Gabrielle ran a hand through her straightened black hair. "I hear the White House campaign staff is as confused as we are. The President is offering no explanation for his vanishing act, and everyone over there is furious."
"Any theories?" Sexton asked.
Gabrielle gazed at him over her scholarly glasses. "As it turns out, I got some interesting data this morning from a contact of mine in the White House."
Sexton recognized the look in her eyes. Gabrielle Ashe had scored some insider information again. Sexton wondered if she were giving some presidential aide backseat blow jobs in exchange for campaign secrets. Sexton didn't care... so long as the information kept coming.
"Rumor has it," his assistant said, lowering her voice, "the President's strange behavior all started last week after an emergency private briefing with the administrator of NASA. Apparently the President emerged from the meeting looking dazed. He immediately cleared his schedule, and he's been in close contact with NASA ever since."
Sexton certainly liked the sound of that. "You think maybe NASA delivered some more bad news?"
"Seems a logical explanation," she said hopefully. "Although it would have to be pretty critical to make the President drop everything."
Sexton considered it. Obviously, whatever was going on with NASA had to be bad news. Otherwise the President would throw it in my face. Sexton had been pounding the President pretty hard on NASA funding lately. The space agency's recent string of failed missions and gargantuan budget overruns had earned NASA the dubious honor of becoming Sexton's unofficial poster child against big government overspending and inefficiency. Admittedly, attacking NASA - one of the most prominent symbols of American pride - was not the way most politicians would think of winning votes, but Sexton had a weapon few other politicians had - Gabrielle Ashe. And her impeccable instincts.
The savvy young woman had come to Sexton's attention several months ago when she was working as a coordinator in Sexton's Washington campaign office. With Sexton trailing badly in the primary polls and his message of government overspending falling on deaf ears, Gabrielle Ashe wrote him a note suggesting a radical new campaign angle. She told the senator he should attack NASA's huge budget overruns and continued White House bailouts as the quintessential example of President Herney's careless overspending.
"NASA is costing Americans a fortune," Gabrielle wrote, including a list of financial figures, failures, and bailouts. "Voters have no idea. They would be horrified. I think you should make NASA a political issue."
Sexton groaned at her naivete. "Yeah, and while I'm at it, I'll rail against singing the national anthem at baseball games."
In the weeks that followed, Gabrielle continued to send information about NASA across the senator's desk. The more Sexton read, the more he realized this young Gabrielle Ashe had a point. Even by government agency standards, NASA was an astounding money pit - expensive, inefficient, and, in recent years, grossly incompetent.
One afternoon Sexton was doing an on-air interview about education. The host was pressing Sexton about where he would find funding for his promised overhaul of public schools. In response, Sexton decided to test Gabrielle's NASA theory with a half-joking response. "Money for education?" he said. "Well, maybe I'll cut the space program in half. I figure if NASA can spend fifteen billion a year in space, I should be able to spend seven and a half billion on the kids here on earth."
In the transmission booth, Sexton's campaign managers gasped in horror at the careless remark. After all, entire campaigns had been sunk by far less than taking a potshot at NASA. Instantly, the phone lines at the radio station lit up. Sexton's campaign managers cringed; the space patriots were circling for the kill.
Then something unexpected happened.
"Fifteen billion a year?" the first caller said, sounding shocked. "With a B? Are you telling me that my son's math class is overcrowded because schools can't afford enough teachers, and NASA is spending fifteen billion dollars a year taking pictures of space dust?"
"Um... that's right," Sexton said warily.
"Absurd! Does the President have the power to do something about that?"
"Absolutely," Sexton replied, gaining confidence. "A President can veto the budget request of any agency he or she deems overfunded."
"Then you have my vote, Senator Sexton. Fifteen billion for space research, and our kids don't have teachers. It's outrageous! Good luck, sir. I hope you go all the way."
The next caller came on the line. "Senator, I just read that NASA's International Space Station is way overbudget and the President is thinking of giving NASA emergency funding to keep the project going. Is that true?"
Sexton jumped at this one. "True!" He explained that the space station was originally proposed as a joint venture, with twelve countries sharing the costs. But after construction began, the station's budget spiraled wildly out of control, and many countries dropped out in disgust. Rather than scrapping the project, the President decided to cover everyone's expenses. "Our cost for the ISS project," Sexton announced, "has risen from the proposed eight billion to a staggering one hundred billion dollars!"
The caller sounded furious. "Why the hell doesn't the President pull the plug!"
Sexton could have kissed the guy. "Damn good question. Unfortunately, one third of the building supplies are already in orbit, and the President spent your tax dollars putting them there, so pulling the plug would be admitting he made a multibillion-dollar blunder with your money."
The calls kept coming. For the first time, it seemed Americans were waking up to the idea that NASA was an option - not a national fixture.
When the show was over, with the exception of a few NASA diehards calling in with poignant overtures about man's eternal quest for knowledge, the consensus was in: Sexton's campaign had stumbled onto the holy grail of campaigning - a new "hot button" - a yet untapped controversial issue that struck a nerve with voters.
In the weeks that followed, Sexton trounced his opponents in five crucial primaries. He announced Gabrielle Ashe as his new personal campaign assistant, praising her for her work in bringing the NASA issue to the voters. With the wave of a hand, Sexton had made a young African-American woman a rising political star, and the issue of his racist and sexist voting record disappeared overnight.
Now, as they sat together in the limousine, Sexton knew Gabrielle had yet again proven her worth. Her new information about last week's secret meeting between the NASA administrator and the President certainly suggested more NASA troubles were brewing - perhaps another country pulling funding from the space station.
As the limousine passed the Washington Monument, Senator Sexton could not help but feel he had been anointed by destiny.
Despite having ascended to the most powerful political office in the world, President Zachary Herney was average in height, with a slender build and narrow shoulders. He had a freckled face, bifocals, and thinning black hair. His unimposing physique, however, stood in stark contrast to the almost princely love the man commanded from those who knew him. It was said that if you met Zach Herney once, you would walk to the ends of the earth for him.
"So glad you could make it," President Herney said, reaching out to shake Rachel's hand. His grasp was warm and sincere.
Rachel fought the frog in her throat. "Of... course, Mr. President. An honor to meet you."