Saturday, September 28, 2019

Land of the Blind: A Carlo Kostner Mystery

Chapter One
: Almost President :

GENE MONTOYA HAD a way of boiling things down that rang as simplistic. But it had served him well in later years when his main tasks as an elected official were shaking hands, fundraising, and giving speeches. The rhetoric evolved but the skill set stayed the same. Personally, I found life difficult to boil down into stark black and white, us versus them formulations. Existence looked like a huge grey area.
     Now it just looks absurd.
     But that wasn’t Gene, who thought and spoke in certainties and absolutes that were reassuring to the many voters who repeatedly elected him. When we first met, for example, he was “totally opposed” to exploitive development plans being concocted by “capitalist pigs” who wanted to turn the area around Taos into a tourist destination. Ten years later, as a state Senator, he was equally certain that environmentalists were “trust fund elitists” who didn't appreciate the need of plain working people for basic services.
      Fifteen years after that, he was sure that Iraq posed a sufficient threat to its Middle East neighbors to justify crippling sanctions and bombing. But that didn’t stop him, when we met in his presidential campaign office, from thanking me for making “Outsourcing War” and calling it a “wake up call for the American people.” I suppressed a laugh when he added, “I especially loved the way you edited it, exposing those congressional hypocrites with their own words.” Instead I accepted the compliment and shared the praise with the crew.
     “You were always too modest,” he replied, pouring a glass of sparkling water I hadn’t requested. “But it’s like I tell the team: you have to package the message in a way people can hear it.”
     “You seem to be doing pretty well.”
     “We are, for a shoestring campaign that people called impossible or fringe six months ago. They told me: Nader couldn’t do it, and Sanders rejected the idea in favor of taking power in the Democratic Party. You can’t have an effective independent candidacy in this country, they said. But let’s talk about you. Rose Broadcasting, I’m impressed.”
      “I'm in shock.” It wasn’t completely candid. My real feelings were more a combination of disorientation and low-grade panic. “It took months to make the deal," I said, "and even when they made an offer, I wasn’t sure I should do it.”
      “Why the hell not? You deserve it.” This was beginning to feel uncomfortable, Gene Montoya acting like a fan, lauding my skill and professing deep admiration. Then again, he was a professional pol, and the best of them have a gift for making every person they encounter feel special, unique, the focus of their attention and sincerity.
      “I always thought you were hiding out in New Mexico,” he claimed. “I love the place, obviously, it’s my roots. But you, you came up in Los Angeles, surrounded by all that glitz and power, the image industry. And still you toss it off and go indie. I mean, didn’t your father work for Reagan?”
      He had obviously ordered up a dossier. Still, it couldn’t have been thorough since he wasn’t clear about my current situation. “So, are you still with what’s her name – the German…”
      “Renny. No, not for a while. As far as I know, she went home several years ago.”
      “Well, you’ve been with so many women, amigo, it’s hard to keep track. The Indian princess, I definitely remember her. Then Faith. You still see her, I assume, you have that great boy…”
     “Billy, yes. He’s doing fine. But you heard that his grandfather died?”
     “I know,” he said, affecting a solemnity that felt almost genuine. “A great man. You should do a film on him.”
     He was right about that. Paul Peterson wasn't only my son’s grandfather but an icon of the peace movement, a man whose dedication and simple living had inspired several generations. A descendant of President John Adams, he had rejected privilege and, after working at the Modern School in New Jersey, went on to found his own educational community, the Vermont Institute for Voluntary Action. Throughout the post-war period, during the sixties, and in the more ambiguous decades that followed, he inspired thousands through his poetry, his work at VIVA, and his exemplary lifestyle.
       “Did you know him?” I asked.
       “We met, toward the end. He visited my office with a delegation about Iraq, before the invasion. You know I didn’t support another war.”
       “Oh? What changed your mind?”
       He bristled but controlled his response. “I never wanted to go in,” he said, “but that madman had to be stopped. Now, I know people felt it was just as bad, maybe worse. But that’s the difference between staying in the opposition and working on the inside. You have to choose between flawed options. Leftists never seem to get that. You know the saying, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
        “There was nothing good about –”
       “I know, I know.” He seemed eager to keep the conversation cordial, to the point of giving ground to keep it heading in the direction he wanted. “We learn as we go. That’s why I wanted to see you. We reviewed your film and I think you’ve hit on something key, something we want to talk more about in the campaign.”
     “Great,” I said, “you should. How about calling for a congressional inquiry, starting with PIA?” I was referring to the huge private military company that was at the center of a new scandal for shooting on unarmed civilians.
     “Exactly. But I need to know I can call on you during the campaign, as an advisor.”
     “Don’t you have people for that? I just started a new job, as you know.”
     He chuckled and reached across the glass table for a friendly slap on the knee. “That’s right, I do have people. Funny, no? We were going to overthrow the system, now it’s us.”
     “Speak for yourself. I still consider myself as part of the opposition. So, what’s all this really about?”
     The question was risky since it suggested suspicion of his sincerity. I didn’t want to be intimidated but there was no way to avoid some insecurity. Not that he was the first presidential candidate I had met. In campaigns past I had interviewed Bush (the father not the son, and definitely on drugs), interrogated Ted Kennedy (as he killed the Carter presidency in 1980), shared a breakfast with Walter Mondale (skin as grey as his rumpled suit), and discussed art with Howard Baker (decent photographer, slightly disoriented). Long before that, when my father served in the GOP establishment, I also had a moment with Big Ron as he was playing California governor.
     No, what put me on edge wasn’t the proximity to power, it was the feeling that, contrary to those encounters, this candidate apparently wanted something from me rather than the reverse. In Reagan’s case, I was mad for a handful of the jelly beans on his desk.
     Gene chose to ignore my tone and used the opening to display his knowledge of the topic that I'd spent several years investigating. “Look,” he said, “we know what they’re involved in – torture, illegal surveillance, worse. Our sources say that half the budget for military operations in the Middle East is currently going to private contractors. But like the film says, it's deeper – abdicating domestic security and military operations around the world to corporations. Private interests running our foreign policy, that’s what I want to put on the front page. And I want your help.”
     “I’m flattered.” It wasn’t a lie. He had done his homework. For the next ten minutes Gene described the current state of affairs – a growing global trade in hired military services that ran the gamut from cooks and maintenance on fighter jets to communications technicians and trainers, from recruiters and generals who provide strategic expertise, to fighter pilots and commandos on the ground, an exploding sector heading toward income of $200 billion a year.
     “Gail Sahara should be looking at this,” he urged. “Hell, it should be on the evening news instead of the latest pop-tart meltdown. We’ve got to make it happen.”
     “Easier said than done. I’ve barely started work, and I doubt whether Gail or the rest of the network is going to take up the issue just because I say so.” That was an evasion. Even if it could be orchestrated, his approach – a candidate and a media executive colluding to spike up the coverage of an issue – was more than merely unethical.  But I knew Gene wouldn't see it that way. He had his sights set on the bad guys and, as always, considered himself on the side of the angels.
       “Then you need to kick some ass,” he pressed. “But sure, you have to find your own way. My point is that we are in a position, finally, where we can make a real difference. I’m not running to hear the sound of my own voice.”
     “I was wondering.”
     He paused, almost not getting it. Like many true believers, Gene suffered from a bad case of irony deficiency. He had that in common with Gail Sahara and many Roseniks. One of the main causes of what I like to call truth decay, this debilitating deficiency develops when a person can’t handle paradox or see the difference between what appears to be and what actually is, in essence when someone can’t process the endless ironies we face. Some say ridicule, irreverence, even blasphemy, can be a cure. But I think it may be more like herpes.  If you have it, the problem can remain dormant for a while. But basically you have it for life and it’s bound to flare up now and then.
     Just as I was becoming uncomfortable Gene came up with a fleeting smile and a barely perceptible nod, a delayed acknowledgement that he did realize the comment was supposed to be funny.
     “No, this isn’t about me,” he said. “The stakes are too high. I’m running on two main issues – a new foreign policy based on cooperation and getting serious about climate change. But we’ve got to break away from the old scripts being forced on the country by the Democrats and Republicans. One side says Government is the problem and we should do nothing about the global environmental crisis. The other side says it's the solution to every problem but downplays the power of corporate pirates to block every avenue of change. People know they’re being offered false choices. But they won’t accept the argument that they are simply victims. They need a new narrative based on hard truths, high aspirations and fresh possibilities, not half-truths, complaints and limits.
     “Look, Carlo.  I know we haven’t always agreed on tactics, or even the nature of the problem.” He was on a roll now. “But here we are, on the edge of an historic moment. This issue – whatever we call it, mercenary armies, privatization, soldiers of fortune – it’s potentially very powerful. But you aren’t going to break through with a documentary, and I can’t make it a top line issue without a push from the media. Corporate outlets aren’t going to help, but maybe you can, and I have to ask. Think about it.”
     As far as Gene was concerned, he'd finished the pitch and the meeting was about over. I could tell because he leaned back, glanced at the door and snuck a peek at his watch. But it was also my chance to sign on with the Montoya Movement, pass and make a graceful exit, or try to keep the discussion going. Whatever I chose it had to be now. Very soon there would be a phone call or a knock to remind him about the next pressing appointment.  
     “Ok, I’ll see what’s possible,” I offered, working out the best way to go as I spoke. “You make a strong case. But you have to understand, these people, the group that brought me in and the staff – most of whom I haven’t met – are very absorbed by their own priorities. It’s a network, but the control has been mostly at the station level, with managers and local Boards. As for Gail, I barely know her and she’s not an employee anymore. She has her own operation, and we have a contract. She has editorial autonomy. So, I’m not sure I can deliver, even if I think it would work.”
     What I wanted to add, but did not, was that Gene was delusional if he thought an independent candidate for president could drive the national debate, even with the complicity of a network that reached a small percent of the voting public and the rest of the industry considered a platform for propaganda.
     Of course, I did turn out to be wrong about Gene’s potential, but not far off about my own inability to break through Roseland provincialism. Over the next year, while I attempted to harness the unruly organization while maintaining a fragile majority on the Board, Gene’s incipient movement became the most effective national challenge to the two-party system in almost a century. Less than two months before Election Day, he was polling above 25 percent and looked like a possible winner in California and a half dozen other states. The press labeled it “Montoya’s Moment.” Had the trend continued, it's very likely that no candidate would have achieved a majority of the electoral vote, thus tossing the decision into Congress.
     Gene had also accomplished what is known inside the beltway as the “full Ginsberg,” named for Monica Lewinsky’s lawyer, who first managed the feat in January, 1998. That Sunday morning he was interviewed on five political chat shows and, contrary to Hillary Clinton, whose 2007 “Ginsberg” inadvertently led her to emit a disconcerting belly laugh during several exchanges, Gene delivered a series of pitch perfect performances that would have produced another bump in his numbers.
     But it was not to be. Less than a week later, a few days before I dropped from sight, Gene Montoya was found dead at his home, skin covered with cysts, pustules and dark eruptions, slouched in a lounge chair beside his backyard swimming pool.
     Not the campaign climax either of us envisioned.

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