(this is a redraft of the first chapter with some additions, thanks for the comments. The next imstallment will be the second chapter)
The president of the United States was facing northeast for his early evening prayers when his chief of staff, Gardner Harris, came into the Oval Office. The blonde haired chief of staff waited as the president got up from his knees and rolled up his prayer rug, before getting the chief executive’s attention."President Bin Laden,
I apologize for being a three minutes early. I just needed to make sure you had your copy of the agenda for your trip to the Damascus Summit.”
The president nodded. He was clean shaven and wore a dark blue suit as was his custom. In 1960, he had been elected as the first Moslem president.
America knew that, but the strategy had always been to downplay the fact. The press had cooperated by taking care to never photograph him while praying or coming out of a Mosque. To the voting public, he had been M.B. Laden, the centerfielder.
He was not just any baseball player either. M.B. Laden had in his American League debut hit three home runs off of Red Sox pitcher Babe Ruth in 1929 and prevented the second greatest pitcher of all time from winning his 350th game. From that day forward, Bin Laden had been the “Streakin’ Sheikh”. When the Streakin Sheikh appointed Byron Whizzer White as his Attorney General, the press had gone into overdrive with old footage of both men’s athletic careers. The photo that spring of Bin Laden standing next to White as he threw out the first pitch of the season to the Senators veteran Cuban pitcher and players' union activist Fidel Castro had made every major paper in America.
Laden switched on two different televisions to catch the evening news. The Damascus summit hadn’t made the headlines. Instead there was more talk of Mexico agitating for more of what had been Texas and Arizona. Chet Huntley, as was his habit, referred three times to the threat of Nuclear attack from the Mexicans. When the United States had closed its borders in the wake of the twenty two years war, Mexico had taken most of Europe’s surviving scientists and engineers. Tweny years later, they had given Mexico the bomb used to destroy Midland, Texas and force the U.S. into concessions.
“Singer-Actor, Elvis Presley shook hands with Senator John Kennedy of Massachussetts before he boarded a ship in Miami for military service in Guantanamo Cuba. The performer will be working at state of the art radar station and minimizing shake, rattle, and roll that might interfere with transmissions there,” Huntley announced. Radar had been developed by the Japanese in the late 1950’s and its military applications were only now being realized.
Bin Laden smiled, Kennedy was the favorite to run on the anti-communist Sociocrat ticket in 1964. Word was that he had offered to make California senator Richard Nixon his running mate.
"He doesn’t have your charisma, especially on television,” Harris assured him somehow reading the president’s mind.
It was his athletic celebrity that had made M.B. Laden the first presidential candidate to use the television effectively in his campaign. The 1960 debates had allowed him to send the message that M.B. Laden was a redblooded American filled with baseball stories, reverence for Abraham Lincoln, had a mother who quoted Thomas Edison and Khalil Gibran, and a daughter who went to the prom without a burkha. A television commercial of Laden playing catch with James Cool Papa Bell, the star of the Homestead Grays, as the first Negro team to play in the majors, Hank Greenberg, and Mickey Mantle all talking about Civil Rights as a kind of baseball game had helped him win the north and west. In the southern version, it had been Laden leaving a game to go fishing with Pee Wee Reese. The original script had them at a barbeque. Bin Laden lost the south to the anti-communist sociacrats. In doing so, he had caught an over-confident Adlai Stevenson who had counted on his wit and intellect to carry him through the debate. Since then, the right wing of the sociocrats had been slowly taking control of the party founded by President Debs.
“Nothing about Damascus yet again,” he murmurred.
“You didn’t seriously expect to push Elvis out of the headlines did you Mr. President?”
“Only if I unretired and went to hit against Robin Roberts or Sandy Koufax.”
Harris smiled. In fifteen years together, he had learned a great deal about Bin Laden including the fact that the shortest distance to pray to Mecca was northeast over the pole rather than due East as instinct would suggest. If Bin Laden brought up baseball, it was always, for some reason a sign that he wanted to talk policy. It was part of the president’s way of shifting field so rapidly that his opponents never seemed able to trap him. If he appeared folksy, he was going to say something important.
“I don’t think Americans much worry about a Jewish homeland, especially one in what used to be Germany and Poland.”
Bin Laden nodded. He personally thought it was a good idea. “Israel” would serve as a buffer state between the Soviet Union and the Ottomans. It also might keep Western Europe from reforming into language-based nation states as they had before the twenty two years war the world-changing conflict that started in 1914 and ended with ninety percent of all European adult males dead. It had been a miracle that the United States had managed to stay out of the war. Otherwise it would not today be part of the five powers summit in Damascus with Japan, the Soviets, Mexico, and the Ottomans.
“You would think they’d be interested in the petroleum question at least,” said Harris as he changed the station on the one television from Walter Cronkite where yet another image of Elvis boarding a boat in his army uniform dominated the news. “At least this one didn’t have Kennedy in it.”
“This matter of moving the world to an oil-based economy could have enormous repercussions,” Harris continued.
It had almost happened forty years earlier when a British naval attache named Churchill had endorsed the strategy of moving the British navy from coal to oil. In the wake of Gallipoli though the Turks had decided to coopt T.E. Lawrence and made peace with the Arabs under the umbrella of Islamic sovereignty. One result was that the Arab-Ottoman alliance had shut down the Suez Canal and cut off the possible flow of oil to Europe. His plan a failure, Churchill disappeared from British politics and died in trench warfare near Dunkirk during a German amphibious invasion.
“You know, I think Kennedy is going to have a hard time in the election being Catholic,” said Bin Laden.
Harris nodded. Too many Americans associated Catholics with terror bombings. After the bombing and destruction of the Vatican in 1934, radical Catholics had campaigned for a homeland and sanctuary in a less volatile part of the world.
The most radical had sought the town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus as their capital. In the meantime, Catholic refugees poured into Palestine and other Catholics were trying to terrify the rest of the world into granting them their wish. The Ottomans had spent a generation tolerating a Catholic presence in the heart of their Empire, but with each explosion, they were running out of patience. There had, as well, been dozens of bombings in the United States as the Catholics blamed the United States’s neutrality for the destruction of the Vatican and the death of the Pope and most of the college of cardinals. The Catholics had been especially vocal about their opposition to a Jewish homeland pushing them out of Silesia and Cracow.
“Do I really have to stop in Paris?”
“What’s the matter with Paris?,” asked Gardner Harris.
“It’s just that there’s almost nothing there. All the buildings are from after 1936, the food is suspect, and it’s filled with homeless families camping out in the rubble of the Eiffel Tower and the Cathedral of Notre Dame.”
“The North African elite there is anxious to see a Moslem president. They feel it will enhance their own credibility.”
Harris winced. His mother’s family was French. He had been raised Catholic himself before he joined many other Americans in turning away from Christianity after the brutality of the war and repeated child abuse scandals within the priesthood. Even Notre Dame had gone secular in the nineteen fifties. It was either that or lose its endowment. Some Christian sects though had flourished in the middle of the twentieth century, the Mormons with their belief in an American holy land and the Jehovah’s witnesses with their claim that the twenty two years war had signalled the beginning of the book of Revelations and the end of the world.
“You will at least ship in my food while I’m there.” Bin Laden moved away from the window of the oval office and turned off the television.
Harris nodded as he straightened his tie. He made a habit of arranging all things with precision including the president’s trip agenda which was broken down into twenty minute segments.
“You will be met in Paris by the Caliphs of Madrid and Budapest,” Harris began reading off his list.
"This is the first American presidential visit outside the western hemisphere since 1936 and the end of the war. Am I going to be received as a Moslem or an American?”
“Certainly as an American, but your appeal as a Moslem there can’t be denied. The Moslem French who now run that country want to see a Moslem president announce “Lafayette, we are here.”
“They have television in France?”
“It’s no Tokyo or Baghdad, but yes they use it for prayers. When they read from the Koran, the native French can follow along with French subtitles. It’s been very effective.”
“I thought the plan was to let America see me fully as a Moslem when I visited Mecca?”
“Mr. President, I’m very aware of that. The ambassador to North Africa has been letting them know that you will be in a business suit and are not to be filmed either praying or washing your feet while in Paris.”
“They need to understand that America can have a Moslem President without the country being Moslem. We are a secular country and I have pledged to keep it that way.”
Harris shook his head. He had, after all, been the campaign manager when Bin Laden had first won office as governor of Michigan and had developed the MB Laden’s centerfielder for America campaign.
"Anything else I should know about Paris?”
“Well, with the famines curtailed, they are rebuilding the Louvre. The Soviets have offered to return the Venus de Milo and dozens of works by impressionists for a proposed modern wing. They even managed to save a giant canvas by David, but imagery of Napoleon is still banned there for the time being.”
“I suppose that means I might have to answer questions about the Smithsonian’s ownership of the Mona Lisa and Whistler’s Mother.”
“I imagine they’ll let us keep Whistler’s Mother.”
“There’s also some interest among non-Moslems there to revive the wine industry. You'll be taking some graftings from California as a gesture of goodwill and a subtle message that the US supports a secular non-Moslem non-Christian future for western Europe.”
“What is the word on influenza?”
Both men closed their eyes. Starting with an epidemic in 1919, the flu had killed more Europeans than the war itself.
“No fatalities in three years, you should be safe.”
The evening news over, Bin Laden shut off both televisions.
The president looked at his Swiss made watch. Remarkable how that one now very crowded country had avoided the war. Harris recognized this as his signal to finish up his end of the meeting.
“Mr. President, there’s one more thing.”
“I don’t think it’s anything big, but I have to pass this on.”
“The OSI is investigating a threat to assasinate you on your visit to Damascus. We’ll have to take extra precautions.”
The two men stared at one another.
“They are recommending that you only tour the city in a closed vehicle.”
“A Moslem president arrives for the first time in a great and ancient Moslem city and he must act terrified! I expect to greet the city in an open car, besides the steam from the boilers makes a closed vehicle all but unbearable. The United States is a free society, an open society, a democracy. How will they understand the difference if I am protected like some despot?”
“How will democracy spread with you assasinated in November of 1963 the third year of your first term?”
"OSI will just have to protect their president in an open car. It is, as you say, just a possibility, a matter for investigation.”
Gardner Harris paused. For two weeks, he had known more the president. Still, this was not the time. Full disclosure would mean chaos. Too much was at stake in Damascus for the president to be distracted by rumors of Christian homeland terrorists in alliance with the mafia.....