A few days before his first death, George Washington allowed himself one last mistake. A whiskey still had broken at the far end of his property, compelling him to set forth before dawn in snow and sleet to oversee its repair. The storm grew stronger the farther he ventured, but he paid it little mind. He shooed away a boy dispatched by Martha bearing a heavier cloak and he failed to change from his wet field clothes on his return. He had not wished to keep his luncheon guests from their repast even if the boiled beef and peach preserves burned his throat as he washed them back with three tall glasses of claret.
That he had fatally cut short that retreat from public life he had so long desired became obvious the more the doctors fumbled. They bled him a dozen times but there was little response from his inflamed throat. But he felt no bitterness. He considered himself a man with a debt of time to the Creator. When reflecting back on the darkest days of the Revolution he had often said that he and his comrades had fought “with halters about their necks.” He had been plagued with a vision of himself, his general’s coat stripped down to his waist, a rough noose slipped over his head. The sting, not of losing his life, but of exiting this world dishonorably — that was what he feared most. He could very well have ended that way.
But now, on December fourteen, the year of Our Lord seventeen hundred and ninety-nine, he sensed his real and noble end. His chest rose perceptibly less with each breath. At the last moment he placed his left hand over his right wrist and felt his pulse slip away. A whorl opened at the foot of his bed drawing him out into the benign Light of Eternity. It was good and it was right.
Which was why what was to follow was so disquieting.
Tonnelly paced the corridor outside the ICU that had been installed in the Mt. Vernon parlor room and realized that until now he had never once visited Washington’s home. Two things struck the visitor. First the expansiveness of the grounds, the clearly expressed love of open spaces that drew the eye toward long, pre-framed vistas; second the relatively diminutive size of the house itself. Which was odd given its owner. Washington was not a small man. If they ever got him upright he would tower over Tonnelly. Cardiology had filed their report — his heart though 67 years old was strong and vital. Had Washington been born in the 20th century he would have lived to be one of those centenarians who hoofed it to work and kept a weekend tennis date. But Gerontology had confirmed that this was not to be Washington’s fate in the modern era. The malaria he’d contracted in his youth was still with him and the associated infections over a lifetime of stress had perforated him throughout.
“Can we get eight years out of him?” Tonnelly had asked.
“If he is completely free from stress, possibly,” they’d said.
“What about four intensely stressful ones?”
“You can have two of those.”
Two. Two would be enough.
“Mr. Tonnelly,” the nurse from Transition broke in. “We’re seeing something on the scans.”
“He’s there. But we’re not sure if it’s all of him.”
“I’ll come right away.”
The approaching light had beckoned to Washington so invitingly and so inevitably. He could feel himself stepping through without stepping. There was no return from this. Congress would not call him back to horse as they had during his second term to do battle with that mob of drunks in the Pennsylvania hills. This was true rest at last.
And yet it was not. Midway through what he perceived as the welcome disintegration of his physical form, he felt the fibers that had constituted his mortal self, reweaving. The light which had bathed him so completely receded like the waters of the Potomac after the passing of a high tide. And like that ebbing he’d witnessed so many times it left a fetid muck to contemplate. His muck. Bestial. The thumb still held to his wrist felt his pulse quicken, rushing ahead at first but then slowly leveling out to the 55 beats per minute that was its salubrious norm.
The darkness which had seemed so warm and welcoming now felt close and humid and he was all at once desperate to flee it. He came to perceive a modest kinetic ability. With one of the greatest efforts he had ever expended, an effort that brought to mind the myth of his strapping father, Augustine, singlehandedly lifting the axle of a broken wagon, he lifted, lifted as if pressing a thousand stone upward. This great effort was General George Washington opening his eyes and taking in the world anew.
The decision to pursue a third term had been reached midway through the Tyrant’s pursuit of his first. It could be said that the pursuit of any term at all had been motivated by his desire to do away with terms altogether. The Tyrant did not abide limits. His first nanny’s “rule” about “no seconds” at meal times for example. Oh, excuse me, he would have seconds. And his nanny would not. She was gone within the month.
And so during his first term it occurred to him that those who opposed him had been right to question the election results. They had sensed something within him that even he had not fully realized. The idea of terms would be abolished. The pair of old men and witless younger idiots who had challenged him in his first reelection bid would be no match for an another go around. All the levers of a system that the unique privilege of incumbency blessed — he would use them all and accede to a higher level. The highest! A level beyond any previous president save one. And that one, lost to history — a history whose terms he could now dictate — he could make fade away as well. Indeed, it was that earlier president’s famous example that had established the precedent of a limit of two.
The Tyrant would break that limit. To even acknowledge it would be to open a subject which he had long ago banished from his mind — the limit of his own life. This, too, he found to be a matter worth questioning. Wasn’t that also up for debate? The National Institutes of Health, the CDC, the NSF, they were basically his. Should they not be repurposed to meet his needs? Weren’t his interests in some way also common interests? Who in America did not want to solve colorectal cancer, or to banish, say, arterial plaque, to the dustbin of history? His body would be the first to receive the most advanced treatments and this would be to the benefit of all Americans. This was something Americans would learn. Just as they had learned the value of the way he named things. Once they had mocked his habit of affixing his name to so many buildings and institutions. But what everyone came to understand was that when he named something he had done a service. “I have identified this (park, building, highway, emergency bailout check) as something I want. And because I want it, it must be good. And because I myself am good — the best, really — this thing I wanted and have claimed and have named for myself has also become good.” Actually, it was a helpful short cut he was providing to the public — a service that enabled people to discern the excellent from the just so-so.
Tonnelly and Eleanor Van der Kamp walked down the long corridor that led to the provisional ICU.
“How do we address him?” Van der Kamp asked, “Is it ‘General Washington’? ‘Your Excellency?’ I’ve heard he preferred ‘General’.”
“You should call him Mr. President. That’s the standard now and that’s the standard we want him to accept. It’s important that he feel committed to this time. He needs to understand that the past is the past. And that his country needs him. Again. Now.”
“I’d read that he was tired of his country’s needs. That he was happy to leave public life.”
“That’s true,” Tonnelly affirmed, “But it’s also true that he believed in duty. It’s our job to let him know, unfortunately, that his decision to step down was premature. He needs to feel as if his work remains incomplete. No one succeeds in politics when it’s practiced half-heartedly.”
“In my experience,” Van der Kamp said, “half-heartedness is its own condition. It can be as hard to shake as political ambition.”
“That’s a point you could have made when we started all this.”
“I only mean that, well, that any second thoughts on his part could affect the . . .optics. If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last eight years it’s that seeing is more powerful than believing.”
“Which is why he needs to feel comfortable in this time. His discomfort will read as unbelievable to others.”
“Well, let’s get to it, then.”
Washington was alert but lost in thought when Tonnelly and Van der Kamp slipped into the ICU. An oxygen tube hissed underneath his nose obscuring the famous profile, but he was undoubtedly Him. Washington took note of the pair and from long experience recognized them for what they were: political people, learned in the grooming of leadership but with no inner character to lead. These sorts of people exhausted Washington. They were exactly the kinds of people he had sought to leave behind when he’d retired to Mount Vernon. And yet here they were again. With a lift of his chin and a narrowing of his eyes, he efficiently communicated to them where they should sit and the degree of deference they should afford him.
“If I am to understand matters, correctly,” Washington began, “I find myself situated not within the boundaries of my native chronology.”
His voice struck both Tonnelly and Van der Kamp as something both immediate and ancient. They were the only living people to hear what Washington actually sounded like. His voice was surprisingly high and reedy. His accent lightly British, reminding Van der Kamp of the way people sounded in Cornwall during a vacation she’d taken with her ex-husband. But it was his presence that resonated more than his voice — a natural reticence that left the listener desperate for more words.
“I think,” Tonnelly began, “you have grasped the situation accordingly.”
“And furthermore,” Washington continued, “I owe my presence here to a great danger that has befallen the Republic. And finally, in matters that you shall make clear presently, it has been concluded that in my person is seen an honorable exit from this present danger.”
“Well said, Your Excellency,” Tonnelly heard himself declare.
Toadies, all of them, thought Washington. Past, present, and future.
“And what,” Washington asked now siting up in his bed and realizing that without his powder and the dress he’d so carefully curated in his former life that his appearance to his interlocutors must be that of a man quite old, “what is the nature of the present threat that now endangers these lands? Has a Tyrant arisen?”
“He has, Your Excellency.”
“As we prefigured,” Washington noted to the distance. “Have none of the brakes I and my contemporaries fashioned been of service?”
“They were momentarily useful but. . . “
“As I had warned.”
“Of course. But I suppose that opinion has been suppressed.”
“No matter,” Washington concluded. “Whatever process you have employed to transport my person hither has fatigued me. I suspect I shall require a period of convalescence before I can prove myself of a value commensurate with your labors. Therefore, I should like to engender that convalescence with good and honest labor. I ask only that you provide your poor servant with the necessary instruments to further your cause.”
“Tell us how we can be of help.”
“I should like to know your Tyrant. Both how he himself perceives his own abilities and how others of his society thusly consider them. I should also require some summation of the years between these present times and those that lately were heavily upon my mind at Mount Vernon. These things I require to serve you further.”
“We’ll get you everything you need. And we’ll leave you now. But to your first request, why don’t you begin with this — this is how he imagines himself.” Here Tonnelly took a book from his satchel and lay it on Washington’s hospital tray.
“The Art of the Deal,” Washington pronounced slowly with a trace, Tonnelly thought, of positive appraisal. “Coarse. But well titled, nevertheless.”
A Third Term is being serialized in the week preceding the 2020 presidential election. All available chapters are linked below