The congressman stared at the black camera lens five feet before him. He was alone on this floor, but random voices and other sounds came echoing up the rotunda from below. It was hard to be quiet in a marble-tiled building. The camera operator had abandoned his post mere minutes before. No doubt he knew of the old vending machine under the fire stairs in the back hallway; the machine that was stocked weekly, but maintained prices from 1981. Ken shifted his gaze to the monitor directly beneath the lens. It showed the set of an MSNBC news desk. The anchor chair was empty. It appeared the segment he was slated for was delayed, and the anchor in New York had no intention of having a pre-interview chat with the man responsible for setting off a firestorm in America, especially when the anchor desperately opposed the views of an otherwise simple congressman from central Oklahoma. Ordinarily, a freshman congressman from “flyover country” would be a mere face in the crowd on CSPAN. Now the media had the uncomfortable task of damage control for the elites in Washington against some upstart from nowhere.
The fire door opened with a bang. The cameraman charged through the doorway. He had a chocolate bar jammed in his teeth; his labored breathing made a hissing-whistle sound as it blew through the tattered candy bar wrapper, still attached to the uneaten end of the chocolate clenched in his jaw. He had an old flip phone in his hand. “They’re ready for you,” the sweaty cameraman bleated after taking a bite from the bar. He slipped the phone into his back pocket and put an eye to the camera reticle, but kept a grip on the chocolate.
“Oh, really?” Congressman Gentner asked. He gestured at the television monitor before him. He was surprised at this revelation since the chair in New York was vacant. “There hasn’t been any movement in New York.”
“Relax, sir,” the man said with an annoyed air about him. It was obvious he didn’t volunteer to cover this interview.
Rather than get into a debate about the issue with a guy more interested in the House’s discount vending machine, Ken checked his lapel microphone and reseated the uncomfortable earpiece he was given so he could hear the anchor in New York. Speaking to the press was a responsibility all congressmen were expected to do, and turning down an interview was considered bad form and could transform into even worse in the polls. Ken wasn’t interested in that, but he did see any media flares to be a golden opportunity to drive home the points he had made the day before. They were already concocting their narrative. He knew the stakes.
When Ken looked back at the monitor, the empty chair in New York was now occupied. The anchor was glaring at him; his nose and chin were pointed at his desk, and his eyes were brimming just below a contracted set of eyebrows and drawn forehead. It wasn’t a pleasant look. “Are you ready, congressman?” the anchor asked. His words sounded thick with either disgust or unbridled hatred.
“Of course. I’ve been ready, thank you,” Ken said politely. “I wouldn’t suggest you have that look on your face when you are live. People will think you’re about to vomit.”
The anchor’s head swiveled upward. His nostrils were thinned as if he were inhaling to extinguish a flicker of anger. “We are about to go live. We had to take an extended break because the President is speaking about the fiscal cliff. I’m sure they are talking about your antics on the House floor, too,” he added. It was obvious the anchor prepared for dicey interviews in the same manner as he was at this moment. Ken restrained the urge to enter a debate. The anchor was trying to stoke up an angry posture with him. The anchor’s eyes shifted off-camera. He gave a silent acknowledgement to someone in the studio in New York. “Alright, Congressman Gentner,” he said. His eyes were still looking off-camera. “We are coming back for a mid-commercial pitch for the next segment. I’ll make the pitch, and the camera will flash to you for a brief moment. You can either nod or just smile, but please don’t speak,” he said with a condescending tone, “the theme music will be background to my voiceover anyway .”
Ken wondered what would be best.
The anchor ticked up his tone and squared his jaw. He was speaking to his audience now. “When we come back, we will speak with Congressman Ken Gentner of Oklahoma and find out what he was thinking yesterday when he played Judas with the House of Representatives and insulted America.”
Ken’s eyes shot open and his jaw dropped, but it didn’t matter. It seemed the sweaty cameraman beamed footage of him from a few moments before from when he was nervously adjusting his earpiece and lapel microphone. Ken didn’t know if he should feel insulted or relieved.
“Okay,” the anchor said sharply, “we’re at commercial for about 60 seconds.” Ken tried to maintain calm, but he couldn’t let this one go. “Judas? Really?” he asked the monitor. “What kind of crap was that?” “Relax, congressman,” the anchor said with a sarcastic, dismissive tone. “I’ve been at this since you were in high school. Right now, people across America are calling every friend they can to get them to tune in to watch what you have to say. I’m doing you a favor,” he said with a smirk.
“Well, your ratings could use a boost, so you probably needed that jab,” Ken said dismissively. That felt good.
The anchor’s lips uncurled quickly, they had three seconds. “Welcome back,” the anchor began, “yesterday a few nerds watching CSPAN got a cheap thrill as an Oklahoma congressman went on a tear about the state of our country. Whether you love him, hate him, or don’t know him, Congressman Ken Gentner of Oklahoma joins us from the Rotunda on Capitol Hill.” Another monitor—this one was on the floor—sprang to life. It showed Ken’s face. He gave a curt nod and reminded himself to stay focused on the upper monitor and lens. “Congressman, I think the natives are restless at this hour. Both your colleagues and the President seemed pretty fumed at your outburst yesterday. What did you think of what the President just talked about?” The anchor asked.
Ken silently cleared his throat. “Thank you for having me on your show. I didn’t get a chance to hear what the president was saying, as I was on standby here waiting to go on the air with you.”
“Didn’t your staff hand you a brief while we were at commercial?” The anchor shrugged slowly. He was building toward a rant.
“No,” Ken replied. “I sent my staff home for the holiday. I was about to head out after this interview, too. It seemed that since Washington is waiting on solving the looming problems until after Christmas, I figured I’d release my staff to go home to their families. But that’s not why we’re here.”
“You’re right. We’re here to find out what’s going on in that head of yours. But before we do, let’s recap what you said on the House floor yesterday.”
The monitor below shifted from Ken’s image to an overhead view of him at the House floor. It was the CSPAN camera, and he was wearing yesterday’s suit.
“My fellow Americans, may this statement be replayed across America. I come to you today as a man sent to represent the people of my district in Oklahoma and I am an American in distress over the state of our nation. I do not address the members of this Congressional body; I am speaking to you at home. Everyone in this chamber swore an oath. We were not hired; we were elected to represent the people of our districts. Ask yourself: ‘am I being represented?’ and do you even know who we are? America, your nation is being stolen from you while you sleep.”
A growing series of boos erupted from off-camera.
“Do you really think your country would be in this state if every American paid attention to what was going on in Washington? Do you think the media, yes—the media, would act the way they do? Let me fill you in on a dirty secret: those people on TV and in the papers you entrust will telling you what is going on in the world spend most of their time fawning over career politicians so they can obtain exclusive access to cocktail parties. They sell their journalistic integrity for access to these divas you keep blindly re-electing to rob the nation of liberty and riches.”
Shadows of men began shuffling in the foreground as if they were attempting escape, or they were going to rush the lone speaker to beat him for his caustic words.
“If every one of you held your elected leaders to the standard of what you believe they should behave, and tell your friends and family to do the same, how much better would our nation be? Do you hear their boos and curses around me? They are hoping you don’t move on my words. They are already calling their staff to get a narrative fashioned to condemn me for what I’m saying. They are crafting a way to dehumanize me, show pictures of my family to the world, and say I’m just some dumb guy from Oklahoma. They will play the race card, call up acquaintances from my past to say I’m eccentric or crazy…all to keep you opiated on the belief that you don’t need to pay attention to what we are doing here in Washington, and they have everything under control. Is this the most prosperous time of your life? Have you been led to believe that Wall Street and wars and tax cuts put us in such dire straits? You are being manipulated.”
The boos continued.
“Our American system is the most brilliant government ever conceived. But government’s natural state is to grow. We have to accept the fact that governments want to become larger—sometimes unbeknownst to all of us. Through a constant stream of regulations, a small pebble at the peak of a mountain begins the eventual landslide destined to destroy everything in its path. Before we know it, we lie in ruin, and nobody knows how we got there. It’s not too late. We have the opportunity to turn it all around. We have to be consciously aware that we have the responsibility to keep our government in check. Like a child, we need to be supervised, but in this example, the parents are negligent. I am just a man from a small town in Oklahoma. I believe in America. I believe in what I was elected to do, but not enough of us do. We have a responsibility as Americans to participate in freedom. Most of us don’t vote, and many of those who do vote don’t pay attention to the candidates or what they really stand for. Most just simply vote on a feeling, or what they hear through the twisted prism of the media who play lapdog to most of this establishment. Please hear my words, hold me to a standard, and pay attention to my deeds.”
The replay ended, and the MSNBC anchor’s angry face reappeared. Ken readjusted his feet and braced for what came next. He noticed the camera operator had found more snacks in his equipment bag and was seated at the base of the camera tripod.
“Well, Congressman Gentner,” the anchor began. His tone was on the edge of snapping. “It seems you made quite an impression. Do you really think we are in bed with the House of Representatives?”
So it begins.
“If you really weren’t kissing the feet of government, you would be doing your jobs of reporting the news instead of trying to debate me on the issue. You and your colleagues are emotionally compromised and you sold your integrity down the river. I’m quite serious,” Ken replied.
“You have a lot of nerve coming on my show and continuing your rant from yesterday, congressman,” he shouted. “You could have taken this opportunity to walk back your words and regain whatever credibility you freshmen in the House have in hopes you aren’t reassigned by your party to some meaningless committee where you’ll wither on the vine before you fade into obscurity or mediocrity! This show has that kind of influence—one way or the other.”
Ken Gentner smiled.
“What, Congressman Gentner, is something funny?”
“I’m just looking forward to the hearing the meltdown over your foolishness. Blogs, late night television…even your masters in government and at your network...they are all going to eat you alive. You’ve proven my point more than even I could articulate. Tomorrow, you’re going to wake up to a whole new nightmare, and with God’s help, our government will be writhing in nervous fear over just what an awakened American electorate can do to a den of thieves and liars. God bless America.” Ken began removing his lapel microphone. He shifted his gaze to the cameraman on the floor who had dropped his snacks and offered a thumbs-up to the congressman.
The red-faced anchor shrieked in rage. “WE ARE NOT FINISHED, CONGRESSMAN!”
Ken wrapped the microphone wire around his fist, leaned toward the camera, raised the microphone to his lips, and winked. “Yes, you are.”
Congressman Gentner dropped the microphone and walked away. There was work to be done.