Pumphrett, newly reinstated at Defense after the unpleasantness concerning the Third Offset, had asked me to come alone to a curtained booth at the back of La Brasserie on Capitol Hill. As I entered my nostrils were set aquiver by a peculiar smell: aged spice, but with a biological undertone I couldn’t at first identify. I interrogated Pumphrett, who looked up from his scotch.
“Oh that. That’s Teddy Kennedy’s aftershave. They say it’s permeated the upholstery.”
My gorge was rising like the national debt. “Can’t they steam it out?”
“Just makes it worse. Anyway, they have to wait for Interior to decide whether to designate this booth a national historic landmark.”
Luckily, I carry a perfumed pocket hanky. It was good for two promotions when I worked at the State Department. I held it to my nose. “That’s not why you called me here, is it Pumphrett?” I muffled.
“No,” slurred Pumphrett. Evidently, the scotch on the table was not his first. “I need to talk with someone. I can’t stand what’s happening, do you hear, I can’t stand it!!” This last was delivered with such force as fully to warrant the two exclamation points I have just appended to it.
“What can’t you stand, Pumphrett?” I inquired. But instead of answering he began to pound the table and wail disconsolately. You, dear reader, may never have heard the keening wail of an anguished senior functionary but I assure you it’s a wild, desolate, hackles-raising sound. Something had to be done. Taking him firmly by the shoulders I administered two slaps to the cheek, left and right, with the aforesaid pocket hanky. Pumphrett blinked.
“Thanks,” he said when he had regained his composure. “I needed that.”
“Sorry to take such strong measures, Pumphrett,” I apologized, laying a consoling hand on his arm. “Now, tell me: Is it Putin?”
“Of course it’s Putin. But it’s not just what Putin’s doing to us. It’s what Assad and Kim and Xi and Dutarte and Khamenei are doing to us.”
“And what are they doing to us?”
“Remember what the upper classmen did to us when we were third formers at Choate? (Pumphrett and I had indeed been classmates at that prestigious preparatory school). I shifted uneasily in my seat with the recollection
“My God, man! Not that!”
“Yes indeed, that—and far worse.”
I was momentarily stunned. How could anything be worse? Then I grew angry. “Well, we’re certainly not going to let them get away with that, are we?” Pumphrett cast a pitying glance at me over the rim of his glass.
“Get away with it? Have you seen pictures of Kerry and Lavrov arm-in-arm? It’s like some hellish production of Innocents Abroad. Kerry actually brags about his daily contact with his good friend, Sergey. And what do you suppose Lavrov tells Putin back at the Kremlin?”
At this point, Pumphrett. a skillful mimic, hunched his shoulders, beetled his brow, gargled some scotch, and adopted a rather convincing Russian accent: “Look here, Vladimir Vladimirovich,” he husked, staring at me as if I were Putin. “Here are my friend John’s keychain and wallet, two dollars in loose change, his cell phone and, oh yes, his jockey shorts. He won’t even miss them until tomorrow. And by then, we’ll have negotiated another bogus ceasefire in Syria.”
The illusion was uncanny. I had become Putin in Pumphrett’s little mise-en-scène. I had a sudden urge to invade a nearby country. I shook my head to clear it. “That’s a sobering picture.”
“I certainly hope not,” answered my companion, smiling the smile of the inebriated. “And do you know what Putin tells him? He says he doesn’t want be bothered with such small potatoes while he’s busy deciding Trump’s margin of victory in California.”
“But surely we must be responding, retaliating, un-pivoting? Or perhaps we are re-forging, deterring, compelling, demonstrating resolve, and drawing red lines?” I was desperate for reassurance.
“Not even pink lines,” Pumphrett answered with disgust. “Oh, we’re springing into action all right. We’ve formed an interagency committee—a senior committee, mind you—to decide on options for alternatives to the possibility of action that we will then provide to an even more senior committee. Perhaps years from now we we will do such things—what they are as yet I know not—but they shall be the terror the earth.” (I should mention that Pumphrett, at 13, had assayed a credible Lear at Choate). “Biden says they’ll be secret things. Nobody will know they’ve happened.”
“Invisible retaliation? That’s a novel idea. But doesn’t it rather, you know, miss the point? Even if Putin understands, won’t we still look like patsies to the rest of the world? Won’t they continue to think they can, uh, paddle us with impunity?
“Oh, that won’t be all. There will be cautions and warnings and earth-shattering statements at the noon briefing. The President will raise an eyebrow, and possibly two.”
“You’re saying we’re supine before our enemies.”
“If we grew a great deal more assertive we would be.”
“But that’s not fair, Pumphrett.” I was inexplicably moved to defend the Administration. “Why, just recently I saw Richard Clarke on a talk show and he said that if we retaliated against Putin for hacking our election it would irritate the Russians and we might have all-out cyber war.” (As I said it, I cast my mind back to our younger days when a red-haired and feisty Dick Clarke had worried less about irritating Russians. But he was white-haired now, and more cautious). “So what would you have us do?”
Pumphrett fixed me with a fiery eye. “We should do what the Good Book says.” With that he reached into his inside pocket, drew out a small well-thumbed volume and pushed it across the table at me. “I took this to the White House and read the relevant passages to that failed novelist who makes policy over there. Ben…somebody.” In the dim light I could just make out the title of the little book. Not the Bible as I had expected, but The Prince, with Pumphrett’s name written in a childish hand on the flyleaf. He flipped it open to chapter three. An underlined passage leapt from the page.
“Read it,” Pumphrett demanded.
“Now, Pumphrett,” I soothed. “Perhaps you’ve had enough..”
“Read it out loud.” So I did.
The Romans always looked ahead and took action to remedy problems before they developed. They never postponed action in order to avoid war, for they understood you cannot escape wars, and when you put them off only your opponents benefit.
I was puzzled. “Those were the Romans, Pumphrett. What does that have to do with us?” But answer came there none; Pumphrett had passed out, face down in his pretzel stix.
In the cab taking Pumphrett to his condo I had an idea. “Pumphrett,” I said, “What you need is an assignment at the State Department. Regular hours, little stress, nothing of consequence to do. It will help you get perspective on the world. Why, you can hardly walk into that place without feeling an irresistible impulse to see the other country’s point of view.”
Pumphrett, slumped against the opposite door, was still sulking about the ice I had dropped down his collar to revive him. “What on earth would I do at the State Department?”
“It just so happens,” I said, “that there’s an opening in their public affairs office for someone like you. It calls for thinking up snappy slogans to convince young Muslim radicals to give up extremism in favor of the straight and narrow path. They broadcast throughout the Muslim world. It’s State’s major initiative, the very point of the spear—diplomatically speaking of course.”
Pumphrett was incredulous. “But I know nothing of Islam. I passed through the airport in Jordan once, but….”
“Don’t worry, old man,” I reassured him. “I’m absolutely certain you will do it precisely as well as they’re doing it now. Besides, you, at least, have been to the airport in the Middle East.
After I had poured Pumphrett into his apartment and was hacking back to Georgetown, I congratulated myself on this idea. It would do poor Pumphrett a world of good. In a few years he could retire and dodder off to noon lectures on K Street with hundreds of other senescent former officials just like him. It was perfect. I resolved to have a word with John Kerry about it the very next time he was in town.