From the author: Democratic Party leaders are desperate. They hold a seance to summon the ghosts of journalist Molly Ivins, politician Adlai Stevenson II, and newscaster Walter Cronkite back from the afterlife to do something—anything!—about the current administration.
The chief of staff for a U.S. senator paused in the kitchen doorway, a bottle of chilled Sauterne in each hand.
“I can't believe we've come to this."
His wife, a political advisor to the 2016 Clinton campaign, pulled trays of desserts out of the stainless steel refrigerator.
"You mean Trump?" she said.
"No!" With a jerk of his head, he indicated the formal dining room down the hall of their Silver Springs home. "I mean holding a séance. Really?"
His wife, her features drawn with stress and exhaustion, shrugged.
"Why the hell not?" she asked. "People keep saying 'If only Molly Ivins were here! If only Walter Cronkite could see this!' So I figured, why not? We'll call them back to help us!"
"But...a séance?" her husband said.
"You have a better idea?"
He shrugged. Together they entered the dimly lit dining room and joined the ten high-ranking Democrats seated around the damask-draped oval table. Conversation stopped when a middle-aged woman in an evening gown, shawl, and black silk turban appeared in the opposite doorway. She took the chair at the head of the table and extended her be-ringed hands to the guests on either side of her.
"Turn off ze lights," she said. "And ve shall begin."
The host, seated at the foot of the table, leaned over and whispered to his wife.
"Nice touch, the Eastern European accent. I hope she's not a friend of Melania's."
"Shut up, dear," his wife hissed. She clasped his hand, somewhat more tightly than necessary, and the séance began.
The bright yellow river raft bumped the dock, and a sturdy woman clambered out. She wore jeans, a chambray shirt, and a fleece vest. Her reddish-blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail. She waved enthusiastically to the dapper, balding man sitting at a table on the front porch of the rustic lodge.
"Hiya, Adlai," she called as she strode up the lawn.
"Hello, Molly." He folded the copy of the Washington Post he'd been reading and rose to give her a peck on the cheek.
"You get the call from that séance?" She flopped down in a chair across from him and raised an eyebrow. She had a wide grin, sparking blue eyes, and a Texas twang.
"Oh, yes. They must be getting desperate."
She nodded. "Apparently it's desperate times back there."
"Coffee?" he asked her. He looked back toward the open door into the lodge.
"I'd take a beer."
Seconds later a tall waiter appeared with a pot of coffee for Adlai Stevenson II and a chilled brown bottle of Lone Star for his guest. "Good to see you again, Miss Ivins."
She waved away an offered glass and took a long pull from the bottle. "Pretty soft here in the afterlife, isn't it?”
"Delightful," he said. "And so you know, I haven't the slightest desire to go back and help what currently passes for the Democratic Party deal with this Trump idiot. As my father said when he served as vice president, 'Your public servants serve you right.'"
Ivins grinned. Then she leaned forward, face serious. "Never met this Trump guy, didya?"
"Thank heavens, no. I left politics in 1965."
"Trump isn't really in politics," Ivins wrinkled her nose. "He's more of a celebrity. Had a TV show. It was all about him bullying people and then firing them. "
"Charming. I guess that's what it takes to get elected these days."
Ivins sipped her beer, squinting out at the river. It looked a lot like the Colorado but wasn't, really. "I missed the boat on Trump, you know. Had him in my sights. It was the run-up to the 2000 election and I joked, in the Texas Observer, about him 'being treated as though any reasonable citizen would consider voting for him.' Adlai, I joked about that. And look what happened. Boy, was I wrong about Trump."
"I'd say you were right about Trump but unduly optimistic about the American voter."
"I don't know." She gave a deep sigh. "It is the stories we don't get, the ones we miss, pass over, fail to recognize, don't pick up on, that will send us to hell."
Stevenson gestured to their pleasant surroundings. "This is hardly hell. Unless you've been rafting on the River Styx."
"Point taken," Ivins said with a grin. "But apparently they've now got hell back where we came from."
The phone in the lobby of the hotel rang and the tall waiter appeared in the doorway. "Mr. Stevenson, they're calling from that séance again. What should I tell them?"
"Oh, lord, don't tell them I'm here," Ivins said. "There's no way I'm going back. I wrote hundreds of columns, dozens of books, and obviously nobody listened. What about you, Adlai? You going back?"
Stevenson waved away the waiter. "Not me. Not again. I made three runs for president, you know. I'll always remember that poor woman who assured me that I 'had the vote of every thinking American.'"
Ivins hooted. "As the story goes, you told her it would take a lot more than that."
Stevenson peered into his empty coffee cup. "These days, it might take an act of God."
"Speaking of which, you think we should get in touch with Walter?"
"Why not?" Stevenson brightened. "It would be good to see him again." He went into the lodge and took a Burberry trench coat and a fedora from the coat tree.
Ivins kicked some of the dirt off her hiking books and hid a smile as he shrugged into his coat. For Adlai Stevenson II it would always be 1965.
The pair followed a plush maroon carpet runner into the depths of the lodge to a door rimmed with glowing blue lights.
"Gotta love these portals," Ivins said.
The door slid open and they stepped into what looked like an elevator. They chanted in unison, "Walter Cronkite!" Seconds later the chamber's doors opened into what looked like a comfortably appointed old Georgetown home, but wasn't, really. A mahogany door stood ajar. Stevenson knocked.
"Come in." The hearty voice would have been familiar to the millions who'd listened to CBS News in the 1960s and 70s.
Walter Cronkite, dressed in a blue blazer and dark trousers, came out from behind a massive desk and shook their hands, greeting each of them by first name. He motioned them to the comfortable leather guest chairs and went back to his own seat. "Well what can I do for you two?"
Ivins and Stevenson exchanged surprised looks.
"Haven't you been getting calls from a spiritualist conducting a séance for a bunch of desperate Democrats?" Ivins asked.
"A séance?" The newsman gave an avuncular chuckle. "Afraid I'm out of the loop these days. Want to fill me in?"
"Adlai and I have been summoned by a spiritualist hired by the Democrats to bring some of us out of retirement to do something about Donald Trump."
"Trump!" Cronkite bellowed. His jowly face turned red. "Donald Trump! He ruined my neighborhood in Manhattan when he built that garish monstrosity of a tower. The man is an utter scoundrel."
"No argument here," Ivins said. "But keep in mind: you couldn't stop him building that tower, and the Republicans couldn't stop him taking over their party, and the Democrats, bless their divisive little souls, couldn't stop him from taking the presidential election. And now that he's in office even his own Secretary of State can't stop him from trying to destroy the planet."
"Are you two going back to help?" Cronkite asked.
"Nope," said Ivins. "As far as I'm concerned, we gave it our best. And what could I do? There's certainly no shortage of pundits on the case."
Stevenson spoke up. "Walter, we were hoping that you might be able to help us find someone who'd want to go back to straighten things out. Jack Kennedy? Tip O'Neill? Bella Abzug? Paul Wellstone? Maybe Martin Luther King?"
Cronkite leaned back in his chair. He steepled his fingers and peered down at them, lost in thought. A small, tight, grin came to his face.
"You have an idea?" Ivins asked.
"As a matter of fact, Molly, I do. We need to pay a visit to the Ranch."
"The Ranch?" Stevenson shook his head. "Ah, no. I'm not really dressed for it. Maybe you two--"
"C'mon, Adlai." Ivins was grinning. "It's almost lunchtime and Lady Bird serves a mean chili."
"Johnson irritates me." Stevenson confessed as they followed Cronkite into the hallway. "I was his Ambassador to the United Nations and, frankly, I don't think he listened to a word I said."
The trio entered the portal and chorused "LBJ!"
"The old sumbitch," Ivins added. The portal didn't seem to mind.
The portal at gates of the LBJ ranch was more than a mile from the ranch house itself. The trio emerged from it to see a rising dust cloud in the distance as a white Lincoln convertible came speeding down the driveway toward them. The car pulled up at the gates and a grinning Lyndon B. Johnson leaped out and shook their hands.
"Good to see y'all. Climb on in. We're just getting ready to sit down to some of Lady Bird's Pedernales River chili."
Steering with one hand, holding a plastic cup filled with Scotch in the other, Johnson regaled his visitors with tales of fishing and hunting all the way to the big ranch house. He didn't ask them what they'd come for until everyone had eaten at least two bowls of chili with cornbread and had insisted they couldn't possibly eat thirds.
Lady Bird brought in a pot of coffee for Stevenson and herself. Ivins was still drinking beer and both LBJ and Cronkite nursed tumblers of Scotch.
"I suppose we should get down to business," Johnson said. "It has to be business when you get a visit from a politician, a reporter, and a columnist."
The former president, who'd leaned down to pet one of his two beagles, straightened up and peered at them over his wire-rim glasses. As his guests exchanged nervous glances, his smile slowly faded. "Oh, hell. It's Trump, isn't it?"
The three nodded.
"Well what's he destroyed now? School lunches? Public education? Equal opportunity? Head Start? Medicare? Social Security?"
"Pretty much all of it," Ivins said. "Plus healthcare, foreign relations, and the environment."
"What the hell is left?" Johnson shouted. "What happened to the Great Society? What happened to the United States?"
Under the table, a beagle howled.
"Lyndon," Lady Bird cautioned.
He shook her off. "Take it easy, Bird. I can't have a heart attack here, I'm already dead."
"And that is actually why we're here," Ivins said. "The Democratic party—what's left of it—is holding a séance and they're trying to summon one of us back from the dead to help them do something about Trump."
Johnson grinned a terrible grin. "I'd say you've found the right man for the job."
"Lyndon," his wife said.
He patted his mouth with a big linen napkin and stood up from the table. "Gotta make one call."
He gave Stevenson a meaningful glance.
"Your old neighbor?" Stevenson asked.
"Yessir," Johnson said. He headed down the hall and vanished into his library.
Lady Bird looked as annoyed as Cronkite had ever seen her.
"'Neighbor'?" asked Ivins.
"J. Edgar Hoover." Lady Bird sighed. "He was our neighbor back in the days when Lyndon was in Congress and we lived on 30th Place in Northwest D.C. I haven't spoken to that man after what happened with Walter Jenkins. But Lyndon...he never cuts a connection."
"Never know when they'll come in handy, Bird." It was Johnson again, sweeping through the dining room on his way to the front door. The beagles trotted behind him.
"Where are you going?" Lady Bird and Ivins ran after him into the hall.
"Back to the White House, of course." Johnson paused on the front porch. He was silhouetted against a rugged landscape that looked like Texas Hill Country but wasn't, really. "I'm not letting some asshole New York developer ruin all my hard work."
Everyone watched as LBJ put the dogs into the back seat of the Lincoln convertible. He vaulted into the driver's seat. Dust rose as he sped down the driveway toward the ranch's portal.
"What I'd give to see the look on the faces of those Democrats at the séance when he shows up," Stevenson said.
"They don't make Democrats like Lyndon any more," Lady Bird said loyally.
"Hell, they don't even make Texans like that," Ivins said. She turned to Cronkite. "You want the last word, Walter?"
The news anchor nodded and lifted his glass. "And that's the way it is," he intoned.
"God help us," said Ivins.
"Fire them!" came the whiny voice from the Oval Office. "I'm the President of the United States. I demand that people around here do their jobs. Which means keeping the carpets clean."
The White House chief of staff stood in front of the president's desk, wringing his hands. "Mr. President, that was the fourth cleaning service. I can get a new one, but it will take several days just to get their security clearances."
"Fire the security people," came the answer. "Or I'll fire you! You're fired! You're fired! You're fired!"
The chief of staff turned and fled, stepping right into a fresh pile of dog shit on the burgundy carpet just outside of the Oval Office door. Not again! He hopped up and down on his other foot, bracing himself against the wall as he removed the smeared wingtip. From down the hallway and up the stairs, he distinctly heard the baying of...beagles? But there were no dogs in the White House. The President hated dogs.
"Can't blame him," the chief of staff muttered. Holding his reeking shoe at arm's length, he limped off in search of a new cleaning service.
That night, raucous laughter rang out from the Oval Office. Guards responded, but all they found was a tumbler with a few drops of Cutty Sark leaving marks on the Resolute desk. Imprints from cowboy boots worn by a tall man with a long stride appeared on the White House carpets but the trails led nowhere.
The president was apoplectic.
"Don't stay at Pennsylvania Avenue," he tweeted at 3 a.m. "Noisy, dirty, ghosts—not like a Trump property."
The next morning, the president refused to enter the Oval Office. He gathered his staff in the hallway.
"Not going in there," he snapped. "Terrible office. Disgusting desk. The place is haunted! We're all going to Mar-a-Lago. No ghosts there. Call the helicopter. Notify Air Force One."
From around the corner, the ghost of LBJ chuckled. All was going just according to plan.
His next stop was the White House pressroom where reporters from Pulitzer-winning publications, barred from a special briefing about the president's greatness, waited outside. The ghost of LBJ sidled over to a woman from The New York Times and slipped a big manila envelope into her briefcase. It contained papers, photos, and some of those strange little "drive" doohickeys Hoover had assured him were the latest thing in communications.
LBJ watched as the reporter found the envelope, read a few pages, then dashed into an alcove to make a call on her little handheld phone.
Johnson chuckled. Technology might change, but the FBI didn't. Hoover's operation had supplied enough damning information, some real and some maybe not so real, but plenty convincing, to blow the 45th president higher than Trump Tower.
Damn, it was good to be back in the White House.
After letting the spectral beagles out to do their business on the White House lawn, Johnson embarked on a self-guided tour of his old stomping grounds. Sure enough, Nixon—that wimp—had removed the high-power shower nozzles. But the secret mezzanines were still there. Johnson popped into all three of the White House kitchens to see what they were cooking these days. Seemed to be a lot of steak, which no Texan could argue with.
Late in the afternoon, the ghost slipped next door to the Executive Office Building where he left a short note for Mike Pence.
"Restore funding for Health and Human Service programs and put someone who genuinely cares about our kids in charge of Education. Or you're next on my list, jackass."
He appended his famous lowercase signature: lbj
At the Senate Office Building, the ghost headed for Mitch McConnell's office, where he left a more diplomatic note.
“Mitch, I have long appreciated your crossing party lines in 1964 to vote for me to show your support for the Civil Rights Act. Yes, we're politicians. But we’re also public servants who care deeply about the people of this country. All of them. Don't you think it's about time you started voting your conscience again? You do still have one, don't you? I'd strongly advise it.—lbj”
At dusk Johnson was back at the White House where he stepped out onto the Truman Balcony, Scotch in hand, to watch his plan for Trump come to fruition.
He'd barely had time to take a sip before two burly men in white coats appeared, escorting the ranting, raving, and writhing chief executive across the South Lawn and onto a helicopter. Staff and reporters were circling the landing pad like sharks.
The helicopter lifted off and flew into the sunset—headed northwest toward the new Walter Reed Medical Center, which, Johnson had read, had excellent mental health facilities.
"In your guts, you know he's nuts," Johnson cackled. That had been his favorite slogan from his 1964 campaign against Goldwater, and, wouldn't you know it, a half century later it was still true of the GOP leadership.
As he turned to go back inside, LBJ was startled and somewhat annoyed to find at his elbow the ghost of J. Edgar Hoover.
"Good God, man!" Johnson snapped, sloshing his drink. But when he'd recovered his equilibrium, he dished out his thanks.
"Your folks did a great job, Hoover. Those papers and pictures and those 'drive' doohickeys seem to have done the trick. Trump's gone, and now the Democrats and Republicans can get back to work, at least when they're not busy kicking the shit out of each other. As the generals say, 'mission accomplished.' I sure as hell enjoyed the visit, but it's time to for me get on back to the Ranch.”
It bothered LBJ that the former FBI chief made no reply. Hoover merely raised a glass of what looked like cola in a silent toast. Johnson squinted, then grimaced as he realized what was going on.
Dammit! That little peckerwood is recording me! That's politics for you. Even in the afterlife, some things never change.
The historical incidents referenced in this story are true:
Adlai Stevenson II ran three times for president (1952, 1956, and 1960) and served as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ambassador to the United Nations. During one of his presidential campaigns, a college student assured Stevenson that he had “the vote of every thinking American.” Stevenson quipped in reply that he’d need a good deal more than that. Stevenson’s father, U.S. vice president under Grover Cleveland, is credited with the saying “Your public servants serve you right.”
Political commentator Molly Ivins wrote hundreds of columns (for the Texas Observer, the New York Times, the Dallas Times Herald and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram) and dozens of books, and enjoyed river rafting. She dismissed rumors of a Trump presidency in 2000. Her comment in the story about “the stories we don’t get” is taken from one of her columns.
Walter Cronkite, famed CBS new anchor from 1962 to 1981, was part of a group of well-heeled Manhattan apartment dwellers (including Katherine Hepburn and Kurt Vonnegut) that tried (unsuccessfully) to stop the construction of the gigantic Trump Tower in their neighborhood in 1999. Trump told the press his opponents were "jealous" of the massive building.
Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), the 36th president of the United States, was shaped by his experiences as an elementary school teacher in rural Texas. When Johnson was serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, his family lived in the same neighborhood as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Johnson was credited with crafting sweeping social justice and education programs under a plan referred to as “The Great Society.” A colorful Texas politician, Johnson drank Cutty Sark and drove a Lincoln convertible. He had an elaborate and expensive multi-nozzle high-powered shower installed in the private quarters of the White House—a contraption that his successor, Richard Nixon, ordered demolished and replaced with normal plumbing fixtures.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is believed by historians to have collected information on U.S. presidents and used that information to influence government policy while heading the FBI for nearly half a century (1924 through 1972).
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) crossed party lines in 1964 to vote for Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson for president. McConnell, at the time an intern in the office of Republican Senator John Sherman, said he did it because Johnson’s opponent, Republican Barry Goldwater, had opposed the Civil Rights Act.
This story originally appeared in More Alternative Truths (B Cubed Press).