The Truth in a Moment
by John Fite Rebrovick
Friday, July 4, 2008
“Call me Paco.”
Short but powerfully built, Juan Carlos Fernandez de la Vega put forth a welcoming hand and a broad smile.
He wore an Italian tailored suit highlighted by a richly dyed green and red silk tie. His dark brown eyes, framed by ink black hair swept back from his forehead, locked onto the blue eyes of his American counterpart.
“Then Paco it is,” replied Senator Thomas George Frederick, bowing slightly. Señor de la Vega, as governor of the state of Mexico and presumed to be on his way to the presidency of the republic, was roughly Senator Frederick’s equal in political stature.
“And please call me Tommy.”
The Senator, at six feet four inches and two hundred forty pounds, dominated the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton. He wore a brown vested suit with gold fob, and cowboy boots. A small crowd had paused to watch as he entered. Several people had already approached to ask for his autograph.
He caught the eye of a Secret Service officer standing close to the doors, then stepped forward and leaned in close to speak privately to his guest.
“Paco, I hope you’ll excuse my lack of manners. We’ve had a last minute change of plans. I’ve had to postpone our meeting with Senator Valenzuela this afternoon.”
Señor de la Vega’s face stiffened. It was not the first time he had suffered an agenda change by an American politician.
“It’s not what you think, Paco,” Senator Frederick continued quickly. “True, the immigration meetings will have to be put off until tomorrow. I’m sorry. But I have a surprise for you in my limousine. She should make up for the inconvenience.”
Señor de la Vega raised his eyebrows, still smiling at the Senator.
“Ah, Senator Frederick... excuse me, Tommy... I appreciate the gesture. I have been offered such favors before. But I must tell you, I am faithful to my wife.”
Senator Frederick laughed so loudly that those in the lobby who were not already looking at the impressive pair turned to see. He rested a hand on Señor de la Vega’s shoulder and leaned in close again.
“Paco, you’ll have to trust me on this.”
“But my security...”
“I know. I know. You don’t have to explain. Listen, the limo driver is head of my personal security squad. Even the Secret Service lets him call the shots. I suggest you put one of your men in the front seat with him.”
Señor de la Vega glanced at one of his bodyguards, then scanned the floor as if searching for a decision in the designs of the carpet. He looked up at the Senator again.
“You know, Tommy, it is very dangerous for me now.”
Senator Frederick read no fear in Señor de la Vega’s face, but rather an acquired mistrust between the lines of his serious expression.
“If you’ll just step outside and take a look in the limo,” Senator Frederick said, forcing a smile, “you’ll understand.”
Señor de la Vega bowed to the Senator and turned decisively toward the door. A bodyguard instinctively moved ahead of the two statesmen. Another fell in behind them. The tinted rear window of the black Mercedes rolled down as they approached. A young woman’s face leaned out, beaming at Señor de la Vega.
“¿Eva Maria, eres tu de verdad?”
Señor de la Vega raised his hands and made the sign of the cross, smiling broadly.
“Yes, it’s really me, Papi. What’s taking you so long? Hurry, get in!”
Señor de la Vega turned to the Senator.
“Senator Tommy, I... If I had only known my daughter was here...”
“Don’t worry about it, Paco,” Senator Frederick laughed. “Just get your bodyguards squared away and climb on in. Believe it or not, this isn’t the only surprise I have for you today.”
* * *
The long black Mercedes worked slowly through the streets of Washington. Eva Maria sat in the rear seat holding her father’s hand, talking. Senator Frederick sat across from them facing the back, silent. He knew that he had to allow Eva Maria and her father time to visit.
Eva Maria had been told nothing of the Senator’s real purpose for seeing her father. The Senator had initially opposed involving her at all, yet the others on the command team had insisted that she be present. It was the only way, they argued, to ensure that Señor de la Vega would willingly deviate from the formal agenda.
“Bait,” Senator Frederick thought to himself now, feeling a bit guilty, “and switch.”
The Senator’s command of Spanish was spotty at best. As far as he could tell, Eva Maria was rattling on about her job in Nashville. She was a thirtyish mestiza beauty, olive skinned and graceful, as tall as her father. She wore a gray wool business suit that complemented her eyes and a white silk blouse with wide lapels.
“Take a breath, girl,” the Senator wanted to say. “Let me get a word in.”
Looking through the rear window, he spotted two cars trailing the limousine. One was a Crown Victoria, the other a Volvo. Señor de la Vega’s men had to be in the Volvo.
All was going according to plan so far, Senator Frederick concluded. It was finally time to act. As the Mercedes pulled up the ramp and entered the Beltway, he cleared his throat.
“Paco,” the Senator said in his deep voice, “our time is short and I have a lot to say.”
Eva and her father looked up in unison as if they had forgotten the Senator was riding with them. He glanced at his wristwatch.
“It is now just past three. I have to be at CNN at six. I’m going to be on Larry King’s show tonight. He thinks I’m going to announce that I’m dropping out of the Democratic Party to run as an independent.”
Senator Frederick felt that Señor de la Vega’s were eyes probing his own carefully.
“But I’m going to do something much bigger than that, Paco. That’s why we’re meeting like this right now. You need to know about it.”
“I need to know?”
“Yes. What I’m going to propose to the American people tonight will have an impact on Mexico far beyond amnesty for illegal immigrants.”
The Senator could see that Señor de la Vega was hooked. Now to reel him in. Slowly, he thought. Don’t give too much slack, nor pull too hard lest the hook slip out.
He pointedly made occasional eye contact with Eva Maria as he spoke. Her eyes were not brown as one would expect, yet neither green nor blue. She stared at the Senator with an intensity which would have given him pause had he not been so focused on the task at hand.
“You know, Paco, I’m in my second term as a Senator,” he continued. “Twelve years I’ve been doing this, though I never intended to get into politics. I did it out of a sense of duty to my country.
“I came very close to not running for my second term. I was disgusted at having to compromise my principles time after time to get anything done at all in Washington. And I was ashamed to be the symbol to my constituents of a system, to put it plainly, full of liars, cheats, and thieves.”
Señor de la Vega leaned back in his seat, raising his eyebrows.
“You are talking of the United States Senate, Señor Tommy?”
Senator Frederick’s tilted his head slightly forward, yet he still looked up directly at Señor de la Vega from under a knit brow.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve found a few men of true principle, but they’re the exception. The rest are all show. They put on a great act, but one way or another they’re on the take.
“They’re professional politicians, most of them. That’s all they’ve ever done. They’ve never run a business, won or lost a client, watched their income drop in a recession. They’ve never generated the money to make a payroll or pay back an investor. They’ve never had their loan called by the bank. All they really know of capitalism is buying votes and lining their pockets by doling out favors.”
Señor de la Vega sat back further in his seat as Senator Frederick leaned forward.
“Señor Tommy, I do not know what to think. Why are you telling me this? I find it strange that you would choose to tell me, a foreigner, such unpleasant things.”
Senator Frederick’s eyes and shoulders relaxed.
“No doubt, Señor Paco,” he laughed, settling back into his seat as well. “Pardon me for blowing off steam. From what I’ve just said, you’d think I was a hopeless cynic.”
“No, Señor Tommy, I would think you were Mexican.”
Senator Frederick squinted at the other two, then roared with laughter and loosened his tie.
“I’ve done my research,” he continued, smiling. “I know a good deal about your career and your character, Señor Paco. Frankly I think we have a lot in common.”
Señor de la Vega, his face devoid of emotion, stared at Senator Frederick, who seemed to be waiting for a response. Eva Maria sat sideways to her father, holding one of his hands in both of hers, studying him. He smiled slightly as he began to speak, but his eyes held their intensity.
“Though I joke with you, Senator Tommy, I think I understand you. Not long into my term as governor, I decided I would run for president. But I have found that not many people are interested in what I have really accomplished—the innocent men whose freedom I have protected, the jobs I have helped create, the corrupt bureaucrats whom I have managed to root out.
“Instead, they care about what my wife is wearing to the state dinner. The vacation we took in Cuba. Our ranch in Michoacan. Whether or not President Fox and I were friends. And, of course, this rebellious daughter of mine who works in the United States.”
“I have always been your black sheep, haven’t I, Papi?” Eva Maria laughed, and turned to wink at Senator Frederick. Though they had just met and she had hardly spoken to him, Senator Frederick felt the same sort of confidence in Eva Maria that her father exuded.
“The issues,” continued Señor de la Vega, turning back to the Senator, “the well being and future of my country—they seem to have the least importance in the political world. Yet they are the only reason I stopped practicing law and ran for office in the first place.
“And now that I am supposedly next in line to become president of Mexico, it is worse than ever. I still cannot get our journalists to focus on the real problems. They are more interested in the fact that our President wears cowboy boots like your President, and I do not.”
Senator Frederick looked down at his own boots and laughed.
“That is perhaps the only point which your President and I have in common,” he said. “In fact, I never wore boots until I ran for the Senate, and then I just did it on a lark one time when I spoke at an FFA convention. But now I won’t wear anything else. The press likes to say that I do it to look like a cowboy, but it’s really my way of saying, ‘I have to walk through a lot of manure.’”
Señor de la Vega smiled and looked up thoughtfully.
“In that regard then I, too, should wear boots.”
Senator Frederick laughed.
“I think, Paco, that we should have met much sooner. I feel that we could be old friends.”
He checked his watch once more.
“But forgive me, I have to stick to business now before our time runs out,” he sighed. “We are on the verge of an historic turn in American—and perhaps Mexican— history. You need to know what my colleagues and I are up to. I’m hoping you’ll want to be a part of it.”
Señor de la Vega inspected the Senator’s face as if a detective trying to make sense of a new crime scene. Eva mirrored her father’s curiosity, scooting closer to him.
But the Senator’s attention was now fixed out the rear window. The Crown Victoria had fallen back some distance and had been joined by an identical car. Each straddled two lanes to block the traffic behind them from passing, isolating Señor de la Vega’s Volvo and the limousine ahead of the pack.
Motorcades conducted in this manner snarled traffic every time, infuriating commuters. The Senator had forbidden the practice in Birmingham when he got Secret Service protection, but it was commonplace in Washington. He wondered why such a maneuver was necessary for their limousine today. The less attention, the better.
He forced his eyes back to Señor de la Vega.
“Paco, I need to tell you a little story.
“When I was trying to decide whether to run for reelection in 2002, like I said, I had pretty much made up my mind to get out. Everybody in the party and every lobbyist who ever thought he had my ear was pushing me to run again. I really wasn’t listening to any of them. But then a friend named Vince Garoni got to me.”
“I know him,” Señor de la Vega interrupted immediately. “I did the legal work for a bottling plant he set up in Tlaxcala about twenty years ago. He is a caballero, a fine gentleman.”
The Senator sighed, relieved that he had scored on the personal connection.
“Well, Paco,” he continued, “Vince hit me in my soft spot. He said that he knew of no one who loved and protected our Constitution more passionately than I, and that I was one of the few honest men in Congress. Then he put it bluntly to me. He told me that if I did not run again, I would be selling out as badly as the guys who were on the take. That if I didn’t keep my seat in the Senate, a less scrupulous man would take it, and it would be my fault—like a sin of omission.
“Paco, that was the last thing I wanted to hear, but my conscience made me hear him out. Vince had nothing to gain from me. He wasn’t a constituent and wasn’t even a Democrat any more—he supported Bush over Kerry in 2004.
“Basically he made me feel like the kid with his finger in the dike. So I stayed in and won reelection and here I am still a Senator, and even a presidential contender, though I’ve had many a sleepless night wondering what good I’m doing.”
He paused, glancing again out the rear window. The limousine had picked up speed but everything was unchanged otherwise. The Crown Victorias still held traffic back.
“Vince wasn’t through with me, though,” he continued, “Not too long after that, he invited me down for a weekend with a couple of other guys at a farm outside Nashville. They had these retreats every few months. I think they did more drinking than hunting and fishing, but they also did a lot of serious talking about where our country was headed. They were convinced that the system was broken and that a sea change was necessary for the future of the United States.
“Their thinking boiled down to this: America had become a country that championed the weak and penalized the strong. The system had indeed been inspired by the Constitution, but after two hundred years had wandered far astray. It had shifted from local self-rule to rule by federal mandates. And what’s worse, the people had become disenfranchised. They no longer believed their votes counted, so there was no way to fix it from within.
“Then 9-11 hit, of course, and all the changes in American life and spirit after that. The federal government had failed at its one essential duty, to keep our borders secure. Despite all the billions we’ve pumped into the C.I.A., the F.B.I., and the military, they failed miserably.
“Bottom line, the point is that the government is no longer by the People, of the People, and for the People. It has divorced itself from the People and become a thing of its own. Despite our military and economic power, if something isn’t done quick to fix it, America as we’ve known it is doomed to be brought down from both within and without, just like the Roman Republic.”
Senator Frederick pulled a bottle of water from the door compartment and took a drink.
“Hell,” he said, looking down at his hands, “I feel like I’m talking around the point instead of getting to it.”
“No, Senator Tommy,” said Señor de la Vega without hesitating. “You are not. Not for me. I feel that I know exactly what you are saying.
“I have always felt that Mexico has everything it needs to be a first world country. We are a smart, hard working people. We are rich with natural resources. The only thing we lack is good government. It is far removed from the hearts and minds of our people.
“Please continue. Perhaps you have an answer for Mexico, too, in your search to fix your own country’s problems.”
The Senator fixed his gaze on Señor de la Vega’s.
“Funny you should say that,” Senator Frederick said quietly, then looked away.
“Paco, I flew choppers in Vietnam. I’m as ready to lay down my life today for my country as I was then. Yet as soon as I get off Larry King’s show tonight, I’m going to be called an anarchist and accused of being an enemy of the American people. The full force of the entrenched political system is going to be lined up against me.
“We’ve done our best to prepare for this moment in secrecy but already it seems that the cat is out of the bag. My men have stopped two assassination attempts already. Thank God we’ve been able to keep it out of the press. Too many people make too good a living off the system as it is now and they’re going to fight any kind of change. From this day forward, I’m a marked man.”
Senator Frederick glanced out the window, then briefly returned his eyes to Señor de la Vega’s.
“But I am ready.”
* * *
Though he felt the conversation was going as well as could be hoped, Senator Frederick was increasingly distracted by odd maneuvers on the road behind them. The Crown Victorias had fallen further back and were swerving violently from side to side. He could make out blue lights flashing behind them.
“Shit!” he said suddenly aloud.
Señor de la Vega looked at him in surprise, then turned to look out the rear window. The limousine surged forward and the glass partition of the driver’s compartment slammed open.
“Sir!” the driver yelled at Senator Frederick, not taking his eyes off the road. “We’ve got a problem! Duck and hold on tight!”
The limousine had just passed an entrance ramp. The driver left them little time to react, hitting the brakes and cutting the wheel sharply to the right, reversing the direction of the long vehicle in one quick move and roaring down the ramp, forcing oncoming cars off the road.
Senator Frederick in English and Señor de la Vega in Spanish both yelled through the glass panel at the same time.
“What the hell is going on?!”
“¡¿Que paso hombre?!”
“We’re under attack, sir! Stay down!”
Eva Maria pointed out a side window from the floor of the car.
“There’s a helicopter chasing us!”
Senator Frederick shifted position to see the chopper. It was a civilian model with radio station markings.
“Nevermind,” Eva Maria said. “It’s a news team.”
“No,” Senator Frederick corrected her quickly, pushing her head down. “Media choppers don’t have a guy with an Uzi hanging out the side.”
The limousine bottomed out as it swung off the ramp and onto a side street. Four loud pops against the rear window cracked the glass and the Mercedes engine roared to full throttle.
“Hospital coming up!” the driver yelled back through the window. “I’m pulling into the emergency entrance and under the canopy for cover. Get ready to jump out. We’ll keep going to throw them off.”
Again the limousine careened suddenly off its forward path in a quickly executed U-turn. It pulled up to the emergency entrance and screeched to a halt between two ambulances. Señor de la Vega’s man jumped out and ran to the rear of the limousine.
“Go!” barked the driver.
The Senator, Eva Maria, and Señor de la Vega piled quickly out and ran through the glass doors of the hospital as the limousine roared off behind them. Their arrival was hardly noticed in the chaotic waiting room. With Senator Frederick leading they walked briskly toward double doors which opened to a treatment ward. A security guard stepped forward to stop them but backed off when he recognized the Senator.
Once through the double doors, they stopped. Senator Frederick looked through one of the door windows back to the waiting room.
“Nobody’s followed us into the hospital yet,” he said, then motioned toward a door to his left. “In here. Quickly.”
They all hurried through the door. It opened to a patient’s room hardly larger than the gurney it held. An elderly woman lay gasping in a breathing apparatus as they crowded around her.
“Excuse the intrusion, ma’am,” the Senator said, looking down at her apologetically. “We’ll just be a minute.”
She seemed unaware that he had even spoken. He turned to Señor de la Vega.
“Paco, I’m safe as long as I’m in a public place. Everybody knows me. I can make it from here to CNN. The Secret Service will have to make sure of it.
“But you and Eva Maria are in great danger, even now. Obviously, there’s no time to explain. You need to get out of here and work your way through the building to the discharge area. Get a taxi from there and disappear. You’ll be on your own for a while. God help you.”
He turned to Eva Maria.
“Get a rental car. Drive to Nashville. Your boss will know what to do from there. He’ll get your father hooked back up with his security team.”
Eva Maria stood holding Señor de la Vega’s hand, breathless, gaping at the Senator.
“My boss? Hatch? Senator Frederick, what in God’s name is going on?!”
Señor de la Vega grabbed her by the shoulders.
“Cariña! Señor Tommy is right. We must go. Now is not the time for questions.”
She looked at him, tears in her eyes.
“Oh Papi...” she started, then hugged him and turned to Senator Frederick again, anger shooting through her tears.
“Hatch is involved in this somehow, isn’t he?”
“Listen, hon,” Senator Frederick laughed stiffly, one hand on the doorknob. “I tried to tell him you shouldn’t be here. You’ll have to take that up with him when you get to Nashville.”
Turning from her, he opened the door and scanned the hallway.
“Go!” he said.
Señor de la Vega pulled Eva Maria through the door. They hurried past interns and nurses toward the interior of the building.
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