Ex Marks the Spot

It’s 2018, and someone in Crawford, Texas, thinks he has the secret to a GOP comeback.

Illustration by Benedetto Cristofani.

This piece is part of the Trump Fiction Project from our December 2017 issue. To explore more of “Our Year of Trump,” a look at how our city has dealt with 12 exhausting months, click here.

Prairie Chapel Ranch outside Crawford, Texas, November 6, 2018, 11:30PM

George W. Bush, up later than usual, looks away from the TV, whose volume is low, and toward his wife, across the room rereading The Remains of the Day.

“Not much remaining of this day,” he tells Laura. “You interested in knowing what’s going on?”

“Nope,” says the former First Lady, turning a page.

The two rose early in Dallas and came down here after voting. At least this time, unlike two Novembers ago, there had been no top of the ticket to skip voting for.

Returning to the returns, Bush remembers his own two midterms: running the table in ’02 (a perfect predictor of lasting support for doing Iraq, right?), then losing both houses in ’06.

Well, it looks as if pucker-lipped Agent Orange has managed to keep the Senate, though it could hardly be otherwise with Schumer having to defend 25 seats. But the more important projection now has the House flipping to the Democrats by a margin of five to seven. So here comes Pelosi!—resurrected 12 years after she picked up the gavel and stood there behind him like she wanted to swing it against his head.

The GOP’s tiny Senate majority won’t be able to absorb all the cholesterol-rich blood that Agent Orange will now be leaking. There’ll be even less legislation passed, and the investigations will multiply. Mueller wasn’t able to finish him off once the Clinton Foundation stuff started looking as bad as Russia (“Crookeder Bill”), but maybe one of the new House probes will.

The former President can feel his two-year, mostly decorous reticence—almost never being able to go after him by name—approaching its end. Yeah, criticizing any current POTUS violates the rules of the Club, the fraternity of exes, and for a while there’ll be those who take anything he says against the slob to be sour grapes on Jeb’s behalf. But that’ll pass as the momentum against Orange finally reaches critical mass. He just hopes Dad, and even Carter, can hang on long enough for AO to be gone, so that their flag-draped corpses don’t have to be slobbered over, Trump-style, in the Rotunda: a terrific guy, a fantastic individual. As Laura likes to point out, the only thing smaller than the fingers is the vocabulary.

Fremont, Nebraska

“Nine hundred fifty-four . . . nine hundred fifty-five,” says Ben Sasse, grunting his monthly push-up count. Instead of looking out at the Platte through his living-room window, he’s spent the last ten minutes staring into the artificial fibers of the carpet.

The house is quiet. Melissa, tired from a day of homeschooling the kids, has gone to bed. From the looks of it on the muted TV, his party has preserved the Senate majority that still never manages to approve—or repeal—anything. At least three crazy new Bannon babies will now be adding to the impotent hate.

“Nine hundred sixty-two . . . nine hundred sixty-three . . . .” Here he is, a Dr Pepper–drinking doctor of philosophy, an improbable combo of Crimson and Cornhusker, Jesus and Yale—nine hundred sixty-four . . . nine hundred sixty-five—collapsing onto the rug. Author of The Vanishing American Adult and not unaware of himself as a big kid.

He puts the sound back on and starts toggling his attention between the catastrophic House news and the niceties he needs to perform as a member of the other body: calls to Flake and Corker and all the Bannon-broken guys who’ll now be cleaning out their desks. None of them, himself included, has done enough to oppose the comic-book thug they’ve been up against—and now, oh, boy, here comes the evening’s first tweet, a burp as predictable as any induced by tonight’s Oval Office bucket of KFC:

If Melissa were still up, she’d be stopping him, but she isn’t, so here goes:

How many new low points lie ahead? Something beyond even last spring, when Kelly finally quit and Trump called him a disgrace to the uniform he’d worn?

The phone rings. Maybe Corker or Flake getting back to him? Ready to offer comic pretend-cheer about escaping the world’s once (supposedly) greatest deliberative body?

“Sassy, it’s George Bush.”

He feels his ears cringe. He’s met 43 only a couple of times, and this is the nickname he’s gotten, something better bestowed on a teenage girl.

“Mr. President.”

“I just called Rove. My inner Nixon.”

“Sounds like a double blast from the past.”

“He’s still better than the internet when it comes to numbers. I asked him about yours in Nebraska. You’re at 38 percent favorable. As my dad would say: baaad.” He scarcely needs to tell Sasse that Trump carried his state by 25 percent in 2016 and that a lot of voters saw their young Never Trump junior senator as a blonder, taller Little Marco.

“Well, I—”

“You’re going to lose a primary two years from now—to some crazy judge or rich grain grower who’ll make you out to be Swamp Thing instead of Tom Sawyer.”

“And you’re suggesting, sir?”

“Suit up and get into the game. You’re going to be leaving the Senate one way or the other in ’21. Why not go to the White House instead of back home?”

“I’m listening, sir.”

“Unlike you, he’s not beatable in Nebraska. But he is beatable in the country. So stop running for reelection and start running for President.”

“I’ve got a wife and three kids to think about.” As he says it, Sasse can feel false modesty locked in competition with sincere concern. So can Bush.

“Laura just looked up from this Japanese guy’s book. And nodded yes.”

Still on the phone, Sasse can hear himself counting: two thousand nineteen, two thousand twenty.

This article appears in the December 2017 issue of Washingtonian.