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Oct 6, 2012

Freedom Fries --- Chapter 1: Lynx News (part 1)

The place looks best at dusk, she thought. The oak trees across the pond outside had already turned dark, casting their black profile across the lawn, but the western sky was still alight in vivid orange. It was very quiet now around Chapel Hill Farm; she could hear the silence. The place looks best at dusk, she thought again, but when do I look best? She turned to the mirror next to the fridge and studied her reflection.

Anyhow, she was finally done with the dishes, so she picked up the tea things---already prepared---and crossed into the living room for a quiet evening with her husband. As always, he had offered to help, but tonight she had gently turned him down. There were days when the silverware disliked him, chinking and clanging in his hands as if there was a problem, and today had been one of those days, and she would not have been able to handle more clanging in her kitchen. In fact, the silverware had become increasingly argumentative lately. Her nerves? His nerves? Her nerves?

 US House of Representatives member Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio),
announcing the renaming of French fries to Freedom Fries in 2003. 

Doubya was already installed in the sateen slouch chair in front of the TV, the shiny cowboy boots resting on the matching pouf, his left hand resting on his crotch. Hussein's gun was lying next to him on the coffee table; he must have played with it while she was in the kitchen. My God, she hated this gun---the gun that Hussein had carried when being apprehended by the American forces while hiding in a hole in the ground. Didn't the piece belong to the American people? Its proper place was in a museum. How could he just take it home? She had actually raised the question with Fredo, the pliable attorney general. The Museum of the War of Choice, she had suggested helpfully, but to no avail.

Doubya greeted her arrival with his trademark grin, pointed to the empty chair next to him with the left shiny boot, and, grinning some more, turned his head to the television set where Betty Bartholomeo, the Lynx anchor, was already in command. “It's a special about us,” Bush said. He took up the gun and swung it around his index finger. Laura followed his every movement with her eyes, hoping he would notice, but Doubya’s attention was already fixed on the anchor. Laura sat down.

Bartholomeo had been a vigorous presence in the living room ever since their return from Washington, her blond wig resolutely strapped over her big head, the horse hair falling into a face with broad cheeks, large lips and a long, aquiline nose, not to mention the strong chin, an odd mix of features that did little---or everything---to explain the anchor's popularity. Her small breasts stood out. No, Betty wasn't pretty in the usual way of conservative ice queens, but she had the screaming presence of the closet transsexual that she actually was.

“And he led America successfully through its worst trauma in decades, many say its worst trauma ever,” Betty went, while the screen switched to footage of the Twin Towers’ attack. “2966 victims died in the attack,” she continued, as desperate individuals, trapped by the flames, jumped off the burning towers and trundled along the still-erect structure to their certain death. “The nation rallied around its leader, whose approval ratings soared to unprecedented heights…”

Cut. Fortunately. Cut to an oversized, animated graph titled Bush Approval Ratings, which rose in slow motion from fifty five percent to eighty six, past seventy, eighty, and ninety percent, while Betty continued:”… at one point reaching ninety two percent, in itself a historic, and unprecedented, achievement.” Betty’s “92” was timed exactly with the “92” on the screen. She raised her shoulders, and leaned forward across the polished anchor desk. A moment of truth.

-“History's justice is our subject tonight,” Betty pronounced, but the moment of truth didn't quite materialize as Doubya turned to Laura, and, swinging his gun, interrupted: “Well, make no mistake, the Freedom Fries were stupid.”

Laura couldn't concentrate. ”You always make me nervous with that gun of Hussein of yours,” she said. Doubya stopped the swinging, but insisted:”The Freedom Fries were stupid.”

-“The House canteen isn’t edible, whether French or liberated.”
- “I wonder if they are still called Freedom Fries, they made us look stupid.”
-“No, they are not”---she knew those things.
-“Not a good excuse. They made us look stupid.”
-”From a French point of view you look stupid anyhow.”

Betty intervened, thankfully: “Armchair pundits later blamed the administration, and the Nine Eleven Commission complained…” ---on the screen, an animated human hand was leafing through a forbiddingly oversized report, one of these bookworks that nobody wants to read--- “…that the domestic agencies never mobilized in response to the threat, and that the terrorists exploited deep institutional failings within our government, but the fact of the matter is that NineEleven was essentially an act of God, for which not the Bush administration, but others, bear responsibility. Reverend Falwell…”

The famous reverend materialized from nowhere, took position under Lynx’s bright studio lights, his jowls properly hanging, a halo firmly strapped over his head---no, let’s take that back, she was fantasizing, there was no halo---and took over: “Throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionist got to bear some burden for this, because God will not be mocked when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad, I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists…”

Laura had heard this before.


Samuel Fisher sat in one of his many Eames Aluminum Chairs at the big conference table when Betty Bartholomeo was ushered into the splendid office of the media mogul. Crossing through the translucent crystal doors into his ulterior world, she smiled the smile of corporate worship, and Fisher reciprocated in kind. He waved her lightly into the chair next to himself, turned his head, and pointed with his chin to a gargantuan screen on the opposite wall, where the famous Reverend Falwell was holding forth:

“…we make God mad, I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians, who were actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, people for the American Life, all of them, who tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen’.” The Reverend lowered his jowls accordingly.

Betty’s image reappeared on the screen, while the real Betty was feeling markedly uncomfortable next to Fisher. It was never a good sign when the boss was asking you to come watch your own show, but her other self on the screen didn’t know and continued cheerfully: “Our theme tonight is History’s Justice, and George W. Bush understood that, next to others, Saddam Hussein also bore responsibility for NineEleven.”

Betty now shared a split screen with Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state. Dr. Rice had been the first female black cabinet secretary in history, which was a big thing, and possibly the biggest thing in her life. She was not a good listener, but Rice had to listen this time, because she was trapped in the canned footage of an appearance on Lynx in 2002, six month before the war. Betty continued: “Saddam Hussein was a dictator who, for years, had been menacing the world with the threat of the possibility of the suspicion of the eventuality of nuclear warheads---Dr. Rice….”

Rice opened her mouth:”We know that he has the infrastructure, nuclear scientists to make a nuclear weapon. And we know that when the inspectors assessed this after the Gulf War, he was far, far closer to a crude nuclear device than anybody thought.”

The split ladies faded abruptly into darkness---which then exploded into a blinding fireball across the screen. Rice’s voice survived, however: “He was maybe six months from a crude nuclear device. The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly Hussein can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” On cue, the fireball transmogrified into a mushroom cloud. A poignant moment.

Betty relaxed a bit. A good show, she thought, eying Fisher; he can’t be too unhappy. The media mogul felt her gaze, lowered the TV sound per hand wave, and turned his head to two other screens mounted next to the first one on the palisander-paneled wall. One displayed a large chart, containing 6 graphs, in various colors, plus a thicker line, in white. The graphs were animated, so to see; they appered to react to her broadcast. The last screen displayed more charts under the heading Overall Ratings History. All those charts were pointing south.

“Basic emotions, you understand,” Fisher said to her with his signature South-African accent. “You know that we measure sample households for the ratings. Household members carry individual devices, People Meters, which connect wirelessly. Now, the latest models, top secret, they can sense the basic, raw emotions of human subjects, you understand?” He pointed to the second screen, with its 7 animated graphs. “The meters can sense fear, anger, disgust, sadness, joy, and surprise, all in real-time. Sort of telepathic. You see the colored graphs? Fear is yellow, anger is red, disgust is purple … see it?” Yes, she could see it, they were actually labeled; joy was orange, surprise was green, and sadness was blue.

Fisher got up, excited now, and waved at the TV screen again. The sound of Betty’s show returned, while her anchor personality was saying: “President Bush came down hard on the Iraq dictator, who was toppled in a blitzkrieg of only 42 days with a minimum of casualties on our side.”

G.W. Bush on aircraft carrier Abram Lincoln on May 1, 2003

Anchor Bartholomeo was replaced by footage of President Bush landing in a combat jet on the aircraft carrier Abram Lincoln. Dressed smartly in a brand-new combat suit, the commander in chief deplaned, beamed, shook the hands of his beaming sailors, strode across the flight deck, and took position behind a lectern, while a huge banner with the text “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” watched over the unfolding scene from the ship’s control tower, flapping lightly in the breeze.

Meanwhile, the basic emotions on Fisher’s second screen had been getting agitated. Joy and surprise were shooting up, sadness was down, fear was rising, while the thick white line, whose meaning Fisher hadn’t explained, shot through the roof.

“Major combat operations in Iraq have ended,” Bush read from a cue card. “In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”

Perhaps it was the cue card, but joy and surprise took a step back, and the mysterious white line was losing exuberance. Fisher felt Betty’s puzzlement. He lowered the sound by hand, and said:”The white line sums it all up. It’s a secret formula that translates raw feelings into one number.” He was full of himself now. “And that number is receptiveness. Receptiveness means business. The right mix of fear, anger, disgust, sadness, joy, and surprise. A secret formula. Secretissimo. It’s already called the Fisher formula, although I didn’t invent it, I have my minions. Anyhow, receptiveness it is. Receptive viewers stay with the show … and … buy the pitch of the next commercial.

He sat down. Then he got up again, performed a full pirouette on his left Gucci loafer, and cheered: “Kassa, kassa!”

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