President Barack Obama stared at the ceiling for a moment. Then he glanced at the clock next to his bed. 1:07. AM. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up. He reached for his robe. He looked back at Michelle, now asleep, as he fastened the tie around his waist. He walked slowly across the floor to the door. He went particularly slowly. His foot probed for creaking floorboards before putting down his whole weight. He reached the door and opened it enough to allow him to slip into the hall without letting too much light into the bedroom.
He stood in the hallway. He looked to his left, then his right. No one.
He needed a cigarette. He walked down the hall to a small desk. In the topmost drawer he had placed a packet of cigarettes earlier that night after coming back to the White House from the last of the seemingly endless parade of inaugural balls at which he and Michelle we expected to make an appearance. He and Michelle had said goodnight to the various staff on hand so late. He would have to get used to the fact that there were always people around. They might be out of sight, but they were never far away. He would also have to come to grips with how he would impact on the lives of the White House staff. If he kept waking up in the middle of the night and wanted something to eat or drink would someone have to start being on hand to help him to the refrigerator or stove? As he walked down the all towards the door to the Truman balcony he thought that there was probably someone on call all night anyway. But if he made a habit of walking around late at night they would probably have to bring more staff on the night shift. He hadn’t contemplated that before.
At the end of the hall he turned towards the balcony door. He had started to brace himself for the cold. Damned dirty habit he had. And now the forty-fourth President of the United States of America, the first black man ever elected to that office, the most powerful man in the world was going to stand in his pajamas, slippers and bathrobe on the Truman Balcony of the White House in 10 degree weather to smoke a damned cigarette. What the hell had he been thinking when he agreed with Michelle that he either stop or only smoke outside? Jeez. They might have to rethink that promise. He rubbed his forehead. How many promises was he going to have to “rethink” in the coming weeks and months?
“So are you beginning to wonder why you even wanted this job?”
Barack Obama stopped before opening the door. Without turning he smiled and said, without turning to face the oddly familiar voice, “No. Why do you ask?”
“Because I stood where you are standing now and rubbed my brow like you just did and started to wonder why I wanted the job.”
President Obama turned around and found himself standing face to face with the thirty-seventh President of the United States.
Richard M. Nixon looked pretty good for a man that had been dead for over a decade. His hair was thick and dark. He didn’t look too aged. Indeed, he looked like the man he was back in 1967. There was a faint shimmering around him. An aura that seemed to fade from light blue to light gray and back again.
“What the hell? I must be dreaming.”
“You’re not dreaming young man. Heh. Excuse me, Mr. President.”
“If I’m not dreaming then I’ve gone crazy before I’ve even started the job. Because I know that you are dead.”
“Yes. I’m dead alright. But I am taking a momentary leave from my heavenly reward to come down and give you some advice.”
“I need advice? From you?” Obama rolled his eyes and smiled widely. “If I need advice from Richard Nixon in my dreams then the whole country is a lot worse off than I thought it was.” Obama looked into the spectral Nixonian eyes and snorted, “You know I have a damned good cabinet. They are there to give me advice.”
“Bah!” Nixon spat. “There was only one member of my cabinet whose ideas were worth a damn.”
“Oh! Lemme guess,” President Obama said grinning. “Henry Kissinger.”
“No. Earl Butz.”
“You’ve got to be kidding… I thought…”
“Of course I’m kidding. You can’t afford to be that gullible. You are the President of the United States young man.”
Obama took a few steps forward, closer to the apparition. Nixon was dressed in a light gray wool suit. His tie was wider than the fashion now, but right in place in ’67. His wingtips seemed to shine. Obama reached towards Nixon and his hand passed through the image.
“You still aren’t getting it are you young man?”
“I don’t know what there is to get. I am asleep next to my wife and I am having a crazy fucked up dream about talking to Richard Nixon.”
“No. You are not dreaming. I had a similar talk with a dead President when I was in the White House. My talk was with President Roosevelt. Theodore, not Franklin. You couldn’t get Franklin to come back here… He’s too busy cavorting around with all those cute girls that want to thank him for Social Security-this and fighting the Nazis-that. He’s getting more Free French ass than DeGaulle.”
“Sorry about that. I got a little side-tracked there. It just burns me up that Franklin is up to his eyeballs in grateful horny French women and there isn’t one Goddamned hot member of the Silent Majority coming around me wanting to jump my bones… So to speak. Well… I was saying that I had a few conversations with Theodore Roosevelt after I became President. TR stopped coming around once I seemed to get the hang of things. But it didn’t go as well as I would have liked. You know that though.”
“So let me get this straight,” Obama inquired. “Theodore Roosevelt came back to give you advice; and you are coming to give me advice?”
“That is correct.”
“So who gave Bill Clinton advice?”
“Jack Kennedy,” Nixon answered.
“Jack Kennedy acts as an other-worldly advisor for Bill Clinton and I get Mr. Watergate himself? Does God hate me?”
Nixon grimaced at the mention of Watergate. “No. The Lord doesn’t get involved in this type of stuff. Dead Presidents coming to give advice to living Presidents is a program that John Adams started for James Buchanan. Adams was the first one to come back, since it was his idea. Adams figured he could impart some wisdom and thoughtfulness to Buchanan and save the Union. But it didn’t work out. Buchanan is a moron and Adams is an arrogant prick. The two didn’t get on very well. Washington stepped in and saved the day by advising Lincoln. Military advice mostly. Lincoln was grateful. He turned out okay didn’t he?”
Obama couldn’t believe what he was hearing. As he was getting more agitated he started scowling at Nixon. “So Bill Clinton gets John Kennedy. Lincoln got George Washington. Who did Reagan get? Thomas Jefferson?”
“No. Reagan got James Madison and Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge doesn’t say much so he was there for moral support mostly. Madison was really helpful on that “New Federalism” stuff.” Nixon paused. Then as an afterthought added that, “Jefferson volunteered to help Franklin Roosevelt. I believe Jefferson only visited twice in all that time FDR had here. Jefferson is too busy with… Erm… How do I say this without offending you?”
“Oh my God,” Obama exclaimed. “You mean…”
“Yes. Jefferson gets a lot of ‘brown sugar.’ He loves it. He always has two or three beautiful blacks around him. I think he was trying to hook up with Eartha Kitt last I heard. His stamina is amazing. Almost Kennedy-esque actually. I suppose you can indulge those things when you are Thomas Jefferson.”
“My predecessor, George W?”
“Exactly. You don’t want some ignorant bastard coming giving you advice do you? Should I leave and send Millard Fillmore or Chester Arthur back here to talk with you?”
“No. How about Washington?”
“He will not leave his farm now. He says that he is the damned Father of the Country and after helping Lincoln he has done his bit.”
“Too busy screwing Free-French babes. I just said that. Are you listening?”
“Hangs around with his brothers Joe and Bobby on the beach nailing hippies and going sailing. They keep passing Marilyn Monroe around. He only will come to talk to ‘kindred spirits’ he says.
“He is a grade-A suck-up to FDR. Spends his time trying to impress FDR with all his ‘Great Society’ crap. He is also a little hen-pecked since Lady Bird showed up. You don’t want him around.”
“Busy with Chuck Heston and all his Hollywood buddies. He is new in the neighborhood. Give him some time.”
“He and Jerry Ford are trying to teach Harry Truman how to golf. Ike’s patience wears thin, but Jerry is a good man and will bring Harry along. They will be predisposed until they get Truman to shoot a scratch game.”
“He hides out with Washington. Abraham likes to lay low and read a lot. He hides out with Washington because he doesn’t like being hounded by all those people who want to thank him for saving the Union and freeing them. He also wants to keep away from Mary as much as he can. She is a crazy bitch.”
“So I get the only man to resign the presidency to come back to act as my advisor because all the good guys are busy. Are you sure there that you all aren’t a touch racist? Maybe you want me to fail because I am the first black man to win the office?” Obama was indignant thinking of the implications of what he’d just said. There were plenty of living racists to deal with. Now he had to consider the dead ones too.
“Honestly,” Nixon began, “there are a number of racists among the group. I am not one of them. Slavery was and racisim is the great moral failing of America. I don’t want to see you fail.”
Nixon appeared to take a deep breath and he turned away from Obama and looked out the window towards the Washington Monument. “I don’t want to see you fail. I failed because of my own hubris. My failings were avoidable if I hadn’t been blind to what I was doing. You and I became president at a unique time in America’s history. Deeply unpopular wars were underway abroad. Deep discord infected everything at home. I had a chance for greatness. You have a chance for greatness. You and I share times more similar than you think. I can help you if you want my help. If you don’t… Well… I can go back and leave you be.”
Obama pondered what Nixon’s ghost had said. Somewhere deep inside Obama’s mind he could feel that what Nixon had said rang of the truth. Obama spoke deliberately to Nixon. “No. You can come back later. I might need your advice.”
Nixon turned back to face Obama. “Of course you will need my advice. I know you weren’t going to ask the living guys for their opinions. The older Bush is a nice guy – competent. His son… Well… Clinton is too busy with himself to give good advice. And Carter is a sniveling idiot.” Nixon smiled. “You need me. You want my advice. You want to patch up America’s alliances around the world. I can help you with that. You want to set us straight at home. I can help you with that. I did those things, but no one remembers because of my failings.” Nixon paused. “I’ll leave you alone now young man. I’ll be back later.”
“Before you go,” Obama added. “I’ve got to ask something. How did all the dead presidents end up in Heaven? I would have thought that some wouldn’t have made the cut.”
“I can’t specifically tell you how,” Nixon said with a grin. “But if you know what is good for you I’d get chummy with George Romney’s boy – Mitt. He’s got a lot more going on for himself than you imagine.” Nixon smiled at Obama. “Now go have that cigarette and get some sleep. You’ll need your rest.”
“Thank you Mr. President. I’ll do that,” Obama started to extend his hand to shake Nixon’s. Nixon smiled but stepped back knowing that he didn’t have a hand to shake.
“Good night Mr. President.” And with that, Nixon faded away.
President Barack Obama stood staring into the space where Nixon had been. After a moment a member of the household staff appeared from a side door.
“Is everything alright Mr. President? Can I get you anything?”
“No thanks. I’m fine. I was just going out on to the balcony for a cigarette. It has been a long night.” Obama sighed.
The man smiled and replied, “Yes Mr. President. It has been a long night. And tomorrow is another day.”
Barack Obama stepped out onto the Truman Balcony and smoked his cigarette and went back to bed.