Strutting through the broad, reflecting doors, beneath the black and gold insignia of his building, the President acknowledged well wishers, reporters, and staff. Happy to be back in New York, he looked forward to his familiar apartment and comfortable bed. The President felt it a hardship to live in such an old structure in Washington, though the prestige made it tolerable.
He aimed directly to the elevator, his closest aids and Secret Service agents in tow. The Chief Executive marched into the lift, with a triumphant gait, gracing photographers with a last thumbs up, as the gilt doors sealed.
Soon enough, the elevator car slowed to a silent halt, the opening doors revealing an opulent penthouse. His entourage emptied first into the golden rooms, Secret Service staff sweeping for any dangers that might threaten the Commander in Chief. After the officers cleared the master bedroom, the President loosened his tie, slipped off his suit jacket and kicked off his designer shoes. Exhaling onto his grand bed, a sudden movement caught his eye.
A tall man, of regal bearing stood by the window, surveying Midtown from on high. Attired in a blue uniform, trimmed with buff lapels and cuffs, the man’s hair looked powdery white, and was bound in a queue at the nape of his neck.
Stunned, gasping at this extraordinary vision, the President froze, too astonished and frightened to speak.
“I’m very fond of New York,” the officer began. “During the War for Independence I remained in the vicinity waiting to reclaim it from British occupiers.” He glanced at the frightened man, now burrowing under his bedclothes. “As Chief Executive, I served both terms of office here in New York.”
The President could hear his heart pounding, and idly worried about his blood pressure.
“I, too, struggled with temptation,” the officer continued. In my youth I pined for the advantages of the wealth that surrounded me.” The apparition glanced at the President. “Land, military rank, social standing, . . . these were the empty ambitions I embraced as valuable.”
The President began to feel his heart rate slow, the adrenaline somewhat dissipating, and found the courage to speak. “Ho, . . . how did you get in here?”
But the soldier did not reply, turning again toward the view of Manhattan.
“Over time, particularly once the war commenced, I discovered my assumptions slowly crumbling. The sacrifices endured by the fine men in my command taught me that there were more important ideals than fleeting treasure,” the specter sighed, emotion enforcing his revelation. “You must realize,” the officer turned again toward the President, eyes blazing with conviction, “all a man truly possesses is reputation. In the end, that is all that matters.”
Dread again filled the President, clutching tightly his golden comforter, but finding no comfort. He wished the apparition gone, praying with all his might that a staffer would hear and rescue him.
“You must understand,” the visitor continued, “I, too, struggled to master my avarice and envy. It was through a determined practice of self-restraint, a mastering of my baser desires, that I learned to be of service to more than myself.” The soldier paused a moment, studying the frightened man grasping his bedding. “Did you know that Article Two in the Constitution was written for me?”
Hearing this, the President forgot his fear for a moment.
“For you?” he managed to murmur.
“When I relinquished my command after the war, and returned to my home in Virginia, Congress judged my character upright. In truth I was weary, lonely for my family, and yearning for a peaceful life,” the General smiled sadly. “However, when I gave up power I earned honor, trust—a good name—and contentment.”
“Why are you bothering me? You should leave,” the President moaned, wishing he had flown instead to Florida. But his visitor seemed not to hear.
“When the Constitutional Convention set to work, only one day was devoted to defining the role of president. One day,” the visitor repeated. “You see, the delegates wanted no more of arbitrary rule, believing only those of good character would occupy the office.” The apparition looked directly at the President,”
“Please go,” the President whimpered. “I’ll call my men . . .”
The General interrupted, “they are not yours, Sir. And therein lies the problem, and the purpose of my visit.” The soldier frowned deeply. “These deputies work for the American people, as do you, sir. The presidency is a position of service and trust.” He paused. “We have all noted your general deficiency in this aspect.”
“We all?” gasped the President, concerned with his pumping heart.
The General approached the vast bed, the President shrinking deeper with each step. “The President is entrusted with formidable powers, that must not be corrupted. In this you have fallen short.”
“As I am remembered in the annals of America for quiet dignity and fidelity to country, you will only be recalled as a cynical moneychanger who profited from foreigners and plutocrats.”
A knock at the bedroom door startled the cocooned President, breaking the spell. His elaborate, golden bedroom was empty.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle or in hardcopy at http://www.river-of-january.com.