TF: Spies like us (and we like spies)

TF: Spies like us (and we like spies) December 4, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. 113-117

On page 111 of Tribulation Force we read about Nicolae Carpathia's insidious breaking down "of the barrier between the superior and the subordinate" through the clever manipulation of office furniture.

Two pages later, Jerry Jenkins spends half a page describing Hattie Durham's sneaking back into the office to rearrange that same furniture to reassert Nicolae's authority over his subordinates.

Buck thought that very strange, this seemingly scripted arrangement of the entire meeting, from the formal announcement of his presence, to the staging of who would be there and where they would sit.

He's right, it is very strange. And it's even stranger to try to portray this scripted, staged formality as simultaneously smooth and subtle. This busy business with the office furniture might have worked had it been played for laughs, like Chaplin's high-chair bit in The Great Dictator, or maybe played in fast-forward, accompanied by "Yakety Sax" (bop-bop-ba baaa-ba bop-ba bop-ba baaa-ba bop-ba-ba bomp …).

With the office now back to the way it was when Buck entered and Carpatha ensconced behind his massive desk, all pretense of equalizing the power base was gone. Yet Carpathia still had the charm turned all the way up. He intertwined his fingers and stared at Buck, smiling.

If there were any logic in this scene, or if Nicolae were even a semi-competent diabolical supervillain, then right here is where he should pull the pen-set lever on his desk, opening the trap door that would send Buck "One thing he could not and would not do was apologize" Williams plummeting into a cistern far below filled with man-eating sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads.

But alas, Nicolae seems to have flunked out of Supervillainy 101. No sharks or lasers or one-way ferry rides await Buck, despite his stubborn refusal to say or do anything that might convince Nicolae that he isn't a threat in need of elimination. So our Antichrist decides, instead of appropriately killing Buck, to spend the next several pages flattering him.

"Jerry Jenkins," he said slowly, "How does it feel to be the best-selling fiction writer of your time?"

Oops. Sorry. The author's self-flattery is very slightly less overt than quite that.

"Cameron Williams," he said slowly, "How does it feel to be the most celebrated journalist of your time?"

You'll recall that this conversation started with Nicolae asking, "May I call you Buck?" and Buck responding "You always have." But he never does. I can't decide if this is meant to be a running joke.

Having completely abandoned both the original pretext for this encounter (Nicolae's probing to see if Buck is a threat in need of elimination) and the original reason Buck accepted the invitation (to speak to Hattie in the hopes of rescuing her from the Antichrist), Jenkins simply moves on to a new rationale for why we're all here: Nicolae needs the popular legitimacy that can only be provided by the most celebrated and trusted journalist of his time.

I think that may have also been the rationale for Buck's presence at the U.N. meeting in the last book during which Nicolae partitioned the earth and then murdered a couple of bankers. The GIRAT's journalistic credibility might have been more helpful to Nicolae on that occasion had he not subsequently brainwashed everyone into believing that Buck wasn't there.

And, if you think about it, once Nicolae proved he could do that, it would seem he doesn't need Buck to actually be present for his next big public event. He could just reverse the trick with Buck absent this time and everyone brainwashed into believing that they'd seen him there.

But I suppose that could get complicated and so, for simplicity's sake, Nicolae tries again here by inviting Buck to witness and report on his signing of a peace treaty between the OWG and the only (and inexplicably) sovereign nation outside of its domain, Israel.

I can't vouch for his choice of Cameron Williams as the source of the vicarious credibility that Nicolae is seeking, but I'm charmed by the innocence of his belief that any print journalist could serve this function. Can you imagine any canny politician today saying, "We need to focus the attention of the world and ensure the trust of the people. Dammit — get me James Fallows"? Me neither. But the Left Behind series seems to be a kind of alternate universe of print-journalism celebrity, a world in which Joan Rivers and her daughter work the red carpet at the prime time broadcast of the Pulitzer Prize ceremony, accosting Seymour Hersh with shouts of "Who are you wearing?"

Buck's alleged celebrity might have been more credible had Jenkins made him a TV journalist (as in Left Behind: The Movie), but that still wouldn't have made the notion of his universal respectability any more believable. That universal respect died with Walter Cronkite.

To achieve the effect Nicolae is hoping Buck's presence will provide at the treaty signing, he'd be better off bringing Oprah with him. Or maybe Bono. Or Oprah and Bono. (I'm fairly sure, the way LaHaye and Jenkins' god keeps score, they'd both be among those left behind.)

Nicolae piles on the adulation until it begins to seem almost threatening, but Buck Williams can withstand flattery far longer than most people.

Carpathia paused as if he expected Buck to respond. Buck was becoming more and more fond of silence. It seemed to be the right choice with Carpathia, and it certainly was the way God had led him during the murderous meeting when Carpathia had polled everyone to assess what they had seen. Buck believed silence had saved his life.

Silence can, indeed, be prudent. But it depends on the kind of silence, the quality of that silence.

Silence comes in many different shades, tones and characters. It can be cautious, resigned, stupified, icy, serene, stoic, oafish, oracular, mournful, watchful, fearful, restful, blissful, sated, sullen, sluggish, substantial, nervous, unnerving, comforting, fraught, ignorant, polite, awkward … we could go on.

Buck's problem here is that he settles on the absolute worst sort of silence for a person in his situation. His is a hostile, petulant, challenging silence, and considering who it is he's talking to that's almost suicidal.

Buck doesn't quite come right out and say, "Look, the jig is up. I know you're the Antichrist and I'm your sworn enemy and along with the other Tribulation Saints — Bruce Barnes of Mount Union, Ill., and Rayford and Chloe Steele of 472 Poplar in Naperville — I'm going to oppose your every move." But then he doesn't have to come right out and say it. His every dismissive, disdainful response and non-response to Nicolae fairly screams exactly that.

And unfortunately for him, Buck isn't being nearly as silent as he seems to think. He's really just uncooperative, defensive and kind of verbally spastic. Such as when Nicolae asks if he has his article on the disappearances with him:

"I would love to see it."

"I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to show it to anyone until the Weekly gets the final draft."

"Surely they have seen your working copy."

"Of course."

"Steve said you might want a quote or two from me."

"Frankly, unless you have something new, I think your views have already been so widely broadcast that they would be old to our readers."

Carpathia looked hurt.

Hurt, probably, by the thought that the henchmen-contractors working beneath his office won't have the shark-cistern ready for at least another week.

Buck continues in the same hostile, chilly tone.

"I thought the question was whether I needed a fresh quote from you. Unless your view has changed, I do not."

It makes no sense for Buck to cut him off like that, preventing him from commenting directly — an "exclusive" quote — on the disappearances. The guy is head of the OWG. This comment would be news. Even if he repeats exactly what he said before, Buck doesn't have to use the new quote, but he gains nothing from refusing even to hear it other than whatever thrill he's getting here from just being as obnoxious as possible throughout.

Carpathia looked at his watch. "As you know, I am on a tight schedule. Your trip was all right? Accommodations acceptable? A good lunch? Dr. Rosenzweig filled you in some?"

Buck nodded to every question.

"Assuming he told you about the U.N. treat with Israel and that the signing will be a week from today in Jerusalem, let me extend a personal invitation to you to be there."

"I doubt the Weekly would send a Chicago staff writer to an international event of that magnitude."

Aha. It seems Buck's hostility throughout this conversation has less to do with the fact that Nicolae is the Antichrist, Beast and embodiment of evil and more to do with the fact that Nicolae is the guy who is responsible for Buck's recent demotion and his exile to the Chicago bureau. That is what is really eating at him here. Not only is he unable to scream at Nicolae for the setback to his precious career, but he also has to sit there and pretend that Nicolae's invitation is somehow generous and not simply something to which he is entitled as "the most celebrated journalist of his time."

And so, even though prior to this meeting he had agonized over his moral duty never to lie, even to the Antichrist, Buck winds up doing just that. But not to protect his friends, only to protect his wounded professional pride:

"I am not asking that you join the press corps of thousands from around the world who will be seeking credentials as soon as the announcement is made. I am inviting you to be part of my delegation, to sit at the table with me. It will be a privilege no other media person in the world will have."

"Global Weekly has a policy that its journalists are not to accept any favors that might –"

Too late, Mr. McGillicuddy. After accepting the free first-class deluxe plane ticket, the bottle of Dom and the ritzy lunch at the yacht club, it's too late to raise this ethical objection credibly. ("What kind of journalist do you think I am?" "We have already established that. Now we are just haggling over price.")

Nothing ever comes of Buck's junketeering, of course, but if Nicolae
were a more competent Antichrist, he would recognize that all of these
gifts — the tickets, champagne and meals — mean that Buck is now compromised.
Buck's rival journalists have been portrayed as resentfully jealous of
his success and it would be an easy thing to, at a minimum, leak this
information to someone who would turn it into an unflattering story, a
portrait of Cameron Williams as a corrupt, on-the-take journalist. The threat of such exposure could be used as leverage to persuade Buck to further compromise himself, etc. and so on until eventually he was completely in Nicolae's control.

Carpathia tells Buck not to worry about the Weekly, because very soon he expects Buck to be working for him:

"And though you turned down an offer of employment from me before, I truly believe I have an opportunity for you that will change your mind."

Don't count on it, Buck thought. But he said, "I'm listening."

Throughout this conversation, Buck seems to think it's safe, or possible, to indulge in such thoughts as long as he doesn't explicitly state them out loud. The problem is that we humans don't work that way. If we say, "I'm listening," while intently thinking, "Don't count on it," that thought will be expressed and conveyed just as clearly as the contradictory words. And I think Buck realizes this. Here with Nicolae as with Verna earlier, he follows a juvenile impulse to make faces and roll his eyes behind the teacher's back until he gets caught doing so, at which point he'll say, "What? All I said was 'I'm listening.'" I'm not sure what he thinks he gains from this, or why Jenkins thinks it makes Buck seem smarter, cooler or more admirable.

Imagine that you were in Buck's situation here. Imagine that you were part of a secretive underground resistance network struggling to thwart the schemes of a diabolical cabal led by an evil mastermind.

I would think that part of your agenda would be to learn as much as you could about that cabal and its nefarious plans. It would be immensely helpful if somehow you could manage to plant a bug in the cabal's inner sanctum, a tap on their phones or a secret backdoor access into their computer network. Better still, ideally, would be if you could somehow infiltrate the cabal yourself, becoming the resistance force's undercover agent on the inside. From there you would be able to track the cabal's movements firsthand while also, when the opportunity presented itself, engaging in whatever sabotage you could manage undetected.

That's what you would do, anyway, if you were part of such a resistance group. Because you are not a sophomoric, dimwitted, incurious moron.

Over the next few chapters, both of our protagonists, implausibly, are invited to play exactly this undercover insider's role. The evil mastermind begs them to join his team, to accept from him a pass-key to his innermost secrets.

And yet neither of them willingly seizes this opportunity. Neither of them even seems to recognize that it is an opportunity.

I suppose their reluctance and lack of initiative here is due to their belief that the Tribulation Force already has all of the inside information it will ever need. They're confident they already have sufficient intelligence on Nicolae's specific plans thanks to the Rev. Billing's sermon notes and the 66th book of the Bible. The Tribulation Saints don't need to spy on Nicolae to figure out what he's up to because the Bible already tells them everything they need to know. Just like the Real True Christians living today don't need to learn anything about the world they live in, because the Bible already tells them everything they need to know.

And in any case, the resistance's master plan — dig a big hole and hide in it for the next seven years — isn't really dependent on carefully tracking the enemy's movements.

But for whatever reason, Buck and Rayford come across in these chapters as the most inept and unimaginative spies in the history of espionage. This scene between Nicolae and Buck will continue for several more pages. The Antichrist desperately tries to persuade Buck to take notes on his evil schemes while Buck stubbornly — and rudely — refuses. Worst. Spy. Ever.

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