PROJECT STOVEPIPE

            It was exactly the kind of meeting for which Judith Mara had neither time nor patience, yet which seemed to show up on her schedule all too often.

            Lingering troop presence in Syria and the Korean Peninsula, she thought as she walked down the dim corridor. Twelve years without a federal budget. Shattered public confidence in the government. Massive social upheaval. And she had a meeting in Smithsonian sub-basement annex number three.

            One of the perils of being the Deputy White House Chief of Staff, especially in an administration so widely reviled, was being sent to these odd corners of the government to put out fires, give advice, or simply, in the bland vernacular, to “take a meeting”. Usually it was a bureaucrat with some minor problem that seemed major to them, or some other nuisance that required a showing of the White House flag to placate the drones at these low levels. Earlier that morning Mara had been over at Commerce, trying not to cry or fall asleep while two South American trade reps argued over a minor import issue. Now it was Assistant Director of Collections Darius Levy, down here in the crumbling bowels of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum.

            I went to Vanderbilt, Mara thought. I went to Columbia. She had clerked for Rehnquist and gotten Clark elected Governor and later President, but now she was little more than a glorified babysitter for the sprawling world of cubicle-dwellers that was the government of the United States. This place doesn’t need babysitting, it needs pruning. It’s what they had come here to do, President Clark and his Army of the Republic, Mara among them, but something had gone wrong on the way to the glorious restoration of America.

            At least this shouldn’t take long. Probably a budget complaint, like everyone else in town. She glanced at her watch. Twenty minutes, tops.

            Assistant Director Levy was very tall, very thin, and very black, with close-cropped white hair and round glasses perched on a long nose. At least, she assumed it was Levy, having never met the man, as he was seated behind a heavy wooden desk bearing a plastic placard with his name on it. He was unsmiling, and looked as though he had never smiled, not even as a child. The cramped office was almost entirely consumed by the desk, though there was still space for two chairs. One of them was occupied, and by a woman Mara did not recognize. She was unremarkable in every way; average height and build, nondescript appearance, except for two very bright eyes that bored into Mara as soon as she entered the room. Being remarkable herself, tall, striking, and fashionably well-dressed, Mara immediately found this mousy creature distasteful. Especially the way she’s staring at me. It was either envy or political enmity, and Mara had more than enough experience with both.  

            “Ms. Mara,” Levy said, and his voice was reedy, almost whistling. “Please come in. Thank you for coming.”

            “Of course,” she replied, sitting, smiling. Being charming was no small part of her job, but Levy did not smile in return.

            “This,” he said, indicating the other woman with one of his spidery, long-fingered hands, “is Dr. Yvonne Miller, a research fellow at the Crick Lab.”  Mara nodded, vaguely. She had heard of the Crick Lab, the genetics think tank. More than once her administration had proposed slashing the massive federal subsidies it received. That explains the icy reception.

            “Dr. Miller.”

            The scientist nodded, just a little.

            “I know you are a busy woman, Ms. Mara,” continued Levy, “so I will be as brief as I can, but this is a fairly complex situation.”  Mara’s smile tightened.

            “Of course.”  As if I can’t do complex, she thought. As though I’m a glorified majorette. And then, so much for twenty minutes.       

            “In 1865,” began Levy, without further preamble, “following the assassination of President Lincoln, one of the most grief-stricken mourners was his personal secretary, the young John Hay. Hay paid the undertakers one hundred dollars – a princely sum at the time – for six hairs from the slain President’s head. One of these he placed in a clear glass orb set into a gold ring. History has never revealed what became of the other five hairs.”

            This isn’t a budget request, thought Mara.

            “However, the ring survived until at least 1905, when Hay gave it to President Theodore Roosevelt. Hay was Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, and felt the Bull Moose to be a political and moral heir of Lincoln, and he wanted the President to wear the ring at his inauguration. The President did so, and when Hay died that summer, it was assumed Roosevelt retained the ring. However, following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, it was never found, even in an exhaustive inventory of his Oyster Bay estate, and was assumed lost. Until now.”

            Judith Mara was an exceptional political operative, and like many of those who were successful in her field, she had a certain talent for swiftly feeling where meetings were headed, for seeing three or four moves ahead on the chessboard, and anticipating the bottom line. She thought she could see this one emerging now, though she was mildly irritated that the request was coming to her office and not through some lower functionary at Protocol.

            “You found this trinket,” she said. “And you want President Clark to wear it?”  She wasn’t sure to what extent this Administration could be salvaged, given the disaster the first two years had been, but there might be some symbolic value in linking Clark to two far more illustrious Republican forbears.

            “Yes,” Levy said, the corners of his mouth threatening to drop below his chin. “We found it, though you misunderstand our purpose here. The ring was recovered from a grand-niece of Roosevelt’s daughter Alice Longworth.”  Feeling a long oration coming on just how that had taken place, and grumpy that her read of the situation had been premature and wrong, Mara interrupted again.

            “Do you have it here?”  Despite herself, she was curious about the artifact, and had an urge to see it, to touch it, like some kind of holy relic.

            “No,” Levy replied. “We do not have it here, Ms. Mara. And now this is the part of our narrative where Dr. Miller’s team comes in.”

            “At Crick,” Dr. Miller said without pause, as though she had been waiting with impatience for these preliminaries to wrap up, taking a thin tablet from her bag and opening it to reveal the monitor, “our team was able to extract viable DNA from the hair. From there, it was a question of making use of some existing technologies and pioneering some new ones.”

            “Hold on,” Mara raised a hand. “DNA?”  As in…” she looked from Miller to Levy, from the mouse to the statue, with mounting alarm. “As in cloning?  Are you…are you telling me you cloned Abraham Lincoln?”

            “No,” said Miller, with a thin smile. “Though we did discuss it. No, we did something else. Something better.”

            “All right,” said Mara, her irritation growing at this woman, and at being in the dark. “What did you do?”

            “We isolated the portions of the genome related to intellect, compassion, problem-solving, and a host of other leadership traits,” Miller said. As she spoke, her fingers called forth an array of images and diagrams on the tablet, mostly dynamic strands of DNA and numeric tables that Mara, despite her education, could not follow. “Once these were isolated, we spent months developing a program that was capable of integrating and interpreting the results. This data was then fed into a master program, along with Lincoln’s personal experiences.”

            “So…” Mara tried to regain her upper hand, “you developed a computer program that mimics Abraham Lincoln.”

            “No,” Miller shook her head, and Mara suppressed a flash of anger that this academic was essentially lecturing her. “No, we did more than that. We resurrected him, in computer form.”

            It was silent for a moment, and then Miller continued.

            “We ran hundreds of queries testing the program, and everything checked out. Thus inspired, we took it a step further.”

            “Further?” Mara saw Miller glance at Director Levy, so she looked at him as well.

            “Yes,” he said. “Here at the Smithsonian, we have access to a wide array of artifacts, as well as substantial influence with many other historic sites around the country. So we supplemented Project Stovepipe with additional data.”

            Project Stovepipe, Mara thought, despairing. How sublime.

            “We worked for over two years in collaboration with Crick, contacting Monticello, Mount Vernon, Montpelier, the Hermitage, Oyster Bay, and many more.” The director leaned forward in his seat, folding his long fingers into a steeple over which his lamplike eyes fixed on Mara. “What we have done is to engineer the most complete, most comprehensive repository and expression of American political thought that has ever existed, or could ever exist.”

            “Project Stovepipe,” whispered Miller, almost reverentially, “is all of the brilliance, perception, and wisdom of our greatest leaders, across the ages. It is perfect.”

            Mara tried to speak, knew she should, but nothing would emerge from her throat.

            “You understand, don’t you?” Levy said, softly. “This program is the sum total of who we are and could ever hope to be.”

            “What do you want from me?” Mara finally asked, in a defeated croak.

            “Why,” Levy said with a gentle but triumphant smile, “we want you to explain to President Clark why he needs to turn the Presidency over to a computer program.”