Something is amiss with the world’s presidents. Only a few months ago, the usual brash self-confidence and their customary swagger marked their behavior; now their prevailing moods are paranoia, persecution mania, fragility, timidity, and an acute sense of their own mortality.
The Macedonian President does everything in his power to stay awake; when he does need rest, he holds a copper ball in one hand, suspended over a copper bowl. If he falls too deeply into slumber, the ball slips from his loosening grip. It drops in the bowl with a clatter and he springs to his feet.
The El Salvadorian President sleeps in a building surrounded by a wide ravine, traversable by two bridges. Every night, supports and screws are removed from the bridges and every morning at dawn, they are rebuilt once more. Without these precautions, the President admits he is unable to sleep through a single night. He has developed a humiliating and highly uncomfortable rash down his chest and inside of his thighs, and, to quote his wife, “often feels confused at the smallest things.”
The President of Tobago, fearing airplanes above all, has built himself a labyrinthine network of interconnected bunkers with their own subterranean staff, including a baker, a barber, a manicurist, policemen, and whole teams of attendants, all of whom have devoted themselves to a permanent underground existence alongside the President. Caught in a sentimental moment, the President’s daughter was overheard saying: “Of course, we have many things that other, less fortunate families could only dream of. In many ways it has been a fairy-tale childhood I have had in these bunkers. But on some days, I do so miss the sun.”
The President of the United States of America, in a gesture some have criticized for its lack of chivalry, and others have praised for its rigorous pragmatism, commands his wife to sample his meals before he himself begins to eat.
The President of Mozambique has developed a system for making his behavior utterly unpredictable. He has invited a madman to share his room at the Presidential Palace, and is learning to emulate his sudden and irrational whims. When the madman is hungry, they eat. When the madman grows restive, they take a stroll in the park, no matter the hour of day or night. When the madman sighs, the President sheds a tear.
In Russia, the President devised a system of great complexity. He organized a search for citizens of his country most closely resembling him. These men he then put on lifetime contracts—they were thoroughly briefed and trained on how to behave, walk, and bathe like the President, they took voice lessons and were made to adopt the President’s favorite gestures. They then spent their days in locations the President adored most—making these same places prohibited to the President himself, of course. One of these doubles spent three months luxuriating in the President’s favorite lakeside resort, sipping the President’s favorite cocktails (“rusty nails”). A state of emergency was very nearly called when one of the ersatz Presidents was found with a broken arm; later it was revealed that he had merely drunk himself blind and fallen down a flight of stairs. When interrogated on his irresponsible drinking, he complained of chronic nightmares, wherein he truly had become the President of Russia, and all his paranoid fantasies were about to come true. The story of his fall hit the media, and for the next three weeks, all the Presidents, including the authentic one, had to wear arm casts. More recently, however, the real President began to fear that his stand-ins were acquiring delusions of grandeur; that instead of eleven sitting ducks he had in fact schooled and employed eleven future assassins, planting the seeds of treachery by encouraging them, step by step, to fill his shoes. At length he could not endure “this sheer lunacy,” as he phrased it, a second longer. He called the Captain of the Guard and commanded the eleven lookalikes rounded up and discreetly shot. This being Russia, there are some who believe that the man who gave the order was not the genuine President.
The Canadians do not have a President, but even if they did, it is quite unlikely that he would be doing anything of interest.
The Indian President is pretending to be dead. He has mastered the art of shallow breathing, and after spreading reports of his own fatal heart attack, has been putting his body on display for public mourning in an extravagant sepulchre between the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. on weekdays, a little longer on Saturdays. Confidentially, he has admitted that he does find the routine of lying there stretched out on his bier terribly wearisome, but that, ultimately, it is far preferable to running a country such as India, and wondering when a knife might be plunged between his shoulder blades. The sense of inner peace his new life gives him, he stresses, is not to be underestimated.
The Italian President, on the other hand, has simply disappeared. Grainy and unverifiable photographs have surfaced showing him wearing sunglasses and shorts at a fruit stand in Jamaica, playing chess amid a group of old men in Cuba, leaning out the window of a taxicab in Jackson Hole, and—the least disputed of the images—his reflection in a coat-check mirror in a restaurant in Ankara. Surprisingly, the country seems to be carrying on quite well without him.
In Norway, the newspapers have declared that a magic spell has turned the President into a mule, and photographs of the hapless creature have been widely published. Few actually believe the story; but then, no one is able to offer a more rational explanation for the President’s sudden disappearance. Just to be sure, the mule has been moved into the Norwegian Presidential Suite.
If the Chilean President hears news from the outside world, his hands begin to shake, the blood flushes from his head, and he sways about, as if on the verge of fainting. He is perpetually drunk on a kind of gassy spirits the Chileans favor, and is forever wiping bits of cocaine from his nose; his sudden flashes of rage are inexplicable, his commands only semi-comprehensible. He has recently shut down all the airports, torn up the railway tracks, and armed the border guards to the teeth. A quote from a newspaper interview: “If my own people are so perfidious, have such demonic cruelty inside of them, then I shudder to think what the rest of the world is capable of. ”
In Poland the President really has died, but no one wants to take his place. Candidates have been forcibly selected, having been reminded that it is not a privilege but an obligation for a citizen to step forward as President. Many of these men have suddenly absconded; others have pleaded insanity, fallen violently ill, or, in one particularly dramatic incident, set himself on fire in a public stadium during a televised sports game. A local psychologist comments: “In our day, there is nothing more unfortunate than being named a civil or moral authority (even if this position is purely a symbolic one). It is the dream of the average citizen to have absolutely no one notice what he is doing.”
In Lebanon the President has denied his nation’s official existence, and becomes very irate whenever it is mentioned in the foreign press.
No one knows what the Swiss President is doing, nor is it, as far as we can tell, the topic of any speculation.
The Armenian President has begun writing and publishing installments of his intimate memoirs—to establish his innocence, and to insist upon his own, how shall we put it, semi-reality. Here is a characteristic excerpt: “It astounds me that I must keep reminding people of the essential theatricality of what I do. I am forever two or three steps removed from all of my actions: when giving a command, ordering a meal, making love to my wife, it is always (1) myself (2) acting the President (3) performing these actions. It goes without saying that I would not go through all the trouble were it not for my conviction that this is what the people desire: not a man, but a man playing the President. Of course, what kind of President they want, this is far from clear, though I am increasingly haunted by a single thought—that what they desire most is a President whose life ends in a violent catastrophe, a President whose death will bring them a sense of togetherness. Let me repeat to you: I am only a man performing the role of President with more or less fidelity. My death will bring you nothing but the headaches of state funerals and long-winded speeches. When I retire from this job—if there is any way to definitively quit being a President—I will astonish you with the banality of my behavior and opinions. I shall entirely content myself with strolls in quiet parks when the cicadas are humming, with planting and pruning fancy varieties of roses. I shall prove to you through the sheer indifference of my existence that this presidential glory is an elaborate hoax which, when peeled away like a semi-transparent skin, reveals a man quite unsuited for any tragic role. Let us forget everything that has happened between us, and just look each other in the eye for a minute, like a pair of strangers, utterly without prejudice. Let us give it a try, you and I both, please. I beg of you.”
Profile: Soren Gauger