Monday, March 8, 2010

DBTL 71: Conflict of Interest

This is the latest installment of the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where the Holocaust and World War II never took place. As the world enters the 1960s, the pace of change accelerates. In Europe, the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union leads to the fall of the Soviet Union itself. In the United States, the crumbling of racial segregation leads to growing violence. And in New York City, a respected journalist is about to get some bad news . . .

New York City, USA
22 November 1963

Jack Kennedy sat at his news desk while the woman powdered his face. It wasn’t a very manly position to be in, but Kennedy knew damn well that a good makeup job was the difference between looking like a human being on the television screen and looking like a three-day-old corpse. Tom Wagner had taught him that lesson – he had made the mistake of ignoring it the night of his first debate with Earl Warren, and it had ended up costing him the election.

A godawful thing to lose an election over, but Kennedy knew from personal experience that there were worse ways. The memories were twenty-three years old, now, but they still had the power to make him wince. Father had always dreamed of being the first Catholic president, and the dream had seemed to be within his grasp. Sure, he was only Senator Barkley’s running mate, but he didn’t care what Cactus Jack Garner said about the Vice-Presidency. Barkley was an old man, and if Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge could back into the White House, so could Joe Kennedy.

Then it had all come out, all the sharp dealing on Wall Street, the rum-running, even that thing with Garbo. Father always swore afterwards that if he had been a Protestant, nobody would have given a damn about any of it. Barkley had stood by Father – his Kentucky sense of honor wouldn’t let him do otherwise – and the ticket had gone down to defeat. Four years later, Barkley had run again and won, but he had done it without Joe Kennedy.

With his own ambitions blasted, Father had passed them on to his sons – and seen each one reject them in turn. Joe Junior had gone into finance, and was now as big a wheel on Wall Street as Father had ever been. Jack himself had been emboldened by his older brother’s defiance, and pursued his dream of being a reporter; now he was the anchor of the Metropolitan Evening News. Bob had stuck to the law, and now he was head of the biggest law firm in Boston.

In the end, Father found himself looking to his youngest son, and Teddy at least had not disappointed him. Two terms in the Massachusetts State Senate had earned him a reputation as a go-getter, and today he had announced that he was running for Congress.

The clock was counting down the seconds to airtime, and the makeup woman finished her touch-up and moved out of the shot. Kennedy faced the camera as the associate director counted down the last seconds and the red light came on.

“Welcome back,” said Kennedy to the camera as the next story appeared on his autocue. “Today, an attempt by Senate Democrats to filibuster the Civil Rights Act was narrowly defeated by Majority Leader Everett Dirksen, who was able to . . . .“ Kennedy went through the stories with the ease of years of practice. In due course, he gave his signature sign-off, “And that’s the news for now. Good night from Metropolitan,” and the red light above the camera went off.

Kennedy was in his dressing room taking his various medications and removing the make-up when a knock came at the door. Usually such a knock heralded the arrival of one of his numerous female admirers -- ah, the life of a television personality -- but Kennedy wasn’t expecting one tonight. He and Carol were due at his brother’s townhouse for dinner later on.

“Come in,” he called.

The door opened to reveal no less a figure than David O. Selznick, the president of the network. Whatever it was he wanted, Kennedy knew, would be important – especially since Selznick usually left the building at five o’clock sharp. That meant that he had almost certainly stayed late specifically to speak to Kennedy.

Fixing a smile on his face, Kennedy said, “Good to see you, Mr. Selznick. What brings you here at this time of night?”

Selznick did not return Kennedy’s smile, which meant that it was bad news. Kennedy began steeling himself for it.

“Jack,” said Selznick, “a situation has come up.”

“What sort of situation?” said Kennedy, as his own expression matched the other man’s somber one.

“The Board has become concerned that a conflict of interest might arise.”

“Involving me?” said Kennedy.

Selznick nodded. “Involving you. It’s your brother Edward. He just announced that he’s running for a seat in Congress, and the Board is concerned that it might not look right if you had to report on the race.”

Enough preliminaries, Kennedy decided. “Give it to me straight, Mr. Selznick.”

“Effective immediately,” said Selznick, “you are being reassigned from the anchor desk.”

Kennedy didn’t ask whether Selznick was joking. David O. Selznick wasn’t the kind of man who joked about business. “Reassigned where?”

“To Moscow.”

“I’ll be replacing Brinkley, then?” he asked.

Selznick nodded.

Despite the shock of being fired from the anchor desk, Kennedy found himself perking up. Ever since the Soviet Union had broken up, Moscow had been the scene of dramatic events. Kennedy had even found himself envying David Brinkley as he covered the upheavals accompanying Russia’s rocky transition to capitalism. In addition, Kennedy himself had picked up some Russian and made some contacts back when he was covering the Soviet occupation of Japan for the New York Journal American, so he wouldn’t be coming to Russia completely cold. “Right,” he said. “When do you want me to head on over there?”

Selznick visibly relaxed. Kennedy supposed the network president had been worried that he would cause a scene, or quit. Kennedy, though, prided himself on his self-control and professionalism. And there was no question that the Moscow bureau was one of the top field assignments at Metropolitan News.

“A week from Monday will be fine,” Selznick answered. Then, hopefully, “No hard feelings, Jack?”

“No, Mr. Selznick. I understand. You need an anchorman who can stand above the fray and be impartial.”

“If your brother loses the election,” Selznick added, “I’m sure the network will be pleased to bring you back to the anchor desk.”

Kennedy found his smile returning. “Teddy won’t lose, Mr. Selznick. He’s a Kennedy!”


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Think of all the devotchkas Jack!

As always, it's impossible to predict where this is going- awesome.

Johnny Pez said...

B, I'll let you in on a little secret: it isn't going anywhere. Having placed my alt-JFK in post-Soviet Moscow in 1963, I will now abandon him. The next installment will jump forward three years, and will be extremely silly.