in my head are not pretty. Bill Clinton, prone in a backless hospital gown, his eyes fixed on the muted TV above his head, a CNN graphic showing Kerry down in every poll this week. Clinton’s left hand lazily plays with and curls his tummy hair, his right hand presses the hospital phone tighter to his face. John Kerry, on the other end of the line, sitting down on his bed reluctantly peeling off his windsurfer’s wetsuit and straining to be respectful. With the pungent odor of smoking firewood drifting in from the beach, Kerry’s got images of an old-fashioned Nantucket clambake dancing in his head and nagging at his appetite, but when the former president calls, especially when he’s about to enter the ICU, you take the call. If he can hustle Clinton off the phone quickly enough, he figures he can squeeze in one more round of lacrosse before chowing down on some steamers.

I can imagine Clinton’s first question: “Hi, John, say, is Teresa there with you? What’s she wearing?”

Then, immediately after the formalities, right down to the nitty-gritty. Clinton warning Kerry that he better get his act together real soon, retool his campaign, that he ought to find a message and stay on it, and that he ought to hit back hard at Bush, lest he get used to the idea of spending the next four years playing tiddlywinks with the last guy who didn’t heed his campaign counsel — that goofy Al Gore. “And you know how he wound up,” says Clinton with a dark tone, “fat, depressed and with a beard.”

“I know, Bill, I know,” Kerry answers in quiet, controlled anger as he strokes his ample chin, pondering for just a moment how a beard would look on him.

“That’s right, old buddy,” Clinton says. “Right now, them Bush boys got you squealin’ like a hog under a gate. If those polls keep up the way they are this week, you’re gonna have to trade in one of those ol’ swift boats for a submarine, ’cause you’re gonna be under a world of water.” Clinton guffaws at his own joke. Kerry is icily silent.

Then Kerry speaks: “Thank you for your concern, Mr. President. As we have pointed out during several campaign stops, we must stop merely quoting the words of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. We need to match their leadership with our own, with daring and commitment, with new thinking equal to a new and different time . . .”

“. . . Hey! Cut the ‘we’ crap, will ya?” Clinton interrupts as he uses the remote to switch to the Oprah show on his muted TV. “What the hell’s wrong with you, man? Don’t you know how to just talk? All that ‘we’ talk sounds like French to the bubbas. That dog won’t hunt.”

“Hunting? I’m a hunter, Bill. You know I support the NRA . . . ”

“Will you just zip it for a minute?” Clinton intercedes again. A McDonald’s commercial flashes on the TV screen, and he wonders if one more supersized Happy Meal would really make that much difference.

“Bill, you still there?” Kerry says impatiently.

“Yeah, sorry, good buddy,” Clinton answers. “I got distracted for a moment, thinking about prepping for the surgery. Anyway, didn’t you see that latest CNN poll?”

“Y’mean the one where we are down by 11?”

“You were down, not we. And that was the Time magazine poll.” Clinton pauses for a moment, wondering if McDonald’s delivers. “Nah, I mean the CNN poll where voters were asked if they were voting on ‘leadership’ or voting on ‘issues,’ and by 50 percent to 38 percent they said it was leadership they were voting on. That’s bad news for you, buddy. I mean, Bush is no genius, but did you see that Newsweek cover of him where he looks like he’s always got his mind made up and never hesitates or waffles?”

“Yes, Mr. President. But as we were saying with Teresa the other day . . .”

“Damn it, there you go again!” Clinton says, dropping the TV remote on his bed and reaching for the Yellow Pages under the bedside table, and thinking: One of these Mickey D’s has got to deliver. “Well, I want to help you out, okay?” Clinton asks, quietly relieved that open-heart surgery and prolonged recovery is preferable to having to actually spend the next two months out on the hustings with this stiff.

“I’d be honored, sir.” Kerry says, starting to feel authentically grateful. It is true that, deep down, he really can’t say exactly why he’s running for president, he thinks to himself. He had asked Teddy to help him with that one but got nowhere. And the Bring It On shtick hasn’t really worked very well either, especially since Bush and the Swifties started doing just that. And he has stayed up late at night trying to think of something different to say about Iraq, but so far, nothing. “Mr. President, you are the master. I’m all ears.”

“Good, glad we got that settled. First thing in the morning I’m sending over Carville and Begala. Also Joe Lockhart. This is my A-team, buddy, and they can pull your bacon right out of the fire,” Clinton says, his forefinger distractedly running down the list of local McDonald’ses.

“Yes, sir. Much appreciated,” Kerry replies. “I think you’ll be proud of me to know that all on my own I’ve also brought over John Sasso from the DNC to kind of help out Shrummie.”

“Sasso? Well, John. He’s kind of a hack. But hacks can be good too,” Clinton says while starting to guffaw out loud again. “Now, you make sure, John, that you pay full attention to what James and Joe and Paul tell you, y’hear? You just follow their advice, and in no time flat you’re gonna get this whole leadership thing down perfect,” Clinton says, while spotting a listing for a McDonald’s only a block away from the hospital. “I gotta go now, buddy, y’take care.”

“You too, Mr. President,” Kerry says.” And . . . um . . . one other small favor, sir . . .”

“What’s that?”

“Well, sir.” Kerry says, “I’d appreciate it if this little discussion we just had remained private, y’know. That it didn’t go any farther than the two of us . . .”

“. . . Not to worry, man. Don’t have a second thought,” Clinton says, neatly tearing out the McDonald’s phone number, “I’m nothing if not discreet.”

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