Louise Meynor was dying. She had known this for months. Select associates had known it for weeks. The general public had known only since this morning. They had responded, as she expected, with the unique lack of sympathy of which only populations-as-wholes seemed capable. Her laptop had been regaling her with stories of jubilant responses for the past few hours. For the first time in many, many years, she was finding her gender to be a source of frustration. Contrary to what may have been expected, this was not due to the fact that her cancer was ovarian. Meynor knew perfectly well that cancer, the consummate opportunist, would have found a way no matter what. No, the particular burden of her womanhood stemmed in this instance from the sad truth that, despite all the strides she and her forebears had made to normalise women in politics, nobody had ever found a way to make people tire of using “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead” whenever one of them died. She indulged in a rare smirk. It was only fitting that the people’s last expression of disapproval towards her be their most insipid yet.
She was treating this final stretch of her life just the same as the rest of it – calculated, disciplined, and with a point to prove. The ‘leak’ of her condition had been her own doing, of course. She had spent decades controlling the story, whatever the story was that day, and she wasn’t about to let something so trivial as mortal illness break that habit. Some had told her that it wasn’t worth spending the energy, “given the circumstances”. She didn’t appreciate the euphemism, nor did she agree with the notion. It was worth spending the energy precisely because she wasn’t dead yet. Professionally, personally and politically, she had always maintained that giving up was dying. She was already conceding her life to cancer. There was no reason to do the same with her principles.
She closed the laptop, set it aside, and reclined. Becoming immersed into her bed, she was besieged by a sudden urge to rest. She overcame it, as she had done on every other occasion. There was one last task to be done in the public eye, one final item on the list before she could exit the stage and spend her final weeks preparing it for the next in line. An interview – just another step in the media dance into whose rhythms she had been engrossed for so long. Her guest would be arriving shortly. Clementine Ogunsanya. It was desperately fitting that Clementine be the last writer to have her on the record. She was the correct choice, from a pragmatic perspective. Her voice was large, and her readership was likely to be extremely interested in Meynor’s death. An audience that had long despaired at her political invulnerability would relish this story, whether they were willing to admit it or not. In truth, however, Meynor would have picked Clementine no matter what. Call it sentiment, or the nostalgia of the newly mortal, but there was a weight of history that could not be denied.
Clementine had cut her teeth writing vicious thinkpieces at Meynor’s expense. This was not unusual. What made her stand out, more than the eloquence of her opinion or the force of her polemics (both considerable, of course), was the sheer, lunatic volume and focus of her work. From the senate to the oval office, Clementine had clung on, penning fresh invectives to meet every perceived evil. Meynor, in turn, had been glad to have a constant, embittered face of opposition against whom to frame her efforts. It had been observed on multiple occasions that Ogunsanya’s career, for all its outwardly destructive intent, had been a considerable boon to both of them. She had taken her parasitism to such a dogged extent that it evolved into something mutually beneficial.
Meynor found herself indulging in reminiscence when an aide ushered Clementine in. She strode over to the bedside chair that had been set out for her, sat down, and began extracting her materials. Only when content with her full journalistic regalia did she stop to look at her old muse. Meynor watched her face closely, checking for any hint of sympathy, or (god forbid) pity. Much to her relief, she saw in Clementine only a reciprocation of her own vague wistfulness.
“Louise. How many times do I have to tell you?”
“You know, I couldn’t help myself. Forgive an aging woman her habits.”
There was a pause.
“Anyway.” Clementine continued. “I’m tempted to ask how you’re doing, but I’ll spare you the offence. Ready to start?”
Clementine shuffled into a more inquisitive posture. Meynor did not move.
“So, it’s hard not to look at this as something of a retrospective. I think that the first question for most of us is going to be…”
“Let me interrupt you there, Clem. No. I don’t regret anything. I believed in everything I did, everything I tried to do. I appreciate that I couldn’t help everybody. That’s government. A lot of people don’t like to admit it, but it’s the way it is. The truth is, there’s no time to feel bad when you’re trying to do good. This is not a story about my deathbed redemption. I don’t need one.”
Clementine smiled. In spite of everything, this was familiar territory.
“Well, I’d like to get back to the notion that you’ve been trying to do good – you know a lot of people don’t agree with that. But first, do you remember my line from years ago about your two faces?”
“Of course. You said I had two faces, both of them ugly. You know I’m a big fan of your work, but I must admit that one was tacky.”
“A little catty, maybe, but you have to put some spice into these things. Anyway, as I’m sure you’re aware, I was talking about your methods of persuasion.”
“Dogma and pragmatism, if I’m to indulge your analysis.”
“Correct. A demagogue to the voters, a master rationalist to the professionals. And yes, both quite ugly.”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is, I’ve known you, one way or another, for a long time now. This is probably the last time we’ll ever talk. And even now, you launch straight into hard truths and the greater good. Immediately, you start showing the pragmatic face.”
“I think I see where this is going.” Sighed Meynor. “But do go on.”
“What people want to know, with any politician, but especially with you, is what you’re like under all of that. Who is Louise Meynor before she puts on any of her masks? How do you speak when the world isn’t listening?”
“Clem, you’re testing my patience here. I know for a fact that you’re smarter than this. I also know for a fact that you’ve asked me essentially this exact question many times before. But I’ll indulge you, since this is the last time you’ll have the chance. As you well know, politics and journalism are all about communication. You have to speak the language that your audience understands. For you, that’s easy. You have one audience, and it never changes. People who hate people like me, but don’t have the guts or the brains to do anything about it. Talking to that audience means asking questions that you already know the answer to, questions that you’ve asked dozens of times before, as you’ve just done – and there, you’re showing your intelligence. For me, things are a little more complicated. One minute I’m talking to the Supreme Court, the next to a semi-retired plumber in Michigan. It’s not disingenuous that I use different voices to get my message across, no matter what you might like to think. It’s necessary. It’s honest. There are no ‘masks’ involved.”
Clementine seemed to smile. That had presumably been what she wanted.
“And when you’re alone? When you don’t have to communicate anything?”
“How could I tell you even if I wanted to? The private life is just that – private. No way around it.”
“That may well be. One more personal question before we move on?” She had the same wry inflection she always adopted before something blunt.
“You’ve always been known for your force of will, your bravery, even if it’s often misapplied. Any fear of death?”
“Of course not.” The reply was instant. Too fast, if anything. She hoped that it was convincing. There was a sudden groundswell of pain in her pelvis. Raising her hand to indicate the need for a break, she tried to contain her wince. The effort was futile, of course. Clementine’s eyes made it readily apparent that she had observed the extent of Meynor’s frailty. There was neither pity nor pleasure in them, but a sort of melancholic recognition.
“Ready to continue?” She asked.
“Then let’s talk politics. Nobody can deny how effective you’ve been throughout your career. But almost all of your biggest successes remain controversial. I’m talking about the multiple waves of privatisation, each more harmful than the last. I’m talking about the devolution of power from capitol to capital, taking from the poor and giving to the rich. I’m talking about refusing to legislate against the worst of human nature or in favour of the best.”
“Ah, yes. Your little army has been calling me evil for decades, Clem. I may be dying, but my skin’s still thick.”
“Don’t misunderstand – I’m not saying that you’re evil, although I wouldn’t disagree too strongly with anybody who did. I’m saying that you are somebody who was been very effective at allowing evil to win. Somebody who has exercised a tremendous amount of talent and energy towards making the world worse.”
“And here we go again. When you’re in power, when your choices matter, every action makes something worse and something better. For every person you help, somebody gets hurt. You can’t spend the same dollar twice. You’re caught in a world of dichotomies, trying to steer a ship that barely responds to direction. If your opponents want to dig up sob stories and point at flaws, they will always, always be able to. And hell, I respect your decision to do so. Clearly, it’s working very well for all involved. It’s what your consumers want, and what you are best at providing.”
She was forced to pause once more, again holding up her hand to indicate that she was not done with this train of thought.
“And to be sure, there are people who are only in it for themselves. I’m not one of them. Everything I do, I do out of belief. I believe in agency. I believe in the market. I believe that the balance of interests and possibilities demonstrated by our miraculous species will chart a course better than anything that can be forced into existence by small-minded regulation.”
Clementine, perhaps in response to Meynor’s own passion, was clearly beginning to fire up.
“It is shocking to me that the author of such an inhumane policy platform could have such blind faith in human nature.” She retorted, with nominal restraint.
“Is that it, then? Is that the root of all your liberal ideals? Mistrust? Misanthropy?”
“That’s not what I’m saying, and you know it.” Clementine was angry. Fine. A heated exchange had traditionally been good news for both of them. “I’m saying that simply leaving the powerful to their own devices does nothing to help humanity. And what’s more, I’m saying that you would have to be stupid, misguided, or wilfully ignorant not to see it. Louise, if you genuinely believe that you have acted in the world’s best interests, then you’ll have be one of those things. My money’s on ‘misguided’.”
“Everything is a device of the powerful, Clem. Whether it’s the state, the private sector, the UN, or just plain old individual freedom, somebody is making a decision and something is changing to match it. My philosophy just presupposes that my decisions should only affect me and those who consent to them, and that the same is true for everybody else. Your end of the spectrum would let me force them on society.”
“Don’t be absurd. How can you dare to claim that your administration’s decisions to remove public services were inflicted upon a consenting public?”
“I should think that’s rather obvious. I’m an elected official. Short of anarchy, somebody has to make decisions for others. It’s imperfect, but everybody knows it’s the only way of doing things. The consent is implicit.”
“’The consent is implicit’. Come on. This isn’t you fucking your wife without asking first, Louise. This is you forcing yourself on an unconscious girl and saying that it was fine because she never fought back.”
Good, once again. These things always had more flair when somebody escalated the language. Clementine’s anger was no doubt legitimate, but so was her savvy.
“Spare me your outrage. You’re saying that I raped the American public? That they were helpless before my unwanted advances? Did everybody not have the right to vote, the right to leave the country, the right to protest, the right to provide their own aid and services to their fellow citizens? That’s a lot of power for being ‘unconscious’.”
“The numbers don’t lie. Look at the wealth gap. Look at the gender and ethnic inequality. Look at the subjective quality of life stats, the approval ratings. You and your associates have brutalised this country. For all this good you claim to believe in, the record sure doesn’t back it up.”
“The record doesn’t back it up… yet. Anybody with half a brain knows that change hurts, and that it takes time. Any ideology that actually wants to do something with this mess, whether it’s mine or yours, is going to have to endure some hardships first. The problem is that nobody has the vision, the patience, to let the process happen. The numbers go up and down, and always so slowly that we lose faith and start interfering again. All we do is suffer the first hurdles in every direction, again and again, never reaching any destination. Stuck on this facile roundabout, lashing out at everybody else for failing to do something about it. The world I want, the world you want, the world some lunatic fronting a hate group wants, they all take time. They all take more time than we each have.”
With that, there was another rush of pain. Caught up in her speech, Meynor made no attempt to conceal it. No need to raise a hand this time – her grimace was a clear enough request for an adjournment. Its duration was a clear enough indication that they would not be able to continue.
“Off the record?” Asked Clementine.
“Come November, it’s probably going to be Leichmann.”
“He’s probably going to spend eight years putting back everything you took away.”
There was another pause. No further physical pain, but there was a knot of directionless, insoluble frustration at the back of her mind. Meynor broke the silence.
“I won’t be around to see it. In my world, I’m dying, somebody else is picking up my torch, and they’re going to keep it going until the next person, and the next. And then things are really going to start looking better. You can keep Leichmann. For me, something’s finally happening.”
“Must be nice.”
“Yes and no.”
Clementine looked at her and sighed.
“Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do. You can’t get half the audience talking about the opposition.”
“Tell me about it. There won’t be another you in my time.”
“You’d better make this interview last, then. But I’ve got to sleep now. I’m not feeling too well, if you didn’t know.”
“I assumed you’d be trying to set up a surprise win. Fighting to the last, and so on.”
“I am, but fuck it. You can come back tomorrow if you like. Hell, take the whole week. Both of us want this getting read. Might as well make it a real epic.”
Both women smiled. There was no formal goodbye – it seemed pointless, and if nothing else a little awkward. Clementine simply left, for now. Exhausted but eminently awake, Meynor lay in thought. For all their tensions, some things never change.