Politics & Media
Dec 23, 2015, 04:48AM

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Jeb Bush, polling at 1%.

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Jeb awoke with a start to daylight, streaming in through the curtains. Where was this? What day was it? He couldn’t put the pieces together. He’d fallen asleep in his clothes again, reading late into the night, some biography of Reagan. Already the hotel room felt small and too familiar after days in town huddled with advisers or stroking an endless parade of moneymen whose names he could never recall afterwards. “There’s still time, pal,” one of them had promised him, knocking back a parade of shots at a bar. “You’re still in the hunt, Jeb—you can still win this thing.”

If only Jeb himself felt a similar certainty. A cursory scan of The New York Times left outside his door sowed seeds of doubt. Jeb couldn’t find himself above or below the fold on the front page, or anywhere in the National section. Editorial was a wasteland. Ink was spilled for Trump, Carson, Rubio and Cruz. Christie’s casual commandeering of a Nathan’s hot dog stand won him an Associated Press photograph. But no me, Jeb lamented. It’s like I don’t even fucking exist. Despondent, he flipped on MSNBC just in time to watch a correspondent ask Trump whether or not he still thought of Jeb as a potential threat. Trump, smirking straight into the camera, declared, “Bush? He’s a pussy. He’s a handmaiden, a Coleman porter. You want to ask me a real question about a real competitor? Ask me about Fiorina.” Jeb fled MSNBC, but since every other network had picked up on the story, recycling the soundbite—interrupting regularly scheduled programming without prior warning—there was no excuse for Jeb to remain in the hotel, where the temptation to cold-cock the mirror or the flatscreen—or himself—was proving far too strong.

There were voicemails waiting. Danny had a line on a secret War Room. Reince offered a pathetic joke about “the 1 percent,” pealing into maniacal laughter before hanging up. Columba told him she loved him, that she was praying for the campaign. Drudge apologetically withdrew a longstanding interview offer; he’d be breaking bread with Santorum instead. A rookie Politico blogger wondered, earnestly, “What’s it like to be lower than a flaming sack of dogshit?” Jeb fought and overcame the urge to hurl his iPhone into morning traffic. The rabid Doberman he’d have sworn was trailing him for blocks was actually his stomach.

Jeb tucked into a Denver omelet and a side of hash browns, making small talk with the waitress—a comely Latina who reminded him of his wife as a young mother. A series of texts informed him that a private car would take him to the airstrip several hours hence, then it’d be off to D.C. via Lear, some kind of town hall preceding a rubber chicken dinner. Jeb wished he’d chucked the phone when he had the nerve.

“You look so much like… someone,” the waitress said, refilling his coffee. A smile played at the edges of her mouth. “Someone I know, or used to know.” Jeb blushed, and straightened his tie. “Someone decent, I hope.”

“No, no, this was my high school calculus teacher. He was such a dick. Terrible at helping us learn, uncomfortable around anyone, boring. The kind of teacher all the other teachers made fun of, who took his self-hatred out on everyone else.” Her attention was waning, drawn to a television showing CNN. “Hey, do you think Trump will really win the nomination?”

Jeb! wandered the city, disconsolate, his blazer slung over one slumped shoulder. No one recognized him. His local handlers weren’t returning his calls; Danny was out of pocket. Ducking into a 7-11 for a Shasta, Jeb found himself stymied: the clerk’s eyes followed him around the store, from the beverage cases to the candy racks to the ATM, where Jeb withdrew $3500 in cash, to the counter, where those cold, black eyes seemed to bore deep into his soul. Then the stare suddenly relaxed, and the clerk was casually making change from a $50 bill before smiling sadly and knowingly up at Jeb and murmuring, sincerely, “I’m so sorry your campaign fell apart, Senator Graham; we were all pulling for you.

On the Lear to D.C., Jeb skimmed position papers and played a few hands of Gin Rummy with an aide. “The press pool’s awfully thin for this trip,” Jeb remarked, focusing on the cards in his hand.

“Shit, sir, the press pool doesn’t even exist for this trip,” chuckled the aide, who was not-so-secretly hoping to get fired so he return to his analyst’s role at the Heritage Foundation. Jeb pretended not to hear this, dismissed the aide shortly thereafter, and then tore the cabin apart. Where was the fucking rum?

Later, Jeb called his father. It was late enough in the day for the old man to be conscious but early enough that he and Mom weren’t yet ensconced in Seinfeld. Dad’s patience and wisdom had always been a dependable source of strength, and Jeb needed him now more than ever, if only to convince himself that this campaign—a campaign Jeb had never even wanted to run—wasn’t doomed. I only need to stay in the this ring of hellfire and damnation long enough to drop out without dying of shame and embarrassment, he promised himself. Just a few more months, then Columba and I are outta here forever. Antiqua? Rome? The Maldives? Anywhere. Anywhere else but here.

His father answered on the 17th ring. Jeb upset their usual exchange of patrician greetings with a long, tearful monologue about the campaign that wasn’t. Dad listened compassionately before sharing an anecdote from his earliest campaigns that calmed Jeb’s rum-soaked nerves, putting him at ease.

“Thanks, Dad,” Jeb gasped. “That story really placed things into perspective for me. This race is far from over. Thanks for listening, for lending your ear.”

“Anytime, Junior,” Dad chuckled. “And never, ever forget that you’re my favorite son, and I don’t give a damn what anyone says: you were a fantastic president, and you’ll make an even finer chair of the Crawford Arts Council. Give Laura and the girls our love.”


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