What follows is an excerpt from my new novel, "Talk." Let me set the stage for you:
Stan Powers is the radio king of the I-4 Corridor. With a presidential election underway, the morning voice of WRGT speaks to those who reside between Tampa and Orlando. Win here, and you win Florida. Win the Sunshine State, and you capture the White House. Not bad for a former stoner and slacker who lacks any personal political conviction, but succeeds nevertheless by simply parroting conservative talking points. Now, on the eve of the California primary, Stan is a panelist for a final GOP debate at the Reagan Library.
After Senator Redfield repeated his mantra that he'd remove every last vestige of Obamacare from the federal regulations, Mr. Wonderful asked him, "What would be the fate of an illegal immigrant who walked into an emergency room lacking insurance?"
Redfield's reply that "His care will be left to God" drew a robust round of applause. Three thousand miles from Florida, I thought I heard Debbie vomit.
Margaret Haskel took a question from the woman at the Orange County Register regarding her opposition to an assault weapons ban (big applause) and turned it into an opportunity to highlight her signing of 17 death-sentence warrants (even bigger applause).
Poor Governor James. He'd done far better in the actual primaries than anyone would ever have guessed from the crowd's reaction. His supporters never seemed to be represented in these venues; perhaps they preferred to leave their McMansions, draw a curtain closed, and vote for him anonymously before heading to Starbucks. The more he made sense - at least to me - the more he was heckled by the crowd. When Mr. Wonderful asked him whether he'd enforce federal drug laws in states like his that had decriminalized marijuana, you'd have thought he'd embraced reprieves for child molesters, not Americans who chose a joint instead of a martini.
Molly Hatchet took every opportunity to go after him.
"I run a border state. I know what it's like to have these marauding illegals come across the border and to take our jobs, prosperity, and women. You should ask Governor James why he wants to send all their kids to college in front of ours."
The line didn't make sense, at least as I had heard it, but it didn't matter. The audience ate it up, hearing only, I am sure, that James was for the illegals (bad) and Haskel was not (good). And when James offered an explanation about "extending American opportunity to children who themselves had not sought to break any laws," his answer drew catcalls from the crowd.
That's when Mr. Wonderful came to me.
As the debate had progressed, so had my dread. On a legal tablet in front of me, replete with the insignia of the Reagan Library and my idiotic doodles (including the prism from the jacket of Dark Side of the Moon), sat the paper with the typed question that Jackson Hunter had handed me in the Polo Lounge. To ask it could potentially ensure Margaret Haskel's victory in tomorrow's primary, her nomination, and my syndication. But when those words left my mouth, so would every ounce of dignity I had left.
Could I do it? Should I do it? I heard Phil's voice in my head as I had so many times before: "Don't be a pussy, Powers." I took a deep breath, grabbed my sack, and let it fly.
"Governor James. Many voters in tomorrow's California primary wish to vote for a candidate who shares their family values. Can a candidate who once told his own spouse that he desired an open marriage be that individual?"
For the first time all evening, there was rapt silence. The gay soldier had been booed. A preposterous $10,000 wager, death penalty talk, and the idea that God was a better answer than modern medicine had been cheered. But now the hall stood frozen. It was as if everyone at the Reagan Library inched forward in their seat, not wanting to miss a word of James' reply. That the governor was on his second marriage was not news. That his first had ended badly was also the subject of rumor and speculation, but not something that had ever been publicly addressed. His first wife had died from breast cancer after their divorce and before he married his second wife, or perhaps she would have spoken for herself. And while the divorce records of the parties were supposedly long sealed, Jackson Hunter's question had a seemingly credible attachment: a page from Evelyn James' deposition, in which she stated that a young James had come to her with a proposition for an open marriage for reasons that were not identified in the transcript. Now, tonight, on the eve of the final primary, I had just rolled that stink bomb right under Air Force One.
I'm sure Governor James had been prepared for hundreds of possible questions tonight. There had been enumerable debates over the last 18 months, and by now, the candidates were largely on autopilot. They were like wind-up dolls, capable of spouting off an answer to any issue the moment someone pulled their string. But it was painfully obvious that he was not ready for my low blow. He took a second or two to compose himself, which in comparison to the tempo up until that moment seemed like an eternity. His face reddened. He clutched the podium. And he stared right at me.