In which we meet Clark Minton and see the origins of his practical joke. Some joke. We also join a floundering political campaign and see it take a desperate gamble.
———- South Florida, Tuesday, August 3, 2010 ——–
Since the election was only three months away, and since all the other salaried campaign staff were busy tying up the phones arranging job interviews and calling friends of friends, Clark Halsop Minton spent most hours of most days surfing the Internet. One of his most enjoyable things was to think up a word and type it into EyeKnow, the powerful search engine that looked at over 5 billion websites, according to a sign on their site that reminded Clark of the McDonald’s™ “Over 23 billion served” on all of the lighted message boards under the arches. His increasing solitude in the office, largely self-imposed, was in large part a result of his four years at Vanderbilt, where, miracle of miracles, he found that it was not a mortal sin to be smart, or interested in becoming that way. Growing up in the shadow of that graduate of the school of hard knocks, Buddy Minton himself, Clark had found little paternal support for his consuming interest in reading,
“Hell’s bells, son,” his daddy was fond of saying, “ain’t nobody paid to read books and damn few are paid squat to write them. So what you need, son, is to get out in the real world. Do you think I got all this,” he would say, melodramatically sweeping his hand in a proprietary arc, regardless of whether he was in their palatial house or the Dairy Queen ice cream shop, “from reading books? You bet your sweet Aunt Bessie I didn’t!” Clark, then, grew up with only his mother’s support for his basic independence, including the practice of reading in relative safety. Over the years, it was safe to say, that while she enjoyed and appreciated the bounty that soy brought the Minton clan, she grew to resent constantly languishing in the shadow of the Big Buddy, and being treated lovingly but firmly as good for just three things, only two of which could be mentioned in polite society. So, as far as she was able, she encouraged Clark to arm himself with the wits and other tools he would need come the day when he no longer could “stay with the program,” as Buddy was fond of saying.
So, despite despairing and disparaging comments from his father, and the winking of his rural macho classmates, Clark gradually dropped even the pretext of interest in chugging Colt 45 “40’s” (the 40-ounce bottle of the popular malt liquor) and then engaging in such hayseed Olympic activities as drag racing, whoring, and other time-wasting shenanigans of a Saturday night.
When the time came to apply to colleges, Clark was pleasantly surprised to learn that he had actually made it into Vanderbilt on his own merit, even as Buddy stood by, checkbook in hand, to endow, if necessary, his son’s place in the class of 2010. The ugly duckling of Smoot County, Georgia soon turned into a swan as Clark warmed instantly to the intellectual atmosphere and ambience of the Nashville campus. With his visits home increasingly rare (Buddy always trying to talk him out of his honors Humanities major and into something worthwhile, like anything to help make money) Clark Minton grew into quite an interesting, well-educated, gentleman, which is to say someone so opposite his dad that people could be excused for thinking Clark was adopted.
In the few months he had been back in the family home, largely at the request of his mother, who missed his conversation and geniality, Clark had been considering whether or not graduate school might be the thing after all. His problem actually was not so much one of identifying his interests as discovering an outlet for them that wouldn’t send Buddy around the bend. It wasn’t a case of worrying about his inheritance (there was already a sizable trust fund awaiting his 25th birthday) but rather, thinking of his mother, who would bear the brunt of Buddy’s dissatisfaction if Clark were to do “some damn fool thing” with his life. And of all things he didn’t want, it was to be the source of his mom’s unhappiness. Which is why, a couple of weeks after graduation he dutifully accepted the job with the Frobisher for Congress re-election campaign that Buddy so kindly volunteered him for.
So one day Clark types in “money”, since he was thinking of calling Buddy in a few minutes, and the list of “first 100 of 167,579,034” had one site called “Physical Object MONEY: Why Things Go Wrong.” Thinking he might get some ammunition to use in his next grilling from Buddy about “making somethin’ with your damn life,” Clark decided to kill a few minutes and clicked through to the website.
Meanwhile, at about the time Clark was visiting the website, his father was sitting down to lunch, generally a happy time of the day for him. But today he couldn’t seem to dive in as he usually did, and the reason was simple enough – he was worrying about his son again, for about the four millionth time. Buddy always got steamed thinking about Clark, and how if he, Buddy Minton, had worked his way through Valdosta State and owned 10,000 acres by his 30th birthday, well hell, it just can’t be that the boy was his. But they looked as much alike as two peas in a pod except that Clark’s paunch was smaller. So he had to secretly blame Lozelle, his wife and Clark’s mama, for whatever it was that made Clark Clark and not like him, Buddy. “God!” he thought. “What if they had named him Buddy Jr.?”
But Lozelle loved her son, every highfalutin’ pound of his lazy ass, and Buddy had to grin and bear it, being satisfied to growl to himself between forks of barbeque washed down with sweet tea, a sort of grunt with each recollection of Clark’s latest damn fool stuffandsuch. And now that Frobisher seemed certain to lose (can’t the son of a bitch do anything right?), that meant that the kid would be back in his life, mooning around the house reading poetry with that stupid expression on his face, asking for money to spend on God knows what, but it sure wasn’t a ticket out of daddy’s life, you can damn sure bet on that. At this last thought, Buddy made a half-growl, half-snort that caught the attention of diners at the trestle table to his left. He quietly picked the pieces of barbeque and coleslaw from his sleeve and the front of his shirt, sloshed some sweet tea, and pulled his bowl of vanilla pudding in front of him, muttering under his breath.
————– South Florida Friday, August 6, 2010 ———-
“Look folks, I mean Gol-dangit folks, we’ve got to come up with something!” yelled Hughy Ormond, Congressman Frobisher’s trusted right-hand man and campaign manager. He was desperate and as serious as a man can be when he is looking unemployment and the end of the gravy train straight in the eye. He was begging, pleading for his staff to come up with something, anything that would turn the tide for their candidate.
“I don’t have to remind you,” he said, intoning as only a boy raised on tent revivals can, “that we are getting a serious butt-kicking courtesy of a woman D.A. of all things. All she’s been doing the last ten years is putting people in prison. So now everybody says, ‘Oh, Erin Constable is the way to go. She’s tough on crime.’ Here the economy’s falling apart, people can’t afford the gas to come down to vacation here any more, and we’re letting her get away with a ‘tough on crime’ campaign? You should be ashamed of yourselves. You been eating our food, using our phones, and trying to get dates with the local talent. Now go eat fish, stand on your heads, rub a banana, or do whatever it is that makes you smart and come up with something to turn this thing around!” As Hughy finished this speech, he punctuated his sincerity with a well-timed THUMP of his fist on the desk he had been leaning on during his pep talk. And with equally exquisite timing, the ketchup from the packet he had just smashed with his hand displayed a gentle ruby arc before landing on the front of Don Suggs’ poly-cotton short sleeve dress shirt, just missing the large “Vote for FRO” button pinned at his heart.
That impression seemed to sum up the sense of what Hughy expected from the staff.
It is a fairly undisputed observation that precious few individuals have multiple good ideas, concepts that change our lives – often for the better. On the other hand, quite a few individuals have only one good idea, and it takes them through life, and sometimes into history. For every Leonardo you have twenty one-hit wonders. But for Clark, his great idea came as a practical joke. As Hughy had juxtaposed the economic troubles of the people of South Florida with the anti-crime campaign of their opponents, Clark suddenly had a flashback to the website that had blamed everything on the physical object money that everybody and every economy used. It was then that his great idea struck, the idea which, in days to come, he wished he had never had, but at the moment he was overwhelmed with the temptation to play a joke on these incompetent people who were treating him like an illiterate office boy.
“Mr. Ormund, I was reading something on the Internet the other day which might help us. It might really turn this thing around in a big way.” Clark tried to sound enthusiastic about the idea even though he thought the whole thing was silly.
“Well speak up, boy, let’s have it.” Hughy was planning to use the boy’s idea, whatever it was, to get the rest of the staff to get off their lazy mental backsides and do some creative work.
“There’s this guy on the Internet that says there’s a way to run the country without taxes and with nobody having to pay for food or a place to live and such. Why don’t we use his ideas as a way to get the people’s minds on the economy and away from Erin’s anti-crime issues? We could promise an end to taxes, not just cutting them like all the other candidates. We could say we would stop unemployment forever and have stable prices without government controls.”
Clark’s ideas were getting rather mixed up but one of the other staffers, a speech writer, jumped in with his eyes aglow,
“He has a way to do away with taxes and end unemployment? Boy what a stump speech I could write with those issues.”
Clark was encouraged to continue so he searched his memory and came up with a few more points.
“He says that nobody should have to pay for food or clothes or a place to live or medicine and that prices shouldn’t change at all. He says that unemployment is completely unnecessary.”
“That’s silly. You can’t do that. Who would pay for all that stuff without taxes? You have to have taxes. Who would build the roads?” Suggs was in no mood to accept any new ideas today, particularly one that was as off the wall, pie in the sky as this one.
“This guy says all we have to do is change our money and all these things will happen without the government being involved at all. You can look it up.” Clark was beginning to sweat because Suggs was saying what he himself was thinking about the idea.
But Hughy was not about to let the others off the hook that easily.
“Wait a minute, guys, it doesn’t have to really work, it just has to win this election. Who’s going to remember a year from now what we promised in the campaign? All we need is what you might call ‘plausible deniability’ that will last for about three months and then who cares whether this guy knows what he’s talking about or not? So unless you can come up with something better by the end of the day, we’ll go with this money stuff starting tomorrow.”
“Now”, Hughy thought, “to make these other bozos get their brains in gear I’ll make it look like I am serious about using this cockamamie idea by putting our writers on it.”
“Clark, I want you and Ed and Doris to look at this website and get some more specifics for issues we can hammer them with. Here is how I see it developing. First we say we have a new idea that will get rid of all our economic, no make that ‘home security’ problems. ‘Home security’ like in groceries and mortgages, get it? It’s a play on ‘homeland security’ but it hits them in their pocketbooks and you know the voters will vote their wallets every time… Well, never mind, I’m sure you can come up with something good. We’ll hold back on what our solution is until the opposition starts saying it’s impossible and then hit them with the changing money thing. By then I want a campaign to make it sound plausible, complete with references and website citations so the people can go see it for themselves. We can create some of the websites ourselves. Clark, you still got some contacts from back in college? We need some authorities that we can quote to back us up on this stuff. Oh, and see what else you can find out about this on the Internet. Doris, I want you to see what you can do with the little old lady and soccer mom angles on this. I want something that will pull those blue-hairs out of the bingo parlors and into the voting booths. Ed, we’re going to need something that appeals to the business community, get some ideas from Clark here and then knock out about a 10 minute speech that makes it sound like the solution to every businessman’s problems.”
Hughy paused, he felt like Jimmy Cagney in the classic old movie “One, Two, Three,” snapping out decisive orders and making people jump. He thought perhaps he should see if he couldn’t rent that movie tonight and pick up some pointers. After this campaign he would probably be looking for work and it might be good if he could sound more like Cagney than like Burt Lancaster in “Elmer Gantry.”
“I’ll have more for you tomorrow if the rest of these bozos don’t come up with something better.” Hughy growled “Now get out of here and get to work.”
———- Saturday, August 6, 2010, progress reports ———-
Ed was like a puppy with a fresh bone. “This is the way I see it. If we hit them with everything at once they won’t get any of it. So what we do is take just one or two issues for each crowd selected for that specific audience. Get them to understand those issues and let’s put the website in the TV spots. Now the TV spots are also single-issue. We’ll use the demographics to see which ads we put on which stations and at what times of day. I don’t think we should use more than three points in any one market area so we will need to pick and choose carefully.”
“Now we can turn out about two ads per day so we need to wait on the TV ads for about three days to get a full set ready, then while those are running we can see which points seem to have the most impact and make more careful ads based on those.”
“Here, this is the speech for tomorrow’s county fair. I figure we’re going to get a lot of young middle-class families, so we’ll go with the full employment and stable prices points. Then for the older audiences that afternoon we have the free housing and free medical care. For the business groups first thing in the morning we use no taxes and no government regulation. I knocked out about three other talks just for the poor neighborhoods. The free food and housing is the main emphasis there. For the college kids the free education, of course, along with the free room and board.”
“Slow down, Ed. Take it easy,” Hughy said patting Ed on the back. “It sounds like you really got excited about this angle.”
“Hughy, if I can’t sell stuff like this I don’t deserve to be called an ad man. I mean, free stuff and no taxes? You’ve got to be kidding. It’s a slam dunk even for a guy as short as I am.”
“Okay, does anyone have any better ideas than the ones Ed is rolling with? Come on, guys, you gonna let some spoiled kid who never did an honest day’s work in his life beat you out? Sorry, kid.”
Suddenly Clark no longer felt ashamed of his idea. He wasn’t afraid to talk in the meeting. He wanted so badly to show up these men that he wasn’t even self-conscious about being slightly pear-shaped and round-faced. He felt a burning desire to embarrass them, to humble them, to make them dance to his tune. If his father had been there, he would have said it was the making of the boy.
“But this is crazy,” Don Suggs fumed. “You can’t promise everybody all this free stuff. For one thing they’ll never believe it. For another, the other candidate will laugh you out of the campaign. You’ll never get work in politics again. It’ll be a debacle.”
“So where’s your better idea, Don?” Clark said, his back straight, his shoulders back, his chin out-thrust. “Your ideas have been top dog up until now and look at where they’ve gotten us, 30 points behind in the last poll. If anybody’s going to be blamed for Frobisher finishing a poor second to Constable it won’t be me, it’ll be you.”
Clark’s eyes were flashing. Don just looked at him, his mouth open in shock. Even Hughy, without consciously realizing it, began to respect Clark just a little.
“Enough of that,” Hughy barked. “If you don’t have a better idea to offer, get on board or get off the track because we are coming through with you or over you.”
There was a long silence finally broken by Doris saying, “I have to get these ads to the producers if we’re going to have any TV spots ready by the weekend.”
Hughy felt trapped by his own psychological trick. He had been so sure that the other, older pols would have been able to come up with something, especially when they were competing against a glorified office boy, for crying out loud! But somehow, the new Clark that had jumped up and savaged Don right before their eyes made it feel just a little dangerous to throw any other ideas out on the table just then. So they sat quietly and the longer the silence grew, the more difficult it was to break it.
Don, of course, was so angry that he wouldn’t have made a suggestion even if it was the best idea he had ever had. If they were going to take this kid’s ideas over his, then they could just lose by a record margin. He still had some contacts who might be able to get him a position with the Constable campaign. Of course it wouldn’t be quite what he had with Frobisher, but after the way Hughy had spattered him with ketchup yesterday and hadn’t backed him up when the kid went crazy, Don was willing to take a cut in pay and status to get some payback. Besides, he could let the Constable campaign know what a crazy thing the Frobisher camp was going to try. That ought to be good for something.
“Well it looks like we go with the freebies campaign.” Hughy said with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Ed you seem to have a lot of ideas for how to present this stuff. I want a base speech that Frobisher can use and then plug the particular issues into that speech. That way he won’t have to learn so much as he switches from one kind of crowd to another. You can farm out the particular issues to Tom and Neil for making the five minute or so issue segments.”
“Clark I want as much academic support for this idea as you can come up with, college professors of economics and such. We also want websites we can send the public to so they’ll see that we aren’t just making up fairy tales about all this free stuff.”
“Doris, when we see which groups this plays with best, we want to have more speeches in front of those groups for the backgrounds of the TV spots. We want lots of enthusiasm on the faces of the audience.”
“Oh and one more thing Clark, we have the first of the debates we agreed to back last month when this was a close race coming up in about three weeks. You have to figure out what the other side is going to try to attack us on and have defenses ready. You know they are going to say this is a crazy idea. We need something that stops them cold.”
“All right everybody, get to work.”
Hughy turned on his heel and left the room for his office. He had to talk to Frobisher.
“Prescott, you know we got trouble in this campaign,” Hughy said almost pleadingly into the phone. “I mean we are the incumbent and the economy is in the tank and the old folks that voted for you last time to save their Social Security aren’t exactly happy over the inflation and the price of gas.”
“I know, I know, Hughy,” said the tired voice in reply. “The incumbent always gets blamed for whatever’s going wrong even if it ain’t his fault. But I’ve done lots of good things for this district the last six years. We’ve got to keep reminding them of that. Like those defense contracts I got last term. They’ve meant millions to the local economy.”
“Yes, Pres,” Hughy said soothingly, “but the people’s pockets are empty now. There’s all this unemployment and the prices are going through the roof. The voters don’t care squat about what you did for them last year. They want something right now and I think we have something to offer them.”
“What do you mean, Hughy? What haven’t we offered them already?”
“We came up with a new plan yesterday and the staff is really enthusiastic about it,” Hughy said trying to feel a little enthusiasm about it himself and not succeeding. “You should have heard Ed. He was saying he could sell this stuff in his sleep. I mean we can top anything Constable is talking about. She’s saying she’ll cut taxes more than you have and she’s saying she’ll get more jobs and so on. Well, we can do a lot better than that.”
“What’s better than more jobs, Hughy? What’s better than lower taxes? How are we gonna top that?”
“Prescott, Mr. Congressman, we really can but I’m gonna need to explain a lot more than I can do over the phone. I want you to come in to headquarters this afternoon. We’ll get someone else to take your speeches. This is top priority. This can save this campaign. It’s that important.”
Hughy heard deafening silence on the other end of the wire as he nervously ran his nails down the front of his “Prescott for Congress” pocket protector. Finally came Congressman’s familiar throat-clearing, as though he was a preacher tuning to say grace, and then, “Joe-Boy, how long you been with me, now, how long?”
“About, I’d say, eight years, sir.”
“Yes sir, eight years,” repeated Hughy, realizing his boss’ dilatory exercise. He sometimes believed that he could tell to the second when the hamster wheel would start turning.
“Okay, son. If you think I should. I’ll come in right after lunch in Bonita Springs…You really think we have a chance with this new idea of yours?”
“Sir, I really do,” Ormond said with his most sincere voice and with his fingers crossed.
“I’ll be there. Got to run now. Bye.”
“Goodbye, sir.” Hughy sat down behind his desk and thought as hard as he had in years. Prescott has got to buy into this or he’ll never be able to sell it to the voters. He’s gonna have to be a born again politician with the fervor of the newly converted. How am I ever going to convince him that this silly idea is the real thing? Can I trust Clark to… nah. How about Ed? No, he only cares about what great copy it makes. I don’t think he has any idea how it works nor cares. Don is out of the question. He wouldn’t sell this idea if his life depended on it. None of the other guys know that much about it. I guess I’ll have to do it myself. Lord, if I ever needed your help I need it now. Please let me see the way and understand your plan and hand in all this. I’m an old man now and have already lived most of my life. I been broke before and got through it. But Lord, the whole country is in trouble now and if Prescott doesn’t win I won’t be able to seek your path in Washington ever again. Please Lord if it be your will let me be a light unto others in these terrible times. Amen.
Feeling oddly refreshed and a little surprised at the prayer that he had fallen into in his thoughts, Hughy Ormond left his office to find Clark and get some instruction on this crazy… no mustn’t think it’s crazy, this innovative money idea.