The New York Times bestselling author of the Supervolcano trilogy envisions the election of a United States President whose political power will redefine what the nation is—and what it means to be American...
The Great Depression continues to cast its dark shadow over the country. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so the Democratic Party makes an interesting nomination for their Presidential candidate: California Congressman Joe Steele, the son of a Russian immigrant laborer who identifies more with the common man than with the wealthy power brokers in Washington D.C.
Achieving a landslide victory, President Joe Steele wastes no time pushing through Congress reforms that put citizens back to work. Anyone who gets in his way is getting in the way of America, and that includes the highest in the land. But Steele’s homeland political enemies pale in comparison to European tyrants whose posturing seems sure to drag America into war...
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Harry Turtledove, the New York Times bestselling author of the Supervolcano trilogy and the Atlantis trilogy, has a PhD in Byzantine history. Nominated for the Nebula Award, he has won the Hugo, Sidewise, and John Esthen Cook awards. He lives with his wife and children in California.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
ALSO BY HARRY TURTLEDOVE
Joe Steele is for Janis Ian.
The novel Joe Steele has plotline derived from the short story “Joe Steele,” which appeared in Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian, edited by Janis Ian and Mike Resnick (DAW Books: New York, 2001). In “god & the fbi,” Janis wrote “Stalin was a Democrat . . .” I started wondering how and why Stalin might have become a Democrat, and the story grew from there. So that’s one reason why I’ve dedicated the novel to her.
But wait! There’s more! When I was a teenager, still living at home, I listened to Janis’ music and read the article about her in Life. (She was a teenager, still living at home, then, too.) I never dreamt then that I might one day meet her. I really never dreamt then that we might become friends. That we have means a lot to me in a lot of different ways. So thanks, Janis. Thanks for everything. This one’s for you.
Charlie Sullivan never expected to meet Joe Steele in the service elevator of a cheap hotel only a couple of blocks from the Chicago Stadium. The AP stringer gaped at the Presidential candidate when Steele boarded on the second floor. Charlie had slipped the boss cook a buck, so he got on and off in the kitchen as he pleased.
“You’re—him!” Charlie blurted when Joe Steele and one of his aides strode into the car. Long-standing tradition said that candidates stayed away from the convention till it nominated them . . . if it did.
Governor Franklin Roosevelt, Steele’s main rival for the Democratic nomination in this summer of America’s discontent, was still in the Executive Mansion in Albany. Charlie’s older brother, Mike, who wrote for the New York Post, was covering him there. Roosevelt’s operatives worked the Stadium hotels and bars just as hard as Joe Steele’s, though. They glad-handed. They promised. They spread favors around.
“I am him,” the Congressman from California agreed. His smile didn’t reach his eyes. Charlie Sullivan was a scrawny five-eight, but he overtopped Joe Steele by three inches. Steele stood straight, though, so you might not notice how short he was. That his henchman, a cold-looking fellow named Vince Scriabin, was about the same size also helped.
“But . . . What are you doing in town?” Charlie asked.
The elevator door groaned shut. Joe Steele punched the button for 5. Then he scratched at his mustache. It was bushy and graying; he was in his early fifties. His hair, also iron-gray, gave a little at the temples. He had bad skin—either he’d had horrible pimples or he’d got through a mild case of smallpox. His eyes were an interesting color, a yellow-brown that almost put you in mind of a hunting animal.
“Officially, I’m in Fresno,” he said as the elevator lurched upward. That fierce, hawklike stare burned into Charlie. “You might embarrass me if you wrote that I was here.”
Vince Scriabin eyed Charlie, too, as if fitting him for a coffin. Scriabin also wore a mustache, an anemic one that looked all the more so beside Joe Steele’s. He had wire-framed glasses and combed dark, greasy hair over a widening bald spot. People said he was very bad news. Except for the scowl, you couldn’t tell by looking.
Joe Steele’s stare, though less outwardly tough, worried Charlie more. Or it would have, if he’d been on FDR’s side. But he said, “We need some changes—need ’em bad. Roosevelt talks big, but I think you’re more likely to deliver.”
“I am.” Joe Steele nodded. He wasn’t a big man, but he had a big head. “Four years ago, Hoover promised two chickens in every pot and two cars in every garage. And what did he give us? Two chickens in every garage!” Despite the big mustache, Charlie saw his lip twist.
Charlie laughed as the service elevator opened. “Good one, Congressman!” he said. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll keep my trap shut.”
“I wasn’t worrying.” Joe Steele stepped out of the little car. “Come on, Vince. Let’s see what kind of deal we can fix with John.” Scriabin followed him. The door groaned shut again. The elevator lurched up toward Charlie’s seventh-floor room.
His mind whirred all the way there. You couldn’t find a more common name than John. But John Nance Garner, the Speaker of the House from Texas, also had a Presidential yen, and controlled his state’s delegation as well as other votes from the Deep South. He wasn’t likely to land the top spot on the ticket. Swinging him one way or the other could get expensive for Steele or Roosevelt.
Roosevelt had never known a day’s want in his life. His family went back to before New Amsterdam turned into New York. His cousin Theodore had been Governor ahead of him, and had served almost two full terms as President after the turn of the century.
Joe Steele was a different story. His folks got out of the Russian Empire and into America only a few months before he was born. He became a citizen well ahead of them. As a kid, he picked grapes under Fresno’s hot sun, and few suns came hotter.
He hadn’t been born Joe Steele. He’d changed his name when he went from farm laborer to labor agitator. The real handle sounded like a drunken sneeze. Several relatives still wore it.
Not all prices were payable in cash, of course. John Nance Garner might want as much power as he could get if he couldn’t be President. Veep? Supreme Court Justice? Secretary of War?
Charlie Sullivan laughed as he strode down the hall to the sweltering top-floor room. He wasn’t just building castles in the air, he was digging out their foundations before he built them. Not only didn’t he know what Garner wanted, he didn’t know whether Joe Steele and Scriabin had been talking about him to begin with.
The first thing he did when he went inside was to pull the cord that started the ceiling fan spinning. The fan stirred the hot, humid air a little, but didn’t cool it.
Chicago Stadium was just as bad. No, worse—Chicago Stadium was packed full of shouting, sweating people. A handful of trains, restaurants, and movie houses boasted refrigerated air-conditioning. The new scientific marvel got you too cold in summer, as central heating made you sweat in January.
But air-conditioning didn’t exist at the Chicago Stadium. Inside the massive amphitheater, you roasted as God had intended. If you walked around with an apple in your mouth, someone would stick a fork in you and eat you.
And too many Democrats knew more about politics than they did about Ivory or Palmolive or Mum. Some doused themselves in aftershave to try to hide the problem. The cure might have been worse than the disease. Or, when you remembered how some of the other politicos smelled, it might not.
Charlie eyed the Remington portable that sat on a nightstand by the bed. It didn’t quite lie about its name; he’d lugged it here without rupturing himself. He sure wouldn’t haul it to the convention floor, though. If he dropped it out the window, it would make a big hole in the sidewalk. And it would drive any passerby into the ground like a hammer driving a nail.
“Nope,” he said. For the floor, he had notebooks and pencils. Reporters would have covered Lincoln’s nomination in Chicago the same way. They would have given their copy to telegraphers the same way, too, though he could also phone his in.
He could make a splash if he reported that Joe Steele was in town to fight for the nomination in person. He suspected his brother would have. Mike liked FDR more than Charlie did.
Whoever nabbed the Democratic nomination this summer would take the oath of office in Washington next March. The Republicans were dead men walking. Poor stupid bastards, they were the only ones who didn’t know it.
They’d elected Herbert Hoover in a landslide in 1928. When Wall Street crashed a year later, the land slid, all right. Hoover meant well. Even Charlie Sullivan, who couldn’t stand him, wouldn’t have argued that. No doubt the fellow who’d rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg did, too.
No, when your name stuck to the shantytowns full of people who had nowhere better to live, you wouldn’t win a second term. Yet the Republican faithful had gathered here in June to nominate him again. Charlie wondered if they’d bothered looking outside of Chicago Stadium before they did.
He stuck a straw hat on his head and rode down on the regular elevator. His clothes would stick to him by the time he got to the Stadium. Why give them a head start by taking the stairs?
No sign of Joe Steele in the lobby. Through air blue with cigarette smoke, Charlie did spot Vince Scriabin and Lazar Kagan, another of Steele’s wheeler-dealers, bending the ear of some corn-fed Midwestern politician. He was pretty sure Scriabin saw him, too, but Steele’s man never let on. Scriabin wasn’t anyone you’d want to play cards against.
Lighting a Chesterfield of his own, Charlie hurried west along Washington Boulevard toward the Chicago Stadium. He went by Union Park on the way. An old man sat on a park bench, tossing crumbs to pigeons and squirrels. Maybe he was making time go by. Then again, maybe he was hunting tonight’s supper.
Charlie didn’t look behind him when he tossed away his cigarette butt. Somebody would pick it up. You didn’t want to take a man’s pride, watching him do something like that. He wouldn’t want you to see what he was reduced to, either.
Two ragged men slept under the trees. A bottle lay near one. By that, and by his stubble, he might have been sleeping on the grass for years. The other guy, who used a crumpled fedora for a pillow, was younger and neater. If he didn’t have some kind of hard-luck story to tell, Charlie would have been amazed.
He also didn’t look back at a thirtyish woman who gave him the eye. Some gals thought they had no better way to get by. It wasn’t as if Charlie had never seen the inside of a sporting house. This poor, drab sister only gave him the blues, though.
He walked past a tailor’s shop with a GOING OUT OF BUSINESS! sign in the window. Next door stood a shuttered bank. Close to forty banks had gone under in a local panic earlier in the year. They wouldn’t be the last, either. These days, Charlie kept his money under his mattress. Thieves with masks seemed a smaller risk than the ones who wore green eyeshades.
Chicago Stadium was the biggest indoor arena in the country. The red-brick pile had a gently curving roofline. Lots of American flags flew from it any day of the week. With the convention there, they’d draped it with so much red-white-and-blue bunting, it might as well have been gift-wrapped.
Cops and reporters and politicians milled around outside. Charlie thought of the line Will Rogers used to fracture audiences all over the country: I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat. The scene here lived up to, or down to, it all too well.
“Press pass,” a flatfoot growled at him.
“For Chrissake, Eddie,” Charlie said—they’d had coffee and donuts together plenty of times when he wrote for a Chicago paper.
“Press pass,” Eddie repeated. “I gotta log that I’m doin’ it for everybody.” A disgusted look on his face, he showed a notebook of his own. Bureaucrats were taking over the world.
Charlie displayed the press pass. The cop scribbled and waved him on. The first thing he saw when he got inside was Huey Long, as comfortable as anyone could be in there with a white linen suit and a blue silk shirt, laying down the law to someone much bigger in an undertaker’s suit of black wool. Listening to Huey made the man even less happy than baking in that outfit.
Whenever Charlie saw the Kingfish, lines about the jawbone of an ass jumped into his mind. Long made such an easy target. He couldn’t possibly be as big a buffoon as he seemed . . . could he?
A loud brass band blaring away and a demonstration much less spontaneous than it looked turned the floor to chaos. The great state of Texas—as if there could be any other kind at a convention—had just nominated its favorite son, John Nance Garner. No, it had placed his name in nomination. No, it had proudly placed his name in nomination. People seeking clear English at a gathering like this commonly needed to pay a sin tax on account of their leaders’ syntax.
If a demonstration got big enough and rowdy enough, it could sweep previously undecided delegates along in its wake. It could, yes, but the odds were poor, especially at the Democrats’ national clambake. The Democrats still hung on to the two-thirds rule.
Two delegates out of three had to agree on the Presidential candidate. If they didn’t, the Democrats had no candidate. Will Rogers isn’t kidding, Charlie thought as the demonstration began to lose steam.
The two-thirds rule had been around a long time. In 1860, the Democratic Party fractured because Stephen Douglas couldn’t get over the hump. That let Lincoln win with a plurality far from a majority. Secession and civil war soon followed.
One might think that memories of such a disaster would scuttle the rule. One might, but one would be wrong. Just eight years earlier, in 1924, the Donkeys needed 103 ballots to nominate John W. Davis. By the time they got done, he was a national laughingstock. Calvin Coolidge walloped him in November.
The only Democratic President this century was Woodrow Wilson. He won the first time because Teddy Roosevelt’s revolt split the GOP, and—barely—got reelected when he said he’d keep America away from the Great War . . . a promise he danced on less than a year later. Aside from that, the Democrats might as well have been short-pants kids swinging against Lefty Grove.
But they’d win this time. They couldn’t very well not win this time. They might pluck Trotsky out of Red Russia and run him against Hoover. They’d win anyway, probably in a walk.
Somebody from Wisconsin was making a speech for Joe Steele. Why Wisconsin? It had to come down to courting delegates. “Joe Steele has a plan for this country! Joe Steele will set this country right!” the Congressman on the podium shouted.
People yelled themselves hoarse. Joe Steele did have a plan: a Four Year Plan, straightening things out through his first term. And Franklin D. Roosevelt offered the American people a New Deal, one he claimed would be better than the bad old deal they had now.
Hoover had no plan. Hoover stood for the old deal that had left the country in the ditch. He was making it up as he went along. He didn’t even bother pretending he wasn’t. He was about as political as a pine stump. No wonder he wouldn’t win.
When the guy from the great state of Wisconsin proudly placed the name of Joe Steele in nomination for the office of President of the United States of America, the place went nuts. Confetti and straw hats flew. A new brass band did terrible things to “California, Here I Come.” People snake-danced through the aisles screaming, “Joe Steele! Joe Steele! Joe Steele!”
Not everybody got caught up in the orchestrated frenzy. Big Jim Farley kept the New York delegation in line for Governor Roosevelt. He was FDR’s field boss, the way Vince Scriabin was for Joe Steele. Roosevelt’...
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