By Bill Mosley
Senator Jess Boykin stared out of his office window, where the sun reflected blindingly off the Capitol dome and the layer of snow on the ground from the recent storm. It wasn’t right for the sun to be shining on a day like this one was going to be, Boykin thought gloomily. It ought to be cloudy.
His reverie was broken when his legislative aide opened his office door. “Just reminding you of your appointment in 10 minutes with Mr. Underwood of the coal association,” Tim Copeland said.
“I am quite aware,” Boykin said with a grimace.
“Do you want me to sit in?” Copeland asked.
Boykin mused for a moment. “No,” he said at last. “This ought to be one on one.” Man to man, he said to himself.
“Yes, sir,” Copeland said, ducking out of the office.
Boykin continued to stare out the window, where his eyes wandered to the platform for the inauguration rising on the Capitol’s west side. My term has two more years to run, he thought. Yes, time to get back to West Virginia and become a country squire. Perhaps practice a little law on the side. Washington — this city gets to you after a while. Especially after 30 years. Gets to anyone …
His phone rang. “Mr. Underwood is here,” his receptionist told him.
Damn, thought Boykin. He’s here early. Well, might as well get this over with.
“Send him in,” Boykin said.
A second later, Underwood entered, breathing heavily. Boykin observed that his face seemed more flushed than usual, his eyes more watery, his jowls more — jowly …
“Fred!” Boykin said with as much false enthusiasm as he could muster. “Great to see you again. How’s Martha and the family?”
“Fine,” he huffed impatiently. “Now, Jess …”
“How about I send out for coffee?” Boykin cut in.
“No time for that,” Underwood scowled. “Jess, I’m ruined. Ruined! You have to help me.”
“Now, Fred, it can’t be as bad as all that,” Boykin said, trying to maintain a comforting grin.
“They’re going to shut us down!” Underwood shouted, not at all soothed. “You heard what AOC said in her campaign. She and her allies in Congress are going to kill coal. Oil too. Go all renewable. She’s being inaugurated in a week.” He paused a second, and when Boykin didn’t offer a response, bellowed, “What are you going to do about it?”
“Now, Fred,” Boykin again said as soothingly as he could. “Let’s not get carried away. Sit down, and let’s talk about it.”
Underwood sat down and kept talking. “All of Congress is going to be against us,” he fumed. “Tlaib is going to be Speaker, and one of those radical hotheads is going to take over the Senate. You’ve got to stop them! At least in the Senate. You can twist arms. Make one of your speeches about energy security. About what’s going to happen to the miners if these crazies get their way.”
“Fred, you’re blowing this out of proportion,” Boykin said. “Sure, the election brought a lot of radicals to town, but they’re not the entire party. There are plenty of sensible Democrats around to check, as they say, the worst excesses.”
“But they’re falling fast!” Underwood huffed. “Guffman, Castro, Misaki all said they’re going to support the energy bill. The moderates all seem to think the writing is on the wall. They’re caving all over. ‘The electorate has spoken,’ they say.”
Boykin paused for a moment to reflect on a response, giving Underwood an opening to continue talking.
“And the miners! We could always count on them to pipe up for us, defend their jobs. Now AOC is promising them all jobs in renewables. Installing solar panels and all that crap. With higher pay. And they bought it! How they could endorse her is beyond me.”
Maybe they wanted jobs where they could breathe real air, Boykin mused. But instead, he said, “Fred, coal is going to be around for a while. You know that. They’re talking about a phaseout of at least 15 years, maybe more like 20.” He paused as he searched quickly for his next thought before Underwood could interrupt him. “Besides, coal has only so much time left anyway. You know that. Demand has been dropping …”
“That’s a damn lie!” Underwood erupted. “There’s plenty of coal in the ground — a century’s worth, at least. It’s all the tree huggers, the eco-fascists. They’ve decided we’re the enemy, and they’re coming after us. Eliminating coal will ruin the economy, Jess! Coal is to America what oil is to Saudi Arabia. It’s — ” After a breath, he seemed to roll into the script of his association’s commercials that had been running on Sunday morning news shows for years. “It’s the American fuel, the source of our strength and independence. It’s created jobs that brought millions of miners into the middle class.” As Underwood spoke, Boykin’s mind played the visuals from the commercial, a multi-racial group of helmeted men and women with smiles and slightly sooty faces standing before a waving American flag.
“Yes, of course,” Boykin finally responded.
“And this climate nonsense! Sure, Manhattan gets flooded from time to time. That’s a natural phenomenon. It has nothing to do with burning coal!” Underwood insisted. Boykin let that assertion pass in silence. “Do your West Virginia constituents care if New Yorkers have to wear galoshes?”
Boykin continued to allow Underwood to rattle on as he thought of New Orleans being devastated by a hurricane for the third time in a decade, the disappearance of Virginia’s little Tangier Island beneath the Chesapeake Bay, Chicago’s hitting 125 degrees last summer …
“Jess, you’ve got to stand with us,” Underwood pleaded, breaking Boykin’s reverie. “You’ve been our friend for all these years. You always came through for us. You need to do it again!”
Boykin collected himself and looked Underwood in the eye. “Fred, I’m going to do what I can,” he said. “We all know something is going to pass. A few years ago, I could have blocked it, any senator could have, but now that the filibuster is gone, it’s hard to resist a bill when there’s a clear majority for it.”
“So, what exactly are you going to do?” Underwood said, his face a mixture of aggression and supplication.
“Well, there are a few possibilities,” he responded. “I’ve got a lot of chits I could call in. We could delay the transition period, even assure a role for coal in the future energy mix. Reduce the use of coal but not eliminate it entirely. Put less money into renewables and more into carbon capture. Sure, that hasn’t worked so well so far, but scientists are still on it — some of them your own people. We can always claim a breakthrough is around the corner. Fred, we can ease the hit you’ll take. But there will be a hit.”
Underwood looked at his feet for a second, his aggression seemingly spent. “I guess you’re right, Jess,” he finally said. “It’s always a matter of compromise, isn’t it? But you can’t let them shut us down. Can you promise that, Jess?”
Boykin once again met Underwood’s eye. “I promise I’ll do everything I can. I know you’re going to come out of this all right. Can we shake on it?”
“Sure,” said Underwood, a faint grin on his face as he thrust out his hand.
The two clasped hands, and after Boykin withdrew his, he said, “Fred, I’ve got to hustle down to the chamber to vote. But we’ll keep in touch. Send my greetings to Martha and the kids, won’t you?”
“Sure thing, Jess. And thanks for everything.” Underwood said before disappearing out the door.
Boykin slumped into his chair and resumed staring out the window. Through the glass, he could faintly hear workmen hammering on the inauguration platform.
Copeland stuck his head into the office. “Senator, you’re due on the floor for a vote,” he said.
“Right,” he muttered. “Leaving in a minute.”
Copeland disappeared as Boykin slowly stood. He reached for his jacket and put it on. But before he headed for the door, he licked his right index finger and held it at eye level.
“Not long ago, the wind was blowing from that direction,” he said aloud to himself, looking to his right. Then he glanced left, adding, “Now it’s coming from over there.”
How did that old song go? “You don’t need a weatherman …”
He knew what he had to do.