FEBRUARY 23, 2005 U.S. Ambassador’s Residence; Brussels, Belgium
“No, sir, you go ahead,” said Condi Rice. “I insist.”
The basement exercise room contained only one elliptical, the preferred machine of both the president and his secretary of state. “I’ll take this,” Condi said, getting on the stationary bike.
Bush gave her a wink and a suit-yourself shrug. Where he’d really like to be was out in the Maryland woods on his own mountain bike, leaving the Secret Service in the dust. But the elliptical would do. He was feeling pretty good, almost back to his precampaign weight; for the last couple of weeks Laura had been telling him to dial back the workouts, which had started seeming a little fanatical to her, like his devotion to being on time.
Maybe she was right, but if truth be told, however un-Christian it might be, he couldn’t stand being around the unfit. Unless they were lost in political conversation, Rove repelled him, and he couldn’t say he’d been surprised when Gerson, that doughy version of Dilton Doiley from the Archie comics, had had his heart attack a week before Christmas. He wished Mike the best, but wouldn’t mind having him, silver tongue and all, stepping back a bit. For a ghostwriter he was awfully, what would you call it, corporeal
: never missed a chance to talk to the press about what a deep and tortured wordsmith he was.
“You think we’re overstaying our welcome here?” the president asked Condi. “Three nights seems like a lot.”
“Not at all,” she assured him, while noticing that his arm and leg movements on the elliptical appeared to cancel each other out—as if drawing X’s on the air. “You’re saving the taxpayers a big hotel bill!”
Bush cocked his head into the nod-smirk combination that said “I suppose.” Tom Korologos, the ambassador upstairs, was a fine guy who went way back with Dad; a blunt, no-b.s. fixer and smoother who’d made a fortune lobbying but had gotten off his seventy-year-old ass to spend four months working under Bremer in Iraq at the start of the occupation. That’s
what had earned him his perch here, not all the years shuffling between K Street and the White House and the Hill.
“Okay,” he said at last, agreeing with Condi on the matter of hospitality. “But some of our staff guys are eating Mormon the Greek out of house and home.” Korologos, improbably enough, had started life in Utah.
Condi put the pedals of her bike through another ten rotations before asking, “So now that three days have passed, how do you think ‘Old Europe’ is treating you?”
This was a crack against Rumsfeld, who was never afraid to point out that within the “coalition of the willing,” the newer NATO countries, the ones from Eastern Europe, had been a lot more
willing than the slack, half-socialist originators of the Western alliance. Blair had had to drag the Brits to Baghdad kicking and screaming. And the rest, of course, were even worse. But Rumsfeld’s comments made things harder; Bush had had to sit there yesterday and smile at the EU representative Don had pronounced irrelevant.
“Well, I enjoyed my breakfast with Tony,” the president told Condi, and it was true. Unlikely as it might be, he was sure Blair preferred him to Clinton, even if those two had all that “third way” stuff in common.
“You know, sir,” explained Condi, going into her schoolmarm mode, “there’s one way in which the U.K. can be considered new
Europe instead of old. They didn’t join the EU with the first ‘Inner Six’ members; some years passed before they came in.”
He tried to look appreciative above the crablike grindings of the elliptical. “Well, it was a lot more fun having breakfast with Tony than having dinner with Pepé Le Pew.” He’d had to host Chirac right here, upstairs, on Monday night, a nauseating couple of hours. They’d pretended to be friends, behaving as if the Axis of Weasel days were actually behind them. He’d found himself wishing he were across a table from Berlusconi, that crude and crazy Italian version of Claytie Williams. “Still, I did my best to behave. I hope you noticed I called the potatoes ‘French fries’ and not ‘freedom’ ones. Even though they looked like hash browns to me.”
Condi smiled, gratefully, over this bit of conciliation. “Frites
,” she said. “Or aiguillettes
“What the French call French fries.”
“Well, let ’em eat aiguillettes. It was pretty damned diplomatic of me, I thought.”
Over on the bike, Condi was finally breathing through her mouth instead of her nose. “I am
glad you told Chirac no,” she said, puffing just a little, “when he proposed that Israeli-Palestinian conference.”
no is more like it. That’s one mess I leave to you
. I once told Clinton, ‘You taught yourself the name of every damned street in Jerusalem. Fat lot of good it did you—or anybody over there.’ ”
He took the elliptical up two notches, and Condi added another full mph to the stationary bike.
“The worst is yet to come,” he told her, getting back to the present trip.
“You mean Schröder?”
“Gerhard the Godawful.” The German chancellor had gotten himself elected to a second term more or less by running against him
. The two of them had a meeting and, even worse, a presser scheduled for this afternoon, all of it down in Mainz, where Dad and Kohl had wowed the locals back in ’89. “I’d rather spend an hour with Qadaffi. Or thirty minutes with Gore.”
As always, he was pleased when he got a laugh—a matter of the deepest satisfaction to him ever since he’d taken it upon himself, at the age of seven, to cheer up Mother, despairing over the death of his little sister in that hotbox of a house in Midland.
“As it is,” he now added, “my time with Gerhard will break Dick’s speed record in Afghanistan.” Back in December, having gone to Kabul for Karzai’s inauguration, Cheney had remained on the ground for less than seven hours.
After a few more scuttlings on the elliptical, he noticed that Condi wasn’t saying anything. When it came to Dick, she tended to tread even more cautiously than she did with Rumsfeld.
“What Schröder will hit you hardest on is Vienna,” she finally said. The Germans and most of the rest of the Europeans wanted the U.S. to join their talks with the Iranians, as if that were all it would take to get the mullahs to stop a nuclear-weapons program whose existence they didn’t even admit.
“Yeah, well, I’ll tell Gerhard I’ll pencil Vienna in for right after that Israeli-Palestinian conference. Which should be about the twelfth of never.” He shot Condi a smile. “You old enough to remember that one?”
“Oh, we listened to a lot
of Johnny Mathis in Birmingham, sir. I guarantee you it came over the radio when I was strapped in my car seat.”
The two of them went at a fast, even pace for a while, until he signaled he was ready for a cool-down. He loved the way this machine was saving his knees.
“I’ll get through today, but I wish we were flying back to Fargo instead of Frankfurt.” He’d been enjoying all the day trips for the Social Security proposal, the town halls and pep rallies from Omaha to Tampa. For half a day at a time he could trick himself into thinking he was having the sort of domestic-focused presidency he once expected to have.
“How’s that going?” asked Condi.
He shrugged. So far there’d been mostly bad news. He explained to her how he’d pissed off Max Baucus, who’d been crucial to tax reform, by barging into Montana without letting the senator know he was descending on his home state. It had been a staff fuckup, but so far there’d been no sign of forgiveness. He could hear a faraway sound creeping into his voice as he talked about it all to Condi. “You know, I’ve been pushing Social Security reform since I ran against Hance.”
She nodded supportively, and he told himself this was no time to get into some all-Kraut funk over Mad Max and Grim Gerhard. He stopped the elliptical and mopped his face with the hand towel. All the white noise vanished from the basement when Condi stopped the stationary bike.
“You’re the one that got me into this
trip,” he teased. They both remembered the memo she’d sent, just after agreeing to take State, telling him that he needed to get serious about making up with the Europeans, no matter how childish they’d been.
“Yes, I was,” replied Condi, trying to imitate one of Laura’s it’s-good-for-you-and-you’ll-thank-me smiles.
“What’s that phrase you’ve been using?”
“ ‘Transformational diplomacy.’ But I’ve also been saying ‘freedom’ to the Europeans every chance I get.”
He had to resist saying “good girl,” though it wouldn’t be a catastrophe if the words slipped out. He liked being with Condi because she didn’t make him walk any feminist or racial minefield. He was sorry to be seeing less of her these days than when she’d been his NSA, but that was the price to pay for being rid of Powell, who had spent most of the first term looking annoyed, even pained
, trying to convince everybody he was doing them a favor just by being there.
“Tell me what you used to say back at the start?” he asked her. There was no need to explain that “the start” meant the beginning of Iraq, in ’03. “About the best way to handle the Euros?”
Condi lowered her eyes with a sort of faux bashfulness, as if embarrassed instead of delighted to be repeating a bit of mischief that had pleased him: “ ‘Punish France; ignore Germany; forgive Russia.’ ”
“Love it!” he replied, wiping his face again. “And look forward to China.”
There was no need to explain this, either. He mentioned the 2008 Olympics in Beijing as often as a high school teacher motivatingly invoked the coming senior class trip. As the administration’s top sports fans, he and Condi would revel in that farewell junket more than anyone else. In fact, he was almost alarmed by the intensity of his yearning for it. He’d enjoyed his new sense of legitimacy for about two weeks after last fall’s clear-cut reelection, before realizing how much he already wanted the whole thing to be over.
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