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Chance Meeting at the Jefferson Hotel

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Dick Goodwin had worked in Washington, on and off, for over a decade and its streets in that time had struck him variously as exciting, obstructionist, reactionary, and naïve. Tonight, for the first time, those streets were just streets. It was as if they had heard about his decision to quit, shrugged, and turned their back on him.

He passed a newsstand on M Street and couldn’t stop himself from skimming the headlines. The country was still in shock over the death of Robert Kennedy. Sirhan was in custody and had made a full confession. Five other people shot that night at the Ambassador Hotel were in recovery. Dick Goodwin was cutting his losses and leaving the field to fresher, more foolish, men.

The trees dropped curling pink petals at his feet, clichéd reminders of spring. Sandra would be pleased. “Spring! Pesach! Time of renewal!” she’d said when he told her he wanted to quit government work for good. “It’s the perfect time for a new career. It’s a fresh start for you, Dick. It’ll be great.”

“Maybe it could be,” he’d said, as if he’d believed it. Now that Sandra had taken Richie to visit his grandparents in Florida, he could admit the truth. This wasn’t a new start; it was a good old-fashioned defeat.

He turned onto 16th Street and nearly collided with a knot of hippies coming the other way.

“Hey, man, the streets belong to the people!” one of the guys yelled. “Fascist!”

“You all hated Bobby!” one of the girls shouted at Dick as he hurried away. “The Man hated Bobby because he had a beating heart! Bobby cared about the people! Bobby was…!”

There was a bar up ahead and Dick ducked into it. It turned out to be the lounge of the Jefferson Hotel, which was as good a place to hide as any. If he was lucky he wouldn’t run into anyone he knew. He couldn’t bear any condolences about Senator Kennedy right now.

The girl’s words were still ringing in his ears. Not because they were true. If he’d had the energy Dick could have informed her she was talking to one of Robert Kennedy’s speechwriters, to Jack Kennedy’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, that he, more than anyone, had known how much both those men cared. But Dick didn’t have the fight in him anymore. Fighting just seemed to make things worse.

He took a long, slow sip of bourbon and reflected on the pattern: Every time Dick set out to make the world a better place it ended with a good man bleeding on TV.

Good men. Exceptional men. There was something about them—both Jack and Bobby. They were so different from himself. Sandra said it was the money. Growing up with all that power it seeped into their skin until it glowed, she said, but Dick had met plenty of rich twits at Harvard and none of them had the effect on people that the Kennedys did. It was like they were more alive than the people around them. They made you believe in them. Made you want to believe in them. Guys like Bobby and Jack Kennedy. And Charlie Van Doren.

Charlie?

Dick set his drink down heavily, nearly sloshing it over his fingers, and blinked through the smoke at the figure on the other side of the bar looking, just for a moment, like he was going to bolt. Then the trademark grin spread over his face and there was no doubt. Charles Van Doren.

How fitting to run into Charlie tonight when futility was so much on Dick’s mind. Charlie was, after all, a casualty of one of Dick’s first ill-favored crusades. He was glad he’d exposed the quiz shows, of course. But the truly guilty hadn’t been punished. And too many innocents—or at least relatively innocent, in Dick’s mind—had been the ones to suffer. It made him wonder sometimes if it was worth it.

Not that Charlie seemed to hold it against him. Within minutes he’d invited Dick into a booth to catch up on the last ten years.
“The Idea of Progress,” Dick said, releasing a plume of cigar smoke up to the ceiling as Charlie told him about the book he’d just published.

“It’s a philosophical position,” Charlie explained. “In essence the idea that as time goes on, as we make more scientific advancement, society itself gets better. You know who came up with the concept in its modern form?”

“I know he couldn’t have been Jewish,” said Dick.

“Sir Francis Bacon,” said Charlie. “So you get partial credit.”

“And you’re in town for a reading,” said Dick. “I’m sorry I didn’t know about it.”

“Oh, don’t be,” said Charlie. “It was a roomful of academics, most of who were hoping to meet my father. The truth is I’ll be happy to get back to Chicago. I work for the Encyclopedia Britannica now. I’m an editor.”

“Encyclopedia Britannica,” said Dick. “My uncle got me a set for my bar mitzvah. They got me through high school. Somehow I never pictured you relying on encyclopedias in school as much as I did. Not in your house.”

“Oh no,” Charlie said, sipping a gimlet. “In my house if you needed to know the name of…” He thought for a second and plucked an example out of the air. “Mehmed II’s favorite tutor you called Uncle Cedric. He’s an old friend of my mother’s and he was a close, personal chum of T.E. Lawrence in Karkemish.”

“Jesus, I believe it,” said Dick.

Charlie grinned. “Still,” he added, “I of all people know the advantages to being able to look up the answers.”

He held Dick’s eyes over the gimlet until Dick laughed. “That you do,” Dick said. “And touché.” He hadn’t realized how big the elephant at the table was until Charlie addressed it by name, and that name was Twenty-One. Dick leaned forward across the table. “Why did you really…?”

“You’ve been busy the past ten years,” Charlie said at almost the same time, so Dick couldn’t tell if the interruption was intentional or not, “at the White House.”

Dick looked into his bourbon and shrugged.

“I mean it,” Charlie said. “Your work in Latin America, the Alliance for Progress, the Great Society…”

“The Great Society was my idea,” Dick said in the exact same tone of voice he used to tell people he was first in his class at Harvard Law. He thought he’d grown out of that need to prove himself until Charlie Van Doren brought it out in him again. “The name, I mean. I made up the name.”

“I know you did,” said Charlie. “I saw you on Firing Line.”

There was a certain pleasure in the thought of Charlie watching him on television.

Charlie touched a finger to the edge of his glass. “I’m particularly impressed by your work with the Peace Corps, Dick. As a former teacher I know…” He raised his eyes to Dick’s. “Some things can’t be taught in a classroom,” he said. “Some things can only be learned through experience.”

Charlie had that experience now, thanks to Dick. He could see it in his eyes. It was inevitable he knew. Even Charlie Van Doren had to grow up sometime. Somebody had to take his innocence. If it hadn’t been Dick Goodwin and the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight it would have been some bored married woman or a jealous dean of English Literature. But looking into Charlie’s older, wiser, yet still clear green eyes, Dick found himself missing the man he’d met back in ‘58.

“God, I’m starving,” Charlie said. “We should order some dinner.”

The Jefferson had a fine restaurant as well as a fine bar, and it didn’t take long to move from one to the other. “You’re always taking me places,” Dick said, slicing through a steak as soft as butter.

“Am I?”

“The first time we met you took me to the Athenaeum Club for lunch, then you took me sailing in Connecticut, then you took me to your poker game. You’re a friendly guy, Charlie. I didn’t take Sandra to one of my father’s birthday parties until we were engaged.”

He had a strong image suddenly, of Charlie in that sailboat, a lock of reddish gold hair falling over his eye, like an overgrown kid, skinny knees poking out of those ridiculous shorts, blinking into the sunshine, lying like his life depended on it. And never once taking his hand off the tiller.

“You know I was terrified,” Charlie said.

“What?”

“I was terrified when we met. Every time we met. God, the day you came to my office…it was like the grim reaper showing up at my door.”

“Oh, come on,” said Dick. “You’re telling me that was you, terrified? Cracking jokes about your backhand and getting a tattoo?”

Charlie blinked at him, a forkful of Dover sole hovering inches from his mouth. “I told you I was getting a tattoo?”

“For being first in your class?” Dick fought the urge to squirm in his chair. Why had he even remembered Charlie saying that? “It was a joke. You don’t remember.”

“Sorry,” said Charlie, popping the fish into his mouth. “Honestly, I can’t remember a thing I said that day. Even at the time I had no idea what I was saying. I was in a panic, Dick. I had to keep talking so you couldn’t. I was babbling.”

“Wow. You should know your babbling’s more eloquent than half the speeches in congress.”

‘”Well, witty repartee is the lingua franca around my family’s dinner table. I do it without thinking. It’s like cruise control. I just keep going until I run into something. In this case, you.” He grinned again. “You don’t know how close I came to just jumping out my office window and running.”

“So you weren’t really inviting me to lunch,” Dick said slowly. “You were getting me into home territory. Surrounding yourself with reinforcements.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean…” Charlie trailed off hopefully.

Dick waited.

“I…I liked you,” said Charlie, with the slightest, most disarming, of stutters. “You must have known that. But…” He took a steadying breath the way Dick remembered him doing at the hearings just before he launched into his confession. “Protecting myself was my first priority back then. Like I said, I was terrified.”

Dick shrugged and drank his wine, a rich Cabernet Sauvignon that Charlie had ordered even though it didn’t mix well with his own dinner.

“Really, Dick, the best moments during that whole bizarre time in my life were the ones where I could imagine we were actually friends.”

The wine was earthy and smooth. It smelled of cedar wood and black cherries and it warmed Dick deep in his belly before spreading into his chest, shoulders and thighs.

“So you’re saying this is the first time I’m meeting you when you don’t have a secret,” said Dick.

Charlie picked up his own wine. “Well,” he said. “Not any secret that would interest congress.”

Dick felt like he was being baited somehow. Charlie was so good at baiting him. He’d forgotten that about him. Over the years, when Dick thought about Charlie, what he remembered was the guilt he felt for dragging the man into the public square for a flogging, or the protectiveness Charlie still inspired in him. But now he remembered how the man drove him crazy. He seemed to always be daring Dick to do something—usually the right thing. But somehow he just couldn’t.

Charlie was daring him to do something now. Dick just didn’t know what.

“What about you, Dick?” Charlie asked, learning back in his chair. “What have you discovered since you found me out? You must come across plenty of secrets, working for the government.”

“Not anymore,” he said. “I’m officially retiring from government service.”

“How come?” Charlie asked.

They beat me, Dick thought. I’m slinking off in retreat. Can’t you tell?

Talking to Charlie had made him forget, for a little while, recent events in Los Angeles. Charlie had a way of riveting his attention Dick couldn’t explain. But even Charlie couldn’t make him forget forever.

“Got tired of banging my head against a wall,” he said. “I was already mostly retired. I’ve been teaching, like you. I just came back for...I came back for someone I believed in.”

“Robert Kennedy,” said Charlie. “I’m sorry. He would have done a lot of good in the world. His death was unjust.”

“Certainly was.”

Dick pushed aside the last bits of his steak.

“You know there’s nothing you could have done to prevent it,” said Charlie. “You weren’t responsible.”

“Why do you think I feel responsible?”

Charlie shrugged. “Because you still feel responsible for me?”

Dick laughed uncertainly.

Charlie ran a hand under his chin the way he used to in his booth on Twenty-One. “When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down, And ask of thee forgiveness.”

Dick, unlike Charlie, hadn’t grown up identifying Shakespeare quotes for fun. “I don’t know,” he said. “Julius Caesar?”

“Interesting answer,” said Charlie. “But incorrect.”

After dinner they had brandy. Dick lit a new cigar. Charlie talked more about his book. “So a society, in a way, is like a man living for hundreds of years, gaining wisdom all the time. Infancy, through adolescence, to maturity.”

“Doesn’t that mean it’s going to get old and die?” said Dick. “Incontinence, senility, arthritis, liver spots? Society might not be looking so good.”

Charlie nodded. “You agree with Saint Augustine,” he said.

“Not usually.”

Charlie’s eyes were shining and his cheeks were pink. It wasn’t just the brandy. He looked ten years younger when he talked about his book.

“Where can I get a copy of this thing?” asked Dick.

Charlie ducked his head and that same lock of hair fell over his eye, reflecting the light from the candles instead of the sunshine. The softer light obscured the new hints of grey amongst the gold. “You don’t have to do that, Dick.”

“I want to!” he said. It occurred to him that his own cheeks might be just as flushed as Charlie’s. “It’s not every day I quote Saint Augustine by accident. I’ll pick a copy up tomorrow.”

“Well, you really don’t have to do that. I’ve got a pile of them in my room.” Charlie ran a pale finger over his lips. “I could sign it for you.”

Dick stubbed out his cigar.

Charlie’s hotel room was a lot like Charlie’s office at Columbia: refined, but comfortable, with scattered explosions of enthusiasm: three new books on Lincoln, a White House jigsaw puzzle, a Betsy Ross doll (Charlie had a wife and kids now, like Dick), a notebook lying open on the desk, the pages filled with looping words and brutal cross-outs, and a pile of sticky wrappers next to a near-empty box of salt water taffy.

Charlie swiped the wrappers and the box into the trash, shut the notebook, moved the puzzle from table to bed to bureau, talking brightly all the while. “I’d hoped to get some work done while I was here but it’s impossible. My father might not like Washington but Washington sure likes him. I haven’t had a moment free since I’ve been here. Everyone wants to send their good wishes to him through me.”

Dick stood silently by the door, watching, until Charlie noticed. “What?” he said.

“You’re terrified again,” said Dick.

“Why would I be…?”

“You’re babbling,” Dick said. He tapped his temple. “Now I know what to look for.”

Charlie laughed, relieved and a little giddy. Maybe it was the brandy. Dick felt a little dizzy himself. Charlie dropped into the leather chair by the desk.

Dick took a seat on the bed across from him. “So?”

Charlie bit his lip. Dick had seen him make the same gesture on Twenty-One enough times to know it meant he didn’t know the right answer. He’d also investigated Twenty-One thoroughly enough to know it was an act. He knew the answer, all right. Dick just had to pry it out of him. “What’s going on here, Charlie?”

Charlie propped one foot deliberately up on the bed beside Dick. “Don’t you know?” he said. “You always had the most amazing ability to make me feel like you’re seeing right through me.”

“Charlie, I honestly can’t figure you out at all,” said Dick. “I never could.”

Charlie seemed to take this as a compliment, or some private victory. The foot next to Dick rocked nervously back and forth like a metronome set on prestissimo. “Can’t figure me out?” Charlie said. “I feel like one of my father’s poems.”

“What’s your father got to do with it?”

“Not my father,” Charlie said firmly. “His poems. Analyzed. Thought over. Occasionally confounding.”

“Occasionally?”

“Nor do born brothers judge, as good or ill, their being. Each consents and is the same, or suddenly sweet winds turn into flame…”

Dick grabbed the foot to keep it still. “What the hell, Charlie?”

Charlie went quiet. Dick had the idea this was where he was supposed to see through him, but he’d meant what he’d said. He never understood the man at all. He saw Charlie in his mind again, out on that sailboat in Connecticut, gently guiding the two of them through the water. Dick didn’t have much experience with sailboats. The president had once taken him out on his beloved Victura. Dick still had a picture of the two of them on it. It was framed and sitting beside… “Oh.”

Charlie pulled his foot gently out of Dick’s grasp and sat up. “What is it?”

“Damndest thing,” Dick said. “My type.”

Charlie waited, patient as ever.

“President Kennedy once took me out on his boat,” Dick said finally. “Sandra said I couldn’t stop talking about it after. I have a picture of us—the president and me—out on the water. When Sandra saw it she laughed. She said, ‘You’ve definitely got a type.’ I never knew what she meant.”

Charlie leaned forward. “Do you now?”

“I think I’m starting to, yeah.”

Dick looked down at his hands and realized they were shaking. It would be nice if just once Charlie would be the one to take action. But Charlie always made Dick come after him, after he’d closed off every possible escape for the both of them. There was no retreating with Charlie. You could only go forward—right off the cliff. Dick felt like he was falling off a cliff just then. And Charlie was leaning forward to catch him.

Kissing Charlie Van Doren was possibly the stupidest thing Dick had ever done—and the best, he decided, as Charlie’s arms slid around his waist and pulled him closer.

It was good not to think. Good to stop trying to understand Charlie and just feel Charlie’s lips against his own, hot and eager and grateful, as if Charlie had been waiting for this for a long time. Dick’s hands felt blunt and clumsy on Charlie’s face, but Charlie didn’t seem to mind. He strained forward in the chair. Dick heard the creak of wood and leather. Then Charlie surged up like a wave and Dick tumbled back on the bed with Charlie pressing him down and tugging at his tie.

Dick tried to concentrate on nothing else besides these details: the feel of Charlie’s skin beneath his smooth cotton shirt, Charlie’s belt buckle digging into his hip, Charlie’s knee pushing his thighs apart. Charlie’s tongue curling slowly in and out of his mouth.

But Dick’s mind wouldn’t stay quiet for long and soon questions were exploding in his brain like a pan full of Jiffy Pop. What exactly was he going to tell Sandra about this encounter? What Shakespeare play had Charlie quoted at dinner? How long had he wanted this? When did Charlie first know about the fix? Had Charlie done this before? Would Dick do this again? Had Charlie’s Auntie Rita really slept with Wendell Wilkie?

His distraction must have showed, because Charlie lifted his head. “What is it?”

Dick blinked up at him. “I don’t know…”

Charlie searched his face, anxious, and Dick could see this all ending right now if he said the wrong thing.

“You don’t know what?” said Charlie.

“I don’t…” Now his mind was a blank. But he had to say something, or Charlie would surely climb off him and that would be the worst defeat of all.

You had a million questions in your head a second ago, Dick, he told himself. Pick one.

“What was his name?” he finally murmured. “The teacher?” Charlie frowned. Dick swallowed. “Mehmed II’s favorite tutor? What was his name?”

Charlie looked briefly incredulous, but only briefly. Dick felt a rumble of laughter against his chest. Charlie pushed his hips up gently as he bent his lips to Dick’s ear and whispered, “Molla Gürani.”

Other answers could wait.

When Dick got up early the next morning Charlie mumbled an offer to get room service, but Dick had an early meeting with McCarthy’s people. He was going to turn down an offer to work for his campaign. The last thing Dick needed was another lost cause. Were there any other kinds of causes in the world anymore? Any battles worth fighting? Did anybody get saved? Last night it had seemed so—Charlie had that effect—but the sun was up now and the world still wasn’t fixed.

Charlie went back to sleep as Dick pulled on his clothes—his necktie had somehow fetched up on the frame of a large painting of Monticello. Lying there, sprawled across the pillows, one bare foot poking out of the sheets, Charlie looked almost innocent—the last word Dick ought to associate with Charlie Van Doren by now, especially after last night. Those old protective feelings rose up in Dick again, but there was nothing Charlie needed to be protected from now. That chance was long past.

He took his signed copy of The Idea of Progress, and Charlie’s last piece of salt water taffy. He’d just turned the lock on the hotel room door when Charlie spoke.

“You saved me, you know.”

Dick turned back to the room. “What?”

“You saved me,” Charlie repeated. “You still don’t seem to get it. You think you destroyed me. That you failed to protect me from the wolves or the lions or my own guilty impulses. That’s not actually what happened.” He rolled over onto his stomach, leaned up on his elbows, and looked into Dick’s face. “You saved me.”

Dick hovered in the doorway, not sure what to say.

“I’m just one man,” Charlie said. “You didn’t save the world. But it’s something, Dick. It matters.”

Outside, an early rain had left M Street glistening. The new Life Magazine had a picture of Bobby on the cover, running down a beach with his dog. Maybe Dick would take the family out to the ocean this summer. He had gotten some of his best ideas at the beach. Away from the unimaginative streets of Washington he might finally be able to organize his thoughts on the war, the American condition, the state of modern theater. He could figure out what he wanted to say to the world, what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

“Beautiful day,” the man at the newsstand said.

Dick looked doubtfully up at the overcast sky.

“That’ll burn off in an hour,” the man said. “I’ve seen it before. That sky will be gorgeous blue in no time. It’s a beautiful day. Just trust me. I know.”

Dick looked up again. Rays of sun, pink and gold, were already piercing through the clouds. The rain had rinsed the air clean. It smelled like a fresh start.

“It could be,” Dick said, tucking the magazine under his arm. “Maybe it could be.”