If I were a suicide I wouldn’t have become a punchline. Budd Dwyer kept his dignity. “Don’t, don’t, don’t” were his last words. “This will hurt someone.” The way he says “Don’t, don’t, don’t” is careful and controlled. A man who knows exactly what he is doing. He’s incanting, summoning up the language to finish the act he knows he has to carry out.
I click stop, rewind, and let the glow of the television set illuminate my face. I knead my chin, rubbing the scruff, embalmed with Pinaud Clubman aftershave. Face like a barbershop, stinking of lemon and antiseptic, woody flavors crowding around the television as I press against the glass. Smudges of skin oil streak Budd. A younger man wouldn’t lose so much of himself there. Every time I watch him commit suicide it seems like he’s not going to be able to do it, but, miraculously, he does. How?
Last week—January 27th, 1987—Budd Dwyer, the treasurer of Pennsylvania, committed suicide at the press conference he had called to address allegations of bribery. The tape aired live and then was hidden from public consumption. Enemies accused Budd of taking a three-hundred-grand kickback from a computing firm. Budd lamented the guilty verdict. “My prison is an American Gulag,” he said. “Why fight it? Who cares?” He sent his love to his family—Joanne, Rob, DeeDee—and on the count of three he told the easily-offended to leave. “Don’t, don’t, don’t,” he said. “This will hurt someone.” And, on television, he shot himself in the head.
Budd made a mistake, a miscalculation familiar to me: the mistake of doing whatever it took to win. But his political scandal was frozen in time, overshadowed by the histrionics of his death, forgotten and buried in the ice so that only his suicide would remain. Budd was famous for his death and his love of bribes, of favors, was forgotten.
I press play. Budd’s lifting of the gun to his chin, that split second before he pulls the trigger, will forever just be.
I met an eager Dwyer page to get a copy of the tape. That black Steeler’s cap complimented his white complexion and broad shoulders. Short hair. Clean face. Strong handshake. Brisk like a Nor’easter. My fingers hurt after, but hurt good, like paving roads with my father. Good kid.
“He was an honest man,” the kid had said. “Innocent. The prosecutor did a hatchet job.” He took his hat off and ruffled his sweat-soaked hair. “No one can say anything bad about that man now. But I knew you would understand.”
I don’t. Hound your enemies who persecute you so that no one can do it again. That’s not persecution. That’s justice. Scandals are hard to shake off, but they make you a stronger politician. What is the dividing line between fighting and giving up? How did Budd give up? How did he let go of the fight to win? The urge to crush your enemies? Yes I was persecuted but it fueled me. They still say bad things about me but not Budd. Never him. Not now.
I drove all night long, NoDoz keeping me awake. Told Pat I was meeting with party officials for the weekend, Reagan’s men, to discuss fundraising for Bush. I wandered deep into the desert, south of Death Valley, where I sucked in the rotten air of the Salton Sea and found the Capri Motor Inn a mile from the shore, near the new housing projects. I did doughnuts in the parking lot, same as at my father’s grove in Yorba Linda, and watched the sand storm around me, clinging to my windshield. Fish likely bellied up in the man-made sea near the entrance of the hotel. It was the perfect place to sit and watch.
Stains on the wall of the clerk’s office, which was next to the two-story motel. Faded brick—dark red with gray splotches, circles that had lost their shapes, speckling the building. The clerk watched television, right eye clouded like scum on a pond, smacking the snow off the screen with one palsied hand and adjusting the rabbit ears with another. “What are you doing with yourself, J.R.?” he said to the TV.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Thirty-nine fifty a night.”
“Are the rooms secure?”
“What,” he said, never turning from the television, “are you the Pope?”
“Yes,” I said. “I need to be cloistered.”
He slid the key across the countertop, over and across, scratching an L into the vinyl. I nodded and left.
This was a place to disappear in, to squat until I figured out Budd’s secret. I had entered the room with the tape, a VCR, and a bottle of scotch. It’s a long way from San Clemente, Pat would have said, and the whores and pimps might not recognize you, but the chronically unemployed will.
My neighbor, a pin-eyed, greasy man in an undershirt and torn dungarees, eyeballed me. Door still chained on the inside, just ajar enough for him to see me and me him.
“You’re him,” he whispered, sucking on his rotten teeth.
I pretended not to see him, sliding the key into the slot.
“Him.” He pointed, reaching out. He had faded scars on his arm broadcasting that he had once tried to kill himself, but lacked the gumption that Budd had. He was a warning sent from God. If I failed, I would become him: an unemployed drunkard spying on honest folks.
“Yes,” I finally said. “Close the fucking door.” His fingernails were long, too long, at least an inch longer than his fingers, but he kept them clean, clear white.
“Good,” he said. “You belong here with us.”
I slammed the door.
“That scotch is too good for you,” he yelled.
The chair was not uncomfortable. It was easy to sink into it, the kind of chair my father might have used if he didn’t believe that rest was sinful. It was like sinking into a comfortable memory, hands massaging my body. And it was in better straits than the bed, which I sat on and immediately slunk off of. If my knees would have let me jump I would have. It smelled like a thousand hours of prostitute sex, a humid stink like a rancid cut of porterhouse, mixed in with smoke—cigarettes and what I imagined to be crack. Burning coal combined with burnt wicker. The chair was the place to be. The one loose spring jutted out just under my knee, piercing me enough to keep me alert. My lack of sleep was taking a toll.
The curtains had to be drawn to block out the setting sun. The light obscured Budd. I slid the scotch into the ice bucket and waited for it to cool. Never put ice in the scotch because you’ll just water it down. I put the tape in and watched. How heavy was the treasurer’s office? A state treasurer. It couldn’t have been that bad. Right, Budd?
The office was a nuisance, someone hired to do paperwork so that the governor could get the real work done, like the Vice President’s Chief of Staff. You didn’t have real decisions to make. Like when Kissinger wanted me to bomb Cambodia, convincing me that it was the only option to stop their supply line to the Viet Cong. The President, Kissinger said, gets the blame. Success goes to no one in particular. The television glows as I watch.
I stop and tell a joke to Budd. “A farmer’s wife tells her husband that it’s their fiftieth anniversary. ‘Let’s kill a pig and celebrate.’ The farmer says, ‘Gee, I don’t see why a pig should suffer for some dumb fucking act I committed years ago.’”
I should have counted for more than you, Budd. The idiot box won’t ever let me forget that, but you, you they leave alone. Suicides are the only ones who aren’t rendered pathetic.
On Saturday Night Live Dan Aykroyd portrayed me as a boob, a sniveling simpleton whose pettiness had gotten away from him. They had me with my shoulder hunched up nearly ear-level, bending down like a shrunken pretzel as I looked up at a portrait of Lincoln, begging for release. “You were lucky,” they had me say to Lincoln. “They shot you.” And then, then, praying for the clot in my leg to kill me where I stood.
Rewind. Play. Budd’s at it again.
Budd’s barrel must have felt cold. When I shot skeet it always amazed me how frozen the barrel felt before I fired. And as my former press secretary Ziegler, so-called personal assistant after I resigned, pulled the release lever, my enemies flew up in front of me, one by one, and I took those bastards down just like they had taken me down. “Motherfuck!” I blasted. Arnold Picker no longer exported American culture to eastern European minorities that only existed because of cartographers. That goddamned commie Barkan exploded in front of me. And Guthman, that mindless little yes-man from the Kennedy’s camp. How many Kennedy cocks did he suck? All of them. A bullet should have fixed Guthman like his employers. A bullet would have fixed me. I imagined shooting Ziegler last.
No matter how hard I shot there were always two skeet that got away. I could never blast each one, and I got the feeling that they hovered behind me and laughed, because someone is always behind you laughing, like the way Ziegler would laugh at me for screaming at football coaches after players botched their plans.
I should have been a football coach. It was the one thing I was ever good at. 1971, when all I had to worry about was finding the bastard Ellsberg leaking The Pentagon Papers, was Washington’s worst season. The Redskins had the lead 10-3 with a couple of minutes to go before the half. I had phoned the General Manager to pull the reverse flank. We were going to end the Niners. Instead, we got a thirteen-yard loss because the enemy was able to read the play.
Zielger was quiet while I was on the phone, but laughed when he saw the result and said, “The team doesn’t really know how to do anything, do they?” Someone must have tipped their opponents off because it should have worked. If you looked close you would see their assistant coach tapping his nose not once, not twice, but three times. Three. Ziegler assured me that that wasn’t the case, but I knew better. The play was the last move anyone would have suspected. The key to winning is to play like you’re losing.
Budd, how do you do it? I ease my feet into the slippers, rewind the tape, tap the fan on and let the breeze cool me. How heavy is the gun, Budd? Are you thinking about the allegations as the barrel rests on your face? Two options: Ignore or deny. But you do neither. You find a third path.
Budd’s don’t, don’t, don’t echoes.
“Sir, everything is going to be all right,” Ziegler said to me in 1975. He had been sitting with me all day in my San Clemente exile. “The American justice system protects all wrongs. People forget. Your legacy will remain. Don’t,” he said, “worry.”
Sitting was my new profession. The chair was becoming a part of me, and Ziegler must have seen some deep-seated unhappiness in my face, because he put his hand on my shoulder for the second time in our friendship. His grip was strong. Too strong.
“Let me ask you,” he said, the southern California sun illuminating the part in his hair that accentuated his terrible youth, making him look like a Mormon, a Fuller Brush man, fresh out of his parent’s house, hawking his wares. “Why do you think I stayed?”
“Did Pat leave her room today?” I asked. She didn’t even kiss me good luck before Ziegler drove me to the hospital to take care of the clot in my leg earlier that week. The doctor told me that if I hadn’t been operated on I would have died, and then, then, they would have been able to bury me. Pat didn’t kiss me.
“She’s resting, Dick,” he said. “Can’t stop coughing. The heat is getting to her.”
“No shit,” I said.
Ziegler crossed his legs, adjusted his tie, and wiped his forehead. How could he be so sure of himself? “You.” He pointed. “Are the most important person in the world—the President.”
I wanted him to hug me, tell me that I was a great man, and then I wanted him to push me away and tell me what a joke I was. But Ziegler knew exactly how lighten the mood.
“A farmer writes his son in prison,” he said, “and he tells his son that he won’t be able to plant potatoes because the son isn’t there to help. The son writes back and says to not even think about digging because that’s where he buried the gun. The police start to dig up the farmer’s yard, find nothing. The son writes back and says, ‘Now plant your potatoes! That was the best I could do!’”
Budd is courageous. He doesn’t have to sit outside in the yard all day, staring at someone exactly twenty years younger than himself. What does he know about the Depression? About World War II? The world left me, Budd.
“You,” Ziegler said, his finger wiggling and threatening to burrow through my forehead, “are the man who opened relations with China, created the EPA, saved the whales, stopped the Soviets from overrunning the world, and facilitated the full-scale integration of the Southern school system.”
“Not like that son of a bitching commie Johnson.”
“Shall I need to go on?”
“They left me with five hundred bucks in my pocket.”
“Dick,” he said, “you came from nothing. The Irish never quit.”
“I’m not Irish,” I said. “Besides, I just want to live my life now. Help the party if and when I can.” I wiped my forehead with the tie Pat gave me for my birthday. “Want to watch Patton?” I had fantasies of Reagan calling me to tell me that he needed my help. That only I could prevent a war with China, or solve the gas crisis, or stop the leaks in his administration. I just wanted to do something.
Patton was a man who knew how to get things done, which was the important part. There are plenty of politicians who succeeded with their policies. Look at how Hoover laid the groundwork for Roosevelt’s New Deal and the economic recovery of the country. He taxed the rich and started what would become the WPA, but did he give any good speeches? Did he do anything brave? No. But there are two acts that make you retroactively brave: assassination and suicide. That way you won’t be around to prove the public right about how selfish you were.
A mobster came into your office, Budd, and said he would donate money to your campaign if you threw a work contract to his company. Sure, you said, not thinking of the repercussions. It’s so easy, isn’t it? You tell your staff to set up a reelection office, to do whatever it takes to win, and tell them not to inform you of the details. It’s only been a week since you died, and they can’t stop talking about how great a man you were. All I had was Ziegler, but he made me laugh and forget.
Halfway through 1972, just as Watergate was starting to mushroom and I was about to end the war, the press started eating me alive. They had finally connected Watergate to me.
“Patton, boss,” Ziegler said.
“What?” I said, cheerless. I could no longer receive comfort from anything. “And watch a man accomplish all the things I could never hope to?”
“But this,” Ziegler said, raising his briefcase. He pulled out two paper bags from his briefcase. “Wife made her special lunch for us.” He slowly shimmied out the bottles, a striptease, building anticipation. The man knew how to present himself—everyone loves a burlesque. The Yoo-hoos came out of the bag and Ziegler winked—but he wasn’t done yet, oh no.
“Knock-knock,” he said, barely containing himself. His face was red, somehow fuller. His joy was contagious; not even Howard Hunt’s arrest could bring me down.
“Who’s there?” I imagined the police showing up at whatever shithole hunt lived in.
“You,” I said, knowing the godawful punchline, but still anticipating it. The cops should be beating Howard, burning his papers on my order, the evidence, and saving me because I was loved and I inspired all to be proud Americans. “Who?”
“Yoo-hoo!” Ziegler spun the bottles in his hands.
Budd, you didn’t have someone to make you laugh. To remind you that you were a good man. Pat and the kids would have been crushed, but you didn’t let that bother you. How could you? You knew that they would be better off without your mark. Tricia and Julie hounded by degenerates at Smith. They called Julie and tell her to fucking die. They’d tape messages to her dorm door telling her to kill me for the good of the country because I was a fuck. Budd. The way your mouth moves as you say don’t, don’t, don’t. There’s no hesitation. Like the words were always there, just waiting to be said. It was all predetermined, wasn’t it? Watergate. Your suicide. We were men who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Men history need to hold up as cautionary tales so that the future could learn. LBJ did the same thing I did, hell, he recorded more people. Reagan succeeded, too. A breath of fresh air, reinvigorating the party, they said. Bullshit. He was George C. Scott playing the part, but I was the fucking role. I made the decisions and he got the glory. We survived the Cold War because of me. How were you able to do it, Budd?
A few weeks after Bernstein and Woodward printed Mark Felt’s stolen records. I tried to commit suicide. I was in the Oval office, grasped the hunting rifle that I kept in behind the glass display and gun that Johnson had given me—a present for the President, he had said. The barrel slipped, felt cold against my chin, when Ziegler burst in. He pushed me down and I was on all fours, crawling. I should have known then how it would end.
“The President does not commit suicide,” he said. The early-morning sun encroaching on him, drowning his face out in the light as the day turned into afternoon. But the cleft on his chin was perfectly unlit a black dot on the bottom of his head. If he had put the barrel against his chin it would have sat perfectly in that Y-shaped groove. Budd, your head was a perfect peanut shape, bald on the top and thick on the bottom. You just had to leave the gun there long enough so your fingers could act.
“And the President of these United States does not weep,” Ziegler said, reaching down to help me. “Do you think F.D.R. stood in here weeping about Pearl Harbor?”
“I don’t think he stood at all.”
Ziegler laughed, doubling over, the only other person I knew who could appreciate a good dumb joke. Kissinger just looked at me when I said that Agnew was so fucking stupid he thought the Domino Theory was bunk because Parker Brothers didn’t make dominos that large.
“What would you have me do?” I said to Ziegler. There was a miserly look in his eyes, like a rogue wave, like the wind I saw as a kid that ripped one of my father’s lemon trees from the earth. I saw my reflection in his pupils and my face was resolute. A look of stubbornness so hard it could break rocks in half. I was going to find a way to kill myself, but Ziegler was going to find a way to convince me.
“You opened relations with China.” We stood side by side the window with the sun glaring between us. He pulled my hand in tighter, opening my fingers so that I could feel how hard his heart was beating, ready to take a bullet for me. My fingers tented over his chest, gripping the fabric. Harder and faster. “You saved this country and continue to save this country and will always save this country and you gave me a purpose in life.” Harder and faster. His eyes were calm now, like a mother who had caught her son’s hands in the cookie jar before dinner, swatted him away, and then grieved over the physical pain she caused him. And then she’d take the jar away to make sure that it never happened again.
The man could always make you feel calmed, loved, and important. It was all in the facial expressions. He stayed with me for hours on end every day in my garden, where Pat’s flowers were starting to bloom. The bushes were lush, green and vibrant. The vinegary stink of the geraniums climbed up our nostrils each day as we wrote. The first days were the hardest. Now there were no briefings on Southeast Asia or the Soviets or radical college groups or even the weather. Boredom. Budd, you would have found that it took less than half an hour to do the crossword in the Times. And then you’d have your first drink and start pounding on the table as Ziegler typed across from you.
“Cripes, Dick. You’re going to give yourself a heart attack.”
Boredom, see? Boredom. I sit here watching you, Budd, and I start playing with my toes in the slippers. Holes right at the edge so my middle toes can feel the cool air wash over them. Over and over again you do it and the question to ask isn’t how but why not? Why not do it? I don’t know. Seventy-four years old, Budd. Teeth leaving my head. I have to piss every ten minutes even when I don’t drink anything. And I take that bottle of scotch and suck on the bottle top, afraid to open it. If I did I’d drink it and then what would happen? I’d call Ziegler and ask him to come back to me, but he can’t anymore. He won’t. He’s president of a fucking drugstore now.
For a second I think someone is knocking at my door, so I hit mute, letting the images say it all—a man with his hands in the air. The look on your face gives you away. Your eyebrows twitch. If the audience had been concentrating on your face they would have seen. You hold the manila envelopes in your hand; give them to your aids, your family, the governor. You keep the fourth one because that’s where the .357 Magnum Smith and Wesson model 27 is. The gun has a reputation for enough stopping power to kill a goddamned whale. You aren’t subtle, are you? Five cameras and the best anyone can do is meekly shout, “Don’t do it.” Not like Ziegler. No. Not like him at all. The man’s face is uncaring and thin. “Get an ambulance,” he says, after the fact. His tone is flat and so are his eyes. Half an hour lying there dead until they pronounce you. “Don’t do it.” “Don’t.” It’s always don’t.
“Dick,” Ziegler said to me two years ago. “I’ve got some news, but first a joke: A pecan farmer has to hire guards to watch his crop because of pecan thieves. The farmer will only trust his son for the job. So the son stands in front of the grove and someone comes by. ‘What are you doing?’ he says. And you know what the son says?” He stopped, waiting for me to beg for the punchline.
“I don’t have time for this shit, Ron. I’m working on a new book.” I was. My publisher wanted it and I needed the money. No More Vietnams. Even in 1985, I had to defend myself.
“I’m protecting my father’s nuts.”
“Uh-huh.” I stood up, calmly pushing the chair back into its place. The typewriter’s keys gently jangled and clicked. I handed him a folder labeled Ziegler, Ron. My detective had been following him around and I knew he had just been offered a position as president of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. He was leaving me, but it was his duty to see me to the end. He made me live. He made me stay. So it stood to reason he had to watch me. Ziegler knocked it out of my hands.
“I trusted you,” he said. “I trusted you.”
And then he walked away.
I stamped on the ground, hoping that I had the power to shatter the earth. My flesh bouncing under my clothes, loose skin growing hotter and hotter as it rubbed against the fabric. I bit down so hard that I chipped my canines; a small piece from each side flew from my mouth. “Don’t you have something to say? Betrayer! Deep Throat! You helped Felt, didn’t you? How long were you planning on abandoning me? I can just hire someone else. Someone who won’t stop me from doing what I need to do. Do you remember that day in the White House? When I had the gun? And you grabbed it from me? That was the biggest mistake you made in your life.”
“Worst decision I ever made,” Ron said. “You too.”
My toes wiggle and I can see their shadows on your face, Budd. Should I drink the scotch? I didn’t bring a gun with me. Should I have? No. I’m here to find out how to do it, nothing more. I’m going to do it another day, but it has to be someplace where people can see me, right? That’s the secret? If I did it here no one would find me for days. I’d just be another vagrant on the shag. They probably wouldn’t even think it was really me, just some impersonator. The screen flickers on and off, again. I get up to make sure that it’s plugged in, press play.
Someone pounding on my door shouts.
Did I imagine it, Budd?
And then it happens again.
“I can hear you breathing,” he says. “Hombre.”
“What do you want?” I say through the closed door.
“I heard you screaming. All night. ‘Don’t, don’t, don’t. Abandoner. Betrayer.’ Broken fucking record there, boss. Don’t do what?”
“None of your business.”
“Then shut it.”
“Would you like some scotch?”
“Yes,” he said. “Buying me off. Good. Hand it over.”
“No,” I said. “Go back to your room. I’ll leave it outside my door, close my door, and then you count to twenty. That means you can open your door and then take the scotch. And, and, and you have to destroy the bottle when you’re done. Do we have a deal?”
I put my ear to the door, listening for his footsteps, and my bones threaten to turn to ash in the light. My arthritis won’t let me turn the knob and my wrists burn so badly that I have to plunge my hands into the former ice bucket. Relief, however brief, is hard to come by.
I never leave the scotch out. The outsider came back to twist and turn the knob. “Not here boss. Not here,” he said, getting louder and louder. “I’m getting the fucking manager.” He started pounding again but, from the chair, I am able to ignore, click, and then rewind.
There you are again, Budd. Raising the gun. It’s an arm’s length away and you shout, “Don’t, don’t, don’t” for the thousandth time. There is something between the movements of your lips, a subtle gesture for me. You’re trying to tell me something, so I flip the lights back on, open the curtains, and let the morning light in. And for a second, just one, I’m blinded by the light and there are red and blue and purple splotches dancing in front of me, but my eyes calm down and I can see what’s in front of me again and there you are, whispering. To me. What are you saying? Words within words. “Don’t.” What is it? “Don’t.” What? “Don’t.” Yes? Is it the repetition of the words that give you the power, the courage? Was it because Ron wasn’t there pulling the gun away from you? What is it Budd? What, what, what?
Click. Rewind. Budd’s at it again.