Thursday, May 1, 2014

WIP: 'The Dragonslayer'

1.
June 21, 1978, Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC

     “Mr. Chairman; distinguished members of the committee, I am honored to have the opportunity to appear before you today.” As David Morgan leaned forward, his hands, fingers interlaced, resting in front of him on the dark blue cloth covering the long table at which he sat. His throat felt dry, and he was afraid his voice would crack, but he didn’t dare pour water from the crystal pitcher into the tumbler at his left hand, fearing he might spill it and look like a bumbling fool. “I am also honored to have been nominated by the President to be the United States Ambassador to the Republic of Naganda, and if confirmed, I will do my utmost to carry out our nation’s policy, and protect its interests there.”
     Morgan paused, looking up at the four men sitting behind the long, curved desk. Two Democrats and two Republicans – members of the African Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, they held his fate in their hands. Sitting here in the fourth floor hearing room of the Senate Dirksen Office Building, just northeast of the Capitol, he could not help but be awed by his surroundings. The medium brown wood paneled walls and high ceilings; the darker brown – a mahogany – of the dais behind which the committee members sat, elevated so that they could look down upon those called to appear before them; the stern, uncompromising looks on the faces of the six white men who were sitting in judgment on him; it all combined to give him a hollow feeling in his gut.
     Discretely, he removed a handkerchief from inside his dark blue suit jacket, and wiped at his dark brown brow. He took a deep breath, looked down at the neatly typed notes, and resumed.
     “The nation of Naganda is currently at a crossroads,” he said. “One of West Africa’s poorest nations, it has recently suffered a coup d’√©tat, with former army captain Musa Gweru overthrowing the former ruler, Joshua Saidu. While Saidu was a despotic, often violent, ruler, we expressed our concern at his extra-legal, unconstitutional removal from power. The new leadership has committed to improving Naganda’s human rights record, restoring democratic government to the country, and complying with international norms of behavior and rule of law. As American Ambassador, if I am confirmed, I will continue to monitor events, and as appropriate, recommend actions to assist Naganda and its people return to the fold of civilized nations.” He was aware that he shouldn’t talk too long – just make a brief opening statement and shut his mouth. The rule of thumb he’d been given at State over in Foggy Bottom during the weeks of preparation for his hearing was, talk 25% of the time, listen 75%. They’re not there to hear your views, but to express their own. “Thank you again for the opportunity to appear before you. I will now be pleased to answer any questions you might have.”
     He took a deep breath and sat back in his chair. He could feel the people behind him, sitting on stiff backed, but not too uncomfortable chairs. Staff of the State Department’s Africa Bureau, mostly the West African office and the Naganda country directorate. They’d worked with him for weeks, cramming his head with names, dates, events relating to the country of Naganda, a poor, landlocked former British colony in central West Africa. In the front row of spectators seats, between State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Symington and Naganda Country Director Ed Harris sat the only three people he considered friends. Lee Kennedy, a senior agent in the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), his sixteen-year-old daughter, Rachel, and Alison Chambers, an analyst in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), were there for moral support. Morgan had met Kennedy and Chambers three years earlier when he was serving as deputy chief of mission at the American embassy in Dagastan, and they’d become friends. He’d met Kennedy’s daughter, Rachel, when he was called back to Washington to after being nominated to be ambassador to Naganda. Kennedy and Chambers, he’d learned, had, after over two years of an on-again, off-again relationship, recently married. The three of them made a picture-postcard family group. The two women – and Morgan had quickly learned that Rachel, like her father, was mature for her age, and a very serious person – had a close and intimate relationship, unlike many step-parent, step-child lash ups. Even without looking back over his shoulder, he knew that they were smiling at him, while the rest of the group would be looking anxious, worried that he’d flub his responses to questions despite the stack of index cards with talking points they’d prepared for him. Truth be told, he worried about that himself.
     It wasn’t lost on Morgan that the room, though dealing with the business of a black African country, was overwhelmingly white. Except for himself, and two junior desk officers, neither of whom dealt with Naganda, everyone in Dirksen’s Room 419 was white, including the two men who sat to either side of him. On his right, Senator Jonathan Appleby, a democrat from North Dakota, had insisted on appearing in his support, even though Morgan wasn’t from his state. The man had been a strong supporter from the beginning, and was in all likelihood the reason he’d been nominated in the first place, despite some objection from a few in the State Department bureaucracy who resented his independent streak. Senator Leland Kirk, the junior senator from Maryland, Morgan’s home state, sat on his left. Never very interested in politics, Morgan had never met the man before, but he seemed an affable sort, and had quickly agreed to present him to the committee. Both had extolled his abilities and virtues, with Appleby, as the senior legislator in time served, going first – ensuring the committee that the country couldn’t have chosen a better representative than David Morgan, a decorated military veteran and an accomplished diplomat who had served his nation in some most challenging assignments.
     Now that he’d finished his short presentation, it was time for the main event. Beginning with the committee chairman, each of the six members of the committee would make a speech, highlighting the contributions each had made to American foreign policy, supporting or taking potshots at the administration, depending upon their own political party, and then asking him one or two questions. He’d been assured that it was all a pro forma exercise, and because the Senate would soon be going into the July 4th recess, his confirmation would come speedily.
     The committee chairman, a gaunt man with stooped shoulders and flowing white hair, was the junior senator from Connecticut. A democrat, he’d been the ranking member until the democratic takeover of the Senate. He cleared his throat and looked down at Morgan, his thin lips turning up in a half smile.
     “The committee welcomes you, Mr. Morgan,” he said in a deep, resonant voice that was out of character with his appearance. “We also welcome the presence of our two colleagues, the gentlemen from North Dakota and Maryland.”  Appleby and Clerk nodded and mumbled their thanks at being allowed to be present. “Now, Mr. Morgan, I want to thank you for your many years of service to your country, especially your service in the military.” He went on for several minutes about the importance of service and his pride in his own service as a young lieutenant during World War II. After mentioning the emphasis the administration placed on human rights, he cleared his throat again. “To that end, Mr. Morgan, can you tell me what your actions will be in Naganda to improve that country’s human rights performance?”
     It wasn’t exactly a softball question, but he’d been well prepared and anticipated that at least one member of the committee would ask it. Among the many issues of his campaign, the president, a democrat and former state governor, had placed respect for universal human rights as enshrined in the United Nations Charter high on the list. American diplomats around the world had now to include this topic in the list of issues they took up with the governments to which they were accredited. Morgan wasn’t sure what his opinion was on it – considering the dismal human rights records of most of the world’s countries, including sometimes his own – but, he gave the man credit for having the compassion and sheer gall to push such a new and strange agenda in Washington, a town that lived on precedent. This emphasis was unprecedented.
     He took his time answering. He’d learned during his time in the military that it was never a good idea to respond too quickly to a question.
     “Mr. Chairman,” he said finally. “I will make it my main issue to engage the government of Naganda at every opportunity on this important issue, while at the same time not forgetting my most important mission – the protection of American citizens and their interests.”
     The chairman smiled. Morgan felt relieved. He’d given the answer that was expected. In short, he’d said nothing, but it had sounded profound.
     The chairman asked one or two more perfunctory questions, and then turned the floor over to the ranking member of the committee, a dour looking republican from California with a bad comb over vainly attempting to cover the broad bald spot on his florid skull. He also went on at length about his contributions to America’s security, and his support of robust diplomacy, although he didn’t mention any former military service. He then halfheartedly praised the president and his administration for the emphasis placed on support for American business abroad. “Tell me, Mr. Morgan, if confirmed as ambassador to Naganda, what will you do to improve the business climate there for American companies?”
     This was not a question that Morgan had anticipated, nor had he been really prepared for it. Oh, he’d been briefed on Naganda’s economy – what there was of it. Basically agricultural, with eighty percent of the population living in rural areas, the country grew cotton, maize, tapioca, and peanuts primarily. There was gold, titanium, and alluvial diamonds as well. A jointly-owned British-American firm controlled the titanium mining, and a few rogue Americans occasionally participated in the largely unregulated diamond market, but other than that, there were no significant American commercial interests in Naganda.
     Morgan reasoned, though, that he would have to give the senator a satisfactory answer to his question. He’d always had the ability to think on his feet, although it had gotten him into trouble on more than one occasion. But, he’d been chosen to be ambassador, a job that surely required the ability to handle unexpected situations.
     “Senator,” he said. “I take the duty to support American industry seriously, and I assure you that, if confirmed, that will be a high priority for me in Naganda.”
     Again, a profound sounding answer completely devoid of substance. He heard quiet murmurs of approval from behind him. The senator from California smiled thinly and yielded to the gentleman sitting on the chairman’s right, a democrat from New York. Younger looking than any of the others on the panel, he continuously ran his hand through his thick brown hair, smiling at nothing in particular.
     “Mr. Morgan,” he said. “What are your views on the chances for democratic reform in Naganda?”
     About as much chance as a snowball rolling through hell and not losing weight, Morgan thought. Of course, he would never say that aloud – not here. “Senator, that is difficult to assess. If I am confirmed, however, I will continue my predecessor’s efforts to help the Nagandan government move to greater transparency and a more representative government.”
     His predecessor had, in fact, done little beyond occasionally mentioning to the foreign minister when they met that Washington would like to see democratic elections in Naganda. The foreign minister would reply that Nagandans would like to see democratic elections in Naganda, and that would end their conversation. He had no doubt that his efforts would be similar. His answer, though, seemed to satisfy the senator, who yielded to the last member of the committee, a firebrand republican from Georgia who, despite being on the foreign relations committee, felt the United States gave too much money to foreigners, gave in too much to foreign interests, and that it should tend more to its own business ‘back home.’
     Morgan had been warned about him, and the fact that he would be likely to ask an unanticipated question; a question designed to throw him off guard or to embarrass the administration, or both. He could feel a knot in his stomach as he looked up at the man’s vulpine features. The beady blue eyes, thin lips, and narrow nose, all set in a narrow-faced head that, with his receding hairline, all combined to add to his menacing look.
     Unlike the other three, he didn’t bother making a speech about his great achievements, nor did he mention the administration. He steepled his fingers and rested his pointed chin on them, glaring down at Morgan.
     “Mr. Morgan, the former ruler of Naganda, Joshua Saidu, was little more than a tin pot dictator, bereft of a scintilla of intelligence or compassion for his people,” he said in a voice dripping with scorn. “According to the intelligence and news reports I’ve seen, he was more interested in dallying with underage girls than leading his country.” He stopped and took a sip from the glass at his elbow. “But, having said all that – he was nonetheless recognized as the legitimate head of state, recognized by us and other governments. Now, we have this upstart army captain ousting him from power and taking over in what can only be described as an extralegal usurpation of power. Can you explain to me why we are granting recognition to this illegal leader and his cabal? Doesn’t this fly in the face of our calls for more democracy on the African continent?”
     Morgan felt his cheeks flame. He was glad that his dark complexion hid what was a blush of anger. He was too close to his goal to screw it up by engaging in an argument with a member of the committee that could sink his career by voting against his confirmation. It galled him that he, in fact, partially agreed with the man. By recognizing the coup in Naganda, the U.S. had undercut its own message about the need to foster democracy in Africa. He knew that he was treading on dangerous ground, and no matter what he said he was likely to offend powerful interests, either in the senate or the administration.
     He concentrated on his briefing cards, shuffling them as if looking for the answer to the senator’s question, but knowing that nothing in the notes he’d been given addressed this potentially explosive issue. Finally, after allowing his breathing to ease, he looked up, straight into the senator’s eyes.
     “You make a valid point, senator,” he said. “I can only say that the decision to recognize Captain Gweru’s takeover was made after careful consideration at the highest levels of government. If we’re to encourage more transparency and accountability in Africa at large, and Naganda specifically, we have little choice but to work with what exists on the ground. It is my hope that, if confirmed, I will be able to exert some influence on the current government of Naganda to move as rapidly as possible to a more representative form of government.”
     He let his breath out. He hadn’t heard any gasps of surprise from behind him, so he was fairly confident that he hadn’t inadvertently said anything that would paint the administration or the State Department into a corner. Whether or not the senator bought his response was another matter entirely. The man’s glare changed into a leering smile. That, thought Morgan, couldn’t be good.
     “So,” the senator said after a pregnant pause. “You plan to encourage the junta to relinquish power? That might take a powerful lot of arm twisting, Mr. Morgan – are you sure you’re up to it?”
     Morgan didn’t need talking points to respond to that question. It was directed squarely at his ability to get the job done. He fixed the senator with a cold gaze.
     “Senator, I am capable of twisting arms when necessary,” he said. “But, in order to twist a man’s arm I must first take his hand.”
     The senator from Georgia’s eyes went round with surprise. “Ah ha,” Morgan thought. “Bet you weren’t expecting that answer.” He continued to lock gazes with the man. It was important, he knew, not to look as if you were cowed – impressed, and respectful, but not fearful. He’d learned that during his years in the army, especially his time in Special Forces in Vietnam during some of the most ferocious fighting of that war. Finally, the senator broke the gaze, and smiled.
     “Well said, Mr. Morgan. Well said. You know, I think you just might be the man for this job. Mr. Chairman, I relinquish the rest of my time.”
     Morgan let out a slow sigh of relief. While he wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, he had the feeling that he’d just passed some crucial test. He turned his gaze to the chairman, who was smiling down at him.
     “Thank you for appearing before us today, Mr. Morgan,” he said. “On behalf of the committee I also want to thank you for your candid answers to our questions. I wish you the best of luck in your future . . . endeavors. Ladies and gentlemen, this hearing is now closed, and thank you all for coming.”
     Jonathan Appleby leaned in close to Morgan and in a voice that was barely above a whisper, said, “Good work, David. You showed the bastards what you’re made of. I know you’re unfamiliar with the workings of this place, but I can tell you that your confirmation is a shoe-in. Now, get up there and shake hands with the committee, and then get out of here and get yourself a stiff drink and some rest – you earned it.”
     Morgan shook hands with Appleby and Clerk, thanking them for coming, and then rose and walked up to the curved dais to shake hands with the members of the committee, starting with the chairman and ranking member, and then with the other two. The smiles seemed genuine and the handshakes were firm – each of them congratulating him and thanking him for his service. In a few short minutes the atmosphere in the room, so tense until now, had warmed to a comfortable level.
     After greeting the committee, Morgan turned to the audience, heading straight for Alison, Lee, and Rachel. Lee shook his hand and clapped him on the shoulder.
     “You aced it, David,” he said. “No doubt about that.”
     Alison and Rachel hugged him.
     “It was like an inquisition,” Alison whispered into his ear. “But, you were so calm and cool.”
     “Cool as a cucumber,” Rachel quipped.
     Symington pushed between Alison and Rachel, holding out his hand. “I must agree,” he said. “You did a great job. Now, you need to go unwind. We’ll see you in the office tomorrow morning.”

     Morgan was still in a semi-daze. It had, he knew, all been theater, with the members of the committee reading their lines – from a script that hadn’t been shared with him – and him responding mostly adlib. He thanked everyone for coming and started for the door. A stiff drink and a nap was the only thing he wanted. It hadn’t been all that different from the times he’d come back from an extended patrol in Cambodia during the war. He’d maintained his cool, calm demeanor throughout the operation, much as he’d done while on a combat patrol. Now that it was over, he was on the verge of collapse, and for that, he needed to be alone.