A piece of speculative short fiction.
It was a typical steamy mid-summer day in the nation’s capital. The sort where no one likes to move around too much or too quickly.
That’s how everyone in the White House knew something fundamental was terribly amiss. The place was alive with activity. Determined footsteps. Furious whispers.
It didn’t take long for the news to spread among the entourage of aides and senior advisors that follow in wake of the president as he makes his way through a day at the White House.
The president’s TV remote had gone missing.
The remote that controls the channels on the big 60” flat screen he had installed in the ornate dining room just off the Oval Office. The president stood in front of the glowing display, his arm waving like a broken wing. His hand clutched at nothing.
More than anything else the TV remote was the symbol of power for the 45th President of the United States. He liked to wield it the way a Baroque monarch wielded a jewel-encrusted scepter. He used it to punctuate his pronouncements. He used it to cruise from one cable news channel to the next as he continually searched for his image and his beliefs at the center of the world’s events.
And now it was gone
Worse, the channel was stuck on CNN. Everyone saw the effect the unvarnished newsfeed was having on the president. With no ability to channel surf back to the affirming voices of Fox News his confidence was wilting. Most in the room stood immobilized. The press secretary backed silently toward the wall until he was completely hidden in the gold curtains draping the window.
It was the defense secretary that finally acted. He strode forward and pulled a fistful of wires from the wall. The giant screen went mercifully dark.
This brought the president to action. He began thundering commands.
Within hours the nation’s borders were sealed. A strategic air wing was scrambled. The Seventh Fleet was ordered to make ready to sail.
This last escalation brought forth a heated discussion. In which direction should the fleet sail? The administration had been burned by that exact problem in a previous crisis, when the fleet aimed itself in a direction those who made a study of military strategy considered unhelpful. They had to get it right this time. Russia? North Korea? All eyes fell on the president.
“Mexico,” he said. “They’re the only ones with enough people inside our borders to pull this off.”
The president was fully engaged now. He barked an order to fire the entire White House IT staff. “Why was there no back-up remote?”
“Most likely there was only one remote in the box,” the secretary of state offered diplomatically. “And you might want to keep at least someone from IT around to hook your TV back up once we recover the remote.”
“Kushner can do it,” the president said of his son-in-law and most trusted advisor. “He’s very, very handy with the electronics.”
The mention of Jared Kushner roused the interest of his bitter rival for the president’s ear, the taciturn Steve Bannon. “I could start waterboarding some of the career guys over at State,” Bannon suggested. “That’ll get us to the bottom of this.”
“No,” came a muffled voice from behind the gold curtains. “Trust me on this,” the press secretary said. “We can’t do waterboarding on our own people.”
“Snowflake,” Bannon muttered under his breath. But he returned to his corner of the room, brooding over the larger events that might be connected to the missing remote.
The president thrived on this sort of Darwinian conflict among his advisors. But it came at a cost. The secretary of health and human services, a former physician, noticed the exhaustion in the president’s posture. “Look, we’ve got this under control but it’s going to take time to play out,” he said. He suggested the president get some rest. It was only after the generals in the room added their voices that the president finally, reluctantly agreed.
Some time later the president returned to the West Wing. His government was in a state of near panic. The best efforts of the most powerful nation on earth had failed to turn up the missing remote. The global situation was deteriorating. The Russians were threatening to put their forces on alert in response to the mysterious U.S. escalation.
The bit of rest had done the president well. He was dressed comfortably in his bathrobe. The slippers on his feet slapped against his heels as he strode into the room, and the sound had a calming effect on his frantic aides. The vice president stepped out of the knot of advisors, stealing his courage to deliver the disappointing update. Then he stopped.
A look of surprise flashed over the vice president’s face.
Then it turned to a relieved smile.
“Sir, it’s been a hell of a day,” the vice president said. “Even before this whole affair with the missing remote. None of us realized you haven’t had any TV time since breakfast. Look. The remote is still right where it was this morning.”
The vice president gave his superior a moment to make the discovery himself, before he said what all in the room were beginning to notice.
“The remote is in the pocket of your bathrobe.”
And so mighty events turn on the most trivial of happenstances. Some leaders vest their power in great cities built of stone and steel. Others in a device known for getting lost in the couch cushions. Maybe the most important asset a nation can hope for in these strange times is a bit of luck.