We Have a Pope!

A short story

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."


"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?

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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.

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