The clouds parted over Washington on a mild December day. Far below, the streets were jammed with traffic, commuters still finding their way to work, late as it happens, some still hungover from the weekend's Christmas parties. Others were headed to the malls, shoppers stocking up on last minute gifts. At the end of the long diagonal of Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House stood, looking somehow vacant but somewhere inside, a faint sign of life flickered behind the window of the Oval Office. A bird, if it bothered to look up from its perch in one of the unusually early budding trees on the White House lawn, would have seen two men engaged deep in conversation.
"Dick, Dick. C'm here. Take a look at this."
"What is it, Mr. President?" The Vice President took a copy of the morning's briefing from George W. Bush, who was dressed, as always, in a dark blue suit, red tie. He held a fresh cup of coffee, sugar, no cream.
"Gotta talk to you about this global warming thing."
"Global warming?" Cheney quickly scanned the briefing, finding little of interest. "I thought our people decided that's a hoax." The Vice President glanced up, vaguely distracted by a videotape of yesterday's football game playing on a TV in the corner of the room.
"Listen Dick here's the skinny. I'm getting all kinds of pressure from Congress on this thing." The President grimaced, with a face more annoyed than worried. "By the way, I heard we're not in charge of that place anymore."
"Congress? No, we're not, sir."
"Well then, that's my point. I need a win. Economy's bad. Iraq's goin' all right, I think, those guys on Fox are sayin'. But the numbers, man, they're way down."
"I know that, George." Cheney reached for a small vial and popped a couple of pills. He closed his eyes, took a deep gulp of water, and relaxed visibly. "So why do you want to bring up global warming? That's a non-starter."
"You seen that Al Gore movie? The one with the weather lecture?"
"Heard about it. Haven't seen it."
"Yeah, well me too. What's he call it? Some sort of truth. Inconvenient Truth, I think. What the hell does that mean, anyway? Inconvenient?"
"Well, I think it means "
"I tell you what it means. There's nothing inconvenient about the truth. Laura and I read all the truth we need, every night. Nothing inconvenient about Revelations, man."
Cheney nodded in agreement.
"And that's why I know global warmin's hooey. That one NASA fella even says so. Hell, you told me the same thing. More than once!"
"So then what's the problem?"
"Problem is that Al is stirrin' up trouble again, and he's sellin' a few of those videos along the way. You know what he's sayin'?"
"I think I have an idea."
"Well I don't. And I don't really want to know." Bush paused, momentarily peeved, then gazed across at the soothing sight of the cherry trees on the expansive White House lawn. "Dick, it's Christmas. Never seen them cherry trees bloomin' out there in winter. Now if that's global warming, I say bring it on!" Then, as an afterthought: "But I'm not gonna be payin' for a full-time gardener, I'll tell you that."
The two most powerful men in the world shared a laugh. Just then, the red light blinked, and a female voice crackled over the intercom. "Sir, your 11 o'clock is here."
"Tell him I'll be just a minute, Katie." Bush seemed to be thrown off by the interruption.
"Hey Dick, I gotta ask you something. All seriousness."
"What's that, George?"
"You think maybe we shoulda let him win?"
"Let who win? What are you talking about?"
"Gore. A lotta people voted for him. The guys at NBC say more for him than for me, but that can't be right, cause I'm here and he's not."
"What's your point?" Cheney's mouth twisted into an annoyed smirk.
"Well, if he were sittin' here, he wouldn't have time to be makin' these movies. Stirrin' up the crowd. Leadin' the charge."
"You're in charge, sir."
"Don't you think I know that? But he's got a lotta people confused. Now it's affecting Florida real estate, and Jeb's givin' me hell about it. I gotta shut Gore up."
"What do you suggest?"
"Maybe I ought to give him a job."
"Good idea, sir." Cheney seemed surprised at the idea of a genuinely clever thought from an unexpected source. "What did you have in mind?"
"No idea. Just gotta stop him, that's all. He's talkin' about the ice caps meltin'. Meltin'? That's a good thing, right? What's the big deal?" Bush emitted a nervous chuckle, like he'd suddenly come up short of breath.
"Right, sir. No big deal."
"Well, now I'm hearin' it from my daughters, that's the big deal. Then I get this letter." The President pulled a neatly folded piece of paper from his desk drawer, and handed it to Cheney. It was a neatly typed message, on gaudy holiday-themed stationery, trimmed in red and green. "Says it's from Santa Claus but I'm pretty sure it's really Ted Kennedy." Bush laughed at his own little joke.
Cheney examined the letter, ornately presented with gold-leafed edges, carefully hand-lettered in fastidiously neat script. The VP nodded slowly, tight-lipped, with a slight frown. "I know Ted Kennedy. This is not Ted Kennedy."
"So you're tellin' me this is Santa Claus?"
"No. I'm just saying it's not Ted Kennedy."
"Dick, read the third paragraph to me. Out loud, so I can understand it." Bush put his hands on the windowsill, as Cheney began to read aloud:
"Now it will soon be Christmas, and for the first time, there's a real "
The intercom buzzed once again. Katie. "Sir, shall I tell him to come back another time?"
"No, Katie, send him in. We're ready for him." Bush motioned to Cheney to put away the letter the Vice President folded it and put it in his jacket pocket. The two men unconsciously straightened their ties.
The door opened, and in walked what would have appeared to an outsider to be some sort of accountant, balding and a little paunchy. He wore thick glasses. With him was a nervous-looking but dignified young man carrying a briefcase. Probably a low level lackey, Cheney figured.
"Glad you could make it, Karl!" The older frumpy guest met Bush's handshake with his own firm grip. "That'll be all, Katie." The President's personal assistant nodded and closed the door behind her as she left them to chat in private.
After a minute or two of small talk, the guest actually a key adviser as it happens, not an accountant directed the conversation straight to the point. "Jason, could you hand out the new report?" The young man with the briefcase nodded, and quickly distributed three identical stapled stacks of paper to the men in the room. After that, he took a seat in the back and was promptly ignored for the rest of the hour.
"Let me be brief, sir." Karl Rove instructed the President to turn to page 14, which showed a map of the south Pacific, juxtaposed against another showing the Arctic region. "You're aware that the citizens of Tuvalu recently voted to abandon their island, since they believe that rising sea levels from climate change will soon put their island underwater."
"Tuvalu? Can't say I know where that is. Can't be much of an island."
"It isn't. Frankly, we're not that concerned about Tuvalu. But we are deeply concerned about this." He pointed to the map of the Arctic Ocean. There, at the North Pole, the computer-simulated map showed nothing but water, not an iceberg in sight. "Sir, you should have received a letter from Santa Claus yesterday."
So it wasn't from Ted Kennedy, after all.
"Yes, I did." Bush motioned to Cheney, who fumbled and produced it from his pocket.
"So then you're aware of the gravity of the situation." The advisor strolled around Bush, and casually plunked down behind the President's desk, put his feet up on the tabletop, and squinted at his own copy of the report they all had. Bush meekly remained standing. "My people on the ground tell me he's thinking of following Tuvalu's lead. No ice at the North Pole, no place for a workshop. No workshop " He lowered his glasses, looked up from the letter, and glared straight at the President. "Do I have to spell it out?"
"'Fraid you do, Karl. Not sure what this has to do with anything." Hoping to avoid the burning stare of the man behind the thick glasses, Bush nervously turned his attention to the TV in the corner, where a roar from the crowd indicated a Redskin touchdown. "Heckuva throw!"
"Mr. President, pay attention. I'm talking about the economy here. No Santa's workshop, no Christmas toys. No toys, no Christmas. And that's a big problem. For all of us." Rove motioned to Jason, who quietly produced several charts showing jagged but unmistakably downward trending lines, and passed them out to the men seated at the table.
The President quickly lost interest in the charts, and looked up to stare toward the passing traffic along Pennsylvania Avenue. Out the window, light rain began to fall on the springlike December day. He turned back to the report, straining to comprehend.
"I don't really know what this means. What's your call on this one, Karl?"
"Mr. President, I know this sounds like an about-face, but maybe we should sign the treaty."
"The Kyoto one. The one about global warming."
"Oh, that one. What's that gonna do?"
"Well, it might keep Santa Claus from bugging out and moving to New Zealand, like our friends from Tuvalu are already doing. And that would keep the presents coming, Christmas alive, and more importantly, our economy in good shape."
" which might just give me the big win I need!" Once the light went on, Bush slapped his knee in delight. "Re-election's right around the corner. I get it!" Cheney shrugged at the President's last comment, traded a quick glance with Rove, wondering if Bush were aware of the concept of term limits, but said nothing. After a few more pleasantries, the meeting was over.
Two weeks later, in a quiet ceremony on the White House lawn, the President announced that the United States would be joining "the community of nations" in signing the Kyoto Accords, taking "important steps to slow the effects of global warming." In his brief speech, he cited several reasons for this policy shift, including the importance of the treaty to both the environment and the global economy. He made no direct mention of either Santa Claus or Christmas.
At the same time, far away on the North Pole, Santa Claus hosted his own summit, attended by thousands of elves, and a handful of chosen reindeer. There, he announced with great fanfare that his workshop, threatened in recent years by rising Internet sales, unionized labor, and now the specter of global warming, would remain open. A new five-year labor contract would keep the elves cranking out toys. More importantly, with the Americans now on board with the Kyoto Treaty, the factory would likely remain on solid ground, at least for a few more years. He called it a "great day for kids around the world," saying that we had saved "Christmas for our time." The elves cheered. Eggnog flowed.
And in a dark corner of the room, a puffy, balding man with thick glasses stood cross-armed, grinning in the shadows, while his young apprentice diligently took notes.
Merry Christmas! Here's hoping you stay warm, but not too warm, in 2007
John Rickenbach is a Los Osos resident.