A Planet for the President
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This is a story written over a decade ago. Before Fake News, or Alternative Facts, or even social media. It told the story of a not-too-distant future, which really was not too distant. * The President of the United States is facing a global catastrophe. The environment is in meltdown. People are dying. Americans are dying. Even he can't ignore it. There's hardly a corner of the world that isn't in crisis. And that's when he's persuaded of a truth his advisers hold to be self-evident: That it's time to think the unthinkable. The problem isn't power, or politics, or the planet, or the President. It's the People. * Hilarious and horrifying - this enormously entertaining satire has never been more razor-sharp, revelatory or relevant. What readers are saying about this hilarious, critically acclaimed novel: 'For anyone who likes laughs and thrills in one package and who's been following recent developments in the White House this is an absolute must.' Amazon Reviewer, 5 stars 'This political and satirical novel manages to be both thrilling and funny. And, given its prescience, scary too. The characters, the setting and the plot are fantastic and believable. A real page turner.' Amazon Reviewer, 5 stars 'A frighteningly plausible thriller, which imagines what might happen if the White House were finally to believe that something had to be done about global warming ... clever, funny and a really good read.' Amazon Reviewer, 5 stars 'This thriller is packed with good jokes and tells a tale that is utterly credible. Parts were jaw-droppingly frightening and I wished I could have put it down but thesharp humour and pacey plot made me keep reading. It's a laugh and a chiller in one book.' Amazon Reviewer, 5 stars
Release date: February 22, 2018
Print pages: 328
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A Planet for the President
‘But Mr President, I was asked to think the unthinkable.’ The fat guy’s tone was politely defiant. The Oval Office fell silent. Everyone else in the room knew that the President didn’t like being answered back. They also knew that he didn’t like fat guys. The fat guy didn’t know either of these things. The fat guy just sat there with a smile on his face, staring expectantly at the President. Everyone else was staring at the carpet.
The President of the United States reached into his jacket pocket, took out a little silver box, opened it, extracted a toothpick, and began probing the gaps between his molars. It was a technique he’d acquired since coming to the White House six years before. He knew it intimidated people. It also gave him time to think. Fifteen seconds passed in silence. The President paused in his dental assault.
‘It’s not that it’s unthinkable,’ said the President. ‘It’s just that I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.’
The foul language was at odds with the President’s pious public image. People who hadn’t met him before were normally shocked and scared when he talked like this. This time it didn’t work. The fat guy didn’t even blink. ‘I don’t think it’s that difficult to understand,’ he said provocatively.
Jesus, thought Vince, this guy takes risks.
‘Maybe you’re not being very clear,’ growled the President.
‘Would it help if I gave you a case study?’ asked the fat guy.
‘Not sure we have time for a case study, Mr Boyd.’
Vince was grateful. He’d completely forgotten the name of the fat guy. President Fletcher never forgot a name.
‘It won’t take long,’ said Boyd. ‘But I need a volunteer.’
‘Okay. Do it,’ growled the President.
Shit, thought Vince. As the junior member of the team he knew what was next.
‘Vince, I’m volunteering you,’ said the President, and briefly flashed his famous smile.
‘No problem, sir,’ said Vince.
‘Just give me a couple of seconds,’ said Boyd.
Vince hated these Oval Office meetings – something to do with the spurious informality created by the two long sofas. Not that the President ever joined them on the sofas. He preferred to perch on one of the green-and-cream striped chairs. This gave him about a foot and a half height advantage over everyone else. When the President was in a really difficult mood, he’d make everyone sit on the sofas while he sat at the other end of the room behind his big desk, his jaw muscles twitching with tension, his big hands balled in repressed rage.
Vince looked at the sofa opposite. Defense Secretary Skidelski was burrowing into his left ear. He extracted a small lump of wax and examined it. Jesus, thought Vince, Skidelski’s ear, Fletcher’s mouth, this is one choice gathering of human beings.
Alongside Skidelski, the much younger Vice President was hunched down in the sofa, his suit crumpled, his shirt coming out from his trousers. Vince knew the VP wore $2,000 suits, yet somehow he always managed to look like he’d just slept in the back of his car. He provided a dramatic contrast to the only woman in the room, Dolores Delgado, Head of Homeland Futures. Delgado was perched on the arm of the same sofa, looking poised and elegant, her tanned skin set off to perfection by a cobalt-blue suit she’d bought the previous weekend from Saks Fifth Avenue. Tall and slender, with strikingly high cheekbones, dreamy brown eyes and a carefully contrived confusion of black hair, Delgado looked more like a model than a senior member of
the administration. Most men assumed that a woman this good-looking had to be dumb. Most men lived to regret the assumption.
Sitting next to Vince was Jimmy Lombok, the President’s National Security Adviser and fervent born-again Christian. There was always something panicky in Lombok’s eyes, as if he expected the Final Judgement at any moment and wasn’t 100 per cent sure of being saved. Today he merely looked preoccupied, his massive bald cranium showing a light sheen of sweat. Vince had heard rumours that Lombok’s wife liked to pick up young Latinos and bring them back to her house for afternoon sex. Maybe this was one of those afternoons. Maybe Lombok knew this was one of those afternoons.
On the sofa opposite, Vince could see the fat guy struggling to get something out of his ugly plaid jacket. Hell, the guy was so obese he could hardly reach his inside pocket. When it came to obesity, Vince had the self-righteousness of a slim 34-year-old who never put on weight no matter what he ate or drank. With his dark, understated good looks, he regularly got the attention of young (and not so young) women around the White House, all of whom found him frustratingly loyal to his wife. This didn’t make them give up. The strains of White House life routinely put paid to the most committed of relationships.
The fat guy sniffed and wiped his nose with his finger. Vince averted his gaze and found himself looking up at the huge colour photograph hanging on the east wall. Astride the planet, riding it like a bucking bronco, was President Fletcher J. Fletcher, dressed in cowboy chaps and waving a lasso. His campaign manager had handed the picture to the new President on the day of the inauguration, assuming that Fletcher would hang the memento somewhere in his private quarters, maybe in one of the green marble bathrooms in his Idaho ranch. But no, Fletcher had hung it on the east wall of the Oval Office for all to see. In the room
where Harry Truman used to be photographed standing statesmanlike by a giant globe of the world, President Fletcher would routinely receive foreign heads of state right under that goddamn planet picture. Fletcher routinely enjoyed watching his visitors’ eyes creep up towards it; he relished the flicker of shock in their faces, took pleasure in knowing that not one of them would have the balls to say anything about it. How could they? They knew this was the essential truth: that Fletcher J. Fletcher ruled the globe. And Fletcher J. Fletcher didn’t mind who knew it.
‘Okay,’ said Boyd, now with a pocket computer in his hand. He tapped the metal stylus against the screen. ‘I just need to ask you a few questions, Vince.’
‘Sure,’ said Vince, pissed at the fat guy for using his first name like that.
‘How often do you eat meat?’
‘Four times or five times a week.’
‘Okay. Four point five ...’ Boyd tapped the answer into his PDA.
Actually, Vince was a vegetarian, but it wasn’t something to admit to around the White House. Real men ate meat.
‘Would you say your calorie intake is heavy, average, or low?’ asked Boyd.
A lot less than yours, thought Vince, and answered, ‘Average.’
‘When you’re shopping, do you buy local in-season produce?’
‘Hell, no.’ Vince laughed, remembering the times Lucy used to stagger home from the supermarket with bags of exotica from every continent.
‘How many people in your household?’
‘How many cars?’
‘Three.’ Vince was starting to feel uncomfortable. ‘One of them we don’t really use much.’ Most days Vince used the Buick to drive to the White House, leaving his beloved BMW
in its garage. He knew which he preferred, but these days you had to be careful about driving a foreign car. Only last week a friend of his had been refused service at a gas station because he was driving a foreign car. That’s how things were nowadays. It didn’t do his career any harm to turn up at the White House each morning in a good ol’ American car.
‘How many of your three vehicles give you more than twenty miles to the gallon?’
‘Um ... none of them.’
‘The average American drives about two hundred miles a week. How’s that compare with you?’
Vince considered his daily journey into Washington from Annapolis. Then he ought to add Lucy’s research trips. ‘Well, I’d say that together, me and my wife drive about, well, I guess it must average about eight hundred miles a week, maybe nine hundred.’
‘Okay,’ murmured Boyd, using the stylus to tap more info into the PDA. ‘Do any ride-sharing?’
‘How often do you use public transport?’
‘How many hours a year you spend flying?’
‘Oh, that’s a tough one.’ Vince thought about the hours spent in Air Force One with the President, his twice-a-year trips to Europe with Lucy. ‘I don’t know ... a helluva lot. Say, fifteen hours a month? No, better make that twenty.’
‘Two hundred and forty hours a year. Okay, just a couple more questions and we’re through.’
‘Good,’ said the President, glancing at his watch.
‘Yeah, we don’t have all day,’ boomed the VP.
‘How big is your home, in square feet? Happen to know?’
Vince knew exactly. When they’d bought it a year ago the realtor had made a point of emphasising the amount of space. ‘Six thousand square feet.’
The Defense Secretary whistled. ‘You earn more than I thought, Vince.’
‘It needed a lot of work,’ said Vince. It hadn’t needed that much work. He’d been able to pay for it with the money he’d made during his six-year stint working in Hollywood.
‘How many bathrooms?’ asked Boyd.
‘Two,’ lied Vince. Why the hell had they bought a house with four bathrooms? ‘It’ll be useful when we have kids,’ Lucy had argued.
‘Okay. Hold on...’ Boyd tapped a few digits into the PDA. ‘This is a very rough calculation, okay? Right... What I got here is your approximate eco-footprint.’
‘What the hell’s that?’ growled the President.
‘Ecological footprint,’ explained Boyd. ‘It’s the amount of productive land you need to maintain one person at their current level of consumption. The average eco-footprint of an American citizen is twenty-four acres. That’s about four times the global average, by the way. Now yours, Vince, is ... let me see ... it’s approximately seventy-one acres.’
‘Hey,’ said the Vice President ponderously, ‘that’s a lot of acres.’
‘How true,’ said Boyd.
The VP turned pink. He didn’t like sarcasm. His smooth jowls trembled. He was used to being listened to. He was used to being respected. He was the Vice President, goddamnit. True, he had nothing too original to say, but his vacuous pronouncements were delivered in tones of such suave and sonorous authority that people often took him seriously.
The fat guy appeared to be fearless. He looked the VP straight in the eye. ‘If Vince’s standard of living were the global norm, we would need...’ He glanced at the screen of the PDA. ‘We would need 15.2 planet Earths to support everyone.’
Vince had to admit he was kind of impressed. He’d never given his personal lifestyle much thought before.
The VP sat back in the sofa and stared malevolently at Boyd.
It was Jimmy Lombok who spoke first. Holding the big red kerchief with which he’d been mopping his brow, he said, ‘That’s just plain stupid. No way is everyone on the planet ever going to be as rich as Vince.’
‘Maybe we pay Vince too much,’ said Skidelski, with a thin smile. The Defense Secretary made no secret of his dislike for Vince. He thought Vince had too much influence over the President; he thought Vince lily-livered and liable to weaken the President’s resolve on crucial issues.
‘Okay,’ said Boyd, ‘Forget Vince. Let’s take the average American instead. Assuming we wanted everyone in the world to have the same standard of living as the average American, then—’
‘Why would we want that?’ asked the President.
‘Yeah, what kind of dumb idea is that?’ said the Vice President, never one to miss the opportunity of lining up with power. Together both men broke into guffawing laughter. The Head of Homeland Futures gave them a patronising smile. She had long ago got used to being the only girl in a boys’ club, but that didn’t mean she thought men together were a pretty sight.
Boyd frowned. ‘You guys just don’t get it, do you?’
Vince saw that the President was getting mad.
‘Better make your points more clearly then, Mr Boyd,’ said the President.
‘You want it bite-sized? Fine. That’s how I’ll serve it up.’
Vince began to pity the fat guy. He was insulting some very powerful people. People who bore a grudge. People who found it worthwhile taking steps to end another person’s career.
‘Okay,’ said Boyd, ‘here’s how it goes. Globally, the average eco-footprint is 5.6 acres per person. A fraction of the footprint produced by our friend Vince here, right? But here’s the thing: it’s still too much. The only reason the human race is still around is there’s an accumulated bank of resources. But we’re using them up fast.’
‘Does that matter?’ asked Dolores Delgado. ‘Provided we got enough for ourselves?’
‘Yes,’ said Boyd. ‘It matters.’
‘Why?’ asked the VP.
‘Because having enough for ourselves won’t work for much longer. The planet is warming up. The sea-level’s rising. The ozone layer is thinning. The rainforests are disappearing.’
‘Aw, not all that climate-change shit,’ the President groaned.
‘It’s not shit. Within the foreseeable future the planet will be unable to support the present population. Not to mention a much bigger one.’
Vince glanced at the President, marvelling that Fletcher was listening to this kind of stuff. It was a reflection of how serious recent events had been.
‘Think of it as a kids’ party with not enough cake to go around,’ said Boyd, struggling to find simple metaphors. ‘The world population’s now reached 6.2 billion, and they all want a slice of cake. Only the cake’s much, much smaller than anyone realises. Oh, and most of it’s poisoned and polluted and getting close to being uneatable. And nobody’s broken the bad news to the kids yet.’
Boyd looked around. The cake metaphor hadn’t made much of an impression. He tried a different tack. ‘What we have is an ecological overshoot. We’re borrowing our resources from the future. It’s like getting a big loan from the bank. You’ve borrowed massive amounts at a high rate of interest, you’ve had a ball for a few years, spending money like there’s no tomorrow, buying everything you can lay your hands on, dumping all your shit in the yard – or someone else’s yard – and not worrying about how to clear it up, but now the loan’s gone and the guy from the bank is at the door wanting his money. And you don’t have any left.’
Vince realised that inadvertently, Boyd had just described Fletcher’s economic policy.
‘So what do you suggest we do, Mr Boyd?’ said the President, with growing irritation.
‘Well ... You could take measures to reduce the eco-footprint of the average American citizen.’
‘Whoa! Stop right there!’ said the President.
‘Yeah, stop right there,’ said the Vice President dutifully.
‘I know you’re hostile to green issues,’ said Boyd.
‘I’m hostile to dumb suggestions,’ Fletcher retorted. ‘How popular you think that’s going to make me?’ Fletcher leaned forward as if he were making a Presidential broadcast. ‘My fellow Americans. I want you all to be poorer. Thank you. Goodnight. And God bless America. Forget it, Mr Boyd.’ He turned to his Defense Secretary. ‘I thought you said he was worth listening to?’
Right, thought Vince. End of meeting. Great. Today was Lucy’s birthday. Now he’d definitely make it to the restaurant on time, thank God. Might even be able to get home first and pick her up from there. Yeah, that would be best of all.
Boyd was not deterred by the President’s caustic remarks. ‘I’m not saying you should make Americans poorer.’
‘So what the hell are you saying?’ The President was near the end of his tether now.
‘Look, Mr President. Our Census Bureau projects a US population of 403 million by the middle of the century. That’s an extra 115 million people.’
‘More Americans is a good thing.’ Fletcher stood up. ‘Sorry I can’t go green for you, Mr Boyd. Thank you for coming.’
Amazingly, Boyd ignored him. He just sat there. Who did he think he was? ‘I’m not suggesting you go green, Mr President. I’m suggesting you think the unthinkable. Like I was asked to do.’
Fletcher’s face grew grim. ‘The meeting’s over.’
Defense Secretary Skidelski waved a withered hand. ‘Just hang on, Fletcher, just hang on. I want to hear what the man has to say.’ At sixty-three, Skidelski was the oldest
person in the room, and looked it. His skeletal appearance was reinforced by the long, thin nose, which sat in a long, thin, scrawny face surmounting a long thin, scrawny neck.
‘Yeah, but I don’t want to hear what he has to say,’ said Fletcher.
‘Yeah, well I do,’ Skidelski replied.
‘Who’s the fucking President, you or me?’ snarled Fletcher.
Vince was amazed that Fletcher still dared to talk to the Defense Secretary like that. Joe Skidelski had become almost as powerful as the President. Maybe more. The man had spent years assiduously cultivating key figures inside and outside government. Now he had supporters at every level in the Pentagon, some who believed in him, some who were simply smart enough to see which way the wind was blowing. He also had supporters on the Hill, Senators and Congressman desperate to support the arms procurements that brought jobs and prosperity to their home towns. And he had supporters on the boards of the big electronics manufacturers who stood to make fortunes from the latest generation of smart weapons. He even had supporters in academia, especially amongst the young and the personable, those bright clean-cut ideologues who were steadily moving out of the universities and into the television studios where they boosted sales of their latest books by dripping acid on outmoded concepts such as international cooperation and the rule of law. As a result, the State Department had been sidelined and foreign policy was now effectively in the hands of the Defense Department. Now they had really important strategic discussions – like this one – without the Secretary of State even being present.
Boyd struggled to his feet, slowly heaving his vast bulk out of the sofa. Skidelski and the President were glaring spitefully at one another.
Dolores Delgado stood up. ‘Mr President, I’d also like to hear more.’
‘Me too,’ said Jimmy Lombok, stuffing his red kerchief into his top pocket.
The VP said nothing. He was waiting to see which way the argument would go.
Before Fletcher could stop him, Skidelski had turned to the fat guy. ‘Tell us what you understand by thinking the unthinkable, Mr Boyd.’
‘Solving the world’s problems by reducing the world’s population.’
‘Everybody wants to do that,’ said Skidelski.
‘Not in the way I want to do it.’
‘How do you want to do it?’
‘What’s drastically mean?’
‘Getting rid of a lot of people very quickly.’
‘How many’s that?’
‘As many as you want.’
‘You’re not proposing to get rid of Americans?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Is this ... this solution ... is it a practical possibility?’
‘It will be soon.’
Vince looked at Skidelski, then back at Boyd. He had an odd feeling he’d just heard a routine that had been rehearsed.
‘Let me get this straight,’ said the President. ‘Are you suggesting we wipe out millions of people?’
‘No, more than that. I’m suggesting we wipe out everyone except Americans. Overnight.’
The Oval Office went silent. The President stared at the fat guy. It was like nobody dared to break the silence. Shit, thought Vince, I’m in a room with a bunch of people who’re listening to a guy who wants to wipe out six billion people. He waited for the President to tell Boyd to get the hell out.
‘Sit down, Mr Boyd,’ said the President.
‘Yes,’ said the Vice President, ‘sit down.’
A Few Months Earlier
‘The bald eagle?’
‘In danger of extinction?’
‘You’re kidding me.’
‘I’m afraid not, sir. Take a look at this.’ Vince Lennox laid a graph on the desk. ‘As you see, it’s more or less disappeared from everywhere but Alaska.’
The President peered at the graph. ‘Shit.’ This was bad. This was very bad.
It wasn’t that President Fletcher J. Fletcher had suddenly become ecologically aware. He still found the whole environment issue a pain in the ass. So the planet was heading down the toilet? Hey, he’d be long gone before it became a problem. Some things were just too big to deal with. And he was well into his second term, so he didn’t have to worry about being re-elected. But over the last few months his aides and speechwriters had started putting pressure on him. They were warning him he could go down in history as the President who’d screwed the planet. Fletcher didn’t like the thought of that. He wanted to be remembered as a great president, a heroic president, the president who’d led the fight against terrorism, the president who’d secured American power across the globe for generations to come. That’s why the bald eagle thing worried him a lot. No way did he want to be the president who’d permitted the extinction of America’s national symbol.
Fletcher’s finger traced the shapes of the graph. ‘And now they’re disappearing in Alaska too, right?’
‘That’s how it looks, sir. The best estimate is six hundred nesting pairs left.’
‘What’s causing it?’
The President looked blank.
‘Polychlorinated biphenyls,’ said Vince.
‘What the hell are they?’ That was the great thing about his morning briefings with Vince. He didn’t have to front up. Six mornings a week, President Fletcher would get up at 7.25 am, shower and shave, dress, and take the two-minute walk from the White House residence to the Oval Office, to arrive there at 8 am. For the leader of the most powerful nation on earth it wasn’t the toughest of starts to the day, but Fletcher firmly believed that a relaxed president was an efficient president. Each morning as he sat down at his desk, the door would open and a steward would bring in a pot of black coffee and a bowl of oat bran with sliced apples and yogurt. Fletcher didn’t really like this kind of breakfast; he’d have been much happier with crispy bacon and two eggs sunny-side-up, but the President was allergic to eggs, and bacon without the eggs hardly seemed worth it. Each morning he comforted himself with the thought that the oat bran breakfast helped keep him slim and healthy. Fletcher hated the idea of putting on weight; apart from the occasional burger he stuck to a pretty healthy diet.
Fletcher always ate his breakfast alone, reading the forty-page news summary prepared overnight by staffers. Actually, he skimmed it, rather than read it, because at 08.30 sharp Vince would arrive and brief him. For Fletcher, this was the most valuable part of the day. Vince was a genius at separating the big issues from the small. In any age, Vince would have been useful; in the age of information overload, he was indispensable. Vince could take a complex event and reduce it to its essential components. He could, basically,
take a pile of incidents and make a story out of them. Fletcher could relate to that so much better than all those theoretical ramblings that other people threw at him. And he knew Vince well enough and trusted him enough to ask him basic questions that other people might think were dumb. If Fletcher needed to know what the hell PCBs were, or what was the capital of Nigeria, or where Burkina Faso was, he could ask Vince without embarrassment. He trusted Vince. This meant that by the time Fletcher started his daily meeting of the National Security Council at 09.30, he felt on top of the job.
‘Polychlorinated biphenyls are a kind of toxin,’ said Vince. ‘They accumulate in the food chain. Heavy PCB residues are found in salmon. The bald eagle loves salmon. Or so I’m told.’
‘Hey, I love salmon! Does that mean there are heavy residues of Polly-wolly-doodle-eniols in me too?’
‘Well hey, it ain’t killin’ me. I feel just fine.’
‘In the case of the bald eagles I guess there are other factors at work.’
‘Yeah, right,’ said Fletcher vaguely, staring at his schedule. For a moment all that could be heard in the Oval Office was the hum of the air conditioning. This was turning out to be the hottest September in quite some time.
Fletcher’s main duty that day was hosting a State Arrival Ceremony on the South Lawn for the president of an obscure nation somewhere in the Balkans. Apparently this nation was of potential strategic importance, though Fletcher couldn’t imagine why. No problem; Vince would brief him. Vince was the son of his one-time best friend. The poor boy was only eighteen when his dad had gone overnight from Wall Street high-flyer to bankrupt, thanks to a juicy development deal in Wisconsin that went belly-up. Vince had just started college at the time and Fletcher had helped out with the fees, even giving the boy a monthly
allowance. Well, it was the least he could do: ten years before that, Vince’s father had given Fletcher an investment tip that had brought Fletcher a cool twenty million dollars in the space of a week. Technically it had been insider trading, but hey, what are friends for?
The boy was smart; he burned his way through Princeton, astounding faculty members with the brilliance and originality of his intellect. Aware that he had to keep well in with his only source of funds, Vince accepted the many invitations to go stay with Fletcher and Darlene in their mansion outside Boise, back in the days before Fletcher had rebranded himself as a rancher. Mind you, it wasn’t that big a sacrifice. Not every student could spend vacations by the pool ordering cold beers from obsequious men in white jackets.
Vince then disappointed everyone by going off to Hollywood to work in one of the big studios. His professors said it was a waste of one of the best minds of his generation, but Vince didn’t care. He made money in Hollywood, and became known as one of the canniest guys around. He was respected for his extraordinary ability to read a script and assess what was good and what was bad about it. He was brilliant at reducing a whole screenplay to a single paragraph, which he would print out and place in front of the top guys. They appreciated this, especially since Vince’s development recommendations were incredibly good. Vince enjoyed his work, but he wasn’t exactly using every last neuron of his brain, so when the call came from the White House, he didn’t hesitate.
The President had gone back to staring at the bald eagle graph. Suddenly, he had an idea. Fletcher narrowed his e. . .
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