One night in South Carolina
It was hot in Columbia, but that was nothing new. Columbia, South Carolina was the very first piece of evidence global warming existed. Like a married man caught with a VHS copy of Hung Well (A Story of Men), the leaders of the conservative stronghold protested too much. They most certainly were not faaaaabulous, Columbia was most certainly not hot, and global warming was most certainly a ruse created by people who loved trees more than capitalism.
“Jesus, it’s hot,” said the man on his front porch.
“Don’t say ‘Jesus’ unless you’re at work honey,” said the man’s wife. “Please don’t bring your job home with you.”
Congressman Joe Wilson looked at his wife. She was cranky. He wondered if she had been looking at his video collection again.
“I’m sorry, honey.” the Congressman said. “It’s just the heat. Can’t we just admit this is the hottest city in America? It’s nothing but concrete, statues, pigeons, and Confederate Flags. There’s no place for the sun to rest. It’s like hell, except without the Kennedys.”
The woman who thought she would’ve been first lady but for her husband’s intolerance for the heat did not have time to respond before she heard the tell-tale vibration from her husband’s pocket. She sighed and reminded herself to check his video collection. “I thought I asked you to keep that on your belt,” she said.
The Congressman let the cell phone ring two more times in his pocket before muttering, “Sorry…forgot.”
Joe Wilson removed the phone from the recess of his sweaty pocket. His wife only heard him say, “Hello? I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
There was a long pause as the South Carolina U.S. Representive’s face grew white. “Of course,” he said, then grabbed his seersucker jacket, and walked into the night.
* * *
Maurice’s BBQ felt different to Wilson. He knew it front to back and recognized half the faces in the place, and yet he sensed a darkness. He couldn’t see it, but he felt it in a place he hadn’t felt since childhood. It made him shiver.
At the front door stood a nervous, pale twenty-something man. His red tie matched his flushed face. He held a photo in his hand that Wilson recognized as his own.
“Congressman?” the younger man asked. The sweat on his collar had soaked through and looked like a washed out Rorschach test.
Wilson looked around to see who was looking. “Yes. You’re the one who called me?” he said.
The man looked relieved, but only his face relaxed. “I’ve been asked to escort you to meet someone.”
Wilson nodded and followed the young man through a sea of overweight people and pulled pork. A booth in the far corner of the room had a man with his back sitting to the crowd. Wilson stepped cautiously around the dropped napkins and spilled sauce. When he reached the booth, he saw a man with a hat pulled down over his eyes. Though the disguise was good, Wilson would’ve recognized the face anywhere. He had thought about it late at night with his wife in bed beside him and during his long weeks in his D.C. flat.
“Mr. Rove?” Wilson asked, his voice hitched up half an octave.
The man turned his head and looked the Congressman in the eye.
“Who’d you expect?” he said. “It’s not like Cheney is going to come to South Carolina.”
* * *
“A lot of people think that, but I’m still around,” Rove said. His lips and fingers were greasy. The bones of at least half a chicken soaked in pool of milky cole slaw juice.
“It’s just,” Wilson said, “I sort of figured when the President left office, you would go with him.”
Rove nodded and picked a piece of pork out of his teeth. “It’s easier when people believe that. Less my name gets mentioned, easier it is for me to work.”
Wilson felt his shoulders tremble. It was involuntary and exhilarating. “I don’t want to be presumptuous…”
Rove waved his hand and said, “Oh, be presumptuous. It entertains me.”
Wilson leaned in. The table smelled like old smoke and something fried. “Do you have a job for me, Mr. Rove?”
Rove chuckled. A man across the room later would recall the moment and think, “That man looked like a pimp who had just discovered a new whore.”
Rove looked down at his hands and back up. “Yes, Congressman, I have a job for you, and it’s an important one. It is vital to Our Message getting through to the American people.”
Wilson tingled. He could hear the capital O on Our and M on Message.
Rove’s voice got softer. “As you know, he’s going to give a speech on Wednesday night. Joint session. Everybody there. Every network is going to cover it–except Fox, of course.”
“Of course,” Wilson said.
“You know he speaks well, and you know if given the chance, he’s going to gain some ground on turning America into something we can’t have it be.”
Wilson felt one bead of sweat drip from his chest onto his stomach. It was cold, and if you’d seen it with your eyes, you would have seen it quiver on top of his skin, a bead of mercury on a piece of very conflicted conservative slate. “What can I do?” Wilson whispered.
“Well,” Rove said conversationally, “we want you to call him a liar.”
Wilson nodded. A job from Rove and it was easy. His insides were celebrating. Nothing could be better. “Absolutely. Just as soon as the speech is over, I will find the nearest bank of cameras and question every one of the speech’s so-called facts.”
Rove smiled. “That’s not exactly what we’re looking for, Joe. See, we want you to call him a liar during the address.”
Wilson nodded, but it was clear he was confused. “Mr. Rove, you want me to call him a liar while he’s still talking? Like stand up and yell ‘Liar’?'”
Rove clapped his hands together. “That’s it. Almost anyway. We actually want you to say ‘You lie!’ We think it sounds very southern, very conservative, very proper.”
“You lie,” Wilson repeated.
“There you go,” Rove said.
Wilson sat back in his seat and laid his hands in his lap. He wanted to think, but he knew how these things went. You said yes to Rove, or you said no and found another job after your term expired. The only thing Wilson didn’t know was whether he was allowed to ask a question.
“Am I allowed to ask a question?” Wilson ventured.
Rove nodded and picked up a piece of cornbread.
“Why?” Wilson asked.
Through a mouthful of cornmeal and sweet tea, Rove managed, “News cycle, distraction, getting him off message.” He swallowed. “Listen, Joe, all due respect, the why of it doesn’t concern you. We’re asking. You can say yes or no.”
Wilson thought of South Carolina, of his next campaign, of his family, of his son who was running for state Attorney General. Before he could stop himself, he said, “They’ll crucify me.”
“Sure, they will, Joe. Sure they will.” Rove stopped himself for a moment, as if to consider whether it was worth his time to explain. “So, here’s the thing. They’re going to say you were disrespectful. You’re going to say it was an emotional outburst. And we’ve got McCain already planning to say your behavior was unacceptable. The first couple of days are going to be horrible.”
Wilson dropped his head and looked into his hands. “The people in this state–”
“The people in this state are looking for a conservative hero, damn it. Sanford can’t unzip his pants without apologizing, DeMint isn’t anything but Bob Dole without the intelligence, and Lindsey, I mean, Lindsey…”
Wilson looked up, “And then what? What after?”
Rove laughed out loud. “After? Joe, three days after, you’re going to have raised so much money, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it before. We’ll get you an ad on the top of Drudge and hire somebody to handle this social media crap. After you apologize and he accepts it, the Dems are going to try to get you to apologize again on the floor of the House. You say no, and that gets the news cycle for another couple of days. Except now, people are starting to think that what you did wasn’t so bad. Before long, you are like a conservative folk hero, you get re-elected, your son gets elected, and we don’t see public health care mentioned for another 12 years.”
“You lie.” Wilson said.
“You lie!” Rove said with glee and slapped his hand on the table.
Wilson mouthed the words. “When? When do I say it?”
Rove looked surprised. “You know, we didn’t think of think of that. What do you like?”
Wilson sat up fast. “When he talks about the illegals!”
The corner’s of Rove’s mouth rose up toward his ears. “Now, you’ve got it Congressman. Now you’ve got it.” Rove stood and wiped his hands on his pants. “Thanks, Joe. We’ll see you soon. Remember–”
Wilson smiled wide. “You lie.”
Rove turned his back and called over his shoulder, “Just wait until you see it on a t-shirt.”