The President was in one of his moods. He stood at the bedroom window, tugging the lace curtain aside with a finger, peering down onto East Capitol Street. Outside, Washington was dark. He picked up his bourbon, took a long pull, and rubbed at his lower back. Margo sensed that he would rather be pacing, except that he was in too much pain just now; he never complained, but she had spent enough time around him these last few days to tell. All the same, she marveled at the man’s aplomb, given that he was quite possibly presiding over the end of the world.
“Long day, Miss Jensen,” he said finally.
“Yes, Mr. President.”
“I’ve got people telling me I have to invade.” His suit jacket was slung over the back of a chair. His tie was loose. The thick brown hair was mussy, and before he departed would be a good deal mussier. Margo wondered who owned this townhouse. The bedroom was plush to the point of decadence. Her grandmother, her beloved Nana, would have been appalled at the thought that Margo was in such a place with a man, even if he was the President of the United States.
“Invade Cuba,” Kennedy clarified. He reached for his glass but didn’t drink. “My people keep telling me it’s my only choice. They seem to forget we tried already, just last year. And I don’t mean Keating and all those armchair generals on the Hill. I mean my own people. I’ve moved the troops to Georgia and Florida, just in case we decide to go in.” He let the curtain fall, turned half toward her, in profile tired but still dashingly young: the first President born in the twentieth century, as his supporters endlessly trumpeted.
Margo sat on the chaise longue, knees primly together in the evening dress. She had told her roommates that she was going to a party in Silver Spring, careful to sound nervous enough that they would guess she was lying. It was important that they suspect she was off on some other journey than the one she disclosed: important to the fiction that she was required to maintain.
As was tonight’s meeting: what historians in later years would suppose, wrongly, to have been an assignation.
The fiction. The vital fiction.
Margo Jensen was nineteen years old, as bright as morning, quick and curious and perhaps a bit fussy, more handsome than pretty, displaying a fleshiness that belonged to a more mature woman. From an oval face a shade or two shy of mahogany, curious eyes strove to find order in a world rushing toward chaos.
Kennedy moved to the gigantic bed, gave a small laugh; sat. “I say to them, ‘If we invade Cuba, take out those missiles, what does Khrushchev do?’ They can’t make up their minds.” Kennedy groaned. It occurred to her that in the midst of a crisis that could lead to nuclear war, the President had advisers galore, but nobody to whom he could simply vent without back talk; and so, given that the plan required him to see Margo daily in any case, he had chosen her as his foil.
It wasn’t as though she could tell anybody.
“LeMay says the Sovs are so scared of us, they won’t do a thing,” Kennedy continued. He was massaging the small of his back again, grimacing. Maybe he was hoping she would volunteer to help. “McNamara tells me they’ll have to respond, just to save face, but their response will be limited, probably in Berlin. Two or three others think they’ll press the button.”
Margo shut her eyes. She still could not quite grasp that any of this was happening. It was October 1962, and a month ago she had been nobody, a sophomore government major at Cornell University, chasing no larger goals than finishing college, going on to graduate school, and getting married. Now she was skulking around Washington, D.C., worried about being caught by someone who knew her—or, worse, by the people who would very much like her dead.
At odd moments, she asked God why she had been chosen for this role. She was no soldier and no spy; two years ago, she had been in high school. She was not equal to the tasks demanded of her. They should have picked someone else. She wanted more than anything not to be here. Her boyfriend, Tom, a physics major, liked to say that the universe was unpredictable but never absurd. Just now, however, “absurd” was the only word to describe the bizarre concatenation of circumstances that had led her to tonight’s secret meeting in this grand-luxe bedroom. But there was no escape. She was the only candidate: that was what they kept telling her. It was Margo or nobody.
“Those are my choices,” the President was saying. “Either live with nuclear missiles ninety miles off our shore—missiles that are capable of reaching two-thirds of the country—or risk thermonuclear war. Come over here.”
She tensed. “No, thank you.”
“It’s okay. Sit with me a minute.”
“I’m comfortable where I am, Mr. President.”
Kennedy seemed to understand. “We would spare you all of this if we could, Miss Jensen, believe me. We’re not the ones who chose you.” He drank. Drank again. “You do realize, don’t you, that there’s a good chance I’m going to be the last President of the United States?”
Margo swallowed. “I’m sure that’s not true, sir.”
Actually, she was lying. She believed exactly that. The likelihood that this was the end plagued her dreams.
Kennedy pinched the bridge of his nose. His exhaustion was palpable, a live creature in the room, and yet he tamed it and kept moving forward. “Some of my advisers have already sent their families out of the city. They want to know what provisions I’m making for Jackie and the kids. I tell them not to worry. There isn’t going to be a war. By keeping my family in Washington, I show them I mean what I say. Maybe that’s terrible of me. I don’t know.” He shook off the contemplative mood, stood up straight. “It’s time, Miss Jensen.”
Margo’s eyes snapped open. Now came the part of the evening she hated most. “Yes, sir,” she said, rising.
He was on his feet, turning back the comforter on the bed. She went around to the other side and helped. They tossed the extra pil- lows into the corner. Kennedy went to the bucket and poured her a glass of champagne. Margo drank it right off, knowing she would get tipsy, which was the point: otherwise, her courage would fail.
Besides, it was important that the Secret Service agent who would drive her home later smell the alcohol on her breath: again, the fiction.
The President poured her another glass. The room swam. She sat on the bed, trembling. She kicked off her shoes, let one of the shoulder straps slide down her upper arm. Kennedy undid his tie, dropped it on the floor, and walked toward her, smiling that crooked smile.
“Now,” he said, “let’s get some of that beautiful lipstick on my collar.”
More fiction. He took her hand, lifted her to her feet. Margo stepped
into his arms and, once more, shut her eyes. You’re helping to save the country, a voice in her head reminded her. And the world. But as she turned her face upward toward his, Margo found herself wondering again what Nana would think, and all at once none of it mattered—not Kennedy, not Khrushchev, not her role in trying to stop the nuclear war that was about to start—none of it mattered, and none of it would have happened, if only she could turn back the clock to the day they came up from Washington to tell Margo that it was her patriotic duty to go to Bulgaria to babysit a madman.
She should have said no.
"In the prologue of Carter's intriguing what-if thriller, Margo Jensen, a bright 19-year-old Cornell student, meets privately in Washington, D.C., with President Kennedy, who is trying to navigate the Cuban Missile Crisis without triggering nuclear war. Earlier that fall, Margo became involved in a covert intelligence operation through a brilliant Cornell professor of hers, Lorenz Niemeyer, who's an expert on Conflict Theory. Margo learns that a Russian chess champion, Vasily Smyslov, has alerted the U.S. to a surprise Soviet move in Cuba. The only way to get more details from Smyslov is to send an American counterpart, Bobby Fischer, to Russia to sound him out, and Fischer will only go if Margo, whom he considers to be a good-luck charm, accompanies him. Carter (The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln) makes this audacious premise convincing and manages to build suspense around a historical event with a known outcome. Author tour. (Aug.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, where he has taught since 1982. He is also the author of seven books of nonfiction.
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Back Channel, Stephen L. Carter’s ambitious and brilliantly rendered retelling of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the personalities who shaped its outcome.