Reagan was dead to begin with. Dead as a door-nail, and Senator Mitch McConnell had proof: He'd stood before the body lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda and took leave of his hoary partner for what he thought was forever....
Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve — old McConnell sat busy in his office. Now Senate Minority Leader, he had once more succeeded in keeping the Congress in session to the brink of a holiday, wearing the Democrats down till they submitted to another compromise they had declared they never would make.
The door of McConnell's office was open, that he might keep an eye upon his staff, lest one or other abandon their stations to partake of Yuletide cheer.
"A Merry Christmas, Senator!" cried a chipper voice. A young intern peeked through the door, his head topped with a furry Santa cap.
"Bah!" said McConnell. "Humbug!"
"Don't be cross, Senator," said the intern.
"What else can I be," returned McConnell, "when I live in such a world of fools as this? What's Christmas-time but a time for paying bills without money; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em presented dead against you? Let me hear another word from you and you'll keep your Christmas by losing your situation."
The intern, bemused, shook his head with a hearty laugh, the bell on his cap jingling gaily.
"Very well then," said McConnell. "You may go. I suppose you must have the whole day tomorrow. Be here all the earlier next morning. We have Democrats to deter."
Late in the evening, McConnell walked to his house near the Capitol. His wife was home in Kentucky; she'd take care of Christmas for him. Putting his key in the lock of the door, he glanced at the very large door-knocker and saw not a knocker, but Reagan's face.
"Humbug," he said to himself. Entering the cold foyer, he heard a clanking noise from the cellar, as if some person were dragging a heavy chain. The cellar door flew open, and the visage that came forth was unmistakable: the coiffed hair, the crinkly face, the actor's gait. Only the shackles on his feet looked amiss to him; cowboy boots should have spurs.
The Ghost lumbered with its load of iron to a chair in the living room, and sat down.
"Ronnie!" McConnell said imploringly. "Old Ronald Reagan. Speak comfort to me, Ronnie!"
"I have none to give you," the Ghost replied; "I am only the Communicator. Tonight you will be haunted by Three Spirits. Look to see me no more."
The living-room window opened of itself, and the specter floated out upon the bleak, dark night.
The grandfather's clock in the hallway struck twelve, and McConnell found himself face to face with an unearthly visitor. It was a strange figure. The arms were very long and muscular, the hands the same. It wore a brown double-breasted suit and had a shimmering aura about its head.
"Who, and what are you?" McConnell demanded.
"I am the Ghost of Christmas Past."
"You look like Jimmy Stewart."
"Just call me Smith. Rise, and walk with me!"
As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and in an instant were standing in the well of the Senate Floor.
"I saw your movie when I was just a poor Kentucky kid, going to trade school," said the Senator. "It made me want to get into politics, to make a difference, just like you did. I loved how you fainted at your filibuster, and how you licked all those corrupt politicians. I got elected to the Senate in the Reagan landslide of 1980. Together we would change the world: Government didn't solve problems, it was the problem. And look what all we did: Freed up those forests for logging, spotted owl be damned! Busted the unions. Deregulated the airlines and the S&L's. Flushed out those welfare queens. Laffer Curve! Trickle-down! Ah, bliss! We'd started dismantling the New Deal. Not only that, but we changed the rules of filibuster so we could obstruct legislation without having to blab away night and day like you did. Those were the days!"
"Yes, they were," replied the Spirit. "Then, you were young and idealistic. Now you are old and ideological. I guess you never saw It's a Wonderful Life — but that's all humbug to you. You wanted to make a difference, and you surely have, as your next uninvited guest will show you."
Smiling, the Spirit disintegrated into tangled coils of celluloid. McConnell found himself in his own house, and had barely time to reel to bed before he sank into a heavy sleep.
The clock struck One, and the Senator awoke with a start. A blaze of ruddy light shone round his bed, and he began to think that its source might be in the adjoining room. He got up softly, and shuffled in his slippers to the door.
"Come in!" cried a voice. "Come in, and know me better, man! I am the Ghost of Christmas Present. Look upon me!"
Before him sat a giant of a man with a silver cigarette holder clenched between his teeth and a woollen throw cast over his lap. A pair of crutches lay on the floor beside him.
"I know you," said McConnell.
"Indeed you do," replied the Spirit. "Come with me; I'll show you around."
The Ghost cast off the throw and rose, hoisting his torso up with the crutches. Pivoting, his legs came together with a clink of iron.
"Braces," murmured McConnell. "A literal shade of Tiny Tim."
"So you've read the book," said the Spirit.
"Couldn't avoid it. A flight of Dickensian fancy, I thought ... at the time."
"Let's take our own little flight," the Ghost invited.
The next moment found them jostling among gleeful shoppers and gazing at graceful skaters around the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. The Spirit had discarded the crutches, and the braces on his legs seemed no longer an impediment; indeed, he moved lithely through the crowd, sprinkling passers-by with ash from his glowing cigarette.
"Here you see some of the top one percent," said the Ghost, "people like you and me. But I favor the poor the most."
"Why the poor the most?" asked the Senator.
"Because they need it most. Come with me."
They descended into the subway and boarded the "D" train for the Bronx, crammed to standing room with people bearing gifts. At 59th Street the affluent exited; remaining in the car were a scattering of weary workers heading home. McConnell and the Ghost sat down.
"I live elsewhere now," said the Spirit, "but I still read what newspapers are left, and listen to the radio. I like the radio. You and your party have tried to reduce funding for almost every program that betters the condition of the poor and unfortunate — unemployment benefits, food stamps and child nutrition, low-income housing and heating assistance, medical care. You've also opposed almost every program that betters the condition of the whole country — transportation, environment, infrastructure. And you've especially targeted for elimination the intangibles, like funding for the arts, which lift the human spirit in dark days. Now you're plundering Social Security and calling it a tax cut. Everything I envisioned to bring the country together and regain its self-respect, you have strived to take apart. Why?"
"People should take care of themselves. Are there no workhouses?"
"They're coming back. Your man Gingrich wants to repeal the child-labor laws."
"Another Newtonian idea for energy independence — tens of thousands of prisoners, children, and indigents generating electricity. Here's our stop, Tremont Avenue."
They ascended the subway stairs.
"We'll drop in on a family I know," said the Ghost. "We'll see them but they won't see us."
They entered a cold and crumbling apartment. A woman and her young son and daughter were sharing chicken and fries, while in a corner of the room a family of mice delighted in an unguarded bowl of cat food.
"O Man! Look here!" exclaimed the Ghost. "This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both. The boy will turn to drugs and guns, the girl will die of asthma."
"Have they no refuge or resource?"
"Not if you can help it."
McConnell looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. Then, lifting up his eyes, behold a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, toward him.
"I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?" asked he.
The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand. The Senator followed in the shadow of its dress, which bore him up, he thought, and carried him along.
The Ghost ruffled its shroud, the gloom surrounding it lifted, and there they stood at the Tidal Basin in Washington. The cherry trees were in bloom, their petals gently floating like snowflakes to the ground.
A young man and woman chanced to meet along the path.
"Merry Christmas!" they exchanged.
"Really balmy, don't you think?" smiled the man.
"You can't walk much further down this path," said the woman. "Everything's flooded."
"Thanks to old McConnell and his successors for blocking every climate-change treaty. Not much to be merry about these days — all our beaches underwater, international drought, twenty- year depression, the health care laws rescinded. But they've balanced the budget."
The Phantom beckoned and the Senator followed to a darker scene: A churchyard. The Ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood. McConnell crept toward it, trembling as he went, and following the finger read upon the stone his own name, and below it the epitaph: "NO!"
Therewith the Phantom shrank into a bedpost. It was McConnell's own bedpost, on his own bed, in his own room. Best of all, the Time before him was now his own.
What then transpired is left to the reader to invent.