Survivor: The White House Edition
In which J. BROOKS SPECTOR suffers the fate of Samuel Taylor Coleridge with a vivid dream. Only, instead of the immortal poem, “Kubla Khan”, he imagines a reality show that bears far too much similarity with the astounding world we are actually living through now.
Many readers will recall the moment in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when Ebenezer Scrooge, refusing to believe in his late partner Jacob Marley’s ghost, dismisses him as the result of a bad bit of meat, rather than accept the truth of this visitation from beyond the final curtain.
Something like Scrooge’s nightmare happened to me the other night. Perhaps it was a bad bit of certified organic, grass-fed, farm-reared beef or a smidgen of slightly too rich artisanal goat’s milk cheese spread on stoneground, home-baked oat biscuits. Or maybe it was just aural and visual overload from a recent diet of far too much televised news, weighty public policy journals, internet-based newsletters necessary to write for Daily Maverick; but once I was finally in a disturbed, restless sleep, I suddenly found myself transported to a television studio for the broadcast of the pilot episode of Survivor: The White House Edition!
In this vision, the sense of a real palpability and rich detail – and all the aural and visual sensations right down to the slight hum of the air conditioning – were so amazing, I feel obligated to share what I witnessed with all of you.
I found myself in the midst of a large, raucous audience, surrounding the emcee and the contestants on three sides, in several tiers of steeply raked seating. Many of the people were well-recognised personalities from the entertainment, political and business worlds, as well as international affairs.
Looking at the assembled audience, it was easy to spot people like Hillary Clinton and her husband, Bill, right next to the Obamas, as well as all the Republican Party candidates – well, actually, all but one of them – who had contested the 2016 election. In between such figures, sitting together there were Ivana Trump and the wife that succeeded her, Marla Maples, and then Melania Trump, Ivanka and Jared Trump, Donald Jr and Eric (Barron was apparently at home doing a school report on fake news), retired General Mike Flynn, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, the now-former White House press secretary and former chief of staff, congressmen such as Representatives Adam Schiff and Paul Ryan, and a whole clutch of senators. These included Richard Burr and Mark Warner and the rest of the Senate Intelligence Committee. But there was also a host of Puerto Rican officials including the governor of the island and the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, and even the former members of all those now-defunct White House business advisory panels. There was even a gaggle of some of the current cabinet officials and a big bunch of nearly anonymous acting officials representing hundreds of positions still not yet filled. There was even some guy who I was sure looked just like Andrew Jackson (but without his horse), sitting next to Fred Trump, Roy Cohn and Rev Norman Vincent Peale, all of them the president’s spiritual mentors.
And there were dozens of foreign leaders as well in the studio. They included Justin Trudeau and Enrique Peña Nieto sitting right next to each other and giggling, Angela Merkel, Shinzo Abe, Xi Jinping, Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May (seated right next to Jeremy Corbyn, with the two of them practically holding hands), Vladimir Putin and even the President of Iran. Binyamin Netanyahu was sitting rather warily among the King of Saudi Arabia, Egyptian President el-Sisi and the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, and I thought I could see the Nambian president and his four wives as well, but they were wearing so much traditional garb and astonishingly amazing headgear, it was hard to tell for sure.
Then there was even a row of National Football League players in full uniform from every one of the teams in the league. They were kneeling on one knee, balanced on their studio chairs. Right behind them was a tier of people in semi-darkness because of the lighting set of the studio. But they looked to me like some rather bad hombres with their sombreros and all – but it was hard to tell where they were from for sure.
Oh, and under each seat you could see there was a package of a double roll of paper towels.
Then, suddenly, there was a great drum roll; then some heavy-duty music rock music shook the room – Takin’ Care of Business by Bachman-Turner Overdrive (one of Rush Limbaugh’s favourite rock tunes). The emcee suddenly strolled in to the accompaniment of The Tennessee Waltz – one of that state’s official songs. Whoa, the emcee was none other than Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker!
Corker began by telling everyone in the room to give a big, rousing welcome to the night’s contestants as Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson, and North Korean “Young Leader” Kim Jong-un filed in from the wings. And then, without warning, Vladimir Putin suddenly vaulted out of the audience via a double somersault, to stand behind the remaining podium. Wow. What a show this was. The music for this moment, of course, was Elton John’s Rocket Man.
The emcee then explained the rules. They were simplicity in themselves. Behind each podium was one of those magic slates and an erasable felt tip marker. Each contestant was to write their answer to a question and then reveal those answers once the emcee told them to hold up their respective slates. The audience would be able to respond to the answers in whatever way they wished – whistling, cheering, chanting, booing, hissing or even tossing a shoe or a piece of fruit if they felt like it. But, at the end of the game, the audience would decide the winner.
Suddenly I noticed there were television cameras throughout the studio. It became clear this show was being broadcast around the world.
The show began and Senator Corker called the first round, “Good Advice”. The quotation was, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be” and the contestants were supposed to respond to it. Tillerson wrote “Polonius’ advice to his son in Hamlet”; Kim drew one of those universal pictures of an atom and the Korean equivalent of “boom”; while Putin simply wrote, “вф”. Trump, however, had written: “Lousy advice! Terrible. Stupid. Banks must take the risk so you can go bankrupt when the economy goes south. That’s how business works.”
Then Corker announced the next round as the question: “Button, button, who’s got the button?” In response, Rex Tillerson wrote: “What people wrongly think is the way to launch Armageddon”; Putin again wrote: “вф”; while Kim drew a big happy face on his board. Trump then showed his board with the following on it: “What kind of a moronic question is that? We all know I have one on my electronic device, to send those great tweets. Especially threatening, belittling ones. Whatever.”
Then, just before a commercial break for the sponsors – Trump wine, Trump steaks, Trump water, Trump hotels and golf courses, and Ivanka dresses, shoes and costume jewellery – Corker asked: “What are Japan’s borders?” Kim’s board again had a big happy face on it, while Putin and Tillerson drew the null sign. Trump’s board, however had “Nambia, Zenda, Lilliput, Nod, Never Neverland, and Ruritania,” along with a scribble that looked rather a lot like “Covfefe”.
After the break, the emcee asked the contestants to explain the importance of the number 25. Kim drew 25 nuclear symbols with a big exclamation mark after them. Putin left his slate blank, while Tillerson wrote, “I am studying it – the 25th amendment – very, very carefully these days”; and Trump had written simply: “I am 25 times as smart as everybody else in the room. Any room. Even this one.”
Continuing in this constitutional vein, Senator Corker asked the contestants to state their feelings about the American Bill of Rights. Kim left his slate blank, as did Putin, while Tillerson had drawn a big check mark. However, Donald Trump had written, “Fake news! Fake news!”
The final round came and Senator Corker asked the contestants if they liked their respective jobs and why. This time, Putin again wrote “вф” and drew a big happy face; Kim had one of those atom symbols and two happy faces, Tillerson wrote that he worked for a moron and wanted to quit but feared for the future of the nation if he did, while Trump had written, “I hate everyone in the White House!”
Senator Corker then told his studio audience to reach under their seats and pick up the paper towel rolls and throw them at the contestants as a sign of respect. As the winner was about to be announced, I woke up in a cold sweat, despite the heat in the room.
Thankfully, I realised I had fallen asleep with a book across my lap; the book had been turned to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s explanation of how he had come to write the fragments of verse that became his best-known poem, Kubla Khan, the one about the magical garden that had once been the mysterious Xanadu.
As the poet had famously explained what had happened to him,
“The author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two or three hundred lines …
“On waking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole and taking up his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business…
“And on his return to his room found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surfaces of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but alas! Without the after restoration of the latter!”
To return to the here and now and away from Coleridge’s idyllic dream or my own phantasm, one wonders just how much more embarrassment the American population must endure before those members of the president’s cabinet who can actually put country ahead of personal or partisan interest in their thoughts do the right thing. If they do, one hopes they will turn thoughts into action through a study of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution and then begin the process of certifying the sad disability of the incumbent. Especially since nothing in the president’s answers in my dream have approached some of the bizarre statements already coming from that individual in his public utterances or dawn tweets. And this doesn’t even include some of his actual decisions. Surely it is past time to do so. DM
Photo: US President Donald J. Trump (2-L) and First Lady Melania Trump (2-R) welcome Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau (L) and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau (R), at the South Portico of the White House in Washington DC, USA, 11 October 2017. EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS