"START TALKIN'," I SAID as I picked up the blower.
"Kinkster," said a familiar voice, "this is John Kerry. I haven't been very happy with you lately."
"Why the long face, John?"
"Are you aware that I'm running for president of the United States?"
"Are you aware," I said somewhat indignantly, "that my books have been translated into more languages than your wife speaks?"
There was silence, followed by a peculiar choking sound. I puffed patiently on my cigar and waited. One of the drawbacks to the telephone is that there's very little you can do to physically help the party on the other end of the line. Either Kerry would recover by himself or else he was definitely going to lose Ohio.
"I went to Vietnam," he said at last.
"I heard something about that," I said.
Indeed, it was one of the things I really liked about Kerry. America was full of patriotic-seeming people, from John Wayne to most of our top elected officials, who, when the time had come to serve their country, had not answered the call.
"I went to Vietnam myself earlier this year," I said. "Nobody told me the war was over."
I heard what sounded like a practiced, good-natured chuckle from John Kerry. That was the trouble with politicians, I thought. Once they'd been on the circuit for a while, their words, gestures, even laughter—all were suspect, relegated to rote and habit. Something as natural as a smile became a mere rictus of power and greed. They couldn't help themselves; it was the way of their people. As Henry Kissinger once observed, "Ninety percent of politicians give the other ten percent a bad name."
"I'll get to the point," Kerry said. "I know you're pals with George W.—"
"I'm also pals with Bill Clinton," I said. "In fact, I'm proud to say I'm the only man who's slept with two presidents."
"That is something to be proud of. But I don't understand how you can support Bush's policies. I'm told you grew up a Democrat. What happened?"
What did happen, I wondered, to the little boy who cried when Adlai Stevenson lost? What happened to the young man whose heroes were Abraham, Martin, and John? Time changes the river, I suppose, and it changes all of us as well. I was tired of Sudan being on the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations. I was tired of dictators with Swiss bank accounts, like Castro and Arafat and Mugabe, masquerading as men of the people. I was tired of Europeans picking on cowboys, everybody picking on the Jews, and the whole supposedly civilized world of gutless wonders, including the dinosaur graveyard called Berkeley, picking on America and Israel. As I write this, 1.2 million black Christian and Muslim Sudanese are starving to death thanks to the Arab government in Khartoum and the worldwide mafia of France, Germany, China, Russia, and practically every Islamic country on the face of the earth. What happened to the little boy who cried when Adlai Stevenson lost? He died in Darfur.
"I don't know what happened," I said. "But as Joseph Heller once wrote, 'Something happened.'"
"You'll be back," said Kerry. "You'll be back."
He was telling me about his new health plan and how the economy was losing jobs when I heard a beeping sound on the blower and realized I had incoming wounded.
"Hold the weddin', John," I said. Then I pushed the call-waiting button.
"Start talkin'," I said.
"Hey, Kinkster!" said a familiar voice, this time with a big, friendly Texas drawl. "It's George W. How're things goin' at the ranch?"
"Fair to Midland, George," I said. "John Kerry's on the other line telling me about his new health plan. What's your health plan?"
"Don't get sick," said George with his own practiced, good-natured chuckle.
"He also told me the economy is losing jobs."
"What do you care, Kink? You told me you never had a job in your life."
"That's not true," I said. "I used to write a column for Texas Monthly , but it got outsourced to Pakistan."
"Kink, the economy's doin' fine. The country's turnin' the corner. We even have bin Laden in custody."
"I remember you told me that. Where is he now?"
"Time-share condominium in Port Aransas. His time's gonna run out two weeks before the election."
I chatted with George awhile longer, then finished up with John. I had just returned to my chair and unmuted FOX News when the phone rang again. I power walked into the office and picked up the blower.
"Start talkin'," I said.
"Kinky, it's Bill Clinton. How's it hangin', brother?"
"Okay, Bill. I just talked to George Bush and John Kerry on the phone."
"Skull and Bones! Skull and Bones! Tyin' up the telephones!" he chanted. "Hell, I still think about that night in Australia when you and me and Will Smith all went to that Maynard Ferguson concert. Too bad Will didn't bring his wife, wasn't it? Man, that was a party!"
I remembered that night too. Millions of people undoubtedly love Bill Clinton, but I've always believed he has few real friends. That night he and I had talked about the recent death of one of his very closest, Buddy the dog. Like they say, if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.
"Hey, Kink. There's a big ol' white pigeon sittin' on my windowsill here at my office in Harlem. Do you recall once asking me why there were white pigeons in Hawaii and dark pigeons in New York?"
"Sure. And you answered, 'Because God seeks balance in all things.'"
"That's right. Hell, I always wanted to be a black Baptist preacher when I grew up."
"Be careful what you wish for."
"Imagine, a white pigeon right in the middle of Harlem. If the whole world could see that, what do you reckon they'd say?"
"There goes the neighborhood?"
There followed the raw, real laughter of a