“Power politics is the diplomatic name for the law of the jungle”
Most people who come from a family of politicians get in the business to follow into their parents’ footsteps, but for Sara it had been the exact reverse.
Even at a young age, she could remember that burning pit of outrage in her stomach, discovering her father embodied everything she thought was wrong with the world. America needs stronger borders and fewer immigrants. Refugees are no more our burden than any other country’s. And we need to be tougher on criminals, show the scum of our land that we mean business. Am I in favor of the death penalty? Let me answer that by a quotation: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”
How many arguments had there been, when she was barely a teenager, “But dad, how can we deny access to these people when our military is bombing their countries?”
And his never-changing answer, “You’ll understand when you’re older.”
If anything, Sara’s promising career in politics had started only to prove him wrong on this. When she’d started out – first running for Mayor and then Governor, she’d been advised not to throw her father under the bus. “Americans love a big and loving family. You don’t have to stand for the same things your father does – just try to be respectful of his politics.”
To which Sara had answered with a defiant smile. “Maybe it’s time for a change, time we all start standing up against our forefathers and questioning their decisions. I won’t be what’s expected of politicians just to be elected – I’ll be elected because people want someone new, someone honest. Not the polished lies, the white-picket fence and the nice family. Not any of that. I’ll give them something that matters.”
Her advisor had sighed unashamedly. “Well, Sara, I’d love to tell you that’s a nice way to get elected – but really, it’s rather a nice way to get assassinated.”
Maybe that was true. Sara wasn’t blind to the risks. Really, she’d never expected she’d get so far as she was now, not because she didn’t believe in herself or what she was saying. But she was a single woman who wasn’t yet thirty, and single women – when they’re public figures – are basically anomalies. Probably, she’d thought people would be too busy speculating on her private life to take her seriously. Was she homosexual, was there something wrong with her that no man would marry her, was she a frigid woman? Oh, she’d heard them all, and had forced herself not to get used to it, not out of a masochistic streak but because she never wanted the fire in her veins to die out, to stop being at war against injustice.
She didn’t think the world was ready for what she had to offer. But there’d been enough success along the way to make her consider she may be wrong. A thrill of hope goaded her forward, the hope that she could make it, not only head of state but head of all states, all the way to the oval.
Her advisor never said anything about that. It was in the air, as she became more and more popular, as she was reelected Governor last year, and so young, people kept remarking. In the early years, the questions she was asked by the press and talk show hosts were generally oriented at her age or her gender, so that Sara had to ask her assistants to decline all interviews that didn’t deal strictly with her political views. Just last week, as she was sitting in the Ed Sullivan Theater in front of Stephen Colbert, after a ten-minute inflamed conversation about the President’s condescending attitude towards minorities, Colbert remarked his term was coming to an end in two years’ time and Why don’t you run for President in 2020? And Sara had heard herself answer, without giving thought to whether it was smart, “Maybe I will.”
Of course, she’d gotten half a dozen calls from her advisor, freaking out in his own particular way – that is, not by raising his voice or looking angry but smoldering, to the point you saw smoke when you heard him speak.
“Sara,” he said, “do you have any idea how slippery a slope you’re on? Do you think America’s ready? Do you think you’re ready?”
“Give me some credit, Paul. I’m not making politics into a jesting matter. But I’m curious, of myself and America, which are you less sure of?”
“You know I believe in you.”
That she did. Paul Kellerman was the only connection of her father which Sara had kept, the first person she’d actually rallied to her cause. He was one of her father’s youngest people when she was just a young adult, and he’d soon become a close friend.
Though she’d never really been able to tell whether he stood by her side because he believed she could change the world, or because he just thought she was the last politician in the country it made sense to stand by, she’d known from the first that his loyalty would not waver. Paul just wasn’t the wavering kind.
“Please,” he said, on the phone, that evening after she’d said goodbye to Stephen Colbert and waited for her cab to drive her to the airport. “Tell me if we’re doing this, we’re going to be smart. I’m not mad because you told America you’d run for President, Sara. You want to be President, I’ll make you President. I just wished you’d asked me, that I could think of how to make it happen –”
“I don’t need you to think for me, Paul.” She interrupted, not sharp but firm. “And just so it’s clear: I’m not going to preen myself into a candidate. I’m not going to take a husband or dress more threateningly, I’m not going to take pictures that’ll fashion me as a feminine icon wielding manly power. People are always going to ask me to smile more and talk about what I wear, it’ll snow in hell when I can stop them talking, so I won’t waste my efforts. You know what I will do? My job.”
She hung up without adding a word, leaving her friend to simmer with rage and impotence. He’d calm down and tomorrow they could have a serious talk.
As time passed, Sara was true to her word: doing her work, unperturbed by her announcement. There was still time – a lot of time – before she was due to start campaigning. When she’d become Governor, she’d refused to give up charity work and she didn’t see why shooting for the presidency would change that. Of course, by now, Sara was running a few programs herself, but that wasn’t the same job at all – throwing fundraising events, trying to offer rich people a good time and patting them on the back so they’d agree to disentangle from a tiny fraction of their fortune and feel better about themselves for the rest of the year. These were the only occasions when Sara was willing to wheedle and boot-lick, when she drank champagne and laughed politely with people who made the hairs in her neck bristle. The things you’d do for a good cause.
But now and then, she liked to go back to actual charity work, become just a volunteer among others for the space of a few hours. Feed the Homeless was her favorite, because she’d started going there when she was only fourteen, and she knew everyone there, basically thought of them as a second – what the hell – a first family.
She drove to the food bank, after having preciously saved a few hours on her Saturday. It was good seeing the team again, Brad, Benjamin, Charles – she’d always had a soft spot for Charles, who was already old when she first came here and whose elderliness now looked immortal. Early on, she’d learned he was the one who’d been here the longest, which didn’t surprise her. Something was inherently kind about him, how he spoke and smiled. When she came here, fourteen years old, he took to calling her ‘my little one’, and he sometimes still did, when the time was right.
“How are you doing, Sara?”
“Great. Busy. Tired. You know how it is.”
“I don’t, and I’ve no wish to.” She chuckled, and he continued. “It’s enough involvement just to follow your progress in the news – it’s about as far as I’ll go. You must forgive an old cynic like me.”
“Right,” she said, knew he was teasing. Because cynics often find regular time for charity work.
He didn’t remark on her announcement about running for President. It was nice, talking about other things.
“So,” she said, “what’s new here?” She asked as a matter of formality. The food bank was generally as unchanging as they come.
“Well,” it was Benjamin who answered, “we’ve got a newcomer.”
“Really? A regular?”
“Twenty hours in the past two weeks.”
Some volunteers came and went, but it was rare someone actually added themselves to their regular team. Though twenty hours in two weeks indicated some commitment, possibly it’d exhaust itself in no time.
“A very nice chap,” Charles said when she looked back at him. “He talks well, but he doesn’t talk much. Does the job without complaining, without asking many questions. Friendly enough.” He shrugged. “If he’s here to stay, I won’t be disappointed.”
Sara nodded. In truth, it felt a little strange, picturing a new face here – the team had been together for so long, it was like she’d forgotten it could change at all.
“Well,” she said, “if that’s the case I’ll see him around, one of these days.”
“You can see him now,” Charles answered. “He’s in the back, packing food orders. It’s been a while since you’ve been in the back, why don’t you come help. I’ll introduce you.”
It was a quiet afternoon, not many volunteers, so she knew the newcomer immediately. He stood out first because he was a head taller than everyone working. Thirty-something, with hair cropped very short, and when he looked up at her she saw his eyes were blue as robin’s eggs. Yes, you could tell from the beginning, that they were good eyes, would do a lot for him. Sara wished back a time when she felt she could trust people after just one look.
The thing was, when you’d been inside the circle of politics, you’d be looking even people you met outside of it a different way, with different eyes. You could get out of the jungle but not take the jungle out of you.
“Michael,” Charles said to the young man. “Meet one of our old-timers.”
There was that flash of recognition in his eyes that hinted he either watched TV or read the press frequently enough to know who she was. Suddenly, he looked awkward – you could tell he wasn’t used to it – looked like a student when no one’s warned him about an exam or a special guest.
Sara was glad Charles laughed before she could say something. With time, you learned to shove your own awkwardness down the back of your throat behind an immaculate smile, but she shared the newcomer’s feelings, all the same.
“Don’t stop working or anything, son. She’s not here to give a speech, there’re no cameras.”
“Please, Charles.” She hated when he made her sound like the team’s celebrity.
“She’s just here to help out. Like I said, Sara’s an old timer.”
He shoved her forwards and left them to it. After giving the young man a polite, confident-but-not-arrogant smile – the smile was essential, you could not mess it up – she stood beside him and started sorting food.
Though she was sure ninety percent of politicians didn’t have much of it, empathy was an important gift to have in this line of work. If anything, Sara’s was too sharp, overly developed and sensitive. Say anything you want about her, she could read a room better than most. Right now, she sensed as the young man tamed his surprise, leaving place to an odd numbness – it was more than just being shocked because you realized the people you see on television actually exist outside the screen.
He admired her. She could tell, in his very silence, he would say nothing that might sound too familiar or disrespectful. Probably, if she hadn’t spoken to him first, they’d have been eternal strangers to each other.
“So, you’ve been coming here for a long time?” An easy question, pretending Charles hadn’t told her.
When she did get him talking though, he sounded much at his ease. “No, just a few weeks. I did some volunteer work to the foodbank in Springfield. My brother and I just moved to Chicago.”
“Will we be seeing him around here?”
He chuckled, keeping his eyes focused on his work. “No, I don’t think so. My brother’s not –” How should he put this? “He’s not very good at helping people.”
There was an edge to his tone that suggested he didn’t think he was so good at helping them either.
They didn’t talk much, that afternoon. It was a quiet few hours of work – eventually he’d ask her where he should put a certain item, but nothing in the range of personal exchange.
She had to head out early, before they started serving dinner. Paul would be waiting for her at her office at six o’clock.
“You’re leaving?” Michael asked her.
“Unfortunately. I wish I could stay longer. You’re doing fine, you’ll be okay on your own.”
Michael was silent for a moment. The early awkwardness had evaporated and this was something different, stronger. “Can I ask you something?”
“Did you mean what you said the other night, that you’d run for President?”
Sara smiled. “I rarely say things I don’t mean, especially on television.”
He gave a quiet nod. He looked more serious than she’d expected. “Good. I mean, I’m happy you meant it. This country needs someone different. Someone like you. It’s been too long since anyone in power really wanted things to change.”
Amused, she lowered her eyes – with her smile and just the long curls of her lashes masking her gaze, he thought she looked extraordinarily different from what he’d seen of her in the press. It had never occurred to her to think she was beautiful, when he was too busy finding it strange that someone in this country would finally say sensible things.
“Well, why don’t you join the world of politics,” she retorted, half-joking. “Luck helps, I’ve got to be honest, and money helps more, but sometimes it’s just about wanting to make a difference.”
The smile he gave her was honest but grim. “I’d rather work from the shadows.”
She couldn’t blame him.
They said goodbye, having almost cleared out their initial awkwardness, and Sara drove to her office feeling oddly shaken. Sometimes, she thought she missed the shadows herself. Becoming a politician while standing against what most of them represented was a little like embracing martyrdom. Accepting that your life would be placed under the scrutiny of the whole world, having your every habit and thought dissected on a surgical table.
Seeing larger than yourself, being the change you wanted to see in the world.
That was all very well. That was the jungle.
And yet, hearing that near-stranger speak of the shadows, Sara thought – could hardly remember – how pleasant those must be, how peaceful.
Maybe she could actually make it to the presidency, so long as she could still visit the food bank, safeguard some fragment of privacy, the survival of her shadow-self.
Maybe Michael Scofield can be my shadow-friend, she thought despite her will.
Even as time would pass, she could never think of a righter thing to call him.