What we call the beginning is often the end.
August 21, 1988
Springfield, Ill. - Democratic candidate for governor, two term Senator Richard Henning, in a brief respite from his extended campaigning across the state, returns to Springfield today. Leading Republican nominee, Frank Drummer, in the polls by 7 points, Henning continues to spread his message on education reform. After spending the day visiting local elementary and middle schools, Sen. Henning is scheduled to attend a fundraising dinner at the Crowne Plaza Hotel along with Joseph Tolbert, democratic candidate in the 20th district congressional race, and Mary Geise, mayoral candidate.
The concierge weaved his way through small groups of elegantly dressed men and women in the lavishly decorated ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the woman he was searching for. Standing with three men, she obviously had their undivided attention. They were nodding and laughed occasionally as she spoke, her hands moving freely through the air to emphasize her words.
"Ms. Cregg," the concierge said when she paused.
"You have a phone call at the front desk."
"Thank you," she replied, then turned back to the men and smiled winningly. "If you'll excuse me, gentlemen."
Something about her caught his eye, that set her apart from the crowd. The obvious answer of course was her height, but it was more than that. He watched closely as she followed the concierge across the room. There was something about her.
"Thank you," she said to the concierge as they reached the front desk and she picked up the phone. "Hello?" Her face immediately lit up when she heard his voice. "Hi. I can't wait to see you. When will you get here?" The smile disappeared from her lips. "No, I understand... Yeah... What if I came to see you in Chicago?... No, you're right... I miss you, too" She sighed and turned back to the direction of the ballroom. "I need to get back. Call me after your show?... Okay. I love you... Bye."
Gently, she replaced the phone on it's stand and looked to the older man behind the large oak counter. "Thank you," she said softly. Turning back to the ballroom, she took a deep breath and hid her disappointment with a practiced smile.
The woman to his left, with bleached blonde hair, and the man to his right were embroiled in a heated debate over air pollution standards and industries. Ironically, they seemed to share the same position on the issue and for the most part, they agreed on a solution, yet they continued to argue their decidedly different motivations.
In the middle of their dispute, he quietly sat and ate his steak. In contrast to his calm appearance, his mind was working overtime to take in their conversation as well as several others going on around him; automatically cataloguing their interests and concerns, deciding how best to work them into their overall strategy, and translating their inarticulate arguments to eloquent, meaningful text.
Then, he saw her again. It was as if the entire room shifted and suddenly she came into view, sitting a couple tables away. Everything else quickly moved to the background as he focused on her. What was it about her?
The man next to her, an old school reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times, was rambling on about freedom of information and the public's right to know. Nodding absently, she reached for her sparkling water, when she felt a pair of eyes on her. She glanced around and found her gaze landing on a man sitting a few tables away. Unlike almost everyone else, including herself, he wasn't participating in one of the many inane dialogues that filled the room. He was just sitting quietly as everyone around him buzzed about education reform, property taxes, and various foreign policy issues. His lack of participation puzzled her. It obviously wasn't because he felt uncomfortable in the political setting. She was also sure she could rule out a disinterest or ignorance on his part. There was something about him that peaked her curiosity.
Before she could study him further, the tenor in the room changed. The audience's attention was directed to the north end of the ballroom, where a large banner hung on the wall declaring 'Practical Hope.' In front of the banner, stood a podium draped in red, blue, and white cloth. The Chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party, Jesse Barricks, advanced to the podium accompanied by a round of enthusiastic applause, and began the night of speeches.
Hours later, the lavish affair was winding down. The candidates had retired for the evening, prompting the guests to leave soon afterwards. Only a few reporters remained in the ballroom, trying to coax a few more exclusive tidbits from the candidates' staffs.
In the nearby Mahogany Room, a figure sat at a small table, oblivious to his surroundings. Taking an occasional drink from the glass of bourbon, he busily scratched ideas and phrases onto a yellow notepad. A thin cigar lay forgotten, smoldering in a glass ashtray on the table. In the back of his mind, he heard the bartender ask someone what they wanted to drink. It wasn't the answer, but the voice that made him catch his breath.
"Manhattan on the rocks, please."
Her voice was like a rich, red wine: deep and full-bodied; smooth and mellow, yet with an mysterious intensity behind it.
He looked up to see the woman he observed earlier. Her long, auburn hair was pulled back in a loose french braid, several curly tendrils escaping to frame her slender face. Her large, expressive eyes sparkled in the low light of the room. She seemed lost in her own world.
"Thank you," she said, accepting the drink from the bartender. Raising it to her lips, she closed her eyes as the smooth liquid glided down her throat. She opened them again, her soft smile tinged with disappointment, but not surprise. Nothing had changed. A drink hadn't solved anything. But, then again, she never harbored the illusion that it would.
A quiet chuckle escaped and danced in the air. Wow, she was being rather self-indulgent tonight. The reality was, she was working in an important congressional campaign for a candidate that she not only respected, but also thought had a good chance of winning. She had a great boyfriend that she had been with for almost three years. By all accounts, she had a great life going.
And she did have a great life. She did. She just wasn't ready to face her empty hotel room yet, so she took another drink. Then, for the first time since she'd walked into the room, she saw him.
The pen was poised over the paper, but the words weren't coming. Damn it! Where the hell was his talent? And why couldn't he stop thinking about the woman at the bar? What was it about her? He had to force himself not to look. He had more important things to do, like locate his goddamn talent.
"It was good."
That voice. He looked up to see her.
Her lips curved up in a sly smile. "May I sit down?" He silently gestured to the empty chair across from him. "The speech you wrote for Senator Henning was very good."
He say anything for several seconds, simply studying her intently. Finally, the corners of his mouth quirked up. "What gave you the idea that I wrote it?"
Her smile grew wider. "Only the writer is as tense as you were when listening to a candidate give a speech. Besides," she added, "you were tapping your finger on the table."
His black eyes narrowed. "I was with you until the tapping thing."
She took a sip of her manhattan, then explained. "Your writing has a musical quality. It's very rhythmic. You were tapping your finger where the beat should have been."
"Should have been," he grunted, causing her to laugh lightly.
"Granted the delivery could use some work, but I'm sure you'll point that out if you haven't already."
Their eyes met and for a split second time stopped. Suddenly, she blinked like she was awakening from a dream. "What time is it?"
"Uh, ten to one," he answered, glancing at his watch.
"I'm sorry," she said, standing up. "I have to go. I'm expecting a call." She paused and said once more before she left, "It was a good speech."
It wasn't until she was walking out the door when Toby realized he didn't know her name.
August 22, 1988
"May I join you?"
She couldn't quite quell the smile that touched her lips when she heard his voice. Laying down the Sun-Times she was reading, and removing her glasses, she gestured to the empty chair as he had last night. "We have to stop meeting this way."
She laughed. "Good point." She sipped her orange juice. "Would you care to join me for breakfast?"
"Just coffee, please," he told the waiter who had discreetly approached them, then turned back to her. "You left last night without telling me your name."
She paused for a moment, then set the glass down and smiled ruefully. "You're right. I apologize. I didn't mean to be mysterious."
"You didn't?" The gleam in his obsidian black eyes disarming the words of any harshness.
"My name is-"
"Claudia Jean Cregg," he supplied and took a drink of the steaming coffee the waiter just set in front of him.
Her face lit up, her smile reaching all the way to her eyes. "CJ," she said. "Only my mother calls me Claudia Jean, and you don't look enough like my mother to pull it off."
"I'm sure she will be relieved to hear that," he deadpanned.
"I'm compelled at this point to bring up the fact that you haven't introduced yourself, Mr. Ziegler."
It was his turn to smile. "There appears to be no need. And please call me Toby."
CJ nodded, then began to recite. "Toby Ziegler. Originally from Brooklyn, New York. A bachelor's degree in History from the City College of New York and a master's in Government from Columbia. Professional political operative. Brought to Senator Henning's gubernatorial campaign for the main purpose of writing speeches, but also serves as political advisor." She paused to take a bite of her grapefruit. "And that was all of the information I was able to coax out of Sarah Wiard," she said, referring to Henning's press secretary.
He raised his eyebrow questioningly, but didn't say anything. Instead, he searched his pockets and pulled out a small notepad. "Forgive me, my memory isn't as good as yours." Flipping to a page, he began to read. "Claudia Jean Cregg." His eyes moved up to meet hers, "prefers CJ," then looked back down to the paper. "Born in Fort Eustis, Virginia. Moved to Santa Rosa, California, when you were four. Middle of three children; an older brother and a younger brother. Educated in private Catholic schools, before graduating with a bachelor's degree in Journalism, minor in Political Science and master's degree in Communications from the University of California at Berkeley. Worked on a successful city council race in San Francisco, now working in the press office for congressional candidate, Joseph Tolbert." He closed his notebook, replaced it in his pocket, and looked at her astonished face. "And I don't reveal my sources."
She bowed her head slightly. "Touché. Your sources are very well informed."
"Not quite. I still haven't heard how you got from California to Illinois."
"I drove," she said, then grinned. "My advisor at Berkeley went to college with George Hamman, Tolbert's campaign manager, and recommended me to him." She shrugged. "It was a good opportunity," she said, then added, "and my boyfriend found a job in Chicago, so we moved out here."
CJ purposefully left out the fact that Dan was offered his job in Chicago before she was hired on in the Tolbert campaign. She hated the way people took that information and automatically assumed she was one of those woman who just blindly followed their boyfriends across the country. She wasn't that type of woman. It was an extremely difficult decision to leave California and her family, but it was a good opportunity for both of them, an adventure.
Toby didn't say anything, but drank his coffee. "May I have the sports page," he asked after a moment, motioning to her paper.
They sat quietly, each reading their section of the paper and eating their breakfast. It was a comfortable silence. It was like they had known each other for years, rather than hours.
Finally, CJ set down the paper and looked at her companion. "What are your plans for the day?"
"Work," he answered, his eyes still focused to an article on the Yankees game.
Toby set the paper down quickly. "Excuse me?"
"No," she repeated. "Henning is spending the day his granddaughter's birthday party. He doesn't have any big speeches coming up. There is nothing to do until tomorrow when you guys start prepping for the debate. So, instead of working, you can play a game of tennis with me."
"Come on," she pleaded. "It'll be much more fun to beat you than a machine."
He looked incredulous. "Are you baiting me?"
"I don't travel with my tennis racket."
"Neither do I," replied CJ, already standing up. "The hotel provides them. Go change and I'll meet you back here in fifteen minutes."
She was gone before he could object. Toby wasn't really sure he wanted to anyway.
"It was in."
"It was out."
"It was in."
"It was out by like a mile, CJ!" He threw his hands up in the air as they walked through the lobby two hours later.
"You're just a bad loser," she laughed.
"I am a bad loser," he agreed. "But that's beside the point, because I didn't lose. The ball was out."
"I'm sure he's right," a voice came from behind them. "You do cheat, CJ."
Her eyes grow wide with surprise.
Toby looked away uncomfortably as she ran to the man and kissed him enthusiastically.
"I thought you couldn't come," she said breathlessly as they parted.
"I told Jeremy I didn't care if Michael Jordan announced his retirement tonight, I was taking the night off, so I could come visit my girlfriend that I haven't seen in almost three weeks."
She smiled brightly, then as if remembering something, she turned to see Toby trying to quietly walk away. "Toby," she called. "I'm sorry. Toby, this is my boyfriend, Dan Williams," she introduced. "Dan, this is Toby Ziegler. He's working on Henning's campaign. He's a hell of a speechwriter, though tragically mistaken if he thinks he's a better tennis player than I am."
"Nice to meet you," Toby said quietly and shook the other man's hand.
"Likewise," replied Dan.
"Well," Toby said after an awkward moment. "I need to go get some work done. Have a nice day." He started to walk away when he heard CJ call him name. When he turned around, he saw her standing close to Dan, his arm around her waist.
"Don't work to hard, okay?"
"Yeah," he replied.
She laughed. "Okay, I'll see you later."
August 23, 1988
"Good afternoon, CJ."
She looked up from her paper to see the small, red-haired press secretary for Senator Henning. "Sarah, just the woman I want to see."
"If it's about the birthday party, I have no comment," she groaned.
"No," laughed CJ. "Though I did hear about that. Actually, I was looking for Toby Ziegler, but no one seems to know where he is."
"I'm sorry, CJ," the older woman said softly. "Toby resigned from the campaign. He had a family emergency in New York. He left last night."
Before CJ could say anything, another member of Henning's staff called Sarah's name. She smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry I have to go."
CJ just nodded her head, preoccupied with her thoughts. He was gone.
Nov. 2, 1988
The concierge weaved his way through the crowd of elegantly dressed men and women in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The floor was littered with balloons and small bits of confetti. Ten minutes earlier, the networks had called the race for Tolbert. Everyone was busy drinking their champagne and congratulating each other. He saw the woman he was looking for in a group of people toasting with their champagne.
She turned around, her cheeks flushed with excitement. "Yes?"
"This message came for you," he said and handed her a small piece of paper.
"Thanks," she replied and unfolded it.
'Congratulations. - Toby'
"CJ! Burnett is about to give his concession speech!"
She smiled and turned back to her colleagues. "I'm coming!"