable fall of angels. A century on, and half the world plays a sick game of looking down on its heroes, turning them over with their foot and a sneer. And all on a hundred channels.
But this book is not a lament about what has happened to that box in the corner of the room. It is a paean to an altogether different piece of furniture. For while it’s true that behind every great man there’s a great woman, in front of every great man is a great desk; and there is no greater desk than the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office of the President of the United States. The papers signed on it, the telephone calls taken at it, the meetings held around it and even what has gone on under it have all made America what it is today, for better and for worse.
If Mathew Brady had a femto-camera that could somehow take a picture of every event in America’s history, and then make a giant flickbook out of it that we could magically watch in a single second, would the retinal image we’d walk away with be that of a giggling diamond-toothed hillbilly, skirts billowing over a subway vent, Liberty torch in one hand and AK-47 in the other?
Somewhere on the jumbotronic screen in the Times Square of our mind’s eye, our shuddering freeze-frame of America refracts back and forth between the beholder and the beholden, simul- taneously beckoning us with – and giving us – the finger. What price a ticket to this show?
But then again, it’s never really about the show, is it? As Johnny Carson once said: ‘It’s about the guy behind the desk.’
Dawn’s early light ...
The President ran his hands over the brilliantly polished timber. It had been only a month since he took office and in rare moments like this, when he was alone, he still liked to revel in the newness of it all. He’d managed to duck his security detail a few times to go off exploring, but as he was almost always on CCTV somewhere, they’d invariably find him after only a few minutes. Even when he discovered the tunnel that Kennedy had used to smuggle in Marilyn Monroe, the Secret Servicemen were there to greet him as he crawled out of the replace in Lincoln’s bedroom.
The Oval Office was his favourite room – not because of the view, but because Carter had ordered all the wiring ripped out after Nixon. There were no cameras, no hidden microphones and, this morning at least, no people. He swivelled in his chair to face the window and watch the peacocks in the Rose Garden. A gentle dawn filtered through the trees, chasing away the last shadow of night, and the low drum of Washington’s waking traffic rolled in from the distance. A brisk knock at the door and a ‘Good morning, Mr President’ cut through his reverie.
Atherton Fellowes was the man who briefed the President about his briefings. This was so the President would never be surprised by anything. Nothing looked worse on the evening news than a startled President, but it did rather take the fun out of doing anything. This morning, though, there was only one matter to be discussed. The President had spoken with Fellowes’ intern in the hallway on the way in, so he had some idea what it might be. He’d asked her, ‘What’s happening?’ as in ‘hello’, but she’d responded by raising her eyebrows and whistling through her teeth. Clearly it was important; something so big that it was going to take the entire morning to be briefed on. It was probably about those nuclear missiles they’d found in Azerbaijan.
Fellowes began delivering copies of the briefing notes to various empty spots around the Oval Office; chairs and couches that would soon be occupied by various aides and advisers. Fellowes himself wouldn’t be present at the briefing, so his pre-briefing had to not only broadly cover the main points but be detailed enough so that anything specific didn’t catch the President off guard. The President was, of course, free to pretend at the actual briefing that what he was being told was the first he’d heard of it, but this would involve acting surprised rather than actually being surprised, which was to be avoided at all costs.
When Fellowes had divested himself of his documents, the President motioned that he sit, which Fellowes did. Fellowes looked harried and sweaty, which was unusual. ‘Mr President,’ he said. ‘Today’s briefing concerns Azerbaijan’s WMDs.’
The President nodded and folded his arms, tilting his head slightly to the left. It was a good impression of a man pretending to have heard something for the first time but not being rattled by it: a man in complete control.
‘General Beavis is flying in from Yemen.’
The President pictured General Beavis: a big fat man in a green uniform. He pointed to a couch.
‘Will he be sitting there?’ he asked.
‘I believe so, Mr President.’
The President didn’t much like General Beavis; he thought him arrogant and mean – but he always masked his dislike with a smile and a firm handshake. He practised the smile and then motioned for Fellowes to continue.
The young man leaned forward. ‘He’s going to tell you they aren’t North Korean.’
The President nodded quietly, concealing his surprise. It was generally assumed that the nuclear missiles that NORAD had photographed were like everybody else’s: North Korean with Indian warheads. Fellowes’ voice dropped to a low whisper. ‘They’re ... ours.’
The President went bug-eyed and let out an involuntary quacking noise – two things he could never do at an actual briefing. He cleared his throat and poured himself a glass of water.
‘9/11 got us into Iraq ...’ continued Fellowes as the President sipped his water thoughtfully, ‘... but we still needed to find the WMDs at some stage.’
The President only drank half the water. Any more would look excessive; any less would make the original action look theatrical – a gesture to thirst rather than genuine need. He placed the half-full/empty glass on the paper coaster next to the water jug, regarding it knowingly for the metaphor it undoubtedly was, and gave a wry smile to where the Secretary of State would be sitting.
‘And?’ said the President to Fellowes, with an ambiguousness that suggested he might know the answer already.
‘Desert Storm was a smoke screen. Halliburton was supposed to go in with the ground troops and plant the cylinders and rods and whatever else Cheney said they bought from the Africans.’
The President pushed back his chair, reclined a little and rested his forefinger knuckle gently across his lips. This felt right and Fellowes nodded approvingly. The bug eyes and quacking from before were quickly forgotten.
‘What about the plutonium?’ asked the President.
Fellowes’ mood turned serious again. ‘Weapons grade. Enough for five or six.’
The President felt his heart race. He shook his head and looked at the ceiling – but then felt this was too much like praying; instead, he clasped his hands, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and looked at the floor. This was better. The President held this pose for several seconds, using the time to wonder about how difficult it must have been to lay a single oval-shaped piece of carpet. Twist pile, too; Ladybird Johnson had expensive tastes.
‘The Shiites got there before us. Or the Iranians,’ continued Fellowes.
The President looked up to where General Beavis would be sitting and practised his slow nod, layering in a grave look at the end.
‘Very good, Mr President,’ said Fellowes, smiling despite himself. It was a very good nod.
The President suppressed his own smile and pictured General Beavis withering under his gaze. He glanced over to where the Secretary of State would be sitting and imagined her staring at him; her lips parted, breathing heavily. A lascivious grin spread over the President’s face and his tongue started to loll.
‘Perhaps a little too much there, Mr President,’ cautioned Fellowes.
The President snapped back to his grave look with the nodding, adding a right tilt of his head and pursed lips at the end to suggest disappointment at where humanity was heading.
‘Then the CIA’ll give you their intel and Beavis’ll tell you they can take out an Excocet with a Tomahawk like that —’ and here Fellowes snapped his fingers, which made the President inch ever so slightly.
Fellowes blinked and that alone was admonishment enough. The President held up his hand. He knew that inching – even ever so slightly – was a no-no at any briefing. It was one of the things that undid Gerald Ford; that and falling down those stairs. ‘I’m thinking, I’m thinking ...’ said the President.
The President was thinking about blowback; collateral damage in the event of an all-out nuclear-on-nuclear first strike. What would the polls say? Should he be photographed at his desk wearing his jacket and speaking on the phone or should he be in his shirtsleeves with a coffee talking to a soldier in the field? And what of the actual reality of it? Would the nuclear fallout be confined to Africa? Could radioactive oil be made into petrol? Would it perhaps make the petrol more powerful? Would it affect the price? And how would it smell?
The President loosened his tie and ran his fingers through his thick George Clooney–coloured hair, glancing over to the imaginary Secretary of State. He pictured her smiling encouragingly in spite of it all. He could see her touching her blushing neck with her exquisitely manicured fingers; turning away coyly and then suddenly looking back at him through her fringe, hanging down provocatively over her left eye; an inappropriate laugh; her shame at wanting to be a woman now of all times; collecting herself and adjusting her position on the couch by recrossing her legs and accidentally revealing a flash of black-seamed stocking above her equally black knee-high boot; leaning forward to the pitcher of ice water, her blouse open slightly; her hot panting breath; himself vaulting over the desk towards her; her frightened fawn-like look of surprise melting in but a moment to surrender in the sexually charged atmosphere of a man and a woman in a world about to end; the glass pitcher shattering against the bookcase just behind Beavis’s head; the ice water splashing against her body; his trousers magically disappearing; blotter, phone, brass nameplate, pen holder crashing from the desk with one powerful sweep of his well-muscled arm as their two bodies slam down together on the desk, becoming one; naked but for her boots and his Saint Anthony medallion —
‘General Beavis is here, Mr President,’ interrupted the intercom.
The President gave Fellowes a look. Fellowes gave him one back and then disappeared through a secret door in the wall.
‘Send him in,’ said the President.