Today on Project Gutenberg #41

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Hail to the Chief by Randall Garrett

I know, I know, we’re all sick and tired of hearing about presidential elections. But this one’s gonna be fun, I promise.

This story comes to us from the February 1962 issue of Analog Science Fact and Science Fiction. It was written by prolific 20th-century science fiction and fantasy author Randall Garrett, using the pseudonym “Sam and Janet Argo.” Garrett was apparently a very bizarre dude, to put it lightly. His best-known works are the Lord Darcy stories published in the 1960s, which are murder mysteries set in an alternate universe where the Plantagenets have ruled England and France for centuries and magic studies take the place of modern science. You’ll probably be relieved to learn that today’s story is not nearly this strange.

Hail to the Chief takes place in a United States almost but not quite our own, in what was then the present day. The nameless incumbent President is challenged for his seat by James Cannon, a charismatic and popular senator who wins his party’s nomination in a landslide. When it comes time to choose a running mate, however, Cannon surprises everyone by choosing an unremarkable attorney general named Matthew Fisher. The rest of Cannon’s team argues that Fisher lacks the image and campaign prowess needed to get elected, but that’s exactly why Cannon wants him. The two men become a formidable political team as they hit the campaign trail, dealing with challenges at home and abroad. Cannon provides the charm, while Fisher provides the brains. But once they win the Presidency, Cannon will be able to set his real plan for Fisher — and the whole country — into motion.

Although this was published in a sci-fi magazine, only two plot points really stick out as fitting that genre. The rest of the story is surprisingly down to earth and focused on a more mundane affair: the delicate dance of politics and elections. What happens when a person who possesses the right skills for leadership doesn’t possess the skills of a politician. That is, what if they don’t have the charisma, connections and minor sociopathy needed to actually get elected? How might such a person get maneuvered into a leadership position? This story imagines that very scenario, and the way it plays out is eerie in how believable it becomes by the end.

The tumult in Convention Hall was a hurricane of sound that lashed at a sea of human beings that surged and eddied around the broad floor. Men and women, delegates and spectators, aged party wheelhorses and youngsters who would vote for the first time that November, all lost their identities to merge with that swirling tide. Over their heads, like agitated bits of flotsam, pennants fluttered and placards rose and dipped. Beneath their feet, discarded metal buttons that bore the names of two or three “favorite sons” and those that had touted the only serious contender against the party’s new candidate were trodden flat. None of them had ever really had a chance.

There’s a weird mix of optimism and cynicism when it comes to politics in this story. On one hand, this is some kind of bizarro alien universe where politicians treat each other with civility and both sides are invested in working together for the good of the country. On the other hand, what actually happens despite all the emphasis on the will of the people and the democratic process? It ultimately comes down to one man deciding who the President ought to be. No more and no less.

Garrett makes the wise choice of not specifying which political party any of the characters belong to. This allows to transcend an ideological debate and focus on broader themes like the makings of a great leader and how far a person will go to attain what they think is the best outcome for everyone. Why does Cannon admire Fisher? Not for his good judgment, but for his sharp and often ruthless instinct:

“Matthew Fisher,” said President Cannon authoritatively, “doesn’t need judgment any more than you need instinct. No more so, and no less. I said he doesn’t have any judgment, but that’s not exactly true. He has it, but he only uses it for routine work, just as you or I use instinct. We can override our instinctive reactions when we have to. Matt can override his judgment when he has to.

“I don’t pretend to know how Fisher’s mind works. If I did, I wouldn’t be doing this. But I do know that Matt Fisher—by some mental process I can’t even fathom—almost invariably knows the right thing to do, and he knows it without using judgment.”

And Cannon goes to some bizarre, dramatic lengths to ensure that Fisher’s instinct is put to work where it’s most needed. What’s he up to, exactly? Well…I’ll leave that as a surprise.

This story is full of surprises, actually, which is one reason I enjoyed it. A compelling character piece with generous helpings of Cold War espionage and sci-fi hijinks, it ended up being more fun than I was expecting. And it’s the kind of story that makes you want to read it again to pick up on the themes and nuance, as any good piece of fiction should be. Check it out if you have the time.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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