Michael SedanoThe ancient world has held my rapt attention more years than I care to count. In elementary school, Victor Mature's macho performance in Demetrius and the Gladiators was a hook that led me in high school to Henryk Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis, which led me into Mary Renault's The King Must Die. The ancient world seemed a great time to be heroic and romantic. Eventually, I did two stints in grad school in Speech and Rhetoric, a major whose most basic requirements include close reading of the ancients. Thus it seemed the natural thing to do, a few years ago as age began to sneak up on me, to turn for consolation to Cicero's essay on old age, De Senectute. I was recounting this to a friend recently when he treated me to a great prize, the 2006 fictional biography of Cicero, Imperium, by Robert Harris.
A reader need not be a classicist to enjoy Harris' entertaining story of Roman politics. All the history is self-contained in the novel's pages. Cicero's secretary, the slaveTiro, fills in all the characters and cites details that history would not have recorded. The plot is like a highlight reel at a political convention. The hero's early years studying rhetoric and public address show us a man dedicated to knowledge and reason. Next we see how Cicero takes on the prosecution of the abhorrent scoundrel, Verres. Cicero travels to Sicily to gather witnesses and damning evidence of corruption, crucifixions, and theft. But political machinations cast the outcome of the trial in doubt. Clever lawyer and rhetor who he is, Cicero comes up with a plan to save the day, win the case, and earn the lasting enmity of Rome's hereditary aristocrats.
We then fast forward through a catalog of similar trials and events that border on the hagiographic, but this is tempered by frequent reminders the narrator is a slave who longs to retire to his own farm and family, a free man.
Cicero being a self-made, or "new man" who has risen to the inner sanctum of Roman politics in the face of a spiteful "legitimate" aristocracy, frames the tensions that guide Tiro / Harris' story. In the process, Harris treats us to several delicious moments where the hero's rhetorical prowess brings chagrin to outclassed upper crust rivals. That his wit earns him dangerous enemies builds the plot to page-turning proportions.
Cicero's career advances steadily from his first public office up to the crisis point where his career goal of being elected Consul is threatened by bribery and collusion of notoriously corrupt aristocrats. The deck is totally stacked against him. Dauntless Cicero brings matters to a spectacular close whose outcome is never in doubt--Imperium is an historical novel, after all--but that certitude gets lost in the fun of a brilliant strategy, beneficial treachery, and old fashioned good luck.
Not that this historical novel doesn't have contemporary parallels. Harris draws attention to terrorists threatening the Roman peace and the usefulness of such threats as pretext to corrupt politicians to bleed a bit more wealth and power from the state. It's not heavy-handed, and Harris backs away from making the point a distraction from his aim of telling a good story. And, to paraphrase another author, the story's the thing whereby to capture the imagination of the reader! So, just as The King Must Die led me to a more extensive reading of Mary Renault's work on the ancient world, I'm now on a mission to see what Harris does with Pompeii, his 2003 novel of Roman times, and his 1995 WWII novel, Enigma.
I was listening to National Public Radio over the new year weekend when I heard a term that caught my ear, "creative non-fiction." At first it struck me as perhaps oxymoronic, or if not, a redundancy. Then as the interview proceeded it struck me that the term describes a project I've been working on since the Fall. I've been collaborating with Shannon Sullivan, a woman from Spokane, Washington who, in 2005, helped recall from office that town's mayor. When the ex-Mayor, James West, died recently, his story was spotlighted by one of the national television networks. Shannon Sullivan got a few minutes air time as the woman who brought the Mayor down, then the news turned away from her to other issues in the lurid story.Sullivan's part in the recall is far from lurid. Inspiring might be more descriptive, how one woman's outrage leads her to take on the political establishment and brings it to its knees. Perhaps it's a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of being a crusader--Sullivan lost her job and no one in her hometown will hire her even today. At any rate, I hope the story will make interesting reading once I get the whole story written. I'll be finishing it in the next few weeks--working title The Shannon Sullivan Story: Strong Mayor, Stronger Mom. Naturally, I'm on the lookout for a publisher. If not a full-length book, perhaps it can run as a feature in a personality magazine, or, who knows, film or television. After all, at one point, the newspapers were calling Shannon Sullivan "Spokane's own Erin Brockovich". Quien sabe. Here's an early chapter:
CHAPTER TWO: THERE’S NO PETITION
Mother’s Day means busting your behind over an intense week of ordering, storing, and delivering flowers all over town. I love my job in the flower shop—I used to own my own--but today’s my day off. The only thing I want to do today is spend time with my nine year old son, Dylan.
It’s Monday, May 9, 2005. I didn’t wake up and say to myself, “Shannon, go out there and start a campaign to recall the Mayor.” But that’s how my day off is going to end. That is so ironic and ridiculous that just thinking about how all this got started makes me cry, then I get angry all over again.Since the 5th of May, the three local television channels and both papers have been playing up the Mayor West story. The City Council, the newspapers, the television opinion makers all say he should resign. But the Mayor, while admitting to the scandal, stands fast. Elected by the voters by a large majority, a major power player in the Spokane Valley and northern Idaho, the only way to get West out of office is a recall election.
Yesterday, the talking heads on TV were blasting the same sorry old West story and I was blasting back. Dylan took it all in and cried. So I stopped complaining and gave him a hug, a bath, and put him to bed.But at breakfast the next morning, Channel 3 replays the same broadcast, and it sets me off again.”Why in Hell can’t someone step up and do something right for once?” I look at Dylan and he is stirring his oatmeal without eating and I figure right away if my son is too upset to eat his favorite breakfast, I’d be better of by just clamming up.
Dylan can tell I am still upset but he eats his breakfast. We are going to have some fun after school today, and I can tell he is eager to get started with his day. So I shut up and listen to the rest of the broadcast. The talking head summarized the recall process in twenty words or less. Sounds pretty straightforward. Then, for some reason, I get the impression the County Auditor’s Office would have a petition tomorrow, and the recall process has already begun. Which is today, and so here I am.
The parking lot behind the courthouse serving the County Auditor’s office is almost empty. Well, I think, the office is just opening, so maybe I’m the first one here.
I look through the double glass doors to the County Auditor’s Office and I start to get a little antsy. Had I come to the right place? In my wildest fancy, I expected to see a long line of citizens shaking their fists in the air, angrily demanding to sign a petition to recall the mayor, chanting,”West must go! West must go!”
Yes! and that’s what I want to do, too. Give me a petition, I’ll sign it, and that’s how I’ll keep my promise to Dylan to do something about it.
I expected something; at least a tolerable but efficiently managed line. Instead I walk into the nearly empty County Auditor’s Office, where there’s a row of cubicles for the insiders. Their world is separated from the outside world by a counter and a receptionist.
“Good morning, may I help you?”
A slender woman with long brown hair smiles at me.
“Hi, I’m here to sign the petition to recall Mayor West.”
I am nervous and speak a little loud. In the big empty room my voice just seems to hang in the air for a moment. Two women—the only other people in the whole place--lean out of their cubicles to stare at me.
The brown haired woman’s face goes blank and her smile turns into a frown. Something, obviously, has gone wrong. I have no idea what is going on here, but I’m pretty darned sure I don’t like how I’m being treated, and I’ve been here only a couple of minutes.
The receptionist excuses herself and leaves me standing there, staring at the now-empty cubicles. All three county employees have gone around the corner out of sight. But not out of sound.
Have you ever been the subject of a whispered conversation? It makes you feel like you’ve done something wrong. That’s uncomfortable and more than a little confusing because I thought I was doing the right thing in signing the petition to recall Mayor Jim West.
What I don’t know is there is no recall petition, and these county employees are about to help me be the person to launch the petition drive to unseat the Mayor. Only I don’t know this as I stand, alone, in the County Auditor’s office, feeling uncomfortable and confused.
That’s how I am feeling just standing there in the empty County Auditor’s Office when this young fellow walks in. I hope he is the first of the crowd.
“Is anyone working here?” he asks me.
“The receptionist is down the hall.”
Out of the blue, he asks me, “Are you here to sign the petition to recall the mayor?” I’m not wearing a sign or anything, so I always wondered why he asked. If I could go back in time and change only one thing about all of this, I’d go back to this particular moment and either keep my mouth shut or kill this boy.
“Yes! Are you?” An ally, I think. But he shakes his head. “No, no,” he says, “I’m an avid Republican, and in fact, I worked on the Mayor’s campaign. I’m here to register to vote.”
It’s kinda funny this kid is just registering to vote and he knows more about what’s going on than the people working behind the counter. Still, people feel strongly on either side of the issue, and I hope I’m not in for a confrontation. The young man puts me at ease by adding,”But I respect your right to have your opinion. Some of the things the Mayor’s admitted to are pretty awful, but he hasn’t broken any laws.”
Just then, the brown haired clerk returns and gives him some forms to fill out. She does a good job and it is interesting overhearing her explain the state’s new mail-in ballot law, and how voters need to make sure their address information is correct. I can’t help thinking about being privileged to witness democracy in action as the young man takes his forms to become a registered voter. What I didn’t realize was this young man is about to trigger one of the worst times of my life.
Of course, I have no idea of this and I’m feeling so proud of our democracy and all, when the clerk reaches under the counter and places a telephone on it.
“You have a call on this phone,” she says,”Vicky Dalton. Ms. Dalton is the County Auditor.”
I wonder if I look as surprised as I feel. The County Auditor herself wants to talk to me? Now curious as Hell, I reach down and pick up the handset.
The voice on the other end is a deep, gravelly voice.
"This is Vicki Dalton, the County Auditor. I understand you want to recall Mayor West?"
Yeah, me and a million other Spokane voters, But where are they? All I can think of at the moment is to agree.”Yes," I say.
“Oh, I’m sorry. This is Shannon Sullivan.”
“All right. Ms. Sullivan. A recall is a very complicated process, and all procedures must be followed to the letter. First I will need my staff to verify you are indeed a registered voter.”
She talks to me like Dylan’s third grade teacher talks to him.
"I assure you I am, I have been registered since I was 18. Voting is my only way to have a voice."
Vicky Dalton’s condescending abruptness puts me on edge. All I want to do is sign the petition and get on with my life. But here this woman--an elected public official herself--is treating me like, well, I’m not sure what, but this is nothing I want anything to do with. Just give me the petition and let me be on my way home to Dylan, I think. I want to be anywhere but here. Dalton doesn’t let up.
"Before you ATTEMPT anything, I will need to verify your information,” she tells me. Then she says something surprising:”I will be back in town in the morning, and will do so then.”
What? I come all the way down to the office in Spokane, on my day off, talk to a clerk, and now I’m talking long distance to some big chief who’s out of town and wants me to wait? Don’t these people know how to do their job? Do they have to call their boss to get permission?
“Ma’am, could you possibly do so now, or maybe could one of your staff here take care of it, since I’m already here.”
“Uh, Well, I will be back tomorrow.”
By now it’s totally clear to me that this a big run around. I’m pissed off. This is not acceptable treatment and I put my foot down.
"Ms. Dalton, I would really like the necessary information TODAY. Mayor West's behavior is unacceptable and I need to know what I can do, TODAY. I am sure your staff is competent to verify whatever information you’re talking about."
“Uh, well, put Mr. Brandt on the phone.”
I am stunned at the way she is treating me. Who wants to be pushed around by a voice over the phone? Not me, so I give her a taste of her own medicine.
“Do you mean ‘please put Mr. Brandt on the phone’?"
There’s a long pause. I can hear it in the silence. This woman is so full of herself that she wouldn’t say”please” if I paid her. So I hand the phone to the only man there, a guy in a brown suit who came into the room from somewhere in the back offices. I guess that’s what the whispered conference was all about, bringing in reinforcements. Am I the enemy? I thrust the phone at the brown suit.
"Here. She would like to speak with you."
The two cubicle dwellers are standing there in rapt attention. The brown haired lady smiles at me, then moves down to the end of the counter to let Mr. Brandt talk on the phone to the big boss. I sense the receptionist wants to talk to me, so I slide down the counter while the brown suit confers with Vicky Dalton.
I guess maybe I just surprised the brown-haired receptionist to produce that awful frown. Right now, I get good vibes from her. She confirms this when she leans in and says in a whisper,” You ARE the one. You will be fine.”
I get the feeling that she sees from my phone confrontation with Ms. Dalton that I am not someone who’ll go down without a fight, and now she’s on my side.
Now I turn my attention to what Mr. Brandt is saying to Dalton. Of course, all I can hear is his side of the conversation.
"Yes, yes, I will take care of her," he assures. Vicky Dalton must be a real bear of a boss, because even while he’s on the phone with her, Brandt stands at attention acting all deferential.
Brandt shoves the phone back to me with a look on his face of pure frustration. He still hasn’t said a word to me. I take the handset and there’s the gravelly Dalton voice. At this point, I realize she has someone else on another line, checking on me in the background while she”takes care” of me.
"Ms. Sullivan, it appears you are not registered at your current address. Nor did you vote in the last mayoral election."
I detect a note of triumph, as if she has the upper hand. In what, I have no idea. But she’s wrong. I can tell she’s trying to frustrate me and get me to go away. What the heck? Whatever it is I’m up against, Dalton wants to make sure I know that it’s me against her.“Yes, that would be correct. I did not care for either of my choices. Is that a problem, Ms. Dalton?”
“Well, uh, no and yes.”Listen, I know I’m pig-headed and have no problem standing up for myself, especially when I know I am right. I take one of the voter registration cards the young man had filled in and start writing.
“Ms. Dalton, for your information, even as we speak, I am filling out a current registration form. Does that fix the problem Ms. Dalton? Could I now have the information regarding the recall?”
This stops her cold in her tracks.
“Well, uh, I suppose, all the law requires is that you are a current registered voter.”
"OK, great! Can I get the information from Mr. Brandt now?"
“I guess that will be FINE,” she says, like I have just asked her for her first born.”Mr. Brandt will hand you an envelope,” she says, but she hasn’t given up the intimidation and gives it another try.
“Ms. Sullivan, you will need to follow the RCW recall laws to the ‘T’. A recall is very easy to threaten, but VERY hard to execute. Do you have a lawyer?”
Lawyer? All I want to do is sign a petition, and here I am getting into something totally different. Of course I don’t have a lawyer.
“No, do I need one?”
“Wellllll, the law does not require you to have one, but neither I, nor anyone in my office, can help you with any legal information.”
And with this, her realization that I have no idea what I’m doing, Dalton’s tone now changes and she sounds delighted, like she’s thinking to herself,”ha ha, nothing to worry about here.”
"You will need to turn in your petition to me. I will stamp it, and then send it to the prosecuting attorney’s office.”
And she can’t resist just piling it on with one more taunt.
“Are you similar with the recall laws, Ms. Sullivan?"
I imagine her dancing in her hotel room, or wherever the Hell she’s calling from.
“No. But I will look it over, and return later today."
“Oh. OK. Good luck.” I’m surprised she’s not laughing and singing at my ineptitude.
With that—and another”ha ha go away you loser” tone of voice—she hangs up. As I place the handset to the cradle, I see Mr. Brandt and the other staff members hovering over the counter. They are enjoying the show.
I look at Mr. Brandt and stick out my hand.
“Hi. I’m Shannon Sullivan.”
Brandt’s handshake feels like a wet fish. His eyes, though, look at me like he feels sorry for me. I take the packet he’s brought from the back offices, thank him, and just to be smart, say, "See you later".
I wheel around with my head held high, a fat envelope of recall information in hand, and a bad taste in my mouth. I'm thinking ”Jeez, that was awful.” In a moment I am going to find out I’ve just gone from bad to worse. In fact, when I walk out of the County Auditor's Office, the first of a series of worst times of my life is about to smack me in the face.
So here we are, the first week of 2007. An interesting beginning to the new year, que no? An historical novel of a recognized hero who takes on a corrupt political system and beats them at their own game, and a creative non-fiction account of an unknown hero who takes on a corrupt politician, beats him, and can't find a job anywhere in town. Maybe someone will buy her story. See you next week.