Barack Obama sat slumped at his desk in the Oval Office, the stress of the preceding three years weighing on him heavily. He puffed moodily on a Virginia Slims cigarette, mulling over the ironic connection between the brand’s slogan and his own rise to power. “You’ve come a long way, baby!” He shook his head and muttered to himself. “A long way, indeed. And for what? My approval ratings are in the tank, my fancy Wall Street friends are running away from me in droves, Eric Holder’s made a mess of our gun-control scheme, and now I’m getting laughed at for imitating previous presidents. Who the hell’s idea was it to channel Teddy Roosevelt, anyway? ‘Bully’, my ass!”
Obama loosened his tie, took off his shoes and put his feet on the desk. The office seemed excessively warm, and he was getting drowsy. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, smiling unconsciously as he began to fantasize, for the hundredth time, about dropping Joe Biden - not only from the ticket, but from Air Force One, preferably at an altitude of 20,000 feet. Suddenly, the surrounding quiet was interrupted by the sound of someone clearing his throat.
The president’s eyes opened wide and he jerked his feet off the desk, accidentally knocking Bill Ayer’s silver-framed mug shots onto the floor. He rocketed out of his chair, one hand shooting out to crush the cigarette in an ashtray, while another fumbled in a pants pocket for a Chiclet (his Pavlovian response whenever he thought his wife – a kind of anti-smoking Carrie Nation - had invaded his neighborhood).
But the source of the noise was not Michelle, or anybody else with whom he was acquainted. Obama’s jaw dropped in fearful surprise as he saw, standing before the desk, a corpulent gentleman dressed in antique haberdashery – a double-breasted frock coat, a white shirt with a wing-tipped collar and a polka-dot bow tie. The man possessed a majestic set of jowls, and a hairbrush moustache. His piercing, but intelligent and kindly, blue eyes looked upon Obama with an expression that the latter interpreted (correctly, as it turned out) to be a mixture of pity and exasperation – rather like the look on his grandmother’s face when he’d come home with his report card sporting yet another ‘D’ in American history.
“I…I know you! Look, I’m sorry, really I am. I didn’t mean to appropriate your character when I was giving that speech in Kansas; it’s just that…Axelrod made me do it!”
The gentleman rolled his eyes, sighed and took a cigar from the recesses of his costume. “Have you a match?”
Obama’s shaking hand picked up a pack of matches and held them out to his visitor.
“Thank you,” the man said, in a voice of rich timbre and polished enunciation. He lit his cigar and extinguished the flaming match by waving it gently in the air, ultimately reaching over to drop it in the ashtray, after looking vainly about the floor (for a spittoon, as may be). Then he grasped his lapels and said to Obama, “Forgive me, Mr. President, but I profess myself to be slightly mystified by your comments. Just exactly who do you think I am?”
“I…I was thinking that you were…well, Teddy Roosevelt. Or maybe his ghost.”
The large man smiled around his cigar and chuckled. “Hardly, sir. I’m Grover Cleveland.”
Obama frowned in perplexity. “The baseball player?” he asked.
“No, you’re thinking of Grover Cleveland Alexander. I am one of your predecessors, the 22nd and 24th president of the United States.”
Obama’s mind reeled. “Why are you here? Did you, er, forget something?”
“No, sir, I didn’t, but apparently you did.”
“Yes, you. You must have forgotten who you are, because you’ve been attempting to purloin the fame and reputation of other presidents.”
Obama bristled. “Hey, I know exactly who I am!”
Cleveland folded his arms and tapped his foot impatiently. “Well, then, who are you?”
“That’s easy. I’m…I’m…”
“All right, all right! Give me a minute.”
“I’ll tell you who you are. You are a man who has had greatness thrust upon him, and who finds the fit to be decidedly loose.”
“Practically bagging at the knees, my dear fellow. You’re treading on your cuffs. Your eyes shine from the cavernous recesses of your coat like the eyes of an owl in a hollow tree. The point I’m trying to make is that few are born to greatness. A man must grow into it. That’s why I’m here. To serve as your political mentor. If you simply must channel other presidents, you’d be well-advised to channel me.”
“Oh, come on! I mean, no disrespect intended, but you’re not exactly Lincoln or FDR.
“But neither are you, sir, and you embarrass yourself by pretending to the courage of the former and the cunning of the latter. And Teddy Roosevelt! God, man, the fellow was energetic, to be sure, but he was also a consummate ass on any number of issues. ‘Bull Moose’, indeed! And the very period of his life that seems to have attracted you was one in which he veered dangerously close to espousing socialism.”
“So, what’s your point?”
“My point, sir? My point is this. You’re a Democrat; I’m a Democrat. You have an opportunity before you to resurrect the Democratic Party of a better age. Why, my administration opposed high tariffs, supported sound money, and was solidly pro-business.”
“Give me an example.”
“Well, there’s…” the president nervously licked his lips… “there’s Solyndra,” he said, in a small voice.
“Bah!” Cleveland stepped closer to the desk, pointing a stern finger at Obama. “That was nothing but spoils! I implemented policies to free up the power of private enterprise, not shackle it to government influence peddling. I fought ‘bossism’ and what you now call crony-capitalism tooth and nail, and I checked the growth of government by reducing the number of federal employees.”
Cleveland approached Obama and swung an avuncular arm around his shoulder. “My boy, set aside your radicalism. Embrace our country’s founding principles. Don’t reject them in favor of all that European nonsense. I’ll gladly be your guide, if you’ll permit me.”
Obama swallowed and pounded a fist into the palm of his other hand.
“I’ll do it!”
Another voice now pierced Obama’s consciousness. “Do what?” the voice said. “Do what?” He felt his shoulders being shaken violently. Obama opened his eyes and spluttered. “Wha…what’s going on?”
His wife was standing over him. “You dozed off and were mumbling on about ‘doing’ something. I hope what you’re planning on doing is hauling your narrow ass outta that chair and getting rid of that cigarette butt. Do we need to have another talk about your smoking?” Aware that the talks he had with his wife on the subject of his various shortcomings typically involved very little actual talking on his part, Obama took the easy way out and simply apologized for backsliding, promising to do better.
As soon as Michelle left the room, Obama counted to twenty – to guard against the possibility that she might return unexpectedly - and then fingered another gasper from the pack. Lighting up, he sat back in his chair in a reverie.
“What an interesting dream,” he thought. “Y-e-s. I should model myself on…on…Damn! What was that guy’s name?”
* * * * * * * * * * *
One month later
David Axelrod staggered into the Oval Office, a haunted expression on his face. His moustache had now gone completely white, and his hair was coming out in clumps. In a voice choking with emotion he approached the president.
“Mr. President! You’ve got to stop! Please!”
Obama was sitting on a corner of his desk, leafing through a paperback edition of presidential biographies. He looked up from his book and sighed.
“What is it now, David?”
“Sir, you’ve dropped another 3 points in the polls, and the ASPCA has, for the first time in history, issued an endorsement.”
“Who are they endorsing?”
“’Anybody but Obama’. That’s what their web site says.”
“Well, I don’t see why that’s such a big deal. Dogs don’t vote.”
“No, Mr. President, but their owners do. Whatever possessed you to pick Bo up by his ears in front of all those reporters?”
“Damn! I guess I’m channeling the wrong president again. I thought it might be Lyndon Johnson, but I guess not.”
Axelrod sobbed. “Not that business again! Last week you channeled Andrew Jackson and challenged John Boehner to a duel. The week before that you channeled James K. Polk and sent a gunboat to bombard Vera Cruz. The week before that you channeled Andrew Johnson and showed up drunk at a press conference. You’ve got to stop!”
“I can’t stop! I’ve got to keep trying until I channel the right Democratic president. If I could only remember his name. You see, I had a dream.”
Axelrod fled from the room screaming. “Gaaaah! Now he thinks he’s Martin Luther King!”