Don't Call It Courage
By Ron Belgau
Early in the morning on the thirtieth day of July, wearing a navy-blue suit and a blood-red tie, stepping out of the elevator from the residence and moving with his usual confident gait towards the Oval Office, the President of the United States prepared to meet another day.
More than anything, he hated the closed-in, artificial smell of his office. The air was stale, like the air in every other government building, like the ideas that were developed there. Of course he made speeches about the Winds of Change; only they never actually blew. Congress always stood in the way. You tried to bring change, new ideas, and they immediately recirculated the old ideas, till the air made you sick. There was progress - or so he tried to convince people in his speeches. But air freshener can only make stale air smell better; it can't make it fresh. The 'progress' he talked about was about as meaningful as the blue chemical they put in toilets. But people believed him, so they voted for him. And now they expected him to keep the crap out of the fan.
He looked out the window. The fountain played in the lawn; beyond it, he could see Pennsylvania Avenue. The tourists wandered around outside the gate, staring at the White House. Every so often, he saw the tiny flash of a camera. Why did the people think this place was so special? It was a prison - surrounded by a fence, patrolled by armed guards. Or worse than a prison. At least in prison you didn't have Congress or the media to deal with. Not to mention the public, represented by the little flashes of light from cameras beyond the fence and (in theory) by himself and Congress. God! Why had he tried to get here? Was it a punishment? As a boy, he'd dreamed about this. Now he was living it, a nightmare he couldn't wake up from.
He opened his desk drawer and took out two antacid pills, and swallowed them, washing them down with a coke. Damn. He needed to cut back on the fast food, the soft drinks. The antacid didn't help, but he took them anyway. He took pills the way most people cast votes: knowing it wouldn't do any good, but feeling like he had to do it anyway, so that he could believe he'd done <i>something</i>.
Promptly at eight o'clock, his Chief of Staff strode into the room carrying the day's drudgery in a brown leather attaché case under his right arm. Suppressing a sigh, the President sank into his chair, and tried to look interested in what his Chief of Staff was saying. Fortunately, insincerity came easily to him; the Chief of Staff did not notice his malaise. The day dragged on.
Just before noon, he sat slumped in his office, momentarily alone. He glanced apathetically out the window, then gazed more closely, his interest heightened. There was something going on. A dozen or more police cars and paddy wagons, their lights flashing, were standing in the street between the east and west guard gates. Across the street in Lafayette Park, hundreds of protesters stood. Nearer, the police were arresting two dozen or so protesters who had stopped in the restricted zone between the gates.
The Chief of Staff walked in again. Damn bureaucrats. "What's going on over there?" the President asked.
"Don't ask," his assistant replied, with a wry smile on his weary face.
"Tell me!" the President ordered, queerly upset by his subordinate's attempt at levity, already fearing he knew the answer.
"They're protesting your new policy on gays in the military, Mr. President." The President noted the subtle emphasis on the word <i>your</i>. The Chief of Staff's message, which he could never have said aloud, was clear. The President was going to have to take the bullets on this one. He couldn't dodge it as he had dodged other unpleasant duties.
He nodded silently, and stared out the window. Still looking out the window, he reached into the desk behind him and removed two more antacid tablets, and swallowed them. Acting on a sudden impulse, he said, "bring one of them here."
"Excuse me, Mr. President?"
"Tell the Secret Service to get one of the protesters and bring him here. I want to talk to one of them." Talk... there had to be some way to make this all work out... the protester would understand... he had to do it... what choice had he had?... everyone would understand... congress understood, his Chief of Staff understood, his pollster understood, even Hilary understood... no, he didn't understand... why had he done it?... he could have kept his promise...
"Yes, Mr. President," said the Chief of Staff slowly, puzzled by the chief's queer behavior.
The business of government went on. The stale air continued to blow out of the ventilation system, and be sucked back in to come out somewhere else. Outside, the muggy Washington air grew muggier as a storm cloud drew up in the East. Somewhere overhead, the President heard a fly buzzing... he sipped his coke... he said yes and no at the appropriate times during his meeting with the Senate minority leader... ate another hamburger... signed some papers, which he knew were important because they had his seal on them, but which he couldn't remember ten minutes later... took two more antacids and washed them down with another coke... in the distance, he heard a low roll of thunder...
"It was good of you to see me, Mr. President." It was a young man in his late twenties, wearing the uniform of a Navy lieutenant. His face was very handsome, though he had a bad scar on his jawbone on the right side of his Face. The President assumed it was a battle wound. His chest was covered with medals, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. His hands were behind his back. The President noticed that he was not wearing a belt and that his shoes had no shoelaces.
"I thought you were protesting because you hated me." It wasn't supposed to come out sounding so nasty. But then he hadn't meant for this to happen, hadn't meant to break his promise, which he really hadn't broken because there was no way for him to keep it, not with the way things were and the public opinion polls and the fact that Sam Nunn wouldn't support him and that the press had been so nasty. And anyway it wasn't his fault that french fries give you heartburn and the pills in his drawer couldn't make his stomach stop burning him up inside, so that he was always short tempered and cross. Even John F. Kennedy got angry sometimes.
"Mr. President, I don't hate anyone. We didn't come here to hate people. We came here to show you that we're human beings and that human beings are good, even if we're gay. We wanted you to acknowledge that. You promised."
The President laughed bitterly inside, and contemplated the fresh smile of the boy who stood in front of him. Obviously, he hadn't breathed the air in this city much, or he would not say that human beings are good. "I tried. The people didn't want it. I couldn't do anything." A pause. "What's your name?" he asked, hoping to change the subject.
"Joshua Naborov, sir." His grandfather had escaped from Eastern Europe during the fall of Hitler's empire, and brought his father, then merely a young boy, to America. Both his father and his grandfather had taught him to love America as the promised land, and he had risked his life for this homeland which he loved with all his heart, and received the highest honor for his service in the Gulf War. After a pause, he continued, "Mr. President, what about the self-evident truths that this country was founded on? Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? My grandfather escaped tyranny to come to this country because it offered that. I fought and risked my life so that you and everyone else could enjoy that. But I could only enjoy those benefits if I kept silent. I gave my life to this country, and now the country has spit in my face. I'm a human being. Why won't they admit that truth?" A tear rolled down his cheek, and he looked at the President as if he hoped he could answer his question.
"What is truth?" the President asked, angry because it was the truth and the truth was dangerous. He'd believed in the truth once, and rashly promised liberty and justice to everyone, including men like Joshua. But the Truth wasn't the sort of thing people liked. They nailed it up on crosses, and burned it in the public square. If he'd stuck to his promise, Congress would have stopped him, and he'd have lost face. He'd been offered the greatest kingdom in the world - what was truth compared to that?
The prisoner pointed at the scar on his jaw. "This, at least, you can't deny. Six men - Marines who swore to preserve liberty and justice for all - came up to me, and began to call me a faggot. They grabbed me. I struggled. Then the leader pulled out a baseball bat. They held me, and he hit me in the face. Then I woke up in the hospital. I couldn't feel a thing in my jaw."
The President remembered the case. The leader was a Sergeant named Ben Radius. He'd been tried and disciplined, but not expelled from the military. The five who held the prisoner were given administrative punishments. When Joshua had protested the injustice of his case, he was dismissed from the Navy for "conduct unbecoming." The President had still believed in truth then, at least mostly. He'd tried to help. But the people, inflamed by their religious leaders, had clamored, "Free Ben Radius! Free Ben Radius!" And as for Joshua, they'd clamored, "Expel the faggot! Expel the faggot!"
"How did you make it through? I know it must have been far more painful than anything I've gone through." The President was pretty good at feeling people's pain, and liked to do it now and then. It made people like him and think he really cared. But he only cared; he didn't really care. Joshua really cared, because he had risked his life to save a group of Marines, including Sergeant Radius.
"It just takes courage," replied the prisoner. "This medal," he said, indicating his Congressional Medal of Honor, "was easy to get. In the battle where I won it, the real danger lasted only an hour. Making it through this," he said, indicating his scar, "has taken years. This scar has healed. I don't know if my heart ever will."
Looking into the scarred face, the President decided again to believe in truth, as the Chief of Staff walked into the office and showed him a note. "Could you excuse me for a moment?" he asked the prisoner. "I have an important phone call." The Secret Service agent led the prisoner out; the prisoner obediently followed.
"Hi, Joseph," the President said guardedly to the telephone when everyone had left. Joseph Kaifa, the most influential evangelist in the country, frequently called the President the anti-Christ. But that didn't stop him from calling now and then just to remind him that even anti-Christs need the support of conservative voters.
"I saw the protest today. I just wanted to assure you that you're doing the right thing. There would have been many more protesters if you'd gone the other way. It's all for the best, I think."
The President glared at the phone. But Kaifa was right. There would have been more protesters. Kaifa would have raised an army. Joshua had no power in this world. After all, what <i>could</i> he do? He'd tried every reasonable way to help Joshua, and none worked. He said goodbye to Kaifa, and told his secretary to send the prisoner away.
He turned to look out the window. Storm clouds blotted out the sky. Outside, the air was hot and thick and muggy. Inside, he hid from the weather behind the air conditioners, as he had hidden from the air of Vietnam. "It just takes courage," the prisoner had said, as he'd stood in handcuffs, his shoelaces and belt confiscated by the police. "It just takes courage." But courage got you killed, like the men who had gone to the jungles of Vietnam. He'd escaped all that. But nobody really escapes the jungle, and he was no exception. Flash! The storm broke. Crash! The thunder rumbled across the sky. Flash! As though Someone far greater than any tourist was taking a picture of him. Crash! The guns he had fled from in Vietnam echoed in his ears. "It just takes courage."
But bulletproof glass shielded him from the storm. Who needed courage here? Courage was dangerous. He'd won, really. Joseph had won this battle. But the President had gotten concessions from him. After all, "Don't ask, don't tell" was better than what they'd had before, wasn't it? That was what politics was really about. Give and take, finding a reasonable solution. "There will be peace in our time," he said to himself.
He turned around. The lights inside gave him light. It didn't matter that the sun had been swallowed by the storm. The ventilators pushed cool, dry air into the room. It didn't matter that it was a little stale. At least it wasn't the storm outside. He looked at the pile of papers on his desk and set to work, trying to forget the prisoner.
And so he sat, imprisoned behind iron bars and bulletproof glass, breathing stale air, imprisoned by his memory of the prisoner, obedient to men who hated him, because he would not allow the truth to set him free.