By Richard North Patterson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2007 Richard North Patterson
All rights reserved.
ON a crisp September day thirteen years later, when Senator Corey Grace met Lexie Hart, the controversy he wished to avoid did not concern his romantic life.
"The actress?" he asked his scheduler that morning.
"What's this about?"
Eve Stansky, a pert, droll-witted blonde, was amused by his perplexity. "Life and death," she said cheerfully. "Ms. Hart is lobbying senators to vote for stem cell research."
Sitting back in his chair, Corey rolled his eyes. "Terrific," he said. "The bill's only sponsors are Democrats; it's a direct rebuke to a president of my own party, who dislikes me already; ditto the Christian conservatives, who like me even less. This is a real winner for me." His voice took on a teasing edge. "The election's next year, the nomination is wide open, and you schedule this. Don't you want me to be president, Eve? Or are you just indifferent to the fate of frozen embryos?"
"You have to vote anyway, Corey," Eve pointed out in her most unimpressed voice; like the rest of his staff, she called him by his first name. "Unless you're planning to hide that day. And everyone in the office wants to meet her. The least you can do is give the rest of us a little bit of excitement."
"Has life around here really been that dull? Or have you already decided how I should vote, and hope I'll be seduced?"
Eve grinned. "I definitely know how you should vote. And no — you're certainly not dull. I'm just worn out from scheduling dates with girlfriends who've got the half-life of a fruit fly. Here at Fort Grace, we call whoever's the latest 'the incumbent' — except that their terms are shorter."
Though Corey smiled in self-recognition, the comment stung a little. There were many reasons why he had remained unmarried for so many years after his divorce, and not all of them — at least he hoped — stemmed from some fatal defect in his character. But this was not a subject he felt like discussing with Eve or, for that matter, anyone.
"I doubt Ms. Hart is coming here," Corey answered sardonically, "to change my life. Merely to ruin my career. Just remember that when you and I are watching the inaugural ball on C-SPAN."
AS THE DAY TURNED out, Corey had an unusual luxury: a ten-minute respite between a lunch meeting with Blake Rustin, the savvy political adviser counseling him about his prospective run for president, and this encounter with the actress whose mission would be no help to such plans.
Alone in his office, he did something he rarely had time to do: contemplated how he had reached this point — a genuine presidential prospect whose road to the White House was, nonetheless, filled with potholes all too often of his own making. Yet he was single, with no personal life worth the name, and too often he still felt solitary. The root of all this was captured by two photographs that pained as much as warmed him: one of Kara, now a college student in Sydney, the only visible evidence that he had ever been a father; the other of Joe Fitts, a reminder of the debt he owed to make his career in politics matter.
At forty-three, he was a better man, he could only hope, than the one who had been Joe Fitts's friend. There was no doubt that he loved his country — America had kept faith with him, and he was determined to serve it well. Certainly his ordeal in Iraq had given him a deep sense of the transience of life, the need to live a "crowded hour," using whatever gifts God gave him to seize the moment, take risks, and make a difference — all, he hoped, in the service of something more than the greater glory of Corey Grace. Always, it seemed, he felt this driving restlessness, a clock ticking in his head, as though every moment since Joe's death had been borrowed. Nor did he worry much about making friends in the Senate if the cost was his integrity: his closest friends remained those who had served with him in the air force and shared his sense of what mattered — loyalty, perseverance, and the aim of living an honorable life.
Corey did not attempt to articulate any of this in public. It would have seemed self-glorifying, a deliberate effort to distinguish himself from his many less-than-courageous peers. And though he had friends in both parties, he knew very well the envy felt by many of his Republican colleagues — most of all by Senator Rob Marotta of Pennsylvania, the assiduous career politician who was the majority leader of the Senate, and who had resolved to run for president. To Marotta, as to others, Corey's arrival in the Senate had been as easy as his smile, greased by an act of heroism that seemed to induce an uncomfortable self-doubt in those never called on to be heroes. It did not help that the current president, like all presidents, tended to view disagreement as disloyalty, or that Corey, in a moment more candid than tactful, had told him that his secretary of defense's plan to invade a Middle Eastern country was "crack-smoking stupid" and a "waste of lives" it had helped even less when events suggested that Corey was right. It didn't help that, as a bachelor, he was not required to adopt the grim pretense of devotion that characterized some political marriages. Nor did it help that, in his colleagues' minds, an all-too-adoring press trumpeted Corey's candor and penchant for voting his conscience. "Senator Grace," a feature in the Washington Post style section noted, "seems never to have bothered to craft a public persona any different from his private one." When asked about this, Corey had merely laughed. "If you're the same person twenty-four hours a day, you have a lot less trouble remembering who you are."
It was not that simple, of course — Corey's inner self, the residue of guilt and hard experience, was something he shared with no one. When he'd once remarked, "Life has taught me that there are worse things in the world than losing an election," his colleagues had assumed that he meant being hung from his broken shoulders. But his reasons went deeper than that: there is nothing worse, Corey knew, than losing yourself.
Pausing, Corey gazed at his photograph of Clay.
As far as it went, his mother had been right — his long-dead brother had lost himself by trying to be like Corey, instead of his more vulnerable, at least equally valuable self. But the fault lay far less in Clay than in his family — all of them — and in the facile scapegoating of "the other," which had marred the social environment of his country and, too often, the politics of his own party.
There were important reasons that Corey was a Republican: his dedication to national defense; his belief in private enterprise; his worry that Democrats too easily dismissed the genuine threats to America in a world of hostile regimes, fanatic terrorists, and nuclear proliferators. But he had not come to the Senate armed with a rigid set of orthodoxies; a newly voracious reader and a seeker of advice, Corey distinguished himself from many conservatives by a concern for the environment, a distaste for static belief systems, and an openness to opposing points of view. And there was something else he did not need to think about: Senator Corey Grace despised a politics that pitted one group against another, and policies that promoted the abuse of the weak by the strong.
From his first years in the Senate, Corey had been a passionate advocate of human rights. To him, the overriding reason was clear: to lead the world, America needed to stand for more than military strength or pious rhetoric. He never mentioned Joe Fitts's execution or his own torture. Nor did he ever seek to excuse the incident his political enemies used to exemplify his impulsive nature, disregard for protocol, and general unfitness to be president.
Shortly after entering the Senate, Corey, along with his chief of staff, Jack Walters, arrived in Moscow as a first step in acquainting himself with Russia in the volatile post-Soviet era. In a van driven by a Russian security man, Corey went to meet with the Russian president. Abruptly, a demonstration had clogged the street — a line of soldiers confronting young people armed only with epithets and placards. "What's this about?" Corey asked the driver.
The man shrugged his heavy shoulders. "They say our president imprisons dissenters on false charges. It is nonsense, as you know."
Corey did not know; he intended, in a suitably diplomatic way, to raise this very question with the president. But he chose to say nothing. And then, through the windshield, he saw a Russian soldier swing the butt of his rifle at a demonstrator who had just spat in his face.
Framed in the bulletproof glass like an actor in a brutal silent film, the soldier struck the man's head with an impact that made Corey wince. The demonstrator fell to his knees, blood streaming from his scalp as the soldier again raised the butt of his rifle, while his fellow soldiers aimed their rifles at the remaining demonstrators. At the second blow, Corey's hand grabbed the door handle; at the third, which caused the demonstrator to fall sideways, Corey started to jump out of the car.
Jack Walters grabbed his arm. "No."
Corey broke away. Pushing through the crowd, he saw the soldier raise his rifle butt yet again. "Stop!" Corey shouted.
He felt the driver and Jack Walters pin his arms behind his body. The driver called out in Russian. The soldier, rifle frozen above his head, stared at him, then at Corey, and slowly lowered his weapon. To one side, Corey heard the distinctive clicking of a camera.
For a moment the tableau before him was almost motionless: the soldiers with their rifles aimed; the demonstrators recoiling; the fallen man in a spreading pool of blood. Then the driver spoke again; two soldiers came forward, picked up the victim by his arms and legs, and carried him away.
Breaking free, Corey walked back to the van.
For the rest of the drive Corey gazed out the window, gripped by an anger so palpable that no one chose to speak. His next words were to the Russian president: "Sorry to be late. But I was held up watching your soldiers try to kill someone for spitting."
The story, and the photograph, gained currency as the years passed. Among some colleagues it was whispered that Corey was too rash, too prone to the sort of impulsive behavior that might have provoked an international incident had that day in Moscow taken a different turn. "Leadership," a Wall Street Journal editorial writer had opined, "requires far more than courage." And the closest allies of Rob Marotta gave the story an even darker tinge: however human Corey's instincts, the month of torture had unhinged him. "Making Corey Grace a senator was one thing," Marotta had supposedly remarked. "But do people want to put a hothead's finger on the nuclear trigger?"
At that moment in Moscow, believing a man would die, Corey could have done nothing else. Nor would he change this now. But thirteen years later, awaiting Lexie Hart, he understood too well what else he had done; he had helped elevate his antagonists' distaste for his independence into a nobler cause: the statesmanlike conclusion that Corey Grace should never become president of the United States. And for Rob Marotta, every deviation from convention, each defiance of party orthodoxy, was added to the bill of particulars he was building against his rival.
The door to Corey's office opened. "Ms. Hart is here to see you," Eve Stansky announced brightly, and Lexie Hart walked into Corey's life.
BY NOW, COREY GRACE had more than sufficient experience with women — just that spring, to the titillation of Washington and the considerable amusement of his staff, People had named Corey one of the fifty sexiest men alive. But entering his office with a brisk handshake and swift smile that did not quite reach her eyes, Lexie Hart had an electric beauty, a carriage that somehow made her seem separate, withheld from others in some mysterious way that no magazine cover could capture. For Corey, her impact was as vivid as the first time he had met Janice, save that Corey was older, more perceptive, and a good deal less impulsive.
Motioning Lexie to his couch, he sat across from her in his favorite wing chair, swiftly taking inventory of the components that made her so compelling. She was slender and graceful, and the erect posture of a stage actress made her seem taller than she was. Her curly hair, cut short, accented features that carried a hint of imperiousness — high cheekbones, cleft chin, full lips. But it was her eyes that struck him most: their cool gray-green, surprising in an African-American, suggested the wary intelligence of a woman who employed her powers of observation as a weapon or, perhaps, a defense. Or so Corey imagined — instinctively he grasped that Lexie Hart would be a difficult woman to truly know.
With a quick smile, Corey said lightly, "I understand you've come to rebuke me for my silence on stem cell research."
Her own smile was as slight as the shake of her head. "I've come to reason with you, Senator. If you experience that as a rebuke, it's only because you know that anyone who's really pro-life should care about the living."
The comment was so pointed that Corey nearly laughed. "I guess you don't mean to make this easy for me."
"I can't. The president is opposed to expanding stem cell research. So are most senators in your political party. My information is that it may come down to one or two votes — or maybe just yours." Leaning forward, she spoke with quiet passion. "You can make a difference in the life of someone who can't move his limbs, or keep them from shaking. Or a woman who can't remember the daughter she gave birth to, even if that same girl is holding her hand as she looks into her eyes for a trace of recognition."
She was an actress, Corey thought at once, with an actress's ability to draw her audience into whatever world she cared to create. Less easy to account for was Corey's near certainty that this performance was personal. "Your mother?" he asked.
Briefly, Lexie hesitated. "Has Alzheimer's. There's no way back for her. But you can help keep other people from living in my mother's twilight zone. And not just that, Senator. I'm sure you know the science — embryonic stem cells have the potential to reverse diseases like Parkinson's and type 1 diabetes, and to repair spinal injuries that cause paralysis. How can a decent society turn away from that?"
"Oh, I think you know the moral argument, Ms. Hart. For many of my colleagues, life doesn't start at birth. So any component of life, like a fertilized embryo, is entitled to protection —"
"A frozen embryo," Lexie interrupted with a trace of asperity, "is not a life, and the leftovers in fertility clinics never will be. A humane society can make that distinction without opening up the floodgates to genocide and euthanasia."
She intrigued him enough, Corey realized, that he wanted to move her off her talking points — or, at least, persuade her that he was not a fool. In an even tone, he countered, "A humane society, some would say, knows that a fetus is a life, and values it too much to play God. But without knowing you at all, Ms. Hart, I'd bet my town house you're pro-choice, and don't distinguish between a frozen embryo and the fetuses you and I once were before we escaped the womb."
At this, Lexie sat back, arms resting at her sides, her cool eyes now appraising him. "Even if that were true, or fair, you can surely make that distinction. So please don't use my supposed beliefs as a reason for not considering your own. A petri dish is not a womb, and an adult with Parkinson's — I think we can both agree — is certainly a life. Or are you one of those pro-life folks who love people only till they're born?"
Even as he chuckled, Corey realized that he found her lack of deference engaging. "Tell me about your mother," he asked. "I've never known anyone with Alzheimer's — for better or worse, I guess."
As she folded her hands, looking down, Corey sensed her deciding how much to reveal. "It's terrible," she said at length. "When I sit with her, it's like being in the presence of death. I have this instinct to whisper, though it wouldn't matter if I shouted. She's living so deep inside herself that the simplest things, like eating a sandwich, can take minutes or even hours. It'll just remain in her hand, unnoticed, and then her hand moves to her mouth again, her eyes still dead, as if the hand has a life of its own.
"I try talking to her, of course. But I can't know if my voice stirs memories, or whether it's like the drone of her television." Lexie shook her head. "The night I won the Oscar, her nurse turned it on for her. During my acceptance speech, the nurse said, my mother began blinking. I like to think that, for a moment, she knew me. But there's no way she fathomed what I'd achieved." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Race by Richard North Patterson. Copyright © 2007 Richard North Patterson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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