We Have a Pope!

A short story
More

Rick Renard does not normally write about his clients. I'm a PR guy. I do not go in for titles like "strategic communicator," as do many of my colleagues in the Washington, D.C., spindustry. At any rate, writing about clients in a national magazine is not part of the job. The idea, greatly boiled down, is to make them look good. But since there's been so much in the media recently about my role in trying to help elect an American Pope, the record could use a little, shall we say, straightening.

Two months ago I was in my office on K Street, this being where my professional ilk tend to have their offices, brainstorming how to persuade a Senate subcommittee to grant one of my clients a tax deduction for his herd of buffalo, on the grounds that they emit less methane than cows, when my assistant, LaMoyne, buzzed me to inform me that Bernard Baroom was on the phone.

"The Bernard Baroom?" I said. LaMoyne sighed. "No, the other Bernard Baroom." LaMoyne—he's not French, he's from Indiana—is capable of attitude, but he is efficient and more or less runs Renard Strategic Planning International, that being the name of my company. We have mailboxes in Toronto, Geneva, and Kuala Lumpur, which makes us international. We're planning to expand. At any rate, I took the call from Bernard Baroom.

He dispensed with the usual pleasantries. It's my experience of billionaire financiers—not that I have had nearly enough experience of them—that they come right to the point, time being money. His car would pick me up in ten minutes. He didn't bother to inquire whether I was available. A billionaire financier expects a PR man to be available at any time, even if you are in the middle of sex or a Botox injection.

LaMoyne was impressed. He'd seen the Baroom mansion in Upperburg, Virginia, featured in the pages of Opulent Domicile magazine.

"Twelve pages," he said. "A bit baronial for my goût."

"Goo?"

"Goût. Taste."

He does this, LaMoyne, which drives me nuts; but as I say, he's efficient. "Private chapel. Don't see many of those anymore. Bet there's a dungeon, too. Strange duck, that one."

"He's the fourteenth richest duck in the United States, according to Forbes. Call the mink ranchers and tell them I've been summoned to a meeting at the White House." That always impresses them.

The Minnesota Mink Ranchers Association was a client. The anti-fur people were sneaking in at night and shaving the minks. I was gearing up a media campaign to highlight just how awful minks really are. Nature doesn't come redder in tooth and claw, as the saying goes, than mink. Vicious little devils. This is the part of the job I really enjoy—the learning about different things.

Baroom's Cadillac Sixteen was waiting for me. You know you're off to a good start when they send a quarter-million-dollar chauffeur-driven car for you.

It was an hour's ride to the Baroom abode, the last ten minutes spent going up the driveway. Bernard Baroom had started out with condom dispensers in public men's rooms and was now the chairman of three companies listed on the stock exchange. His private secretary was English. "Ah, Mr. Renard, Mr. Baroom is expecting you." Recently rich Americans love that. Well, I suppose all Americans are recently rich, more or less.

Mr. Baroom was in his study—one of those walnut-and-mahogany jobs with this very solemn feeling to it, as if it was designed to deliver grave news in. There were these religious-theme paintings on the walls: Madonnas, a Saint Sebastian—the one stuck full of arrows who provided inspiration for all those Italian painters. Above him was one showing Jesus driving the money changers from the Temple. The nameplate on it said EL GRECO, which is Spanish for "Ten Million." My kind of client.

Baroom did not rise from his chair. The very rich are different from you and me, as the late F. Scott Fitzgerald observed: they don't bother to get up when you walk into the room.

He was reading a thick file marked RENARD. He said without looking up, "You used to work for Nick Naylor."

Nick Naylor, of course, is a legend. It was Nick who mounted the final public-relations battle in behalf of the tobacco industry. It was a magnificent last stand, the Little Bighorn of that war. Nick went down, but gloriously. After he got out of prison, he moved to California and now represents movie stars. Not my goo, but who could blame him? He'd earned his lounge chair by the pool. A lot of people in Washington pretend they never knew him. Not Rick Renard. I learned a lot from Nick. More or less everything, really, when you come right down to it. I'm proud to have worked for him.

"Well," I said, "that was a long time ago."

He closed the file and shook his head. "Maybe that explains why I can't find a single instance in your entire curriculum vitae where you let something as trivial as principle get in the way."

I figured that Bernard Baroom had not sent his $250,000 to fetch me so that he could lecture me on ethics. A smile spread across his face like lard melting in a skillet.

"Mr. Renard, I have made a lot of money in my life. A tremendous amount of money."

I wasn't quite sure how to respond. "That's just great, sir!" didn't feel quite right.

"Now I want to give something back."

Aha. I do a little teaching on the side, at Martha Washington University School of Strategic Planning, and I tell my graduate students, "When the really rich announce that they want to give something back, be there, with buckets."

"How can I help, sir?"

"The Pope isn't expected to live out the week. I want the next Pope to be an American."

I also tell my graduate students, "Don't expel your beverage through your nostrils when the really rich demand the impossible. There's a fortune's worth of billable hours between 'What an interesting idea' and 'Well, we tried.'"

"Do you follow the cardinals, Mr. Renard?"

I was about to reply that I'd once lost $500 on the World Series when I realized he was talking about the College of Cardinals, not St. Louis.

"More or less."

"My sources say it's going to be Arooba, the Nigerian. Or that Mexican." He grunted with evident displeasure. "What are you hearing?"

Improvise, Renard, I said to myself. I managed to cough up some ambiguous gargle about how "the Filipino is showing surprising strength." There had to be at least one Filipino cardinal, I figured. Very Catholic country, the Philippines.

"God forbid they should elect a Pope from a country that's solved the problem of indoor plumbing," he said. "It's like the UN." He leaned back with a squeak of expensive leather. "The French want it, you know. So bad they can taste it. They're already in there maneuvering, cutting their deals. Their little cheesy deals. Can you imagine a French Pope?"

"Mr. Baroom," I said, "I don't even want to think about that. But, sir, these recent, uh, developments ... " I thought "developments" sounded better than "widespread pedophile scandals." "How do you see that, that is, in the context of electing an American Pope? Give me the benefit of your input here." I tell my graduate students that this is a way of saying to the client, Were you on drugs, or just drunk, when you came up with this idea?

He glowered at me. "You saying that Saint Peter, the first Pope, was perfect?"

"Well—"

"Didn't he deny knowing Jesus three times?"

"You have me there."

"'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.' Matthew 16:18."

"Beautifully quoted, sir. But paying hush money to—well, I'm not a theologian."

"These scandals give us an advantage going in."

"I hadn't thought of that."

Just Because He Shuffled Pedophiles Around and Paid Hush Money Doesn't Mean He Wouldn't Make a Fabulous Pope. It wasn't sticking to my bumper.

"It's the last thing anyone would expect. You know the saying: 'He who enters a conclave papabile leaves a cardinal.'"

That old chestnut. Of course. I gave a sort of low chuckle by way of pretending that I knew exactly what he was talking about. Later I learned that papabile is not a kind of pasta but means "Pope-able." That is, electable. Whatever.

"I want to show you something." Baroom pressed a hidden switch and a panel slid back, revealing a stone staircase going down. I thought, uh-oh. I followed him, my hand inside my pocket nervously gripping my cell phone, ready to dial 911 at the first sign of someone wearing a hood.

It turned out to be his relic room. I'd bet you that not many billionaire homes have a relic room. It wasn't included in the Opulent Domicile spread. He had accumulated quite the collection: Saint Theresa of Ávila's toenail; a lock of Saint Francis of Assisi's hair; enough bones to make three skeletons, including a femur that once belonged to Saint Jerome of Illyria. Also Saint Tatiana's knuckle.

"She's more venerated in the East," he explained, "but I always had a sweet spot for her." The pièce de résistance was Mary Magdalene's tooth. "Third molar," he pointed out. You could barely see the tooth for all the gold and rubies and diamonds it had been mounted on, by some czar of the fifteenth century mainly famous for impaling several thousand recalcitrant peasants on stakes.

I had a Beam me up, Scotty moment.

Back in his study and badly in need of a drink, I said thoughtfully, "Mr. Baroom, this isn't going to be easy." I tell my graduate students this is a tactful way of saying I'm going to want a lot of money.

He took a fountain pen and scribbled on a piece of paper and slid it across the table. It was an impressive number, with a beautiful string of zeros, like a strand of pearls. It was a number that you could retire on. I found myself thinking, You know, maybe it is time that we had a Pope.

"This would be the fee for a successful outcome?" I asked.

He took back the piece of paper and drew a line through a few of the pearls. "Your retainer. Make it happen and I'll add those zeros back."

"There will be expenses, of course."

"Look, Mr. Renard," he said in that annoyed-billionaire way, "that's just not a problem. You get to work. Once the Holy Father passes, there's only a couple weeks before the conclave. There's no time to waste."

On the way down the driveway I looked back and saw white smoke coming out the chimney of his study. That's what they send up the chimney of the Sistine Chapel to announce that they've elected a new Pope.

Back at the office LaMoyne said, "So?"

"You were right about the dungeon."

"I knew he was kinky."

"You have no idea."

Baroom had given me the name of a contact at the AAPC—the American Association of Princes of the Church, one of Washington's more elite trade associations. You have to be a cardinal to belong.

There was a man standing outside the AAPC headquarters with a sign that said HANDS OFF THE ALTAR BOYS!

It's always a challenge when your candidates for Pope are being picketed for sex offenses with minors. Monsignor Murphy had told me over the phone to go in the back way. I was tempted to say something, but didn't. I tell my graduate students, "Don't tease the client about sex scandals until you've established a good working relationship."

Monsignor Murphy was the executive director of the AAPC. He was in his mid-fifties, pudgy, with an Irish accent and intense black eyes. A chain smoker. He didn't look like he'd slept much lately.

"So you've met Bernard," he said, exhaling a lungful of unfiltered cigarette smoke. "Did he show you Saint Tatiana's knuckle?"

"Very impressive."

"He's on to a dealer in Istanbul who claims to have part of Saint Paul's pelvis. He's like a boy in his enthusiasms, bless his heart. So, we're going to have an American Pope, are we? Well, splendid, splendid."

I got the feeling that Monsignor Murphy wasn't a hundred percent on board.

"I should explain one or two particulars," he said. "First and very foremost, my cardinals aren't to have knowledge of this, em, operation."

"Monsignor, this is going to be enough of a challenge as it is."

"One doesn't campaign for the office, Mr. Renard. It's not the New Hampshire primary. The princes must be above politics. Church law is quite specific on the matter. I, on the other hand, am not in the running for the office. If you follow. Can I offer you a drink, Mr. Renard? I'm guessing you're a Scotch rather than a brandy man. I don't normally take a drink at midafternoon, but these are times that try a man's soul."

He fired up another cigarette. "My princes have been through rather a lot lately." Indeed. One of them had been led off in handcuffs just a week before. I'd scratched his name off my papabile list. "I can't say that any of us will look back on this time with nostalgia. It would be grand for morale all 'round if you could manage this miracle. All we seem to do now is depositions, with expensive lawyers."

"Can I ask what's the connection between you and Baroom?"

He blew out another lungful. "Well, it's rather an old-fashioned sort of connection, isn't it? I'm his confessor."

"Confessor?"

"Yes. When he makes his confession, which Catholics should, and sometimes actually do, he comes to me. So there you have it."

"Three Hail Marys and two Our Fathers—that sort of thing?"

"Em," he said, looking uncomfortable, "that sort of thing. Now, I've prepared some background for you on the princes." He pointed to a cardboard box that looked heavy.

"Who do we like? Any front-runners?"

"Well, they're all grand in their own way. Whelan of Houston has perhaps the strongest personality. He's the one who stood up to the federal marshals who wanted to arrest the illegal Mexicans in his cathedral basement. It was the one bit of fortunate television we've had in the past year. Tierney of Pittsburgh. Stickler for procedure. Martinez of Miami. Floated over from Havana as a child. I won't say he goes out of his way to discourage the miraculous aspect of it. Durkin of New York. Got into a bit of warm water over the annulments, but what I wouldn't give for that kind of scandal these days. Vaghi of Washington, fluent in nine languages, four of them dead. There's the new one—Kanu of Los Angeles, handsome as a movie star, deft at the outreach to the various communities."

"Is he the one who surfs?"

"The same. Bunbergler of Chicago. Genius at the fundraising, which isn't easy these days, let me tell you, with all the unpleasantness. Linquist of Minnesota, a pillar, theologically speaking, very close to Rome, though I wouldn't necessarily say Charisma is his middle name. I think what we're hoping for, Mr. Renard, is generally to promote the idea of an American pontiff in the world community. If we could just do that much, get people thinking about the princes in a different context, well, that would be accomplishment enough. You'll have earned your place in heaven." He smiled. "At the least your retainer."

He looked at his watch. "I'm afraid I must be off. Archbishop Gurk is being deposed."

The death watch was on at the Vatican. Once the Pope died, the clock would begin ticking. There would be little sleep at Renard Strategic Planning in the days ahead. Normally I would have ordered up some polling data and let the buzz develop organically. But this was no ordinary product launch.

I knew from the get-go that I was probably going to have to "go negative." I generally try to be positive, but sometimes there's just no substitute for cutting the other person off at the knees, harsh as that may sound. The American birds—cardinals, that is—may have all been good, even holy, men in their own way, but a Dream Team they were not, papabile-wise. Except maybe for this Dwayne Cardinal Kanu of L.A., the surfer. Pope John Paul II had gotten some very good ink in his day for being a skier. I think people are reassured to know that their Pope favors an athletic lifestyle, that he's not going to just sit on a throne all day talking Latin and handing down papal decrees about keeping women out of the priesthood.

I saw from Monsignor Murphy's—I must say CIA-quality—dossiers on the leading foreign cardinals that the front-runner was this Kojo Cardinal Arooba of Nigeria, an extremely impressive fellow, I'll be the first to admit, the Colin Powell of the College of Cardinals. He'd been converted from some African religion called animism to Catholicism by Irish missionaries. Meanwhile, Felix Cardinal Verguenza of Honduras, the other front-runner, had denounced the United States for training Latin American dictators at the School of the Americas. I'm not saying he was wrong. I'd probably feel the same way if I were a Honduran cardinal whose family had been wiped out by a military junta. He was also continually demanding that U.S. Banana do something about the snakes and spiders that were constantly biting its workers. Apparently, poisonous snakes and spiders love bananas. Again, this is the part of the job I enjoy, the learning about different cultures. At any rate, this gave me something to work with.

It was my mentor, Nick Naylor, who pioneered the field of product placement among opinion makers. Until then product placement had been confined to paying film and TV producers to "place" your "product" in their movies and shows. It hadn't occurred to anyone to pay talking heads (I won't name any names) who go on TV. These folks don't make huge salaries from their newspaper columns and what have you. They're usually happy to slip in a reference to your client's continuing efforts to reduce harmful pollutants, or the nifty new jet fighter that a couple of Luddite congressmen are holding up in Appropriations. They're more than happy to receive in return a small token of appreciation—in the form of, say, a new German sports car or a Rolex watch or a two-week cruise—along with a note saying "Great appearance on Larry King!" Is this quote unquote ethical? I say, Let him who is without spin cast the first stone.

But I didn't want this to be just a top-down campaign. Ultimately, in any campaign you've got to have the "little people" on your side. Since LaMoyne was working full-tilt on oppo (that is, opposition research), I put Lorraine on this. Lorraine had been one of my more promising grad students. She'd done her master's thesis on the California prune industry's campaign to reposition its product as "dried plums." Lorraine took it to the next level, proposing that rotten fruit could successfully be packaged and sold as a "pre-softened" high-fiber food for seniors. I was just blown away. I hired her immediately as a junior associate. I sent her paper to Nick, in California. He wrote back, "A natural. She'll go FAR!!!"

I said to Lorraine, "It takes a miracle to produce a miracle." I didn't have to explain further. It's a pleasure to work with someone who "gets it" right away. Also, she was Catholic. And she could provide me with a "woman's perspective" on the whole business of a 2,000-year-old self-perpetuating male hierarchy. Lorraine was only in her mid-twenties, but she still dressed like a Catholic schoolgirl, and quite fetchingly, I must say, in the blazer, pleated skirt, dark stockings, and black pumps. That said, I make it a rule not to get romantically involved with junior associates. For one thing, it makes it very difficult to fire them.

It wouldn't have been seemly to roll out the campaign while the present Holy Father was on his deathbed. But we were able to hit the ground running the moment he started to cool. I don't mean that disrespectfully. He was huge, absolutely a giant. It would have been a piece of cake getting him elected.

At any rate, the morning after he finally expired (and, I'm certain, breezed through the pearly gates like a motorist with an E-Z Pass), the first public-service announcements appeared, sponsored by the Upon This American Rock Foundation: "Two Thousand Years. Isn't It Time We Had a Pope?"

"Upon This Rock" is, of course, a reference to what Jesus said to Peter, who was the first Pope, when he said that he was going to make Peter the foundation of the Church. Lorraine informed me that it has a double meaning, because the Latin word for rock is petra. Up to then I thought it was the name of an expensive French wine. It's full of amazing stuff like this, the Bible. You can see why people study it. At any rate, the first call came while I was still in the shower, which I didn't take as a good sign, since my name didn't appear anywhere in the ad. (The address listed at the bottom was a Catholic-sounding P.O. box in Chicago.) Sure enough, it was my old nemesis, Lloyd Grove, of The Washington Post.

"So, Rick Renard is behind this?"

"If you're asking am I 'behind' the idea of the United States having at least some input into the administration of a major world religion, the answer is 'Hell, yes.'"

Perhaps this was not an ideal choice of words, but I hadn't slept in three days and I was dripping wet. The more pressing question was, Who leaked it to Grove? I had hoped to low-key my involvement with Upon This American Rock.

I reached Murf on his cell. I heard chanting. He was in the middle of saying mass with some archbishops. He said he'd have to call me back. I said, "Don't call me back, just plug the leak in your shop, because this certainly didn't come from my shop." You can't spell "discreet" without the D in Renard. I was cheesed. You'd think that an organization that has been around for 2,000 years would be a little more disciplined. But we were off and running.

That night three of my, shall we say, cash-encouraged talking heads were on separate TV shows, yakking it up about how it was high time there was an American pontiff. One of them, a former White House speechwriter, even suggested that the French might try to "steal" the election. Another suggested that the Chinese were "up to their usual mischief." Brilliant, and entirely their own spin. It's a pleasure to work with real pros. I included flowers along with their cash envelopes. Phase One was complete.

The next day Upon This American Rock, of which I was now officially the "executive director" (what the hell), released the results of a poll showing overwhelming support for the idea among American Catholics. To be sure, the sampling error, at 48 percent, was a little higher than the normal plus or minus four percent, but the important thing was to get the poll "out there." The media love polls and will report anything you give them. By the time they get around to noticing that your "respondents" consisted of two cabdrivers and a bartender, your poll has already made headlines. Phase Two complete.

Lorraine called from Los Angeles to report that she had an elderly woman who, in return for an all-expenses-paid cruise to Alaska, was prepared to call the L.A. Times and say that she had been miraculously cured of a very nasty case of psoriasis by Dwayne Cardinal Kanu.

"Psoriasis?" I said. "Can't we do better than a skin condition? Cancer, leukemia, a heart condition, anything would be more dramatic than itching."

"I can ask." She sounded a bit dubious. This was really her first time out "in the field." I've seen this happen before. They're great on paper, but when it comes time to get down there in the trenches, they get all squirrelly.

"Hey—is this the same Lorraine who came up with the idea of selling rotten fruit to seniors, at a significant markup?"

"I'll try."

"How often do you get a chance to help elect the next Pope? We're making history here."

She called back to report that Mrs. Garcia, who would now be going on a round-the-world cruise, had been miraculously cured not of psoriasis but of something called alopecia.

"Sounds awful," I said.

"It is."

"Now you're cooking," I told her. I was genuinely proud. I thought back to my first assignment for Nick Naylor: calling up reporters to tell them that our client's rival burger-chain operation was using kangaroo meat. One headline said, "WHOPPER OR HOPPER? BURGER BOY DENIES KANGAROO MEAT ALLEGATION." I got misty-eyed thinking of it. At any rate, Phase Three complete. On to Rome!

LaMoyne went into the mother of all funks when I told him he would have to stay in dull old D.C. and run things from the office.

"It's the Eternal City," I said. "It's not going anywhere."

"Like me."

Sometimes I think half the job is keeping the people who work for you inspired. It's not easy being Pope.

I took to Rome like a Visigoth. For someone in my profession it's inspiring to be in a city that has been doing the Big Spin for thousands of years. Here, I felt, I could be myself. Walking around those historical stones felt weirdly familiar, as though I'd been there in earlier times, advising Roman road builders on how to package their bids for the Appian Way, or even the Emperor on how to get maximum credit for providing bread and circuses to the low-income.

Walking into Saint Peter's Basilica for the first time, I was in awe. I imagined advising various Popes on how to handle Luther and Henry VIII and Galileo. In the first instance, I would have told Pope Leo X to not-so-quietly get the word out about the fact that Luther had had several nervous breakdowns. And what kind of monk goes around nailing pieces of paper to the doors of cathedrals? Some vow of obedience he took.

With Henry, I would have said to Popes Clement VII and Paul III, Look, this isn't about religion; this isn't about the quote unquote Real Presence of Christ in the communion; this is about control. Everyone's acting like an alpha gorilla. Get him down here for a weekend at Castel Whatever, fill him up on your best wine, tell him he's the best King Henry that England has ever had, including Henry V. Then have Cardinal Sinatra find a loophole in the annulment law and give him his divorce. Look at the big picture. We're losing Germany because of that nutball monk, now you want to lose England, all that monastic land? Over this? Would you want to sleep with Catherine of Aragon? No, gracias!

With Galileo, I would have said to Pope Urban VIII, Before you start with the hot pokers, stop and ask yourself: do you really want to torture an old man—who, by the way, seems to be on to something here—just for looking through a telescope and saying Whoa, we're revolving! Burning heretics at the stake is satisfying in the short run, and wonderful entertainment for the people, but how's it going to look in a couple of centuries, when they start sending up the Hubble telescope? I would have told him, Progress happens. Make it work for you. Embrace it. Go up there on the balcony and announce, Yo, everyone, Galileo is working for us! We love this man! We're going to put an observatory right here in Saint Peter's!

Standing there on the spot where they crucified poor old Saint Peter, I thought, The man ends up here in rags and chains, upside down on a cross, to make up for those three denials, and 2,000 years later he's got this for a tomb and one billion followers. Whatever faith you believe in, you have to hand it to Peter and Paul. Talk about spinergy. At any rate, these were my thoughts as I wandered around the basilica. I couldn't remember when I had felt so pumped about a client.

I set up my war room in a little pensione—Italian for "cheap hotel"—off the Spanish Steps, not far from the cheap hotel where the English poet Keats died, of TB, in 1821. Very historical, Rome. Everywhere you turn, someone famous died there or was horribly executed. On Bernard's budget I could have rented the top floor of the Hilton, but my presence here was strictly unofficial. Murf set me up with a man we'll call Angelo, who was hot-wired into the Vatican press corps. I suspected from the diamond rings and the $1,800 suit and $800 shoes that Angelo was on about five different payrolls, but at least you know you're not going to waste time hand-wringing over ethics. I laid an eyeball-widening brick of Bernard's crisp $100 bills on the table and told him what I needed, and his attitude was Pronto, Signor Renardo! My kind of people, Italians.

The next day L'Osservatore Romano, which is to the Vatican what the Daily Racing Form is to horse racing, ran a page-one, above-the-fold piece saying don't count the Americans out. The jump included a nice mention of Cardinal Kanu and Lorraine's alopecia woman.

The cardinals, some of whom apparently themselves suffered from alopecia—what luck!—were now starting to arrive. They were technically forbidden—by papal decree, no less—access to any kind of media: television, radios, newspapers, and such. The previous Pope, God rest him, had spelled out the rules for electing his successor in a document called Universi Dominici Gregis. I read it—twenty-four single-spaced pages of regs, with footnotes. Violate any one of them and it was into the eternal darkness with you.

The cardinals would be housed in a new $20 million Vatican guesthouse—the Domus Sanctae Marthae, built for them by a rich American from Pittsburgh. The birds weren't allowed to speak to anyone outside, and no one was allowed to talk to them. No phones, cell phones, or fax machines. They weren't even allowed to engage in politicking among themselves. This must have made for very dull conversation around the Domus water cooler. You'd think there would be some pretty furious horse trading going on—Vote for me, I'll put you in charge of all L.A. annulments, that sort of thing. But technically this is called simony. I had to look it up: "buying or selling ecclesiastical preferment." And anyone who engages in it gets excommunicated. Good thing I'm not Catholic.

No chance, either, of sneaking in and distributing campaign literature. This was a terrible shame, inasmuch as there had been some terrific stuff lately on Dwayne Cardinal Kanu. One of the tabloid papers had nicknamed him "The Big Kanuna," and the History Channel had devoted an entire hour to the history of Popes and outdoor sports, including some incredible footage of then Monsignor Kanu executing a truly divine "cheater five" on his longboard at Oceanside Pier.

The guesthouse and the Sistine Chapel, where the voting takes place, would be swept regularly for listening devices. The whole place would be sealed off by the Swiss Guard—and the Swiss, whatever else they may be, are old hands when it comes to borders.

I asked Lorraine how she was coming with the Nostradamus predictions—Nostradamus being the sixteenth-century French (figures) astrologer who wrote that book that appeals to a certain element of the public. She was here with me in Rome—a source of some resentment on the part of LaMoyne. She looked tired. Well, we were all tired. She said she couldn't find anything in Nostradamus.

"Lorraine."

"Rick. There's just nothing in here about a surfing American cardinal who cures alopecia getting elected Pope in the early part of the twenty-first century. I'm sorry."

It wasn't that I expected The New York Times to pick up a Nostradamus "prediction," but this sort of thing helps with the supermarket-tabloid-reading set, and you need them.

"Fudge," I said.

"Fudge?"

"Fudge. Do I have to do everything?"

She finally cobbled together some mumbo jumbo about "a man of the West" who would "walk on water" to the "East." "Perfect," I said. "Start faxing." She looked like she was about to cry. I took her out to Tullio, off the Piazza Barberini, for a nice dinner. It seemed to cheer her up. Afterward we walked over to the Palazzo Barberini, this being the palace of an Italian family that produced a pope and a number of prelates. Their symbol was a bee, the emphasis being on the stinger more than the honey. If you look at the base of the twisty bronze columns around the main altar in Saint Peter's, you'll see the bee symbol. The Barberinis melted down the bronze from plates they took from the Pantheon. They were the Sopranos of the papacy, you might say. But then, a lot of building in Rome consisted of plundering from other sites, just like the construction business in New Jersey. I said to Lorraine, "Someday there will be little American motifs in Saint Peter's if we do our job right." She seemed pleased by the idea.

I called Bernard to give him a progress report and got the English private secretary on the phone. "Mr. Baroom is with the lawyers. He cahn't come to the phone." I said, "Well, tell Mr. Baroom it's going very swimmingly, you can positively feel the groundswell."

That night I had this vision. It might have been from the high levels of potassium in the artichokes at Tullio. In Italy you can eat the entire artichoke, and they were so good I ate five. At any rate, I immediately called Murf, in Washington, who was getting ready to come over with his prince delegation, and said to him, "Is there any way your birds can arrive by boat? Peter was a fisherman, and I think it would be appropriate, and a fabulous visual, to have them come up the Tiber River—I'll check on the depth—by boat. A torchlight procession up the steps from the river at Castel San Angelo, with a choir singing 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic.' We'll get Placido Domingo—better yet, Stevie Wonder." Mine eyes have seen the glory! Sometimes I think I'm really a frustrated impresario.

"Em," Monsignor Murf said, "it's a lovely idea, Rick. But I'm not sure my princes will go for it."

"Every time I turn on the TV, I see another dreary cardinal at Fiumicino"—the Rome airport—"rolling his own suitcase or schlepping his garment bag. They look like flight attendants. If these guys are princes, they need to start acting like princes. Let's get some majesty going here. In the old days, they arrived in jeweled carriages to the sound of trumpets."

"I'll get back to you." You hear this all the time in Washington. Basically, it means no. He did, however, say that he might have something useful for me when he got to Rome.

The Media Center was in a building that was once used to torture people who didn't believe in the Holy Trinity. I'd installed Lorraine there, along with a half dozen worker bees (we called them our Barberinis), as a credentialed correspondent for Working Pontiff magazine. Her real job was to monitor the media. Cardinal Arooba had arrived in Rome that morning. She showed me the video of it. Half of Rome had turned out to meet him, people grabbing to kiss his hand. Catholics just can't seem to get enough of hand-smooching the higher-ups. Cardinals must walk around with permanently damp hands. I don't mean it as a criticism. At any rate, I'll be the first to admit that Arooba was radioactively charismatic. A regular Catholic Bishop Tutu. Shoo-in of the Fisherman. You could just see him in that white soutane on the balcony, bestowing his first papal blessing on a million swooning Catholics. Ladbrokes, the London oddsmakers, had him at even money. Verguenza was at 6:1. Dwayne Cardinal Kanu they had at 112:1. There being 112 cardinals, this was not what you would call encouraging.

Time to go negative. Let me state for the record: I don't like to go negative, but as my mentor, Nick, used to say, "At least you can say you considered not going negative."

I laid another brick of Franklins in front of Angelo. The next day my favorite Vatican rag ran a page-one story on animism, from which the Irish missionaries in Africa had converted Cardinal Arooba, along with a killer quote—from someone identified as one of the world's "ultimate authorities" on animism—about how animists believe that the spirits of dead animals live on and can even be dangerous. The quote continued, "Not that Cardinal Arooba still adheres to these stern beliefs, so far as we are aware." Bull's-eye, Angelo.

"Get this out to every reporter and producer here," I said to Lorraine.

I'd flown over a couple of tame talking heads with passable credentials as Vaticanisti—that is, Vatican-watchers. You pick up a lot of local lingo in this job. The next morning they were on the U.S. talk shows saying that Cardinal Arooba was a wonderful man who would "probably not" suddenly start sacrificing goats on the altar and casting spells. Of course, they were careful to add, there was no hard data available on the recidivism rate among former animists. There's nothing more satisfying than building a good, solid media campaign. It's meat and potatoes, basically. You just get the information out there so that people can make an informed choice. At any rate, things were going well.

That afternoon I was in my room at the Pensione Tiberculosi, on the phone to the head of the Knights of Columbus back in the States, who was about to take off for Rome on a chartered 747 with 400 of his top Knights. There was a knock on my door. Two suits with U.S. State Department ID.

"Richard Renard? The ambassador would like to see you."

I said, "Well, I'm a little busy right now."

"Now, please. Sir."

I wasn't sure what the jurisdiction issue was, but never let it be said that Rick Renard isn't patriotic. The suits were not what you would call conversational, which gave the trip up the Via Peoria to the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See the aroma of a forced march.

The American ambassador didn't look pleased to see me. Her aide went into instant buttlock when he saw me, and then he disappeared, as though being in the same room with me might retard his chances of becoming deputy chief of mission to Ulan Bator.

"Mis-ter Renard," she said, making "Mister" sound like a fifty-fifty proposition. "And what brings you to Rome?"

"I'm on a pilgrimage," I said. "Yourself?"

Rick Renard does not normally insult U.S. ambassadors on first meeting, but I was a little formaggioed at being hauled onto her carpet in this brusque manner. Her Excellency's qualification for the job, aside from being a fabulously wealthy Catholic widow, the sister of a powerful U.S. senator, and a major contributor to the current President's election campaign, was—well, I'll have to get back to you on that. I don't mean to imply that being U.S. ambassador to the smallest nation in the world (0.2 square miles—Central Park is bigger) is anything to sneeze at, but let's just say we didn't send Henry Kissinger there. Maybe we will when the Vatican gets the bomb. At any rate, I was in no mood to kowtow to Madam Ambassador.

"I'm here to look after our country's interests," she said, ice forming on her tongue. "Which includes preventing U.S. mercenaries from disrupting papal elections."

Who had sold me out? Murf ran a tight shop. Angelo. Had to be Angelo.

"I'm only helping to make it a level playing field," I said.

"Are you Catholic, Mr. Renard?"

"Not technically, though I'm very impressed with what I've seen so far. It's definitely an option, spiritual-wise."

"If you were, you'd be excommunicated. Placing your soul in mortal danger might not worry you, Mr. Renard, but any Catholic involved in this—this sinister operation of yours—is also automatically excommunicated. Am I getting through to you?"

"Excuse me, but what's so quote unquote sinister about an American Pope? I thought you were looking out for our interests here."

"Do you have any idea," she said, "how catastrophic this could be? Trying to influence the election of the Roman Pope?"

"Unlike influencing the election of the U.S. President?"

"Mr. Renard, the Pope is above politics! He is a holy figure!"

"Well, our President is no saint, I'll grant you."

The interview didn't go uphill from there. She threatened to have me deported.

"Where?" I said. "To the other side of the Tiber? I'll walk and save you the trouble."

Unfortunately, she took me up on my offer. And just try to find a cab in Rome during a papal conclave. I had to walk back to my pensione. I was as steamed as Tullio carciofi when I got back to the Tiberculosi.

I said to Lorraine, "Turns out Angelo is no angel. He's working for the bad guys."

"Who are the bad guys? I'm confused."

"Us. As usual. Typical bureaucratic small-mindedness. You'd think she'd have offered to help."

"So are we closing up shop?"

"Of course not. Reinforcements are on the way."

At this exact moment the phone rang. It was Bernard. "A quarter million dollars to charter a 747?" He didn't sound at all pleased. This happens. The client tells you money is no object, and suddenly he's going over every bill with an electron microscope.

"Mr. Baroom," I explained, "the Knights of Columbus are our foot soldiers in this campaign." It took ten minutes of strenuous client mollification to calm him down.

"I thought he was rich," Lorraine said when I hung up. "He wasn't sounding very rich."

"He'll feel better when he sees the TV coverage of the Knights pouring into Saint Peter's. Where do we stand with the crucifixes?"

"They should get here tomorrow, by FedEx." We'd ordered thousands of crosses made from miniature longboards. They'd be distributed to followers of Cardinal Kanu to wear. If you're going to start a cult, you need gear. These would definitely get all the brahs amped, as they say in surfing circles.

Everything was coming together nicely, but I was concerned that the U.S. embassy might expose our operation. I conceived a plan. As the toast goes, "Confusion to the enemy."

On the drive out to Fiumicino to greet the Knights, I said to Lorraine, "Listen closely." This is another part of the job I enjoy—the mentoring process. It's satisfying to help bring young people along.

I dialed Angelo. "Angelo," I said in my best conspiratorial voice, "I've just heard from my people. There's a change of plan. They've cut a deal. The operation is off. I repeat, off. Cancelled. We're throwing our support to Verguenza, from Honduras."

"Bene," Angelo said. One thing about the Italians: they don't question violent changes of allegiance. For them it's normal.

"In return for our support," I continued, "Verguenza will cease putting pressure on U.S. Banana and that military college where we train the Latino dictators. Anyway, our operation to elect an American Papa is off. Finito, cancellato. We're most appreciative of your efforts. I'll be sending you a nice token of our appreciation."

"Bene."

"Is that true?" Lorraine asked as I hung up.

"Not a word of it. I just wish I could be there when he tells Madam Plenipotentiary that our cardinals are throwing their support behind the most anti-American prelate in the Western Hemisphere." I permitted myself a low chuckle. "Oh, the phones are going to be ringing tonight."

That evening 400 Knights of Columbus processed into the Piazza San Pietro carrying red, white, and blue Glo-stick "torches" and signs proclaiming VIVA IL PAPAMERICA! I thought the Italian would give it a more local flavor.

Standing there watching, I got choked up to think that after 2,000 years we might finally have an American pontiff. I understand that, technically speaking, America has existed for only one tenth of that period of time. I'm more talking about the idea. At any rate, the TV coverage, as you probably saw for yourself, was spectacular. CNN slugged it "The Night of the Knights." The impact back home was tremendous. For years American Catholics had been waking up every morning to stories about sex scandals. Now they saw this triumphant procession into the front yard of their faith. Rick Renard is not one to bang his own drum, but at times like this I am tempted to say, "Not bad for an old hack." This was no time for complacency, however. The conclave would start the next day.

Murf's princes had been sealed off in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the papal guesthouse.

"I've got something for you," Murf called to say. "But I can't discuss it over the telephone."

We met at a trattoria in Trastevere. I hadn't seen Murf since D.C. He looked exhausted—but then, monsignors in charge of cardinals don't get much sleep before a papal conclave. His eyes were dartier than ever.

"One of my princes, he's the chaplain to the U.S. Armed Forces, intimately well connected in Washington. He received a call from a certain person of importance there asking him was it true that the American princes were supporting Cardinal Verguenza. You wouldn't know anything about this?"

I told him about planting the disinformation with his man Angelo in order to throw the embassy off my trail and get it to work on taking out Verguenza.

"Jaysus, Rick. You should check with me first before doing such a thing. It's awkward for my prince. He had to deny the whole thing. Anyway, Angelo's no spy. I know the man well. I've heard his confession. He may not be a saint, but he's loyal, I can vouch."

"Well, someone sold me out to the embassy. It had to be Angelo. The ambassador sent goons for me and threatened to deport me."

"Bit of a dragon, isn't she? The princes refer to her in private as 'The Holy Mother.' But she's a dragon without teeth. I wouldn't worry about her. But don't be spreading any more of this. I won't have my princes needing to deny they're part of a cabal to elect a communist Pope."

"Whatever—but I won't be using Angelo again."

"Now, then, let's get to it," he said in a low voice, with sideways glances. "As you know, the princes aren't permitted to see or hear any media whatsoever. No one's even permitted to talk to them. But there's a chat room, and I find myself in possession of the password. Don't ask how I got it. It's the most secret secret in Christendom right now." He fired up a cigarette off the one he was already smoking. "How are you under the duress, Rick?"

I told him that being a strategic communicator in Washington, D.C., could be extremely stressful.

"No, no," he said, "duress. You know, peine forte et dure. The torture."

Only with an Irishman could you have a casual conversation about how you might stand up under torture.

"Well," he said, "it's not going to come to that, is it? The days of the Borgia Popes are over, eh? The things they did. Dreadful, dreadful. But just to err on the side of safety, I think you might want to relocate from your hotel." He scribbled an address on a piece of paper and took a key out of his pocket. "You'll be safe there. It's a small apartment on the Campo de' Fiori. The princes sometimes use it for private occasions. There's just this one key. Funny, isn't it?"

"What?"

"Conclave. The word means 'with key' in Latin. And here's your key."

"Maybe you should keep the password to yourself."

"No, no," he said. "If something should happen to me, you should have it, to carry the thing to consummation."

He got up to go. "It's a grand thing we're doing, Rick. I may not get to heaven, but you know, I feel certain that Saint Peter is on our side." He winked at me. "I'm off. Don't forget to say your prayers."

The apartment on the Campo de' Fiori had a king-size bed and a huge Jacuzzi and lots of candles in the bathroom. I guess they used it to relax. More important, it had a high-speed line for Internet access—the papal decree against media had not mentioned such technology. Quod blah blah non prohibari—"What is not forbidden is permitted." The cardinals' chat room may have been the most significant ecclesiastical loophole since they came up with the concept of invincible ignorance so that innocent heathen could get into heaven. (If I have this right. As I say, I'm no theologian.) At any rate, armed with Murf's password I was able to navigate past the Vatican Web site's firewall and soon found myself inside the most secret cyber-chamber in Christendom. I felt like that archaeologist looking into King Tut's tomb for the first time. There was an area where you could look up cardinals' statements about various issues. With the help of a Latin dictionary I was able to do a little creative editing there. I slightly changed the wording of a speech that Cardinal Arooba had given to some synod of bishops, inserting "not" or "un-" here and there, putting him in more or less direct disagreement with various Church policies such as those regarding birth control, the ordination of women, papal infallibility, and the Immaculate Conception. Was this, strictly speaking, "unethical"? I'm not really comfortable making those sorts of judgments. One man's ethical lapse is another's client servicing. Who can say at the end of the day? I also fiddled a little with Cardinal Verguenza's sermon about U.S. Banana, adding the words "criminal" and "imperialist." In Cardinal Kanu's bio I inserted a pop-up, so that if you clicked onto his name, you got a flashing message saying I AM NOT WORTHY. It's from the story of Jesus healing the centurion's sick servant. I figured modesty would go down well in a papal conclave.

I watched TV with one eye while I was doing this, so I got to see the clash in the Piazza San Pietro that night between the Knights of Columbus and the Chevaliers de L'Ordre de Saint Denis. I kicked myself for not anticipating that the French—who had been wanting one of their own on the papal throne ever since they lost Benedict XIV (a.k.a. Bernard Garnier, the "counter anti-pope"), back in 1433—might try something like this. The record will show that my Knights did not throw the first punches. The footage is clear on that score. But things certainly did escalate, overwhelming the local carabinieri and requiring the involvement of the Italian military.

Murf called me, sounding fairly frantic. "I'm looking out at tanks. Tanks, Rick. Tell me we didn't start this."

"Absolutely not. In fact, I think it's an excellent argument for an American pontiff. A firm hand on the tiller of Saint Peter's." Good line. I made a note to pass that along to the TV producers.

It was a long night, but finally dawn broke over the Eternal City. On TV they were saying that the cardinals were in their dorm, getting ready for the first day of conclaving. I hoped they were also doing a little cyber-chatting.

I was on my cell to an ABC News producer, securing some B-roll of Cardinal Kanu riding the half-pipe at Pismo Beach, when LaMoyne reached me on my other cell.

"You heard?" he said.

"Heard what?"

"Bernard. He's been charged by the SEC."

"What for?"

"Let me count the counts. Securities fraud, stock manipulation, wire fraud, insider trading. They've frozen his assets. Never a good sign, that."

"Jesus," I said, that being about all I could think to say.

"Mary and Joseph," LaMoyne added. "I'll see what I can find out. Meanwhile, do I assume we are no longer on the papal-election account?"

"Call Lorraine," I said. "I'm in the middle of something."

"I was coming to that. She called here. She left a message. Why don't I play it for you?"

There was a knock on the door. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, what fresh hell was this? Some safe house. It sounded like Mussolini was outside with the entire blackshirt brigade.

The apartment door had a peephole. I didn't like what I saw on the other side. Suits. Suits worn by large men, blond, with crew cuts. They didn't look Italian.

"Here you go," LaMoyne said. I listened to Lorraine's voice on the office voice mail. "Rick, I'm sorry, but I just can't do this. I'm a Catholic. I'm risking my immortal soul. I have to resign. Sorry. And it wasn't Angelo, it was me. I had to. We're talking about my soul. I'll send you a postcard from whatever convent I end up in."

LaMoyne came back on. "Are we having a good day?"

"There are men outside my door."

"Better do as the Romans do. Flee."

The suits were now banging on the door. I called Murf on his cell. A voice, not his, answered. I asked for Murf, and it said in this excommunicating, unfriendly way, "Who is this?"

"Uh, Rick."

"Monsignor has nothing further to say to you, Mister Renard."

I heard the door break open, and soon found myself being trundled, I think the word is, into the back of a black sedan. The suits were not particularly communicative, but I could see from the approaching dome of Saint Peter's that we were heading back across the river to Vatican City. We went down some winding streets into a courtyard with a heavy metal door above which I caught a brief glimpse of a shield and the words GUARDIA SVIZZERA, this being Italian for "Swiss Guard." I took this to be both good news and not-good news.

My interview, if you could call it that, with the head of their Intelligence Division (I think he was, though he never formally introduced himself) could not be described as sociable. He was pretty Swiss about it.

As I look back, it was probably a good thing that the vote came in when it did, or Rick Renard might still be languishing in a dank dungeon underneath the Vatican. In the old days, apparently, the way they dealt with simoniacs was to sew them up in a sack with wild animals and chuck them into the Tiber River. At any rate, I've never been so relieved to hear people shouting "Habemus Papam! Habemus Papam!" which if you know Latin you'll recognize as "We have a Pope!"

Son of a bitch won on the first ballot. I don't mean that disrespectfully. Shoo-in of the Fisherman. Our first post-animist Pope.

Let me be the first to say that I think he's made an excellent start. He has certainly been very understanding and forgiving in the matter of Monsignor Murphy's nervous breakdown. The strain of having to deal with all the sex scandals had apparently taken its toll on the poor man. So it was Murf after all, and not Bernard Baroom, who had come up with the idea of promoting an American Pope, and all to get people's minds off the scandals. Big-league spin. Nothing small about it. Whatever your views on all this, you have to admire that much. At any rate, Murf saw his chance when his billionaire confessee Bernard told him about the insider trading and fraud and other sins. Instead of the usual two Hail Marys and three Our Fathers and a good Act of Contrition, Murf told him he had to get an American Pope elected. And Baroom called me.

It worked, in a way. They're not talking about the sex scandals anymore. Also the new Pope has said that no purpose would be served by dwelling on all this, and that it's time to move on, and I'm all for that.

Anyway, LaMoyne just buzzed me to say that Martha Stewart's on the line, so I'd better take the call.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Christopher Buckley

Christoper Buckley is an author, satirist, and novelist. His books include Thank You for Smoking and Supreme Courtship. Buckley was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In