U.S. senator Charlie Martin is a hot political property, dashing, honorable, irreverent -- and a decorated Vietnam veteran. The Running Mate follows this brash hero on a wild, exhilarating ride through the minefields of politics as usual.
But as Charlie quickly learns, combat is a cakewalk compared with the battles waged by free men in pursuit of glory and power. For Charlie's political star is beginning to wane ... a bid for the presidency ends in failure ... a young campaign volunteer's father decks him -- in front of the cameras ... a well-kept secret from Charlie's Vietnam days is revealed ... and a woman has entered his life -- one who loves him but is appalled by his life's work.
Suddenly Charlie must confront the two greatest challenges of his life -- a political opponent who has no scruples and a dazzling, unconventional woman who may force him to choose between love and politics. Charlie's dilemma is one that has come to haunt contemporary American politics: Is it possible to be a good politician and a good man?
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The event at the Elks Club ended at dusk and they headed west, into the countryside. She was surprised by the drama of the terrain -- the rolling hills were steeper than she'd expected, and perfectly proportionate; the chocolate soil fresh and fecund. The sun was setting between pilasters of clouds, which were less delicate than the casual coastal puffs she was used to; they were bigger, heavier, like the heroic thuds of mashed potato that had been deposited on their plates at the Elks. And yet, the sunset colors were as subtle as the clouds were dramatic; no pollution-induced fuchsias out here. There were streaks of canary and tangerine rising to a robin's-egg blue, then fading into a navy night.
"Great sky," she said.
"Why?" he asked.
Why? She turned to him, wrinkling her brow.
"I just want to see what you see," he explained. She brushed a hand along his cheek, which was sandpapery with early evening stubble.
"All you have to do," she said, "is look more slowly."
Just past dark they stopped at a picket fence, at the end of a long dirt road, after endless, rolling miles of corn and soy. Straight ahead was a simple white farmhouse, overilluminated by halogen crime lights; there was a red barn to the right, and corn all around. The senator slid open the minivan door and jumped out.
"I need to talk to you," he said, taking her by the wrist and, gently but firmly, leading her along the driveway path. She resisted, in part a visceral response to being tugged, but also a consequence of her khaki skirt, which was long and cumbersome. She was also wearing a white silk blouse and navy espadrilles -- he didn't much like the espadrilles, but that was part of her allure: she challenged his predispositions.
He yelled a greeting -- "Hey, Tom!" -- in the general direction of an elderly, heavyset man in coveralls, who was ratcheting himself, with some difficulty, out of the rocking chair on the porch. "Take it easy, Tom," he quickly added, "we'll be right with ya," and he pulled her abruptly to the left, into the corn -- several rows in, so no one could see them, although the lights from the house and the campaign minivan threw competing, smoky shadows through the leaves and tassels. He stopped, turned, put his hands on her shoulders; she sensed their unevenness in the dark -- the right hand strong; the left a shadow of a presence.
"Okay," Charlie Martin exhaled. "Okay.... Will you marry me?"
"Marry you?" Nell Palmerston was suddenly breathless -- and laughing. "Uhhh ... no?" She was, she realized, imitating her daughter, for whom every statement was a question.
"'Uhhh ... no?'" He imitated her imitation, expecting a response. But she was too stunned to say anything. "No? As in, for real -- no?" Actually, he wasn't surprised. A simple yes would have been astonishing, perhaps even slightly disappointing. Nothing was ever simple with Nell. He knew he'd have to work at this. "Why the hell not?"
"Because," she said, catching her breath, "you're in campaign mode."
"Oh, come on," he said, trying to see her through the tasseled shadows, "I don't know what that means."
"Yes you do," she said. "At least, I hope you do. I mean, if you didn't -- that would really be pathetic."
"I'm in the middle of a campaign," he acknowledged. "So what?" He was having trouble reading her in the dark. It was hard enough reading her when he could see her.
"You're completely caught up in this thing."
"Well, what did you think--"
"I didn't think," she said. "Sometimes I have a problem with that."
"Oh, come on," he said. "You knew. You think I invited you out here to help with the haying?"
"Well." She played a bit, regaining her balance. "Rhymes with haying..." He didn't laugh, and now she was disappointed: he didn't want to play? He wanted a serious response?
"I guess I wasn't expecting the onstage-all-the-time part of it," she tried. "I mean, it's Saturday and we were out there all day -- and tomorrow's Sunday, and we have to do it all day then, too.... And my role: comatose devotion, perpetually amazed by your brilliance. Two days of it, and my face hurts from smiling. When do we go to the beach? I'd settle for a lake. I saw a lake today. People were swimming." She smiled and dropped an arm over his shoulder. "Can't we go campaigning in a lake? It looked so nice. We drove right past it, on our way to where? The Fort Ditty-Bop Burrito Festival? Or was it the Firehouse Bazaar in Grove Corners?"
"It was the Fort Dantrobet Burrito Festival," he said, "and if you were having such an awful time, why did I have to wipe the salsa off your chin and drag you away from those women you were yakking with?"
"Well, they were quilt makers," she explained.
"Ohhhh, I see: quilt makers." He debated whether to tell her that it just wasn't politic to get so deeply embedded in a conversation on the hustings: the rest of the crowd might feel slighted. It was a detail of implementation, and he didn't want to force her political education; she'd learn the ropes at her own speed. Or so he hoped. He returned to Topic A. "So, is this a permanent no or just a provisional one?"
"Is it going to be a standing offer, or a one-shot deal?"
"I don't know," he said. "What do you think?"
"I'm guessing it's somewhere in between," she said. "A provisional standing offer. You're too proud to make it permanent and -- I'd guess -- too reasonable to make it a one-shot deal."
"Can we negotiate? Should I try again? You want a knee?" he offered.
"Seriously?" she asked, chuckling -- she had a wonderful, unexpected chuckle; her laughing voice was deeper than her speaking voice. "A knee? As in, down on one knee?"
"Absolutely ... not really. I've given you all the corn I could muster," he said. "I put a lot of thought into this, proposing to you here."
It was sort of fabulous. Looking straight up, she could see a brilliant night sky, with the same sliver of moon the cow jumped over in nursery rhyme books. The rich, damp smell of the soil was intoxicating.
Charlie could see her eyes now, calm and gray-green, and her coarse tangle of blond hair; Nell could see his mouth, but not his eyes, and that was a disadvantage. She had fallen in love with his eyes. He was holding her hand; he kissed the inside of her wrist. She touched his hair, which was thick and black, tending toward gray, rather aesthetically, at the temples. "I'll bet this is where you used to take all the girls," she said, "haying."
He did like a good cornfield. He'd thought about corn all the time in Vietnam, especially when he'd pass through a stand of bamboo -- bamboo creaked in the wind; corn swished. Corn was so much more delicate, and benign. The thought of a midsummer cornfield, undulating over the hills, had always made him homesick. In Vietnam, he'd sometimes found himself drifting here, to Uncle Tom and Aunt Leah's place, just outside of Fort Jeffords -- the corn backed up to the edge of their yard on all sides. And so he'd brought Nell to Tom and Leah's, to propose to her in the middle of their cornfield, after the last event of the day: a broasted chicken dinner with the Fort Jeffords Future Farmers of America at the Elks Hall.
Nell thought the dinner was indescribably exotic. They had been served white bread and margarine, along with the chicken, mashed potatoes, and way overcooked canned vegetables -- and apple pie with slices of processed cheese melted on top. She had also been tickled by the idea that there was such a thing as Future Farmers: she had always imagined farmers to be part of the past, like coopers or blacksmiths. But there they were, these incredibly earnest and soon-to-be-overweight kids, talking about hybrids and genetics, and none of them wearing overalls. Nell hadn't thought about plant genetics since high school biology. She tried to remember the name of the monk who'd done the experiment with fruit flies -- was it Gregor Mendel, or was he the Kafka character? She was going to ask Charlie, but he seemed so busy, asking intricate questions about the vagaries of modern agronomy, listening intently to the Future Farmers, joking -- flirtatiously. Politics, as far as she could tell, involved an awful lot of flirting.
Charlie's plan was they would spend the night at Tom and Leah's -- something he hadn't done since childhood -- after he proposed and she'd accepted. He had imagined himself and Nell coming down the stairs Sunday morning, his arm around her waist, newly engaged. There would be Leah's famous cinnamon buns. They would go to church, of course; you have to go to church in the middle of a campaign (usually, you have to go to several churches). But he knew a rowdy apostolic congregation outside of town -- great music. It would be more midwestern exotica. He wanted to show her all of it, see how she reacted. He loved watching her see things.
A cellular phone in the distance. "Hey, Senator," shouted Mustafa, his driver. "Headquarters. They got the numbers from tomorrow's R-W."
Nell sighed. "See?" she said. "Campaign mode."
"Fuck campaign mode," he said softly -- but intensely, just above a whisper. "You think I'm asking you to marry me for the sake of appearances? I'm asking you to marry me because you are..." He struggled for something clever, and failed. "The most ... interesting person I know."
"'Interesting'?" She laughed.
"This isn't funny," he said, but, of course, he knew it had to be. "All right: I'm asking you to marry me because ... Well, what are you going to wear to church tomorrow?" During the day, when the sun had been hot, she'd worn a spectacular wide-brimmed straw hat with a white nylon mesh band that flowed down her back, and Jackie O sunglasses -- with the khaki suit, she looked as if she were on a safari photo shoot for some fashion magazine. Plainly, she hadn't been born to do politics. But he loved having her there, and he was still pretty much amazed that she finally had agreed to come out from New York -- although she did affect his ability to concentrate on the business at hand. Then again, she'd only been traveling with him for two days. This -- Nell working his turf, living his life -- was still new, for both of them. He had hoped she'd find his world as ... charming as he'd found hers; well, maybe not as charming. He was hoping she'd find it tolerable.
"What does my Sunday best have to do with anything?" she asked.
"You're the first woman I've ever been with where I'm even thinking about it," he said. "You make everything--"
"Wild thing," he said, making the connection. "You make my heart sing." Truly a great rock lyric; he'd never focused on it before. Simple, elegant, perfect. She made his heart sing. "Hey, you want to go dancing?" he asked. "Then we won't be in campaign mode."
"Dancing?" He'd used this tactic before, shifting gears on her, proposing an outlaw getaway -- dancing, usually. They had danced, on occasion; but they'd never actually gone dancing.
"We're about forty-five minutes from the Crescent Lake Casino, where Mom met Dad. Saturday night, they'll have some old-fart band, or maybe square dancing, or polkas," he said. "C'mon, let's go."
"You just want to hear the numbers," she said mischievously. "You want to get me out of the cornfield, so you can take the phone call and hear the numbers. You're not even interested in getting me to marry you anymore."
"Bull shit," he said, making them two words. "That's a done deal. You're going to marry me, sooner or later." He snaked an arm around her waist, nuzzled her neck, went woozy at her smell. "But right now," he said, "we're going dancing."
"I do hope it's square dancing," she replied, reaching down, squeezing the back of his thigh. "I'll be able to ask the caller something I've always wondered about: is do-si-do short for something? And what about allemande left -- is that a reference to E1 Alamein? And--"
"Senator!" Mustafa shouted. "You comin' or what?"
"Coming!" Charlie Martin said. Nell rolled her eyes.
Mustafa was leaning against the van. He was, Nell thought, a strange specimen: a ta11, middle-aged black man who chain-smoked Virginia Slims, thin and angular except for an incongruous potbelly. He handed Charlie the phone.
"Who?" Charlie asked.
It made sense. Mary Proctor ran his home-state office. She knew all the pooh-bahs at the Register-World. She'd have their poll numbers first.
"So okay, Mary," he said. "Cut to the chase. What's the story?"
"You're behind. Only a couple of points, margin of error," she said. "But behind."
"To that little turd?" he said. "No fucking way."
"As my granddaughter would say," Mary said, "way."