TF: The President's Plane Is Missing

TF: The President's Plane Is Missing March 28, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 356-362

One of the questions any storyteller must answer before tackling an epic tale of global disaster is the matter of perspective and point of view: Big Picture or little picture? Will the focus be on the halls of power where the full scope of the problem is laid out in detail, or will the focus be on an average person struggling to cope despite a lack of information about what’s really going on?

Any worldwide, massive disaster is bound to involve some response from The Powers That Be, and the storyteller can choose to include that response in the story directly or indirectly — the view from the commanding heights of the Oval Office or NORAD or Ottawa. (Well, OK, I actually can’t think of any global disaster epic that included the role of decision-makers in Ottawa, but it stands to reason that when the aliens invade or the asteroid looms or the zombies arise, the prime minister of Canada would be compelled to spring into action too.) Or the storyteller can focus elsewhere, on how most people, the vast majority of us far-removed from the halls of power, would be reacting and responding. The storyteller might include only the sort of fragmentary information from TPTB that most of us are privy to through the newsmedia, or they could omit that perspective entirely.

For some examples of these different approaches consider two movies about the invasion of earth by hostile aliens — Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. Spielberg’s updated version of H.G. Wells’ story is told almost exclusively through the eyes of average people suddenly confronted with extraordinary and inexplicable calamity. Emmerich, on the other hand, chose to make the president of the United States and his top generals central characters in his story, allowing the audience to witness strategic deliberations at the highest levels of power. Those opposite choices were determined largely by the different thematic concerns of the two films. Spielberg and Wells were concerned with the fragility and humility of the human condition and their alien invasion was an expression of that. Emmerich’s main concern, on the other hand, was with the technical and logistical matter of an actual invasion by technologically superior hostile aliens. His aliens weren’t a metaphor for anything, they were just aliens — a problem to be dealt with and nothing more. As a general rule, stories of apocalypse told from the Big Picture, halls-of-power perspective tend to be, like Independence Day, primarily entertainments in which the global calamity exists mainly to give the heroes a really big obstacle to overcome. Apocalypse stories told from the little picture perspective tend to be mainly about something else — with the calamity, whatever its particulars, serving as a metaphor for some other aspect of the human predicament. (Think of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which the reader never learns the nature of the calamity that struck, or even the names of the story’s protagonists.)

The Left Behind series doesn’t fit into either of those categories. It’s calamities and apocalypseses (“I suddenly find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse”) aren’t a metaphor for anything else — at least not in the authors’ minds. But neither are they problems to be solved. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins don’t regard their apocalypse as a problem at all, but as the inexorable and glorious fulfillment of a divine plan — cause for celebration and gratitude.

The authors’ main thematic concern in these books is the fictional vindication of Tim LaHaye’s Bible prophecies through the fictional depiction of those prophecies’ fulfillment. That means their narrative needs, like Emmerich’s, to provide as comprehensive a Big Picture as possible, supplying the protagonists and the reader with as much complete information as they can possibly cram in. The series is thus obliged to bring readers inside the halls of power, which is why most of this second book is preoccupied with the business of securing jobs for Buck and Rayford in which each will have constant, personal contact with the Antichrist.

But what about the president of the United States? That office doesn’t figure much in LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins’ story, as the so-called “leader of the free world” is no longer really a leader in a world that is no longer really free. But still, a comprehensive Big Picture has to provide some accounting for the president’s action or lack thereof in response to this story’s series of global calamities.

Jenkins addresses that here, in the section of Tribulation Force we are considering this week. He doesn’t take us to the Oval Office or to the famed White House Situation Room, but to a nondescript hotel room in Jerusalem, where the American President Gerald Fitzhugh is staying before the Great-Tribulation-inaugurating treaty-signing, an event at which he will, apparently, be little more than a spectator.

Sitting there in the hotel, the sidelined and impotent Fitzhugh fumes about his suddenly marginal role in world events. He launches into a monologue expressing his frustration with this newfound powerlessness and irrelevance in the New World Order. We readers are privy to this scene because Fitzhugh decided he needed an audience before whom he could express his most private thoughts and fears, and because the president decided the most appropriate audience for such candid, unguarded statements would be a prominent member of the press:

Buck saw an American Secret Service agent making a beeline toward him. “Cameron Williams?”

“Who’s asking?”

“Secret Service, and you know it. Can I see some ID please?”

“I’ve been cleared a hundred times over.” Buck reached for his credentials.

“I know that.” The agent peered at Buck’s identification. “Fitz wants to see you, and I’ve got to be sure I bring him the right guy.”

The agent leads Buck to where “Fitz” is waiting, during which Jenkins makes a point of their ignoring the shouted questions from his ever-jealous colleagues in the press:

The agents didn’t respond. The media were not their responsibility, except to keep them away when necessary. The agents knew better than the press secretary when the president would move from one location to another, but that was certainly nobody else’s business.

That’s right — the Secret Service has two and only two responsibilities: keeping the president safe, and going on errands to fetch reporters he might want to chat with in private.

The GIRAT, of course, has a personal history with the president, and as Buck heads for this unexpected meeting, he reflects on the man who was, Buck thinks:

… a younger version of Lyndon Johnson. Fitzhugh had been just 52 when elected the first time and was now pushing 59. He was robust and youthful, an exuberant, earthy man. He used profanity liberally, and though Buck had never been in his presence when Fitz was angry, his outbursts were legendary among staffers.

Buck’s lack of exposure to the presidential temper ended that Monday morning.

During his penultimate year in office, Lyndon Johnson was 60 years old. Fitzhugh, by contrast, is only “pushing 59.” So picture this younger version as something like 13 or 14 months younger.

Note that we’ve also just been given an important clue as to the unfolding of Bible prophecy. The Rapture will come the year before an election year. That’s unnerving, since 2011 is the year before an election year — maybe Harold Camping is right about May 21 after all? But at least we know that if the real, true Christians haven’t all disintegrated by January, we’re good for another three years worry-free.

As Buck heads through the group of reporters outside the president’s hotel suite, Jenkins indulges the opportunity to remind us again how all the other reporters are all, like, super-jealous of him because he’s always, like, scooping them and everything:

… members of the press corps expressed their displeasure with Buck’s easy access.

“How does he do that?”

“It never fails!”

Much more like that, all based, no doubt, on the whispered jealousies Jenkins himself hears whenever he passes a group of less-successful novelists.

Buck is ushered in to the president who tells him to have a seat, then suddenly seems to realize how strange it is to have invited a reporter in to listen as he unburdens himself of all the thoughts he wants to keep hidden from the public. “First off, this is totally off the record, all right?” Fitzhugh says, and another page of dialogue is spent in a discussion of the rules governing off-the-record statements. It’s one of those awkward scenes in which both characters already know everything that is being said, but the authors fear the reader might not, so they force the characters to say things like “Technically, you can’t say something’s off the record after the fact. Only before you say it.”

Once they get all that out of the way, Fitzhugh starts in on what’s really on his mind, telling Buck he’s “getting pretty steamed” by Nicolae Carpathia:

“But he’s the most popular guy in the world since Jesus himself, so who am I to squawk?”

Buck was staggered by the truth of that statement.

Yes, I guess Nicolae is probably the third most popular person in the history of the world, ranking behind only “Jesus himself” and, you know, Barabbas. At first, Fitz’s complaint seems to be that Nicolae is even more popular than he is:

“I invited him to the White House. He spoke to the joint session. I like his ideas. I wasn’t a pacifist until I heard him talk about it, and by George I think he can pull this off. But the polls say he would double me in a run for the presidency right now!”

By George, Fitzhugh does use a lot of profanity, but I suppose it’s called for if — Great Scott! — you’re being outpolled by the foreign-born president of Romania.

Fitzhugh seems only dimly aware the Nicolae has already established — if not quite announced — his one-world government. That seems an odd thing for the president not to have noticed. As the now only nominal head of America’s military forces he has the massive logistical task of destroying 90 percent of his nation’s arms and armaments while ceding the remainder to the new regime in New Babylon. That task would seem so huge as to be all-consuming, and at some point in working to carry it out one would think it would have occurred to Fitz that passing off the right to a monopoly on the use of force was tantamount to passing off national sovereignty. You’d think he’d have noticed, in other words, that handing over the title of commander in chief entailed handing over the title of commander in chief.

But mainly Fitzhugh just seems upset about the airplane:

“He weasels me out of Air Force One, and now have you seen the thing? He’s got Global Community One painted on it and is issuing a statement this afternoon thanking the citizens of the United States for giving it to him. I’ve got a mind to call him a liar to his face and try to turn some of his good press around.”

The president shares the obsessive interest that Rayford and CNN and the rest of the LB-verse has with this particular airplane, but like all the rest of them he seems to overlook the fact that “Air Force One” is an Air Force plane — and therefore, despite his protestations that Nicolae has stolen it unfairly, he’d already agreed to either destroy it or to hand it over to New Babylon.

Nicolae’s devious stealing of this plane that had already been ceded to him makes Fitzhugh so angry that:

He swore. And then he swore again. Soon he was lacing every sentence with profanity.

By George, this is getting serious!

“I mean, it’s one thing for the United States to model leadership to the world, but what we look like now is one of his puppets. I’m a strong guy, a strong leader, decisive. And somehow he’s succeeded in making me look like his sycophant. … Do you know the trouble we’ve got with the militia?”

“I can only imagine.”

“I’ll tell you, they’ve got a point, and I can’t argue with them! Our intelligence is telling us they’re starting to hoard and hide some major weaponry, because they’re so against my plan to join this destroy-90-and-give-10-to-the-U.N. or Global Community or whatever he’s calling it this week. I’d like to believe his motives are pure and that this is the last step toward true peace, but it’s the little things that make me wonder. Like the airplane deal.”

Clearly, if Fitzhugh is going to go through with his plan for total disarmament, he’s going to have to contend with this threat from the heroic militias by destroying 90 percent of his weaponry and ceding the other 10 percent to the Global Community as quickly as possible. That way, Nicolae will able to respond more quickly to Fitzhugh’s request for international police to arrive bearing some of those arms and deal with the militias. Or something.

This heroic portrayal of America’s right-wing militia movement continues throughout the series. They are shown to be pretty much the only group or faction to resist the schemes of the Antichrist. The impression one gets is that the authors admire them, regarding them as true champions of freedom rather than, well, a bunch of paranoid conspiracy theorists and white supremacists who have abandoned reality for a live-action role playing game in which they’re all Mel Gibson in The Patriot (or Mel Gibson at a traffic stop — all the same to them).

LaHaye and Jenkins are never really critical of these right-wing militia groups, treating them as a potential constituency that they do not wish to offend. L&J seem to regard these groups as, if not quite brothers, close cousins. (After all, you can’t spell “Christian Identity” without “Christian,” right?) The authors seem certain that the message of their books is one that would resonate with the militia groups. I suspect they’re right about that.

Despite his characterizing “the airplane deal” as a “little thing,” Fitzhugh is clearly more upset about that than about his voluntary (and illegal, and impeachable and legally and logistically unenforceable) surrender of national sovereignty, because throughout the remaining pages of his long, one-sided conversation with Buck, he doesn’t mention the disarmament scheme again, but he goes on and on about the airplane.

That subject provides Jenkins the opportunity to even the scales a bit. Having just spent half a page extolling Buck’s praises as the greatest journalist in the world, he now has a chance to spend half a page praising Rayford as the world’s bestest pilot:

“We got the new plane, we needed a new pilot. I don’t care who flies the thing as long as he’s qualified. We got a list from people we trust, but all of a sudden there’s only one name on that list acceptable to the Grand Potentate of the World, and he’s going to get the job. Now I should care even less, because I guess I’ve given the plane and the crew to Carpathia!” And he swore some more.

“Well, sir, I don’t know what to tell you, but it is a pity you’re not getting the services of the new pilot. I know him and he’s tops.”

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