So, you woke up this morning to learn you’ve been asked to replace Janet Yellen as chairman of the Federal Reserve. You would normally be full of questions but the guy on the other end of the phone is the president, and either the person is doing a great impression or he’s the real thing. With a robe thrown hastily around her your wife comes into the bedroom with three stout, suited men behind her. None of them is smiling. All of them are over six feet and athletic-looking. Your wife looks like she’s seen a ghost. You figure you’re talking to the guy in the White House.
This is unreal of course because you have had nothing but contempt for the Fed and government, as you’ve made clear in your many articles, books, and speeches. You just know it’s a case of mistaken identity, a colossal blunder, that will embarrass the powers in Washington when they find out. But you politely thank the president for his confidence in you and assure the man you will not let him down.
Already you feel like a liar.
“See you soon,” he says, and hangs up.
Somehow you manage to fumble the phone back into its cradle. You appeal to the men standing at the edge of your bedroom.
“Why me? Why ME?”
There is an unnerving silence. One of them speaks. “Even if we knew we couldn't tell you. Our only job is to get you to the White House ASAP.”
“One way or the other,” another one adds.
Three hours later the same three guys and two others escort you into the Oval Office. The president looks you in the eyes and shakes your hand, as if you were old friends. The others leave, closing the door behind them.
“Thank you for coming on such short notice, John. Have a seat. Can we get you coffee or something? A danish? Some fruit?”
John? He thinks my name is John? “I’m fine, Mr. President. I ate on the flight over.”
He half-sits on the front edge of his desk. His smile slacks off. He folds his arms against his chest. He looks tired and it’s only late morning.
Your heart suddenly decides to go for a run.
“There’s an iron law of psychology that says when a person reaches a certain age he becomes incapable of changing his world view, no matter what evidence or argument is brought to bear against it. All he can do is defend it. To see it as wrong would be to see his whole life as wrong, and no person can tolerate that. This applies even to mass murderers, I’m told.”
“That’s certainly true for many people,” you add.
“Maturity means never budging from your beliefs, apparently. That’s very sad.”
“I imagine that’s mostly true.” Having just said that you hurry to augment it. “But I can think of a few exceptions.”
“People I might know?”
“Care to tell me about them?”
While I’m running? “Yes, of course. Lionel Robbins wrote a free-market explanation of the Great Depression, then later repudiated his position when Keynes was the rage. Antony Flew wrote a defense of atheism, then converted to theism late in life, though this is hotly disputed by some scholars who suspect the old man was exploited. But these are exceptions. Most people stop asking the big questions at some point, if they ever started. Especially if they’ve built a lucrative career on it.”
The president stands up and starts to pace and talk, throwing you an occasional glance.
“That’s my point. As president I’m committed to certain views. My supporters would abandon me if I changed them. Jack Kennedy said all the right words during his campaign, and the military machine was pleased. Then he started down a different path, and that’s what got him murdered. Can you imagine a president in this age not wanting war? We pledge allegiance to war, John, before we can ever run for office. I know I did.”
You start to wonder if it was your wife who slipped you the pills or whatever spawned this . . . experience. You don’t trust your thoughts, let alone your spoken words. Your heart is at full sprint now.
“Why am I telling you all this? You, who I don’t know. Who didn’t even vote, much less vote for me. You, part of the great unwashed, and me, on top of the world.”
“Fair question,” you manage.
“I’ll tell you. We’re all destined to die, and I want a real legacy. I want that legacy to match my conscience. And my conscience is like anyone else’s. I want to do the right thing.”
You nod in understanding, just to go along.
“It’s like having a goal of taking the prettiest girl in school to the senior prom. You manage to convince her to go with you. What a glorious moment! But while you’re at the dance you realize neither one of you is having a good time. That’s where I am now. My prom is the presidency.”
“I did this for appearances, to feel superior, just like the prom. ‘Hey, I’m president of the country. Who the hell are you?’ I’m expected to do this and that, but I don’t really want to. And I’m going to stop. I’m going to resign. And I’m going to give as my reasons my opposition to war and the money machine that spreads war over the entire planet.”
You shift uncomfortably in your chair. You clear your throat.
“I think the term I’m looking for is epiphany — an experience of sudden insight.”
Now you’re sure. You’re sure none of this has any connection to reality. You’re watching a movie brought to you by some hallucinogen. You’ve never used drugs but heard they can create a different world for those who ingest them. No sense fighting it. You begin to relax a little. You feel a smile cross your face. You suddenly feel brave enough to speak.
“Mr. President, I know it’s early in the day, but let’s toast this epiphany of yours. Can we order drinks?”
“Sure, John. But don’t you want to know why I selected you to hear my confession?”
“Well . . . yes, yes, I was hoping . . . you’d get to that.”
“No offense, but you’re totally insignificant. I can trust someone like you. If I should happen to change my mind, no one will believe you if you repeat everything I’ve said. But I won’t change my mind. Not only that, but you have idiotic, out-of-the-mainstream views that are completely at variance with mine. Or they were. John, listen to me. I’m joining the loons, John. I’m joining the loons.”
“Mr. President, would you understand if I told you I’m having . . . a little difficulty trying to believe all this? I mean, all of it? I should be in my office this morning finishing an article only my mother will read. Instead, I’m sitting in the office of the president, listening to him tell me he hates his job and is going to resign. Because he hates war and hates the Fed.”
The president laughs. He understands. “Yeah, this must be quite a shock to you. Believe me, I’m serious. And to prove it —“ He hustles behind his desk and pulls a sheet of paper from the drawer. “— I want you to proof this letter for any clumsy wording or other violations of the English language.“
You take the paper. It’s a signed resignation letter. Signed by him.
You’re generally in good health, but you suddenly feel sharp pains in the area of your heart. Running while sitting has been too much. You double over, struggling for breath.
The pain dissipates. Your breathing recovers. You read the letter, again and again. You make your one comment.
“Mr. President, this is a suicide note. They’ll do to you what they did to—“
“No, no, Kennedy didn’t resign. If he had resigned he might’ve been spared. I think I’ll be spared. After a while I can hit the lecture circuit expressing my real views instead of what some fool puts on a teleprompter for this fool to read.”
“But you’re recommending no one replace you. You want to leave the office vacant.”
“That’s right,” he said.
A moment passes. “That would be a legacy to be proud of.”
“I think so!”
“So you really don’t want me to replace Yellen?”
He throws his head back and laughs. “Only if you want to resign with me. That was a little dark humor on my part.”
“If I’d known you were going to do this, you would’ve had my vote in a heartbeat.”
“If I’d known I was going to do this — oh, how I wish I did!”
You and the about-to-be-former president laugh.