Smoke and Mirrors Part 2
By The Bondi Gargoyle
Disclaimers in Part One
"If you'd said it to Al Caldwell, I'd have fired you"
"I wouldn't have said it to Al Caldwell."
"We need Rory Cronin just as much."
"I know. I'll get to the bottom of this."
"Fine. Go, get it done. But I'm serious Josh I'm not walking away from this."
Josh returned to his office and found Toby waiting.
"CJ's checking with her staff and she'll be right in" Donna called from the outer office
"Still trying to find him."
"Try Mallory's," Toby suggested
"Mallory's?" Josh repeated
"Sam spent a lot of time with her when Leo first got sick" Donna filled in as she walked in with CJ.
"Okay, well try Mallory's"
"I did but I'll try it again"
Josh turned back to his colleagues "Anyone want to put a happy face on this?"
Toby and CJ looked at each other and then back at Josh with decidedly unhappy faces.
"Who else has this?"
"Apparently no-one," CJ began cautiously "But..."
" 'The Horseman' comes out on Thursday afternoon, but lets say no-one saw it 'til the weekend, the fact that it isn't in this morning's papers doesn't mean it's not going to be in the afternoon editions."
"Can you find out if they have it without giving it to them?"
"Tricky but doable."
"Then go forth, Claudia Jean with catlike tread and save us all"
"Kay it's when you make Gilbert and Sullivan references that you start to scare me. I'll be back in a bit"
Donna re-appeared "Sam's here"
"Send him in."
Sam took one look at Josh and Toby and the smile on his face faded "What's happened?"
"Have you been talking about Rory Cronin at all recently?" Josh queried
"Other than with you and Toby?"
"Other than with us."
"I think his name came up at a party I was at last weekend."
"A party where, Sam?"
Sam looked nervously from one to the other "A party with some of Mallory's friends, in Alexandria. Why? What's happened?"
"Did you talk to someone named Sheila McCall?"
"I talked to a Sheila."
"She's a reporter," Toby announced.
Sam groaned and slumped into a chair
"Just a piece of advice Sam, based purely on your track record. Start asking women what they do for a living, make it the first question after their name." "Yes, Josh" Sam turned to Toby "Do we know who has it?"
"CJ's working on that. We are correct then in assuming that she didn't tell you she was a reporter?"
Sam shook his head
"Could help," Toby said looking at Josh.
"Does the President know?" Sam asked, dreading the answer
Josh nodded "Look, let's wait and see what CJ comes up with. Sam, go start drafting your apology to Cronin. Then you and I'll sit down with Ainsley and discuss what the possible libel ramifications are."
Sam stood up. He glanced again from Toby to Josh "I'm sorry"
Josh looked sympathetic. Toby just looked annoyed.
After Sam had departed Josh turned to his remaining cohort. "Tell me the political downside."
"I thought it would be obvious"
"It is Toby, but let me hear your take on it all the same."
"Rory Cronin is an extremely popular figure in the Midwest, an area we're doing badly in. He also walks a very thin line between being a Democrat and Republican. We lose him and we'll lose every close vote in the Senate from now 'til re-election. Furthermore it is not inconceivable that come the election he could back the Republican candidate which could cost us the Dakotas, Iowa, Indiana, maybe Wisconsin and Minnesota. Not necessarily the ballgame but still a hit it would be better if we didn't take."
"He's that popular?"
"A veritable Abe Lincoln for the new millenium."
"Pity he's a crook."
"Isn't it? Also Josh, there's the issue of the Radley Farm Relief Bill."
"I thought we had the numbers?"
"Cronin was part of those numbers"
"Iowa, Indiana, Wisconsin? He's not going to vote against us, is he?"
"If we give him an out? He's never liked the bill Josh, it goes against the people who fill his war chest."
"I thought he was a man of the people, a champion of the little guy?"
"The little guy makes little campaign contributions" Toby held up his thumb and forefinger
"Okay." Josh sighed rubbing his jaw in frustration "Okay, let's just take this one step at a time."
When CJ walked back in an hour and a half later she looked even less pleased than at their first meeting.
"Who's got it?" Toby asked joining them
"Oh you're kidding!" Josh cried, "It's hardly Pulitzer winning press. Who reads more than just the movie section, except of course the President?"
"Someone from AP. It's going to hit this afternoon in the Post, the Times, LA, San Francisco; tomorrow in the Twin Cities, Des Moines, Indianapolis. Shall I go on?"
Josh shook his head, defeated.
"Sam says she didn't identify herself as a reporter and didn't tell him he was on the record"
"What're you saying, Toby?" asked CJ
"Tell them if they run it, we'll pull their credentials" the Communications Director said calmly.
CJ looked from him to Josh "We're talking about pulling the credentials of practically the entire White House Press Corps."
"Well that would make it easier to re-open the swimming pool" Josh observed
"Josh the entire Press Corps?"
"She didn't identify herself CJ, " Toby repeated "She put him on record in a social setting without telling him she was doing so. It's yellow journalism. Tell them if they run it, they lose access."
"Has it occurred to you two that the press doesn't like to be bullied?"
"Tell them it's about trust," Josh offered "If we can't trust them not to stab us in the back with a salad fork we're not too excited about having them over for dinner."
"Okay, I'll try it"
Toby and Josh looked pleased with themselves "That was easier than I thought," said Josh
Donna appeared in the doorway "Rory Cronin on line one"
"And surprisingly short-lived" Josh sighed as he picked up the phone.
"Hello Senator Cronin, How was your weekend?"
He held the phone away from his ear as the Senator bellowed a string of expletives down the line.
"So?" Jed Bartlet asked as Josh walked in with a status report.
"The clean-up's going well in Havana," the Acting Chief of Staff said hopefully.
"Can we send the Canadian engineers to deal with Cronin?"
"How about Sam?"
"No he's digging a hole just fine on his own."
"That's what I thought. Cronin's seen it?"
"I swear in my entire life I've never met anyone who reads the front half of 'The Forth Horseman' and suddenly it's required reading for everyone in public office."
"Josh, hedging is just going to make it more painful in the end."
"Well Sir the good news is that we've kept it out of the majors."
"The woman who wrote the article was a little less than up front with Sam about the fact that he was being interviewed not hit on. CJ told them if they ran it, we were going to go ahead and tear down the Pressroom in favor of a pool club and swim up bar. They all agreed out of hand except for the Times and when Carol tossed their guy out into the rain, they came around pretty quick."
"Carol tossed Ben Geary out?That, I would have liked to have seen," Bartlet enthused.
"That's the good news."
"Which means there's other news."
Josh rubbed at the headache forming in his sinuses. The President opened a drawer and tossed him a bottle of painkillers.
"Thanks Sir, but Donna keeps me well medicated. I can't take anything else for four more hours."
"What's the bad news?"
"Cronin's going after the Radley bill"
"A senator from an agricultural state is going after Radley?"
"Toby says Cronin gets his money from the corporate farms even if his support base is with small farmers, so he's never liked the bill much to begin with. Publicly he's going to take the stance that it doesn't do enough"
"Short of sending you, Toby, Sam and CJ to help with the harvest I'm not sure what else we can do."
"That'll make quite the soundbite, Mr. President"
"What does he want to back down?"
"He wants Sam."
Jed Bartlet frowned.
"This is a good bill, Josh, it helps people in desperate need."
"Sir, we need Sam. We need him if we ever want to get any more of these bills passed."
"When does Radley go to the floor?"
"Clock's ticking Josh, see what you can do."
All week Josh tried his best. Between them the Senior Staff talked to almost every senator personally, some of them twice, as they tried to shore up votes left by Cronin's departure. They still came up short. Josh tried to reason with Cronin who eventually stopped taking the calls stating that he'd laid out his terms: a public apology and Sam's resignation, and they weren't negotiable. While they were still on speaking terms Josh tried to point out that Sam's resignation was going to elevate the story from birdcage liner to a major piece but the Senator wasn't budging. As the vote got closer the President got more agitated. He strongly wanted the Radley bill and as it slipped from his grasp so did his willingness to forgive Sam's indiscretion.
"It's high time you all started growing up!" Bartlet growled one evening.
"Yes, Sir" Josh nodded. He was leaning on the back of the couch. The President was pacing the Oval Office so Josh couldn't sit down but he was so tired he thought his legs might give way.
"This is not Bill and Ted's Excellent Washington Adventure"
"No, Sir. How did you...?"
"I have children who grew up in the Eighties, Josh"
"I mean it though. Between Sam's sexual hi-jinks and your inability to think before you speak and Toby balling me out for every assumed slight and now this, it's getting out of hand."
"Are you humoring me, Joshua?"
"Alright yes, Sir. But if I may point out, Sam's actually dating Mallory again, I haven't shot my mouth off lately except when instructed and Toby... well no Toby's about the same but Sir, we're getting better, a lot better."
"And what would you call this mess?"
"But not unavoidable?"
Josh sighed, "No, Sir"
"Has Cronin given ground at all?"
Bartlet settled a little, moved if nothing else by the utter exhaustion apparent on his advisor's face.
"I'm not saying it's easy, Josh. I know what it will cost you but we both know what our job here is."
"And all I'm saying, Sir, is that we have a better chance of doing that job with Sam than without him"
"I'm afraid I'm not convinced, Josh. It's not your fault, you're putting up a good fight but unless something changes within twenty four hours of the vote, we're going to have to give in to Cronin."
"I thought we didn't negotiate with terrorists."
"I'm not trying to be funny, Mr. President. Cronin's a playground bully. The first day he beats you up for your Twinkies but if you give in, tomorrow it's your whole lunch."
"Then find a way to stop him."
"When was the last time you slept, Josh?"
"When was the last time you slept somewhere other than this building?"
"I'll sleep when I'm dead"
"Won't we all. Okay we're done. Keep me informed of any changes"
The problem was that there weren't any. Josh was increasingly aware that it wasn't just the President. The rest of the staff, and especially Sam, were looking to him to pull another rabbit out of his seemingly empty hat; and Josh would have done just about anything for a rabbit. Instead he felt like Alice: chasing, but never quite catching, one as it led him deeper into the warren.
"Josh isn't going to fire Sam, is he?" CJ asked Donna anxiously as Thursday afternoon arrived with still no solution in sight.
"Josh can't fire him, Sam's a presidential appointee, only the President can fire him," Donna pointed out, stepping around Toby to get to the filing cabinet.
"Yeah but a lot of whether or not that happens rests with Josh" said Toby
"See I would have said it rested with Sam" replied Donna.
"Donna, Josh listens to you"
Donna stopped, shut the drawer and turned around to look CJ in the eye. "Meaning what?"
"Can't you talk to him? Convince him to go to bat for Sam?"
"What makes you think he hasn't?" hissed Donna
She looked past them then, and CJ knew that Josh was behind them. She nudged Toby and together they turned around. Josh was standing with one hand at his waist, the heel of the other leaning on his doorframe, his fingers pounding out a tattoo on the wood. His jaw jutted out slightly, his eyes were aimed at the floor and he was shaking his head.
"Josh..." CJ began apologetically.
He looked up at them, the extent of his anger now readily apparent.
"You," he pointed at Donna, "go back to work. You two, in here. Now."
He turned and walked into the depths of his office.
Toby and CJ exchanged a glance and Toby let out a long sigh as they slowly followed Josh.
"That better have been a one time performance!" Josh hollered once the door was shut. "I'm sorry if your favorite playmate has got himself into hot water. I'm sorry if you don't like how I'm handling it but if you've got a problem you come to me, not to Donna. 'Cause if I see something like that ever again, Dante's Inferno is going to seem like Disneyland compared to the hell on earth I will create in this building. Am I getting through to you here?"
"Josh," said CJ softly, "we didn't mean-"
She realized that he felt their betrayal to sharply to be able to discuss Sam at present. Unfortunately Toby didn't share her insight or perhaps he didn't care.
"When Mary Marsh went after you, I didn't let you swing for it," he sniped.
Josh's face went white with anger
"You think I just held up my hands and said 'Oh well Sam thanks for playing'?"
"No he doesn't" CJ interjected
"Toby, is that what you think?" Josh stepped forward ignoring CJ
Toby shrugged and gave a half shake of his head. None of it was very convincing
"Toby, we don't have an Al Caldwell to help us out this time. I can't get Rory Cronin to the table. He wants Sam's head on a stake. That's all he seems to want. If you've got a suggestion as to how I'm even supposed to talk to a man who won't take my phone calls until I fax him a copy of Sam's resignation, I'm all ears Toby, but until then get the hell off my back!"
"Okay, let's stop this now" suggested CJ, "before we all end up hating each other"
"You're a day late and a dollar short, Claudia Jean" remarked Josh bitterly crossing his arms and waiting for them to leave.
"I'm sorry" CJ fell into step with Donna later that evening.
"Really Donna, I'm sorry"
"CJ, this may be out of line but that was really stupid."
"I know, we're just worried about Sam."
"And somehow you've convinced yourselves that Josh isn't?"
"No but..."CJ shrugged
"It's his best friend, CJ, think about how that must feel."
"Yeah. I don't know what we were thinking."
"You were thinking that Josh is so busy trying to impress the President that he's willing to hang Sam out to dry."
"I promise you that is not what we were thinking"
"It sure came across that way"
CJ stopped walking "Do think it seemed that way to Josh too?"
Donna shrugged "I hope not but I don't know."
"I hate to keep saying this but could you talk to him, let him know that's not what we intended?"
"It'll mean more coming from you"
"Josh isn't currently interested in letting me finish a sentence."
"I wonder why?"
" 'Kay I deserved that"
Donna sighed, "The thing is CJ, I had a suggestion to give him but now I don't know if he's going to listen to me, because he's going to think it comes from you guys."
"I guess we blew it"
"I guess you did" Donna turned a corner and left CJ standing there.
"Josh?" Donna ventured cautiously into the office.
He didn't respond, just kept his head bowed over his work
Josh slowly got up and walked around the desk. When he was standing in front of her, he finally met her eyes "You know, I try to make the line between Senior Staff and Assistants a grey one where you're concerned"
"Yes I know"
"You've always had access to certain information that others in your position do not. You're included in certain trips or meetings, brought in on things much earlier than the others."
"For a start I find it easier to work if, when-ever possible, you know the full extent of what we're dealing with."
"But also, I don't feel the need to make you stand on the far side on some invisible wall, we're all in the same boat, we work for the same master, we work toward the same goal. I'm not big on exclusive clubs."
"But if you think that somehow puts you in a position to join with members of the Senior Staff to gang up on me, we need to have a discussion about your future employment."
Donna looked wounded
"That's not what happened."
"Sure looked like that was what was happening"
"Okay" he didn't sound particularly sold.
"Look at some future date, we can talk about my loyalty and how regularly I prove it but for the moment I don't think you need the distraction."
"What do I need?" he demanded derisively
She was aware that he was feeling backed into a corner and when he came out swinging it was usually at her. She also knew he would feel bad about it later. It didn't stop it from hurting, however.
"You need to talk to Leo."
"You think I'm in over my head?"
He stared at her "Really?"
"Don't you? Josh, you're running out of time and you've run out of options. Go talk to him."
"I don't believe I'm hearing this" he turned away
"What am I supposed to do Josh, lie to you, tell you that you're handling this? You're not. We both know you're not. But it's the first thing since Leo's been gone that you haven't handled. You've proved yourself more than up to the task, you've won the approval of the President, the staff-"
"Oh yeah, that's readily apparent."
"Josh, I don't want you firing Sam to be your legacy from this job, you deserve better. Look when Leo was in this situation, he didn't handle it by himself"
"When Leo was in this situation?"
"You look at Sam like he's your kid brother and Leo looks at you like... well you know," she knew both Josh and Leo were reluctant to subject their bond to verbal definition. "And Leo brought you into the campaign and you brought Sam. But Josh when you were facing the axe Leo didn't fix it, Toby did. Maybe Leo was too close to it. Just like you are."
"Leo didn't have three-quarters of the Staff treating him like a pariah."
"So this is worse. Fine you win, but why don't you go talk to Leo, he might have some perspective."
"I'll think about it"
"Josh ,I know you don't feel like it right now, but I am on your side, that never changes"
"We'll talk about you and me later"
"Yeah okay" Donna said quietly and let herself out of the office