Loved House of Cards?
***** Reader review
He thought the worst was behind them.
The primaries done and dusted. The Presidency within arm's reach.
He couldn't have been more wrong.
Not only were the primaries rigged; they had revealeda web of lies that was but the tip of a huge iceberg.
But where there's a will, there's a way...
Release date: March 10, 2022
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Print pages: 320
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Sunday 9th May 2010, morning
I’m an apparatchik.
I always have been. I’ve never fancied myself a politician. Many have tried to cross the divide. Some of them have even succeeded. But not many, and I don’t like the ones who have. People end up in my world for reasons that have little to do with talent: there are women, because there must be; cowards because they’re everywhere; and flatterers because they represent nothing—and “nothing” tends to be less harmful than “something” when it comes to politics. I’ve learned to live with all of them.
What I cannot stand, are apparatchiks who take themselves for politicians. In my world, politicians and apparatchiks feed off each other. Neither can survive without the other. Anyone who doesn’t know their place, is a disaster waiting to happen.
Apparatchiks are used to taking blow after blow for their bosses. They are mechanics. Organizers. Advisors. Enablers. They are the heart, the soul, and sometimes the brain of a politician.
Politicians are a different breed altogether. Their empathy can be fierce and their energy unfailing. They know how to touch people when they want to. They convince voters that they are one of a kind.
Politicians want to be seen and heard by an audience. To feel confirmed in their opinions, the fairness of their ideas, to hear that they’re the best, the strongest, or the funniest, to be told that they’ll make a difference. They don’t doubt themselves by definition; let alone envisage that anyone else might do the job better. Better than them simply doesn’t exist.
Being elected put aside, I have done it all. I’ve composed and corrected hundreds of speeches, attended at least as many campaign meetings, and have travelled the world to lunch with established top dogs only to dine with young hotshots vying to replace them. I’ve fixed things for men I despise and taken out people I hold in high esteem—and vice versa.
I know the intense joy this world can bring. The waves of adrenaline, the rare loyal friendships, the bond that develops between people who want the same thing. I know the gratification of dizzying discussions about making the world a better place. And the fervour that drives those who are foolish enough to believe they’ve made a difference in drafting an agenda.
In short, I know precisely how exhilarating it can be to live alongside those in power—particularly if you are the one who got them there.
That said, I am also familiar with the less glorious aspects. The everyday betrayals. The messy compromises. The pathetic resignations.
I have spent the last thirty years in a world that is as vile as it is cunning; and I have done so by choice. There is a flipside to every coin, and this is the price I pay to do a job I love.
I got my start in this field because I was passionate about politics. But I stayed because I was infatuated with my boss. The Boss. I still am. Twenty-five years of battling side by side in the trenches of world politics have fostered a strong bond between us.
No one else knows him better than I do.
The Boss is a true politician. The real deal. He trusts me because I’ve never taken advantage of an opportunity to betray him. And God knows, I could have! Some say he couldn’t cope without me. That I must know him inside out, given how long I’ve been holding the fort for him.
There may be some truth in this, but one thing is for sure: it never has, and never will, cross my mind to betray him.
I’ve spent the last twenty-five years of my life slaving away to make sure he becomes president someday. And now he has a real shot. Two years ago, no one believed it could happen. Only a handful of people—those part of his inner circle.
Today is election day, and I hope against hope that he will succeed. Just two weeks ago I wasn’t sure about a damn thing. Not sure about his chances, about him, or even about myself. For just two weeks ago, the beautiful political machine I had helped build collapsed.
It all started on a sunny day in Lille. Or maybe it was on that sunny day in Lille that it all ended.
Tuesday 16th February, 10:15 a.m.
It was a lovely day. Exceptional weather for February. The sun was shining all over France, even in the north. Every cloud has a silver lining and for once, climate change was no exception. It’s hard to explain that we must make sacrifices to fight global warming when late winter in the North feels like spring in Madrid.
The Boss was on a delicate and important mission visiting the home turf of Marie-France Trémeau, who had been his main adversary in the race for the party’s nomination in our American-style primary.
Every MP in the area, including Trémeau—well, all those on our side, and they were a minority in those parts—attended the breakfast. The very fact that they had come, when the previous year they had been at each other’s throats and would undoubtedly return to that state of affairs the following year, was a remarkable success in and of itself. The local party officials, who were more enthusiastic and less jaded, were present as well. An intimate, face-to-face meeting with the Boss was a rare opportunity for them. The kind of event that would be relived at party meetings for years to come.
I was with the Boss for once, despite my profound disgust for the groupies who live to follow him around on the campaign trail. They seem to imagine that the fact of sleeping in the same hotel for a night will forge some special bond with the Boss. Repulsive behaviour. I’m far too familiar with the petty in-fighting, the vying for a place in the Boss’s car, the privilege of sitting behind him at events, or the collecting of files passed to him while watching him exercise his legendary people skills.
The nice thing about the Boss is that he never asks me to accompany him. If I’m there, that’s fine, and if I’m not, that’s fine, too. Sometimes when I join him, he seems surprised to see me. Most of the time, when I don’t, he seems surprised that I wasn’t there. In fact, it’s irrelevant to him if a mission is well organized.
That day, the trip was a sensitive one: all major political journalists had come to watch the Boss and Trémeau side by side after the violent clash that had opposed them just six months earlier. The day had to go well to create the appearance of a unified front. Not a single poorly chosen word could be allowed to derail our efforts.
I used to do everything for the Boss. And I used to do it alone, or nearly. But over the years, the team had grown. Now everyone had a role to play. Despite being responsible for everything, I was in charge of nothing, which was both liberating and worrying, as I am a stickler for details.
The lovely Marilyn was managing the press as usual, and doing one hell of a job. The Valkyrie, our head organizer, had handled every detail of this trip, and all the others, and was keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings. Schumacher was ready to pull out at a second’s notice to get the Boss to the next location in a flash. As for the Cowboy, he was never more than a few steps away, ready to pounce at the slightest hint of danger.
I was in a corner with Caligny, where we were trying to find a way to make ourselves useful—him because he had yet to prove himself, me because I was supposed to be overseeing people who had clearly learned how to get on without me.
The kid was excited: this was his first time accompanying the Boss. His eyes were bright. First times are always stirring; you never forget them. And it’s not every day a twenty-something gets so close to a man who might become president. In his mannerisms and features, the kid looked just like his father, a former minister who had passed away ten years earlier. The same unkempt mass of hair, the same dark eyes, the same smile, and the same way of emphasizing his words with a firm gesture from his right hand. He didn’t suffer from the awkward, overdressed elegance of young men who lack self-assurance in their oversized suit jackets, short trousers, and worn shoes. The kid dressed simply, casually, in a velvet jacket, white shirt, and dark-blue jeans. Professional, but relaxed. He had an innate quality, a form of poise and humble confidence I had rarely witnessed in someone his age.
I didn’t really know why the Boss had hired him to join the campaign team. Caligny had no experience and nothing to offer. But since joining us, he had shown that he could keep out of the way and even make himself useful. That was already a major improvement over all those candidates with bags of experience and even more ambition.
We stood off to one side to observe the scene. The first step on our tour was General Charles de Gaulle’s childhood home and everything was perfect: the line of cars, the party members who had spontaneously turned up to offer their support, and the press area for the journalists, who were following in a bus.
With its flag flying in the bright sunshine, the house on the Rue Princesse would have been quite ordinary, were it not for the illustrious infant who was born inside. But for any candidate wishing to align themselves with Gaullism in any shape or form, it was a mandatory stop on the campaign trail. Smiles, handshakes, waves, pictures with adoring fans, and on he goes. Nothing in his hands, nothing in his pockets, a natural smile; he knows he can never look like he’s in a hurry.
I was watching the Boss, as though for the first time. Sixty-three looked good on him: he’d stayed trim (a fact people almost seemed to hold against him since nothing said bonhomie like a few extra pounds) and had never lost his hair, though it had gone quite grey rather quickly over the past few months. We had to help him dress properly. His wife wasn’t up for it any more and he couldn’t care less, but the French people wanted to vote for someone elegant, so he wore what we chose for him. On that beautiful February day, it was an unobtrusive grey suit, a light-blue shirt, a red tie, and a lightweight black raincoat to ward off any unexpected showers. Far from original, but nothing anyone could criticize either.
I was listening, almost as though it was the first time, too. His pleasant, unique, instantly recognizable voice, which had become his trademark, paired with his kind, benevolent, almost sincere smile. His sentences were short and simple, his questions warm, and his attitude noble but not arrogant. He was good. He was in his element. I watched him, tired but high on the campaign, dutifully carrying out all his obligations, determined not to leave anything to chance.
After a few minutes, I gave Caligny a mission: to ensure Marie-France Trémeau was always by the Boss’s side and to never let her stray, no matter how much she might like to. Healing the wounds from the primary had been so difficult that now the press would put every detail under the microscope. The tension was still palpable, and it had to be imperceptible.
It was obvious that she would have preferred to be elsewhere, as is often the case with high-ranking politicians. We all hated her, but had to admit she didn’t look her age, which was well past fifty-five. The way she held herself, like a queen, inspired respect. She looked perfect in one of her iconic trouser suits. I imagined she had an on-call personal stylist. Unhappily married and childless, she was tirelessly driven, making her a formidable political adversary: the heart of a man in the body of a woman, the ideal combination for politics, though admittedly not for everyday life.
Since she had no choice but to welcome to her constituency the man who had defeated her, she wore a warm smile, but when she looked at the Boss, there was resentment and hatred in her eyes that maybe only I could see. She kept trying to move away, and I smiled as I watched the kid’s desperate efforts to keep her in the right place for the cameras and photographers, while several intruders jockeyed for her abandoned position.
The other MPs were only too happy to tag along. They all longed to be photographed next to the Boss and were eager to proclaim to whoever would listen that they were loyal and doing their utmost to make sure that he won, that they were behind him because if he won, he would defend our ideas and take our country in a better direction. The fact that the legislative elections would take place just six weeks after the second round of the presidential election wasn’t totally unrelated to their sudden enthusiasm, though. By campaigning for the Boss, they were really campaigning for themselves. I couldn’t hold that against them. I had decided not to be angry with the MPs during the campaign. Not until the Boss was elected.
This was why the MPs were now not just polite with me, but spoke to me quite naturally and directly. This was only true for the cleverest among them though; the mediocre politicians had just become terribly obsequious.
Jean Texier, Trémeau’s right-hand man and an MP in his own right whose constituency was in another region altogether, had even made the trip here, confirming the importance of the event with his presence. He and I provided the same things for our respective bosses: we were the brain power and the men behind the coups and the political banter. But he had decided to run for office to gain independence, an independence which he didn’t actually use. Today he had come to watch, feed some sound bites to the press, and accompany his boss, who had undoubtedly felt rather lonely since her defeat.
I have mixed feelings about Texier.
I hate him, for a whole slew of reasons. First, for having so often tried to (politically) take out my boss, my employees, and on a few occasions, me. But above all else, I hate him because I despise what he is: a fake politician and a real apparatchik. I hate Texier, but I respect him. We share the kind of bond that sometimes unites men who do the same job but back different causes. We would smile at each other’s blows with a blend of annoyance and admiration. But I also feared Texier: he was unscrupulous, and though people thought as much of me, I knew I would never cross the line he had blithely hopped over.
He’s a real bastard, but he has at least one valuable talent: he’s a cut above the rest when it comes to crafting caustic but funny remarks that are ambiguous enough to pass for praise. When he’d been a simple apparatchik, we had had a cordial relationship: we helped our bosses take each other out but never attacked one another directly. We talked. We laughed together. It’s important to laugh with your political adversaries. If you can’t have a good laugh with them, you’re either blinkered, anxious, or a pain in the arse. Whatever the explanation, it’s a bad sign.
Texier is exceptionally gifted for making people believe he’s the exact opposite of what he actually is. His physique fools everyone. People say he’s elegant and believe he’s young, when he’s actually in his sixties. His trim figure, jolly demeanour, and his luck at having lost all his hair in his forties (which means no one ever got to see him go grey) almost make him look like he’s just turned fifty. People think he’s calm when he’s hysterical. They say he’s loyal, but I know that he does the most for his friends when they don’t actually need his help.
If you listen to him, you might take him for a humanist poet and a rebel. But that image is miles from the truth. Whenever Trémeau had something unpleasant to say, she would send Texier to say it for her. Whenever she was working on a low blow, Texier designed and executed it. If Trémeau had won, he would have become a minister. He had to be furious as he watched the train pull out of the station, realizing he was on the wrong platform.
During the primary, Trémeau and the Boss had put on a good show: a cordial campaign “between friends and may the best candidate win”. But behind the façade it was a merciless battle fuelled by an enduring mutual hatred. As for Texier and myself, we were engaged in a never-ending war: we fought to get our hands on new party members’ details before the other, to visit swing seats in the best possible conditions, and to leak unflattering information to the press about our adversary.
Now that the primary was behind us, we had swapped roles. Our bosses hated each other, and it was up to us to grease the wheels. Despite the resentment of Texier and his boss, which was all the more acute given the unexpected nature of her defeat and the small margin that had sealed it, we had to talk and get along. Not an easy feat for two men like us, who had always been in the same party but never in the same camp . . .
Texier was there, and I had to handle him, since I knew he would seize any opportunity to claim his boss had been “mistreated”.
“It’s an honour to have you with us!” I said. I tried to erase any irony from my voice but knew perfectly well that the result would be passable at best.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” Texier replied. “Look at them, the best of friends.”
“And look at us!” I added with a smile.
“Yes, peace and harmony reign.”
He seemed to be in a good mood, which was rarely a good thing.
“You know,” I continued, “this is a big day for us. For the party.”
“Yes, Marie-France is doing her part to make sure everything goes to plan.”
“As are we, I believe.”
“Hmm,” Texier grumbled sceptically.
“I hope you’re not planning to play the martyr!”
Texier smiled. “Have you ever noticed that it’s always the victor who asks that question?”
When we were alone, we always pestered one another, but it was rare for things to get out of hand bar a few exceptions. The primary had been one such occasion, and it had left its mark.
“Come on,” I offered with a smile and a pat on his shoulder. “Let’s go and see the room where the Great Man was born.”
Though great de Gaulle may have been, we couldn’t afford to spend a whole half-day admiring a typical bourgeois home from the late nineteenth century in French Flanders two months from the first round of a presidential election. In just over half an hour, the Boss had briskly toured the place, signed the visitors’ book where all of those who aspired to reincarnate the General had confessed their admiration, shaken quite a few hands, and reminded the press of the importance and modernity of the Gaullist message. Following a nod from the Valkyrie, he had taken his leave and climbed into the car, which sped off towards the medical imaging research laboratory we were scheduled to visit as part of this trip devoted to “Innovation: a solution to the challenges of globalization”, if I remember rightly.
The drive would take a little over twenty minutes. In our rush, young Caligny had ended up in the Cowboy’s usual spot—the passenger seat in the Boss’s car—leaving the bodyguard no choice but to join the Valkyrie and Marilyn in the second car. The Cowboy had to be furious to find himself so far from the man he was supposed to protect. He would have to console himself with Marilyn’s presence. I bet he would have jumped at the chance to protect her if only she had expressed any interest. As for the Valkyrie, she was clearly not in need of his services. In hand-to-hand combat against the Cowboy, I would put my money on her.
I was in the back seat with the Boss, who seemed relaxed. Schumacher was driving fast but the ride was smooth.
Trémeau and Texier, who were joining the Boss for the whole day, had got into another car. It would have been better for the Boss to invite Trémeau to ride with him for the short trip, but that was more than either one of them could manage. I was certain a Parisian journalist would notice.
Caligny was listening to his voicemail. The Boss was watching the city as we drove past. His face was impassive; only his eyes moved to take in the scene outside. He was thinking about something. These daydreaming episodes, stolen minutes in the frenzied schedule of the campaign, gave him time to settle for a moment and reflect. I left him to his silence, knowing full well how important it was and how brief it would be. The Boss generally put a stop to his daydreaming by asking his entourage a twisted question. I love his twisted questions. The way they leave most people in a state of confusion is enough to brighten my day.
I think I first realized we’d hit a snag when I locked eyes with Caligny, who had turned around to face us.
There was something strange in his gaze. Not fear, not surprise either, definitely not indifference. Something indescribable, like a blend of incomprehension and foreboding. In any case, he wasn’t trying to get the Boss’s attention; he wanted mine. Which meant that whatever was bothering him was either trivial or extremely important. And since, despite his young age, the kid wasn’t the sort to worry about trivial things, it meant something serious was afoot. I immediately shifted into “protection” mode. Don’t stress the Boss, don’t weigh him down with things that aren’t his responsibility. Wait to know more and have an action plan ready before telling him.
Caligny must have read in my eyes that this wasn’t the time to talk about it. He stared straight at me and waited.
That’s when the Boss decided to exit his daydream.
“I’ve always wondered why Napoleon decided to invade Russia when he knew his army wouldn’t be able to advance or obtain supplies by the usual methods. There’s no victory without supplies.”
How’s that for a random and difficult question . . .
“Pride, maybe?” suggested the kid, who still didn’t understand that the Boss’s questions could be rhetorical.
The Boss smiled.
Tuesday 16th February, 11:15 a.m.
“Pinguet knows who rigged the 15th September vote. Pinguet could talk. But Pinguet is dead. A rather interesting coincidence, don’t you think?”
Interesting wasn’t the right word.
The message was short. I didn’t recognize the voice. A man with an unidentifiable accent, speaking slowly. It was a private number and the kid had no idea who it could be.
When we had arrived and the Boss had left the car, Caligny had handed me his mobile and I had listened to the message. I put on the calmest of faces, but I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
The 15th September vote was the vote in which the Boss had been chosen to represent the party in the presidential race. Our primary.
The Boss’s victory had caught everyone off-guard; everyone had thought he was finished a few weeks before. But Trémeau, the favourite, had made a few blunders in the home stretch, and the Boss had successfully played the role of peace-maker to unite all the camps opposed to his adversary and her controversial personality. The years the Boss had spent carefully and quietly laying the groundwork seemed to have finally paid off.
This surprise defeat only heightened the hatred Marie-France Trémeau and her entourage felt for the Boss and me, and ever since, we had been spending as much time fending off blows from our friends as from our adversaries. Though Trémeau never said as much, she hoped the Boss would lose, so she could run the next time.
The Boss’s victory had been close, less than five hundred votes out of 230,000, but until this mysterious phone call, no one had questioned it.
As for the name Pinguet, I knew only one. A senator from Isère, in the south-east of France. Like most senators, he was old, but I hadn’t heard that he had died. And I really didn’t see what he had to do with the current situation.
Caligny stared worriedly at me. I was still trying to put on a show, but I could see in his eyes that I was failing.
We’re most scared in life when we don’t understand.
And I definitely didn’t understand what was going on.
In different circumstances, I probably would have listened calmly to the message, feigned indifference, and shrugged. But just two months from the presidential election, I couldn’t shrug: nothing was trivial any more.
“Pinguet who? The senator?” he asked.
“You’ve heard of him? I’m impressed, kid!”
“I’ve come across his name in articles about my father.”
I kept forgetting that Caligny had been born into politics. Knowing that things had happened before he became interested in the field gave him an important advantage: the kid knew his political map and recognized the importance of history. The Boss had brought him into the inner circle for reasons I still didn’t quite comprehend, but they must have been well founded. In any case, he was a part of the Boss’s entourage, so I might as well treat him accordingly.
“That’s the only Pinguet I know. He’s been the senator from Isère for nearly twenty years. No one will remember him, for either good reasons or bad. He’s a decent man who got into politics rather late, after a successful career in business. He’s far from loyal: he’s changed parliamentary groups at least twice and backed nearly all of his camp’s candidates for president, at least any who had a plausible chance at success. Not particularly clever, but rich, I believe. That said, in politics, money doesn’t make much of a difference.”
“But what does he have to do with the primary?”
That was the question.
I would have preferred everyone to forget about the primary. Bloody battles within the same family always leave their mark, and everyone knew that it was now in our camp’s best interest to focus exclusively on the upcoming election.
“I have no idea, kid, and I’m too old to chase after riddles with imbeciles who have nothing better to do with their time than leave cryptic messages. Unfortunately though, something tells me that the chap who reached out to you isn’t finished. I’ll have a think. In the meantime, you’ll need to stick a sock in it and keep your mouth firmly shut. Not a word. Understood?”
“Yes. But there is one thing that is definitely going to be a problem.”
“You’re going to have to stop calling me ‘kid’. My name is Louis.”
I liked him. He had potential. But everyone on the team had a nickname. He wasn’t going to escape that easily.
Tuesday 16th February, 11:45 a.m.
The Boss looked focused and fascinated. He was barely capable of using a computer to check his email but appeared to be completely absorbed in the discussion of medical imaging innovations. He asked questions. He listened to the answers and then knew exactly what to say to each person in the room, as if he was there just for them. These regional trips created opportunities for him to touch people, both physically and emotionally. For a moment, he shared in their lives, their struggles, and their concerns.
Marilyn seemed relaxed. She wasn’t. I could tell from the way she nervously ran her thumbs across the joints of her other fingers. A discreet but systematic coping mechanism. I walked over slowly.
Of course, Marilyn wasn’t her real name, but it suited her so well. She was a real pro, always in a good mood, at least with the journalists, and she knew her audience and her boss like the back of her hand. When she knew the answer, she was precise. And when she didn’t know, she admitted it, which was always the best option. When she wanted to get a message across, she knew how to express it in such a way that the journalists quoted her at length. And when she wanted to muddy the waters, she used her doe eyes and her gift for doublespeak to pull one over on even the most ferocious Parisian reporter. Boop-boop-bee-doo!
Well into her forties with dark, shoulder-length hair, olive skin, and a figure that had filled out gracefully over the years, she still attracted plenty of men in their thirties and already appealed to those in their fifties. I could attest to that. The thing that had always impressed me about her was her ability to charm men without annoying women. When you think about it, it’s a rare skill. Take me for example, I charm next to no one and annoy most people. Women who know how to charm people not by their looks but by casting an inescapable spell on whomever they’re talking to have my undying admiration. Marilyn is particularly gifted in that department. She’s truly interested in others, and the way she spontaneously offers up her talents and intelligence makes it hard for the person she’s talking to to believe that such a beautiful woman could also be so accessible. It’s not Marilyn’s physique that does it; it’s what she does with the mind attached to said physique. As a result, she’s not one of the many women in politics who, as many are so fond of saying, will lose their influence as they get older. No risk there.
Of course, my impression of Marilyn has become less objective over the years. Nevertheless, I can’t help but notice that everyone who has ever underestimated her has regretted it.
“All good?” I asked, unsure whether it was a question or a statement.
“Mm-hm. He’s perfect,” she replied. “The journalists. . .
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