Happy Thursday, Christmas fanatics! Welcome to the second official installment of Another Christmas Story!
This week, the author of this holiday rom-com himself, our very own Anthony, will read to all of you Chapter One of our tale, entitled “Good King Wenceslas”! Within this chapter, taking place ten-years after last week’s prologue, you’ll meet the characters of President Emily Williams, her Chief of Staff Anna Dreyfus, and her Press Secretary Gary Matthews, and get a hint about the problems they’re dealing with this particular Christmas Eve.
We hope you like it! (And don’t worry – this is not a political book in the slightest, despite the nature of this chapter. We just had to set up these particular characters and the world they’re inhabiting for their storyline!) If you do, make sure to share this episode and our website, upon which the text of this installment is posted, to get it in front of as many eyes as possible!
Make sure to check your podcast feeds for your regular weekly episode on Monday, in which the elves will be discussing The Long Kiss Goodnight, and next Thursday for the second official chapter of this story – “Chapter Two: Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)”, which our very own Thom will be reading! Enjoy, y’all!
Ten Years Later
Chapter One: Good King Wenceslas
December 23rd – 8:00 a.m. EST
Anna Dreyfus stood to the side of the crowded James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, doing her best to stifle a yawn and keep her face neutral as she eyed the gaggle of reporters from all of the major world news organizations gathered before her. Representatives from CNN, MSNBC, BBC, CBC, NPR, CBS, Bloomberg, Fox, etc. – most of them looking just as tired as she felt – were pointing cameras in her face, seemingly in attempts to blind her with their bright flashes as they shouted questions at her, which she politely ignored. In fact, she didn’t say a word, and only allowed a small smile to break out across her face and held up a hand of acknowledgement when the White House press secretary, the pudgy and balding Gary Matthews with his mustache straight out of the eighties, took to the podium at the front of the room with his signature, enormous blue binder in hand.
“Good morning, everyone.” He smiled at the reporters as he flipped open his binder, pleased with himself that his mere presence elicited silence from the bloodsucking horde before him. “It’s nice to see you so early for once – I know many of you probably haven’t even had a chance to grab a morning coffee yet.” There was scattered laughter at the joke, accompanied by nodding heads around the room. “We’re going to keep this brief. The president wanted me to convene this unusually early gathering in order to introduce her new chief of staff, Anna Dreyfus, to you all.” He waved an arm noncommittally in Anna’s direction, and in turn, Anna forced her smile to widen as more cameras went off in her face. “Anna officially begins work today, but before I say a few, quick words about why President Williams chose Ms. Dreyfus, I do have a few other brief items I want to convey to you all.
“Later today, the White House will play host to a group of kids from the Children’s National Medical Center. The first gentleman and his staff will be entertaining them in the family theater, where they will be screening Ron Howard’s classic Christmas film – Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, starring Jim Carrey. President Williams is sorry she won’t be able to attend herself, especially as she helped to arrange for this event to occur, but she has an array of calls scheduled for today with the heads of NATO and the EU in order to discuss Russia’s increasing shows of aggression against the West. She is also closely monitoring the blizzard that appears to be heading toward the northeast as we speak, for which we have FEMA, the Red Cross, and Homeland Security standing by ready to assist any states that are affected, as needed. Snow or not, the president is still scheduled to meet with two NATO leaders tomorrow, Christmas Eve, in Manhattan – her Canadian counterpart, Prime Minister Dubois, and her English counterpart, Prime Minister Richardson. From New York, she will be flying to Massachusetts in order to spend Christmas at the house of her eldest daughter with her children and grandchildren. After the holidays, when Congress reconvenes, the president will lay out a firm plan in her State of the Union detailing how she intends to respond to the provocations of Russian President Ivanov, in addition to laying out her priorities for the upcoming year’s budget.”
Gary looked up from his binder and out over the heads of the press in front of him. “I think that pretty much covers the president’s upcoming schedule for now. Please hold your questions for a few more minutes!” He raised his voice as various members of the media began to shout questions at him. “I want to say a few words about Anna and why she was chosen by the president to be her new chief of staff. Anna? Could you join me, please?”
Anna nodded, took a deep breath to steel herself, and walked confidently up to the press secretary in order to stand beside him, clasping her hands together in front of her. “In light of former chief of staff Sean Trodden’s termination for his insensitive remarks about the minority communities in this country, President Williams focused her search for his replacement based on the following criteria. Firstly, and most importantly, after agreeing to appoint her predecessor’s chief of staff in a show of bipartisanship with the Republican party, she was adamant that her new one be somebody with views aligned more closely to her own; somebody with progressive values that has the courage and conviction to fight for said values despite what political capital may be gained or lost from touting them.
“Secondly, she wanted somebody with their own identity; a person who will be more than just a sycophantic ‘yes man’ and voice their opinions to the president, even when they disagree. In conjunction with this, she wanted to find somebody with a clear vision for the future of America, and somebody who not only has good ideas, but also the intelligence and resources to implement them.
“Third, she wanted somebody with a proven track record of being a people person; someone with the ability to walk the fine line of being firm, strong, and able to say ‘no’ when needed, while never losing sight of the human aspect of each and every situation. She wanted somebody who is capable of being both compassionate and sympathetic to the plights of every individual they meet, no matter how their views may differ. With this, President Williams also wanted somebody with a proven bipartisan record; somebody with a successful history of reaching a hand across the aisle and getting things done.
“Fourth, the president wanted somebody with an acute sense of self-awareness and self-reflection; somebody who is able to admit when they’re wrong, and someone who is able to change as the times do. And last, but certainly not least, the president wanted her pick to be reflective of the rest of her staff, ranging from cabinet picks to White House picks; she wanted somebody to compliment the diverse team of rivals that she’s already managed to put together over the course of the first year of her presidency.”
Gary paused here to take a deep, shuddering breath before glancing at Anna and giving her a small wink. “President Williams believes there is no better person to replace Sean Trodden than Anna Dreyfus. The president knew within minutes of sitting down with Anna that she wanted her to be part of her team, not only because she matches every piece of criteria that she put into place during her search, but also because the chemistry between the two was instantaneous. President Williams has always believed that in jobs like these, it’s always helpful to get along with your colleagues, due to the punishing hours required to do the job effectively. I can personally vouch for the fact that, within the White House, your co-workers become as close to you – if not closer – than your family, and Anna is somebody that the president immediately recognized as a person that she wanted beside her on this long, incredible, historic journey.”
Anna beamed out at the crowd of reporters as cameras continued to go off in her face, touched by the president’s sentiments being relayed to the world by her press secretary. Not only did they validate her life’s work up until that point, but they also helped the confidence within her build and eclipse the slight feeling of unease that she felt about taking a job which directly reported to the most powerful person on Earth.
“Now, I know that to many of you, Ms. Dreyfus is hardly a stranger,” Gary continued with a small smirk. “She’s been in the public spotlight for many years now. In fact, you may recall, Anna is not a lifelong supporter of our current president. She ran the competitive campaign of her primary opponent – now Secretary of State Martin Hughes – before going on to become a vocal surrogate for President Williams during the general election in order to help ensure her victory. The fact that she hasn’t always been a loyal supporter her entire life is one of the many things that appealed to President Williams, however, and it also proves that the president has chosen Anna for the chief of staff role based purely upon her own comprehensive résumé.
“A Yale graduate and a former teacher of political science, the first campaign that Anna ever ran was Senator Berg’s successful bid for the upper chamber of Congress in Maryland seven-years ago, after which she served on his staff and was instrumental in writing and getting multiple bipartisan bills passed. These bills included one requiring police officers across the country to wear body cameras at all times when on duty, and free mental healthcare for all veterans. After four-and-a-half-years, Anna resigned from Senator Berg’s staff to run Senator Hughes’ presidential campaign, and since President Williams’ election last year, she’s returned to Yale to teach political science yet again until the president reached out to officially offer her the job of her new chief of staff last Friday.”
Gary exhaled in an exaggerated, cathartic manner, eliciting laughter from the press corps. “I think I’ve rambled on enough for the time being, so without further ado, I present to you, Anna Dreyfus.”
Polite applause broke out as Anna and Gary shook hands. “Thank you.” She smiled at the press secretary who immediately took her by surprise by pulling her in for a hug and whispering in her ear, “Deflect any questions you might get about Russia.” Then, clapping a supportive hand on her shoulder, Gary stepped off to the side so that Anna could step up to the podium and command the room on her own.
Taking a deep breath as the applause died down, Anna smiled and adjusted the microphone. Grasping both sides of the podium, she said, “Thanks, Gary. I’m humbled and honored that President Williams chose me to accompany her on this historic journey that she’s embarked on as the first woman President of the United States, and I just wanted to say that I can’t wait to really sink my teeth into my work after this briefing. I want to assure the president, the American people, and our foreign allies that I will handle my responsibilities with all of the dignity and seriousness that this job demands. Other than that…” She glanced over her shoulder at the press secretary. “I don’t have much else to say since Gary took care of my bio so thoroughly, so how about we just jump straight into questions?”
Immediately, every hand in front of her shot up into the air and she was bombarded with questions from all sides. Anna hesitated for only the briefest of moments before pointing a decisive finger at a reporter with salt-and-pepper hair. “Yes?”
“Leo Alvarez, CNN,” the reporter introduced himself. “Two questions for you, if I may. First, do you think that you can help turn around the president’s plummeting approval ratings in time to help Democrats keep the majority in Congress during the midterms next November? And second, tensions between the West and Russia are hitting historic new peaks not even seen during the height of the Cold War; are we heading toward a hot war? Dare I say, World War III?”
Anna smiled coolly as a rush of adrenaline coursed through her body. She lived for moments like these; it was why she had not only become a professor, but a political science one at that. “Well, to address your first question, the president’s approval ratings are only falling amongst Republicans – many of whom didn’t support her to begin with; more than half of this country still views her, and her agenda, in a favorable light. Historically speaking, compared to other newly elected presidents this early into their first term, she’s doing quite well when it comes to public polling. Now, that isn’t to say she isn’t working hard to win the support of Republicans, because she absolutely is; her main goal is, and always has been, to be a president to all Americans. And I’m confident that she’ll be able to do that and win over support in more red and purple states, with or without my help.
“As for your second question – look, I know that you guys need ‘breaking news’ headlines and concise sound bites to replay over and over again, so here it is: we are not heading toward World War III. Anybody who says otherwise is over exaggerating.”
More flashes went off in Anna’s face as a slew of new questions were thrown at her. As she pointed at a very pale woman with dark hair, Anna thought she saw Gary throw her a wary look out of the corner of her eye. “Thanks, Anna. Susan Montrose, CBC. Why are Prime Ministers Dubois and Richardson flying into New York City on Christmas Eve, of all days, to meet with President Williams?”
“As far as I’m aware, and again this is my first day on the job, but I’ve been informed that this is purely a social visit,” Anna answered.
“Can you acknowledge that the timing is a bit circumspect though?” Susan pressed. “What with tensions with Russia at an all-time high, shouldn’t the president be more focused–”
“The president, like all world leaders who celebrate, will be taking a vacation for Christmas just as everyone who’s ever held the office prior to her always did as well,” Anna interrupted. “Please remember that a ‘vacation’ for a president is never truly a vacation. She’ll still get her daily briefings and deal with problems, both at home and abroad, as they arise in the same way that she would were she behind the resolute desk in the oval office. So, frankly, I see no problem with the timing of this social visit.”
“Again, it’s only my first day on the job so I don’t know for sure – maybe Gary can confirm,” she glanced at the press secretary. “But it’s my understanding this visit was purposefully scheduled to coincide with the timing of not only her, but also her visitors’, Christmas vacations.”
“Can we get a detailed itinerary of what they’ll be doing and seeing while in New York?” a reporter from Fox News interrupted. “And can you confirm that the press will be shadowing them on this trip?”
“Uh…we will actually not be providing itineraries or announcing in advance where the president and her guests will be at any given time, nor what they will be doing, at the behest of both the secret service and the F.B.I., as security will be a pain to organize as it is.” Gary stepped forward, rubbing his temples in a soothing manner as he addressed the room. “We don’t want larger crowds than are already common in the city gathering in advance. Needless to say, however, multiple venues have been notified already so they can coordinate with the secret service and prepare for the president’s visit. As for whether or not the press will be allowed to shadow her and her guests on this trip…” He hesitated for a moment before breaking the bad news. “Again, at the behest of both the secret service and the F.B.I., we’ll only be allowing three of you – still to be decided – to shadow the president’s entourage tomorrow; purely due to logistical concerns rising out of the need for security,” he hastened to add, as irate murmuring began to break out amongst the members of the media.
In an attempt to refocus the briefing, Anna pointedly asked, “Does anyone else have any more questions for me?”
Before anyone could so much as throw their hands into the air, Susan pressed on with her line of questioning loudly. “You can see though why people are skeptical about the nature of this trip given that it’s still proceeding, as of right now, despite the blizzard that’s set to hit Manhattan tomorrow.”
“All I can do is reiterate what Gary said earlier,” Anna began. “We are monitoring the weather and have FEMA, the Red Cross, and Homeland Security standing by in case their services are needed. As of right now, the assessment has been made that the weather will be good enough for the three leaders to meet in New York without placing themselves in immediate danger.”
“It still seems like an awful lot of risk for a social visit–”
“I’m going to stop you right there and ask you to consider whether or not any social visits between world leaders are ever purely social.”
Anna’s statement, as innocent and as truthful as it was, elicited more shouted questions and flashes from cameras. Before she could call on another reporter, however, Gary hurried up to the podium. “That’s all we have time for right now. Thanks, everyone!” And to Anna’s surprise, he placed a hand on her lower back and led her out of the room before she could say another word to the press. “You’re going to have to get better at dodging questions if you want to work here,” he intoned to her as they made their way down the long hallway, adorned with gorgeous Christmas decorations, that led toward the oval office, passing the cabinet room on their left.
“All things considered, I think I did a pretty damn good job avoiding talk about Russia and shutting down that World War III question.”
“That’s not the answer that concerns me,” Gary replied. “So much as the one in which you implied there’s more to tomorrow’s visit from the Canadian and English leaders than just social pleasantries.”
Anna rolled her eyes. “You’re telling me there’s not? Come on!”
“Of course there is!” Gary stressed, dropping his voice to a whisper as he and Anna came to a stop outside of the door to the oval office, which was flanked by a member of the secret service on either side – a tall, good looking black man with a chiseled jaw on the left and a beautiful red-headed woman who was roughly Anna’s height on the right. “But the non-social pleasantries are the real point of this sudden, hastily thrown together Christmas Eve trip. And given the sensitive nature of what this trip is truly for, we can’t let on to the press, the public, or members of Congress that anything will occur besides social banalities.”
Anna blinked, perplexed. “So what’s the true purpose of this meeting then? It’s nothing illegal, is it? Because I swear to God, if two-years down the line I’m wrapped up in a special counsel investigation about whatever transpires tomorrow–”
“It’s nothing illegal.” Gary rolled his eyes, exasperated, before stroking his mustache thoughtfully. “Didn’t you read the briefing material that we put together for you?”
“Three times in full,” Anna replied, annoyed that her prep work was being called into question. “And there was nothing in it referring to what the true purpose of tomorrow’s rendezvous is actually about.”
Gary’s shoulders slumped as the man seemed to deflate right before the new chief of staff’s eyes. “Well, the president’s not going to like the fact that whoever put that binder together for you left out the important details. I guess she’s just going to have to fill you in herself.” He let out a small sigh as he motioned toward the oval office door. “Well, go on then! She’s waiting for you.”
Anna nodded before straightening her posture, taking a deep breath, and knocking firmly on the door of the most powerful office in the world. Without waiting for an answer, she pushed it inward and stepped over the threshold. “Ah, Anna, there you are! We’ve been waiting for you! Welcome aboard!”
President Emily Williams sprang to her feet from the couch situated in front of a very large, elegantly decorated Christmas tree with surprising agility for a seventy-two-year-old woman. The two men who had been sitting on the couch opposite her also rose to their feet as Anna entered the room. The president crossed over to her in three long strides as the black secret service officer quickly closed the door to the room in order to give them privacy. “It’s nice to be here, Madam President.” Anna smiled as she took the older woman’s hand.
Emily Williams ran for the senate after years of teaching law and lamenting how lax the country’s regulations and policies were regarding banks, big corporations, and Wall Street, while being unnecessarily hard and punishing on the working class; she had seen more than a few of her students ruined over the years due to mounting debt, unpayable loans, fluctuating mortgages, and rising interest rates. Her populist economic message resonated with the liberal people of Massachusetts, who propelled her into the senate and allowed her to rise quickly within its ranks. It was this same populist message that launched her into history as the first woman president seven-years later. Like most new presidents, however, Williams found that the office came with a steep learning curve and many binding restrictions regarding what she was allowed to do unilaterally, which resulted in her approval rating dropping drastically within her first year in the position. It was the desire to help make the former most popular senator in America beloved once again, in addition to her own ambition and desire to help formulate policy to improve the country, that really prompted Anna to take the job as her chief of staff.
As Anna grasped the president’s hand firmly, she couldn’t help but marvel at how strong the woman’s handshake was and how great she looked for her age. Though she was in her early-seventies, she looked at least a decade younger. She had short, blonde hair that contained only the faintest wisps of gray throughout, and a small number of wrinkles that were mostly visible when she gave genuine smiles that matched the blue eyes peering out of her oval-shaped glasses. She was an average height – Anna guessed around five-foot-six-inches – and extremely thin. It was the buoyant enthusiasm and energy that she exuded, however, that drew her fans to her and made most people take notice when she entered a room. Even when she was still, it rolled off of her in waves, and Anna thought it added a genuine quality to the president that most politicians lacked. In addition, she was very wiry, twitchy, and awkward in an endearingly nerdy sort of way, and when the president finally released her hand and motioned toward the couches, a slight Midwestern twang was just detectible when she said, “Please, have a seat.”
Anna followed the president over to the couch she had risen from, across from which the two men were still standing. “This is General Charles Wilson, Secretary of Defense.” Williams indicated the man on the left – a hulking, physically fit, distinguished looking man with a full head of gray hair she had seen on television multiple times. Anna’s eyes were immediately drawn to the medals and badges that adorned his suit, earned over years of service in the military, during which he had earned himself the nickname, ‘Wooden Wilson’. “It’s a pleasure.” Anna shook his hand.
“The pleasure’s all mine,” Wilson replied curtly, without even a hint of a smile.
“And you obviously know Secretary Hughes.” Williams smirked, her eyes twinkling.
“How are you, Anna?” he old boss turned secretary of state, Martin Hughes, asked politely, giving her a peck on the cheek.
“Fired up and ready to go,” Anna replied, straightening her skirt. “You look good,” she noted, taking in the young African American’s shaved head and perfectly pressed suit.
“Yes, well…” Hughes threw a glance at Williams before teasing, “Being secretary of state doesn’t agree with me nearly as much as being president would.”
“You’ll have your chance one day, I’m sure, Martin.” Williams gave him a playful wink. “Please, let’s all sit down and get down to business.” As the president took her seat beside Anna, the chief of staff noted that the commander in chief was wearing the signature style she had become known for – black pants with a black blouse, over which she wore a colored blazer. Today’s color: powder blue. “I just wanted to discuss this whole Russia situation one final time before my visit with Dubois and Richardson in New York tomorrow. Anna.” She directed her gaze at her newest employee. “I assume you’re up to speed with it all?”
“I’m up to speed on Russia in general,” Anna began. “But I’m not aware as to what’s supposed to happen during your trip to New York. Whoever put together my briefing materials left it out of the binder.”
“Oh, that’s right!” Williams smacked her forehead before using her whole hand to push her glasses farther up the bridge of her nose, demonstrating one of her well-known ticks. “They wouldn’t be privy to that information. Not many people in the west wing are – it’s need-to-know only.” She let out a small sigh. “Luckily, you’re intelligent enough to follow along and grasp the specifics quickly, I’m sure. In short, myself, Prime Minister Dubois, and Prime Minister Richardson are meeting in Manhattan tomorrow – under the guise of experiencing a true New York Christmas – in order to jointly launch a coordinated missile strike against Russian submarines and battleships that have strayed too far into western waters in recent days. Afterwards, we plan on videoconferencing with President Ivanov together, so that we can present a united front, slap him with coordinated sanctions, and hopefully intimidate him into toning down his aggression.”
Anna felt her mouth drop open in surprise. Emily Williams – the populist, progressive, far-left president – was about to launch a preemptive strike against the nuclearized Russia in conjunction with two of the United States’ biggest allies? She couldn’t believe it. “With all due respect, Madam President, but you campaigned on an anti-war agenda.”
Williams nodded. “And I don’t want to get the U.S. tied up in another pointless war for years to come. I refuse to be a wartime president.”
“But taking an action like this against Russia–”
“—is exactly what we need to do in order to prevent World War III,” Secretary Wilson interrupted coolly.
Anna turned toward her former boss, hoping for some backup. Unfortunately, Secretary Hughes merely nodded grimly. “It’s true, Anna. These acts of aggression on the parts of the Russians cannot stand, and they continue to push the envelope because they feel current western leadership is too intimidated by the thought of war with them that we won’t take action against them.”
“A mindset they developed due to the much-too-friendly relationship that my predecessor tried to cultivate with them,” Williams chimed in darkly. “Though, in fairness, Ivanov’s gamble has paid off thus far. Judging from my prior calls with NATO and EU officials – and I’m predicting my calls with them will be similar later today – no other country wants to act out of fear of retaliation. It’s honestly a miracle that I’ve managed to convince England and Canada – Canada of all places – to go along with this plan. The world needs a cop, and it looks like it’s falling once again to America and our closest allies to step into that role. It’s imperative, however, that the public doesn’t get wind of our plans so that word doesn’t spread to Russia or our international allies about what’s going to happen tomorrow night.”
Anna shifted uncomfortably where she sat, suddenly realizing why Gary had been so annoyed she had intimated to the press that tomorrow’s trip to New York might be anything more than one-hundred-percent social. “Is a strike really necessary though? Can’t we just slap them with more sanctions, as a unified front, and leave it at that for the time being?”
Wilson rolled his eyes at the question as Hughes regarded her with an expression of pity on his face. Williams, however, contemplated her new staff member with an inscrutable look before turning to ask her two cabinet members, “Is a strike really necessary?”
“Yes,” Wilson impatiently insisted. “It’s the best way to show Ivanov who’s boss, and to let him know America – along with our allies – will not be intimidated by a thug like him. On top of which, we have verifiable intelligence that indicates the Kremlin has been debating preemptive strikes against NATO and EU countries to make a show of their new missile capabilities. If we launch a coordinated attack on them beforehand, against their idling warships and subs, it will force them to think twice about further increasing tensions with the West. In fact, it will scare them into deescalating tensions.”
Hughes nodded his agreement. “All of my counterparts within the allied nations have fed me the same intelligence as well.”
“And we’re sure they won’t launch a retaliatory strike?” Williams asked.
“There’s no possible way to be sure about that!” Anna interjected, her voice louder than expected.
“There’s no way we can be one-hundred-percent sure, that’s true,” Hughes conceded. “But based on how Russia’s acted for decades, we have reason to believe that they won’t. Despite all of their bluster, they’re terrified of the United States; they always have been. It’s the only reason they haven’t rolled in to annex the entirety of the Eastern Bloc yet. We’re the world’s deterrent against them. We have the biggest military on the planet, at least eight-times the size of our closest ally, which is intimidating enough in their eyes. Once they see England and Canada aligned with us during and after tomorrow’s strike? They wouldn’t risk war by retaliating against any of us.”
Williams nodded thoughtfully as she scratched her chin absentmindedly. “Walk me through the plan again.”
Anna threw her hands up into the air, exasperated, before sinking back into the couch with her arms folded across her chest; she hadn’t expected to be dealing with such a bold, provocative choice by the president in her first day on the job. Nevertheless, she listened silently as Secretary Wilson laid out plans for the following day.
“It’s really very simple. Tonight, under the cover of darkness, the Canadian and English counterparts of myself and Secretary Hughes are set to fly into the country incognito with various other members of the prime ministers’ staffs. We’ll have cars waiting for them at JFK to shuttle them to the Plaza Hotel, where we already have a swarm of secret service members securing the standard three floors needed for a presidential visit. Hughes and myself will be flying up to New York discreetly tonight as well, in order to meet them at the hotel and get secure communication links set up in the room in which the three of you will observe the missile strikes, in addition to calling Ivanov, Madam President.”
Williams nodded her understanding, but Anna already noticed a flaw in the plan. “If this is a one day social visit, how are we going to explain to the public that we need a hotel when it inevitably gets out to the media before the strikes launch?”
“Easy,” Secretary Hughes began. “We say we secured rooms as a precaution in case the winter storm bearing down upon New York grounds us all from flying out tomorrow night. Which, as it turns out, is looking more likely to happen by the second.”
“You know,” the president interjected, readjusting herself on the couch in order to stare more fully at her new chief of staff. “Questions are all well and good, and as you know, I encourage them.” Anna nodded. “But, generally speaking, I like to hear an entire presentation before beginning my questioning so that I have the complete picture first.”
Anna flushed red with embarrassment. “Sorry.”
“Thank you, Madam President.” Wilson gave her a curt nod before throwing Anna a nasty look and continuing. “Dubois and Richardson coordinated their flights so that they’ll both be landing at JFK around the same time tomorrow morning – roughly around nine a.m. So you, Madam President, will take Air Force One up to New York bright and early in order to greet them on the tarmac, where we’ve arranged for you to hold a brief, joint press conference to satisfy the media’s curiosity about their visit.”
Williams gave a snort of derision, using her whole hand once again to push her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “No matter how much information I give them, they’ll never be satisfied.”
Anna silently agreed with her new boss as the secretary of defense continued. “You, Dubois, and Richardson will then spend the day experiencing New York City at Christmastime.”
“Do a driving tour of the island, see the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree – we’ve even arranged for you to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in the afternoon before laying a wreath at the altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” Hughes elaborated. “You know – typical touristy stuff with a slight presidential twist.”
Wilson nodded. “Before finally having a very public dinner at Le Bernardin on West 51st Street, at which reservations have already been made for you. The three of you will then retreat back to the Plaza, under the guise of weather delays keeping you all grounded on the island, where around ten p.m. eastern standard time we’ll launch our missile strikes. The moment you give the official order, Gary will release to the press, the public, the rest of our NATO and EU allies, and the Congress a joint-statement about the strikes that he’s been working on with his Canadian and English counterparts. At the same time, Secretary Hughes and myself will send off a joint-report that we’ve written to Congress, which details our plan of action and provides justification for the attacks.”
“Congress isn’t in session again until early January,” Anna pointed out.
“Why do you think we’re doing this now?” Wilson asked with an annoyed eye roll.
When Anna stared at him, confused, President Williams guiltily chimed in. “With Congress on recess, it gives us a little more legal wiggle room to launch a strike unilaterally without consulting them.”
“The report that Secretary Wilson and I have prepared is literally just to inform them and cover our asses so that when the press asks if we went to Congress, we can say yes,” Hughes explained. “That’s why we’re sending the statement out concurrently with the launch of the strikes; so we can make the argument that we sent it out before they actually happened.”
Anna’s mouth dropped open, outraged, as she rounded on the president. “Surely you must know that’s extremely shaky legal ground!”
“I’ll be fine,” Williams insisted confidently. “I’m merely taking advantage of the same loophole that the language of the War Powers Act has allowed every president since Bush 41 to take advantage of. Go ahead, Charles.” She nodded at Wilson to continue with his plan before Anna could say anything more.
“We already have a call scheduled with Ivanov for ten-fifteen p.m., which is five a.m. Christmas morning Moscow time. He thinks it will just be you and him talking about ways to deescalate the ongoing cold war, so he’ll be thrown off his guard to find Dubois and Richardson on the call with you – even more so after first getting the news that his fleet of warships loitering in western waters have just been destroyed.”
“This conversation will be crucial, Madam President.” Secretary Hughes leaned forward in his seat. “I can’t stress that enough. You need to be tough and firm with him. Ivanov will be surprised you launched a preemptive strike against him, but he won’t be cowed unless he believes that you and our allies will launch a full-scale war if he continues to push us.”
“So make sure the threat is clear.” Williams nodded. “Got it. Now, I have a question for you gentlemen. This all sounds well and good, but what happens when the rest of NATO, the EU, and the UN find out that the United States, Canada, and England acted without consulting them?”
“It’s perfectly within our rights to do so,” Wilson replied defensively. “Trust me, if everything goes according to plan, they’ll all be issuing statements supporting our decision while you’re still on your call with the Russian president, which will worry him even more.”
“The key will be getting Chancellor Schulz to issue a statement of support,” President Williams noted.
Chancellor Mia Schulz of Germany was often considered one of the most important leaders of the free world, and the de facto leader and spokesperson of the European Union. Her opinion carried a lot of weight, not just with other world leaders, but the public as well. If she condemned the strikes against Russia, it would go a long way in making other countries question the credibility of Williams’, Dubois’, and Richardson’s actions. All of this naturally begged the question Anna asked: “Why isn’t Schulz in on the plan?”
“Germany is one of America’s most important allies,” Williams pointed out. “But you know what Schulz is like. She’s not cold, but she’s calculating. She’s a brilliant thinker – which is a great thing, but she sometimes has a tendency to overthink and overanalyze. If we asked her to join with us in striking Russia and she refused, she wouldn’t keep our plans a secret from the rest of the world and we’d lose the element of surprise. We couldn’t risk it.”
“And why don’t we just get all of NATO involved?” Anna asked. “All of the EU? Go to the UN for a vote? We should go through the proper channels! If the majority agrees, we strike, if not, we don’t. Simple. Acting unilaterally like this – or trilaterally with two of our closest allies, as the case may be – it’s risky.”
“All military action is.”
“But this plan sounds like it’s leaving so much up to chance! It needs two-hundred-million things to go exactly right in order to accomplish what you’re hoping to accomplish!” Anna’s voice was rising now. “If one thing goes wrong, or if Ivanov isn’t as humbled as you seem to think he’ll be, we could accidentally start World War III!”
The president considered her underling thoughtfully for a moment, her face unreadable, before she forced a smile and stood up. “Thank you, gentlemen.” She addressed her secretaries, who immediately stood up and straightened their blazers. “I’ll see you tomorrow in Manhattan.”
“See you tomorrow.”
Anna rose to her feet and shook hands with both men before watching as Williams led them out of the oval office. The moment she shut the door behind them, she let out a long sigh before turning to face her new chief of staff, a relieved smile on her face. “Can I get you a coffee or anything? Tea perhaps?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“Are you sure?” Williams asked, as she walked the perimeter of the circular room before coming to a stop behind the resolute desk. “Perhaps a shot of bourbon? You look like you could use one.” Anna opened her mouth, embarrassed, but the president forestalled her with a laugh and a raise of her hand. “Trust me, I’m not judging you. I wouldn’t mind a shot of the stuff right now either.” Motioning at a chair in front of the famous presidential desk, the elderly woman gently took her seat behind it with a wistful sigh and gazed around the room as Anna took her seat. “I’ve been in office just under a year, and as a senator, I visited the White House, including this very office, on multiple occasions. Yet despite that, there’s really no getting used to it. I’m still awed by it every single day when I walk through that door.”
“Madam President,” Anna began, as the commander in chief opened a drawer and began to move things around inside of it. “I feel like I must vigorously voice my opposition to what you’re planning on doing tomorrow night–”
“I knew that you would,” Williams replied without looking up from the drawer she was shifting things around within. “But before we get to that conversation…” She pulled out a decanter of bourbon, along with two tumblers, and placed them gently on the resolute desk, taking her underling by surprise. “I wasn’t kidding when I offered you that drink.” Unscrewing the stopper of the decanter, the president gingerly poured two glasses of the amber liquid before recapping it and pushing one of the tumblers toward Anna. “You were saying?”
“I…uh…” Anna shook her head, distracted by the alcohol in front of her. “It’s just – I think the plan that you’ve concocted with the two prime ministers and your teams is desperate.”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Williams pointed out sagely, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose before taking a sip of bourbon. “If a preemptive strike against Russia has the potential to prevent World War III, then that’s a calculated risk that I need to take.”
“It also has the potential to jumpstart it though,” Anna pointed out.
Williams took another sip of her drink and eyed the room’s large Christmas tree, mulling over the statement carefully before replying. “When I ran for this office, I had no intention of ever becoming a wartime president. Frankly, I still don’t. Which is why I’m taking action.”
“Do you know why Secretary Clarkson lost her election to President Thompson five-years ago?” Williams asked suddenly. “She lost because she was a woman. Sexism is still prevalent within the borders of this country, which is one of the main reasons the electorate chose the most unqualified man to ever run for office to become president over the most qualified person to ever run, who just happened to be a woman. The only reason I had an easier time of it when I challenged Thompson four-years later was because Clarkson’s loss exposed that sobering fact, so people were more aware of it during my go-around.” She paused before adding with a shrug, “In addition to the fact that Thompson was so terrible, he couldn’t even hold on to his sycophantic base. Had I been running against a qualified male candidate though? Forget it. I have no doubt I would have lost.”
“Why are we talking about this?” Anna asked, as she took a sip of bourbon. The liquid burned as it slid down her throat, but she forced herself not to cough or flinch so as not to expose a weakness to the president who was drinking hers like a champ.
“Because of sexism, many people still don’t believe a woman can make a strong commander in chief,” Williams explained. “Despite the fact that they elected one. Look at Chancellor Schulz – how long did she have to hold her office before the rest of the world started to take her seriously? America was the last industrialized, first world country to elect a woman to run it, and the majority of the world still doesn’t believe a woman can maintain our strong, intimidating presence around the globe. Ivanov certainly doesn’t! I can tell when talking on the phone with him that he doesn’t take me seriously, which is exactly why I need to launch this strike tomorrow evening. I need to show him, and by extension, anybody else who thinks they can threaten us, that I will not allow America or its allies to be manhandled by a bully.”
Anna took a moment to process the president’s words before admitting, “I still don’t like it.”
“Neither do I,” Williams replied with a small smile. “But all of the intelligence suggests that Russia will soon make a move against us, or our allies, if we don’t do anything to deter them quickly. I understand the risks, but the possible rewards are greater.”
“As long as you’re aware of the possible backlash you’ll face here at home for going around Congress to make an autonomous move.”
“Oh, please.” A wide grin spread across the president’s face. “Come on, Anna. You’ve been in politics long enough to know that every decision you make, no matter how good, will face some sort of backlash. That’s even truer when you’re making decisions from the oval office.” She rolled her eyes. “Whether I prevent World War III tomorrow with the actions I’m planning, or negotiate peace in the Middle East in the new year, Republicans will bitch no matter what, just because I’m not a member of their party. Politics has become so tribal, I can’t spend too much time worrying about their faux outrage or criticism; especially when we still hold a majority in all three branches of the government.”
“But the midterms are less than a year away,” Anna reminded her gently. “If you want to hold on to your majority, you need to keep some Republican voters; we both know your approval rating is plummeting in the red states, and even some purple ones. And what I fear now is that you’ll lose more progressives and independents once they find out about your strike against Russia – especially if it doesn’t go well. If you lose the House, the Senate, or – God forbid – both chambers, you’re going to find it hard to get anything done the remainder of your time in office. The Republicans can, and will, make your life miserable. You know how petty they can be. They’ll refuse to pass, or even vote on, any major legislation you want passed, and they’ll use your lack of accomplishments during your third and fourth years against you when you seek reelection.”
Williams nodded as she stood up, cradling her glass of bourbon, to stare out of the windows that overlooked the south lawn of the White House. The grass was still frosted over from the chill that had descended over D.C. the night before, and plastic snowmen dotted the lawn. Meanwhile, the sky above was a gloomy gray, from which it looked like it might begin to snow at any moment. “Truthfully, I don’t care about my own reelection. I mean…” She let a small laugh escape her lips. “I’ll be seventy-five when I’m on the ballot again! Would I love a second term? Absolutely! Look at all of the progress we’ve made as a country during my first year in office!” She whipped around to face Anna, smiling proudly. “If I don’t win reelection, I can leave the White House taking comfort in knowing the country is better off because of me. But it’s all contingent upon Democrats keeping control of Congress. If they lose the majority, everything we’ve accomplished will be put at risk and can be undone. That can’t happen.”
“Well, if you want to keep Congress, we need to get your approval ratings back up, which will help you win your own reelection when the time comes as well, so let’s focus on that,” Anna suggested matter-of-factly.
“Can I be honest with you?” The president sat back down at her desk and leaned forward. “I’m at a loss for how to do that. I’ve always been quite popular – not that I care about that!” She hastily added, genuinely meaning it. “It’s just – you know me. I say what I think and fight for what I believe in, regardless of public perception. I always have! But the majority of people have normally been on my side.”
“The majority still are,” Anna pointed out. “You’re just…gradually losing support, and we have to find a way to stop your numbers from dropping even more.”
“How? I’m doing what I’ve always done, but have you seen the way the media’s been portraying me lately?” Williams reached into a desk drawer and, after a moment of rummaging around, pulled out three newspaper clippings. “These are all from this morning – holiday-themed and everything.” She threw the Christmas tree across the room a dark look. “The first one…” She held up a cartoon, beneath which was a headline in bold. “Portrays me as the ice queen. ‘In Her First Year, President Williams Ices Out Republicans’. They neglect to mention the fact that Republicans had a fair say in everything I’ve done and have watered down much of my proposed legislation with amendments. It’s not my fault that they’re the minority and couldn’t get Democrats or myself to change course completely!”
Anna took the cartoon from the president when it was held out to her, noting, “Not to mention, portraying a woman in power as an ice queen is so cliché.” Williams gave a snort of derision as she held up the second newspaper clipping for her to see, which bore another cartoon above a headline. “Is that you as Scrooge?”
The president nodded as she read the headline aloud. “‘Emily Williams Punishes Success by Raising Taxes on the Rich’. The cartoon doesn’t even make sense since Scrooge was rich and hoarded money for himself!”
“Didn’t he give it all away in the end though?” Anna pointed out teasingly, eliciting a smile from the president as the older woman held out the clipping for her to take. Noticing which paper it was from, Anna rolled her eyes. “A far-right outlet published this; don’t take it so seriously!”
“And what about this one?” Williams held up the third and final newspaper clipping for Anna to see. “I’m supposed to be the Grinch, but they made me look like the Wicked Witch of the West! ‘How President Williams Stole Christmas’.” She shook her head, frustrated. “I’m Christian! I’m Catholic! I celebrate Christmas! It’s my favorite holiday for goodness sake!”
“A large section of the American public – people of both major political parties – is getting sick of political correctness,” Anna explained sympathetically, taking the newspaper clipping from the old woman. “The fact that you’ve been saying ‘Happy Holidays’ this past month probably hurt you.”
“I’ve been saying ‘Happy Holidays’ because there’s a multitude of holidays that people in this country celebrate every December,” Williams snapped, annoyed, as she pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “We are not a Christian nation! On Hanukah, I say ‘Happy Hanukah’! On Christmas, I say ‘Merry Christmas’! On Kwanza, I say ‘Happy Kwanza’! And if it’s just a random day in December on which no holiday falls, I say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of just assuming everybody celebrates Christmas!”
“Believe me, you’re preaching to the choir,” Anna reassured her boss, concerned by the fact that she had never seen her look so frustrated before. “I find the whole ‘War on Christmas’ thing ridiculous as well. But…” She hesitated. “Tomorrow you’ll be touring New York City with the prime ministers of England and Canada to show them how the best city on the planet celebrates Christmas. That alone will be excellent optics for the people in this country who think you’re too politically correct for saying ‘Happy Holidays’, and it will give you the perfect excuse to say ‘Merry Christmas’ for a day. That right there will give a boost to your approval ratings! Then, in the new year, we’ll start highlighting your accomplishments. I mean, you’ve done an incredible amount for a president during their first year in office, some of which public officials have been trying to do for years. Even if the strikes against Russia aren’t well-received tomorrow, your successes will hopefully eclipse that failure in the long run.”
“Sounds logical,” Williams admitted. “What else can we do?”
“We need to make you more available to the press,” Anna replied. “I know you hate dealing with them – who doesn’t? But the more you make yourself available, the easier they’ll be on you. Or, at the very least, they’ll begin portraying you as a warmer person instead of someone who’s cold and detached, like they’ve been doing. Speaking of which – Gary mentioned at the press briefing that the secret service is only going to allow three members of the press corps to shadow you around the city tomorrow; any preference as to which ones you want, so I can let them know?”
“No one from Fox News.” The president drummed her fingers thoughtfully on her desk. “Someone from the BBC and the CBC, obviously, since they’re the main sources of news for Britain and Canada. As for someone to represent the American press…” She thought about it for a moment, her eyes flickering over to the Christmas tree again. “Someone from CNN. They’re center enough; if we choose someone from MSNBC, conservatives will accuse me of being desperate for good coverage and pandering to the left.”
Anna laughed. “Good choices. But just so you know, you’re still going to be accused of that by conservative outlets.”
“I know.” Williams nodded grimly. “Oh, and can you do something else for me, please? Can you find appropriate Christmas gifts that I can give the prime ministers tomorrow? Something American made, obviously, and preferably from Massachusetts or my birth state of Oklahoma.”
“Of course,” Anna replied. “I’ll get right on it.”
“Excellent.” Williams smiled at her chief of staff as there was a loud knock on the door to the oval office and Gary let himself in without waiting for an invitation, a yellow legal pad under his arm.
“Madam President?” The press secretary began. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to go over the draft of the joint press release that we’re going to put out to the media tomorrow night.”
Williams glanced at the clock on the wall before nodding and standing up abruptly, a movement which Anna mimicked a second later. “Let’s make it quick, Gary. I have a litany of calls scheduled for today.”
The president then glanced at Anna and picked up her glass of bourbon, indicating for her chief of staff to follow suit. “Here’s to a long and successful working relationship.”
“Cheers.” The women clinked their glasses and downed the rest of their drinks before placing the empty tumblers back down on the resolute desk. Before Anna turned to leave, however, she said, “I just want to say one more time that I’m not thrilled with what we’re doing tomorrow night.”
“I know,” Williams insisted with a small smile.
“Hey, at least we’ll be delivering a Christmas light show up close and personal for the Russians! That’ll put them in the holiday spirit!” Gary chuckled, quickly stopping and clearing his throat when he noticed neither woman had joined in.
“That’s not funny, Gary,” Williams noted.
Rolling her eyes at the press secretary as she passed, Anna left him alone with the president in the oval office, thinking about how the next day would probably very well be the most interesting Christmas Eve she’d ever experience in her life.