43* (Excerpt)

In this excerpt from Jeff Greenfield’s new alternate history, Al Gore, having defeated George W. Bush to become the 43rd president of the United States, delivers his first State of the Union—and an ominous warning to terrorists.

  1. Mis-tah Speak-ah … the President of the United States!”

    President Gore strode into the House chamber as the senators, representatives, cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, chiefs of staff, and a gallery of notables stood and cheered. It was February 27, 2001, and the new president would be making his first appearance at a joint session of Congress since presiding over the counting of Electoral College votes that had made him president seven weeks earlier. He had come here with a message, and a presentation, designed to put him squarely within the broad middle of American politics.

    The president’s box was dotted with “Skutniks,” guests the president could point to as living representatives of the points he was making. (They were so named because in 1982 President Reagan had invited Lenny Skutnik, who had rescued one of the passengers of an airplane that had crashed in the Potomac River, to sit in the gallery during the State of the Union address.) Some had served the same purpose during Gore’s 2000 acceptance speech at the Democratic convention: Jacqueline Johnson, from St. Louis, burdened by the cost of prescription drugs, and Mildred Nystel, who left welfare for a job, aided by the Earned Income Tax Credit. Others were new faces: Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco executive who had blown the whistle on the industry’s efforts to hide the impact of cigarette smoking, and one more person, whose identity was not disclosed until the speech itself and who would shortly come to symbolize the Gore administration’s most singular, least celebrated achievement.

    Most of Gore’s speech was a study in caution. The president proposed a half-trillion-dollar tax cut, directed at the business community and all but the wealthiest; another half-trillion from the impending surplus went to shoring up the Social Security and Medicare trust funds; four hundred billion more went to paying down the national debt. (This last triggered a dustup among Gore’s economic team, with chief economic advisor Paul Krugman warning, “If we wipe out the debt completely, we have no lines of credit; you guys need to go back and see what Alexander Hamilton had to say about that.”)

    The president proposed a health-care policy that was distinctly small-bore, lowering the age of Medicare eligibility to sixty-two—God knows he could afford that, with trillions of dollars in surpluses incoming in the next decade—and if Ted Kennedy was caught by the cameras grumbling to Senator Chuck Schumer about “another damn Eisenhower Republican posing as a Democrat,” well, that was just fine with Gore’s political team.

    And, just as he had promised members of the Congressional Rural Caucus, there was a $10 billion down payment to make broadband a national reality.

    “My dad was the chief Senate sponsor of the Interstate Highway System,” Gore reminded the Congress, “and I intend to be the champion of the Interstate Information Superhighway. Maybe I didn’t invent the Internet, but I darn well intend to improve it.”

    It was toward the end of his speech when Gore turned to a subject that had not been mentioned in the daylong briefings given to prominent journalists by White House staffers.

    “Our eyes have been focused here at home,” he said soberly. “An understandable focus with the Cold War gone and the specter of nuclear war a fading memory. But we must never forget that there are forces around the globe that wish us ill and are prepared to kill as many as they can, with no regard for innocent life.

    “Terrorism is the enemy of our generation, and we must prevail against it. America will remain a target, because we are uniquely present in the world, because we have taken a tougher stand against terrorism, and because we are the most open society on earth. But that very openness demands vigilance—the kind of vigilance demonstrated by a brave, determined customs inspector, Diana Dean, who stopped a man named Ahmed Ressam as he was on his way, in an auto loaded with explosives, to attack the Los Angeles airport on Millennium Eve. Diana,” Gore said, gesturing to the gallery, “we owe you and your colleagues a profound debt of gratitude.” And when the applause died down, he added, “I want to say to anyone, anywhere in the world, with malevolent intentions toward our country or any of our friends and allies: We will protect ourselves by finding you before you can turn your evil intentions into evil deeds. This is not a threat—it is a promise.”

    The applause that greeted this statement was loud but compulsory, reflecting the belief of the audience that the president was offering up a platitude with all the heft of cotton candy. But in the packed House chamber, barely half a dozen knew that this was one promise President Gore fully intended to keep.


    Preview more of Jeff Greenfield's 43*.

Originally published in Byliner, September 2012

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