I’ve always been fascinated by Theodore Thomas’s “The Test.” It’s a classic sci-fi short about a young man named Robert Proctor, who is on a leisurely joy ride and gets into a horrible wreck. But in a Twilight Zone-style twist, Proctor discovers that he has been under hypnosis and the accident wasn’t real. It was all part of his driver’s license test and he passed. However, when Proctor pays for his license, the officer who administered the test calls in two guards to take him away. The officer then tells Proctor, “Nobody should want to drive a car after going through what you just went through. It should take months before you can even think of driving again, but you’re ready right now. Killing people doesn’t bother you. We don’t let your kind run around loose in society any more. But don’t you worry now, son. They’ll take good care of you, and they’ll fix you up.”
Anyhow, I began wondering what Thomas’ “The Test” might say about the sorry state of American politics and, in particular, the office of the presidency, so I gave it a hasty rewrite. Here it is:
Barack Obama was a good president. The oak desk curved gently ahead of him, as he sat in the Oval Office on this cool morning in May. He felt relaxed and alert. The three-hour meeting he had just sat through had not yet produced the twinges of fatigue that appeared first in the muscles in the base of the neck. The sun was bright, but not glaring, and the air smelled fresh and clean. He breathed it deeply, and blew it out noisily. It was a good day to president.
He glanced quickly at the black-haired woman standing next to him. Her mouth was curved in a quiet smile. She watched the White House caretakers trim the lawn and hedges. Barack Obama immediately looked back at his desk and the stack of reports before him. He said, “Enjoying it, Michele?”
“Yes, Barack.” Her voice was a cool as the morning.
She reached over and patted him gently on the arm, and then turned back to the scenery.
He listened to the smooth hum of the air conditioner. On his desk there were stacks of reports. Some were about the latest news from the Fed. Others were about the NSA surveillance program. But most were reports on Democratic Party fundraisers. At the bottom, there was a blue folder. Barack Obama noted the folder and filed it in the back of his mind. He was getting to that, but he wouldn’t read it for another minute or two.
Earlier in the day, he had watched MSNBC, and he was pleased with what the anchors had said about unfortunate events in Benghazi. His advisors had feed the anchors talking points over his not-so-forceful objections. The Republicans were having a rough way with him, but so far everything was running smoothly. You needed a special charisma to win over the press, and Barack Obama knew he had it.
It was a good morning to be sitting in the Oval Office, and his mind was filled with good thoughts. He reached for the blue folder and considered pushing it aside. He had more than enough on his plate today, but he didn’t. He was in control. The blue folder opened easily, but the edges of it cut his finger and blood fell on the first page.
Barack Obama was a good president, too wise to let a little paper cut bother him. He sucked the blood out of his finger and got to reading. A wedding party had been killed by a drone strike. Of the dozens that were killed, only three were suspected to have terrorist ties, and the evidence, the report noted, was in dispute, but Obama made the call to order a drone strike.
Barack Obama turned the page and read the next one. This one was on the ongoing bloodshed in Egypt, where hundreds of protesters had been killed by a military junta his administration had once backed. Photographs followed.
He flipped through them one by one, and it was then that Michelle began to scream. Barack Obama thought about shutting the folder, but he knew that he couldn’t.
Michelle’s screams rang steadily in his ears, and even as he flipped through the photos, one part of his mind wondered coolly how such a long scream could be sustained without a breath. He looked at the pictures of dead bodies for what seemed like hours. Some from the coup in Egypt. Some were from drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Some were of the liberated people of Iraq. Some were of U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Afghanis.
Michelle put her hand the desk, trying to right herself; she stayed that way for awhile, her cries rising and falling with each page Barack turned and each photograph they looked at.
The reports in the blue folder were now about domestic matters. Barack read on. Millions of Americans were jobless and there were no signs that they would soon be employed. The banks that had caused the financial crisis had never been punished and it didn’t look like they would ever have to pay for their crimes. And although Barack had been perceived as being more progressive than his predecessors, when it came to deporting immigrants and cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries and ruling by executive fiat, he was worse than those who came before him.
It was then that Barack got to the final set of reports in the blue folder, the one that outlined the future of America. It detailed a troubling world in which the country was crippled by debt, the rancor between the Democrats and the Republicans had worsened and public confidence in the elected leaders was at a new all-time low. It explained how the distance between the haves and the have nots was wider than ever and that anyone who hoped to escape from poverty was doomed to fail, as more and wealth and power was concentrated into the hands of the few. It showed him that the American dream was dying and that in many ways he was powerless to do anything about it. The legislation he proposed was always compromised so severely it was nearly useless, and in some cases it only added to the woe. He saw how he spent more hours raising money for his re-election campaign than addressing his country’s most pressing concerns. Even worse, he had to whore himself out to campaign donators if he even hoped of advancing even the smallest percentage of his agenda.
And then Barack pictured his two daughters in their beds, their soft curls framing their lovely faces and their eyes closed in easy sleep. It was not the knowledge that he had compromised his beliefs and betrayed his values as president that bothered him; it was the trusting helplessness in the faces of his sleeping daughters.
But Barack Obama knew that he could not change the direction of the country, much less his presidency. The fate of America remained fixed. At the last moment before he shut the folder, Barack Obama sat motionless in his chair, and he heard Michelle’s crying still sounding in his ears. He felt a sudden pain in his head, and the world began to go gray. Just before he lost consciousness he heard the screaming stop, and he knew then that he had been hearing a single, short-lived scream that had only seemed to drag on and on. There came a painless wrench, and then darkness.
Barack Obama seemed to be at the bottom of a deep black well. There was a spot of faint light in the far distance, and he could hear the rumble of a distant voice. He tried to pull himself toward the light and the sound, but the effort was too great. He lay still and gathered himself and tried again. The light grew brighter and the voice louder. He tried harder, again, and he drew closer. Then he opened his eyes full and looked at the man sitting in front of him.
“You all right?” asked the man. He wore a blue uniform, and his round, beefy face was familiar.
Barack Obama tentatively move his head, and discovered he was seated in a reclining chair, unharmed, and able to move his arms and legs with no trouble. He looked around the room, and he remembered.
The man in the uniform saw the growing intelligence in his eyes and he said, “No harm done. You just took the last part of the test.”
Barack Obama focused his eyes on the man. Though he saw the man clearly, he seemed to see the faint face of his sleeping daughters in front of him.
The uniformed man continued to speak. “We put you through a day as president under hypnosis — we do it to everybody these days before they decide to run. Makes better leaders of them. Remember it now? Coming in here and all?”
Barack Obama nodded, thinking of his two daughters and all the people who had suffered at his hands and those who had died overseas as a result of his callous actions.
The uniformed man was still speaking. “So you’re all set now. You pay me the $5,000 fee, and sign the application, and we’ll make sure your name gets on the ballot.” He did not look up.
Barack Obama wrote a check and put it on the table in front of him. Then he glanced over the application and signed it. He looked up to find two white-uniformed men, standing one on each side of him, and he frowned . He started to speak, but the uniformed man spoke first. “Sorry, you failed. You’re sick; you need treatment.”
The two men lifted Barack Obama to his feet, and he said, “Take your hands off me. What is this?”
The uniformed man said, “Nobody should want to be president after going through what you just went through. It should take months before you can even think of running for office again, but you’re ready right now. Killing people doesn’t bother you. We don’t let your kind run around loose in society any more. But don’t you worry now. They’ll take good care of you, and they’ll fix you up.” He nodded to the two men, and they began to march Barack Obama out.
At the door he spoke, and his voice was so urgent the two men paused. Barack Obama said,
“You can’t really mean this. I’m still dreaming, aren’t I? This is still part of the test, isn’t’ it?”
The uniformed man said, “How do any of us know?” And they dragged Barack Obama out the door, knees stiff, feet dragging, his rubber heels sliding along the two grooves worn into the floor.