A Playlet (adapted, loosely, from Thirteen Days, Fail-Safe and Gray Davis‘ response to the state’s energy crisis)
What if the lights had gone out?
burton: RICH PEDRONCELLI, apwide world; villaraigosa: virginia lee hunter; kennedys: apwide world
Scene: The Cabinet Room, the White House, October 1962. A few days previous, the administration discovered the presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Now, Russian warships bearing additional missiles are just a few minutes away from encountering U.S. warships under orders not to let them proceed. As the scene begins, the president‘s top military and civilian advisers await him for a meeting that will decide the momentous question of war or peace.
GENERAL CURTIS LEMAY (Air Force chief of staff)
We should’a nuked ‘em in the first place, and we can still nuke ’em now. Those ships are all the excuse we need —
ADLAI STEVENSON (ambassador to the U.N.)
We need to what? See the Eastern Seaboard destroyed?
DEAN RUSK (secretary of state)
Gentlemen, please! President Davis will determine our response. We‘re here, remember, to implement his vision.
President Davis enters, sits and addresses his aides.
Be seated. What’s the latest? General?
Those ships will make contact in four to five minutes. When they do . . .
Thank you, general. Dean?
We‘ve got Khruschev on the line. I think he wants to deal. I think . . .
Thank you, Dean. Izzy?
IZZY WATSKI (the president’s pollster)
We‘ve tallied the overnights, and here’s the thing: 72 percent want you to blow those ships out of the water. And 72 percent want you to avoid a major blow-up. Goes up to 77 percent when we change the wording from “blow-up” to “nuclear war.”
DAVIS (with great urgency)
All voters or likely voters?
DAVIS (boring in)
What about the difference between “nuclear war” and “major nuclear war?” How much opposition to a just plain nuclear war?
Mr. President, we didn‘t poll on that.
You didn’t poll?! How the hell am I supposed to decide this stuff if you don‘t poll?!
Mr. President, we don’t have more than a minute or two . . .
Nuke ‘em! Fricassee ’em!
General! Adlai! I am the president! We will implement my vision! And my vision is . . . is . . . Izzy, let me see that polling. [Watski passes him some papers. Davis starts mumbling:] 72 percent both ways, huh? Hmmm . . .
LEMAY (phone receiver to ear)
Mr. President, the ships have begun to exchange fire! We‘re blowin’ ‘em out of the water! You can’t stop this now! Whoo-eee!
Gimme that phone! (Yanks receiver from LeMay.) This is the president. Who‘s this? Admiral, what’s the situation? You‘ve sunk them all? And on our side? Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. How badly are you hurt? That‘s a lot of blood. Admiral . . . try to stay conscious for one more moment, if you can . . . Do you have a family? No? Well, at a time like this, that may be a blessing. Have you thought about what to do with your estate? You know, we’re up for re-election here in two years time and we could really use contributions from war heroes like you. Admiral? Admiral?
RUSK (on red phone)
Chairman Khruschev is demanding to speak with you.
Hold on. (To aide) I think he died on me. See if he made a contribution, or any gesture that could be construed that way, before he died. (Takes red phone) Nikita! Yes, I know we have a problem! My idiot pollster can‘t give me any numbers on a small nuclear war! We’ve got our hawks and our doves here, and a small nuclear war, properly done, just might unify them. How about you, would that help with your hard-liners? Yeah, it splits the difference — a Third Way, so to speak. What‘s that? You’ve got a bomber about to reach New York? Hey, how about swapping Moscow for New York? Hang on a minute, Nikita. (To pollster) Izzy, New York . . .
Americans hate New York. Way over 80 percent.
Army hates New York. More commies there than in Moscow.
Nikita, we may have a winner here . . .
“CASH” McCLUNG (president‘s fund-raiser, in an urgent whisper)
Mr. President, your campaign funds are in the main branch of Chase-Manhattan, right on Wall Street . . .
They’d honor it at their D.C. branch.
They might harbor a grudge.
You think? (Breaks out in cold sweat, barks to aide) Get me David Rockefeller [chairman of Chase-Manhattan] in New York! (Into red phone) Nikita, don‘t let your flyboy drop it just yet. (Into other phone) David, how are you? This is the president. David, can you do a wire transfer of my campaign account down to your D.C. branch? (Into red phone) Say what, Nikita? You can’t reach him? (Into other phone) David, do you think you could do that right now? Great! Wonnaful! Say, David, have you made any provisions in your will for my campaign fund?
The stage grows dark with calculation as the curtain falls.