It was the year that proved youth was not an impediment to the presidency. The nation wanted fresh ideas, a clean slate, a brand new start. The country was disillusioned with men weighed down with political legacies and suspicious of agendas accrued with political donations from special interests. It seemed the wiser course to choose a man whose history was yet to be written.
Van Hartman was the perfect candidate. Together with his young, energetic wife, Marianna, and their children, Jeremy and Melanie, they made the ideal First Family. Jogging through the nation’s neighborhoods, biking as a family down the Main Streets of the country, they had sold the fresh vigor he promised would transform the government. By comparison, his opponent appeared staid, even depressing. Hartman was awed by the trust his party had placed in him. When he felt too unworthy for the elected office he was seeking he would run, his favorite way to verify his self-worth.
Van Hartman won the Presidency through the appeal of his youth and vigor. His Cabinet was equally modern, each member selected for his promise to bring new vitality and a youthful vision to his Department. Their collective experience included several House and Senate seats, a few corporate brains picked for their untested potential, and a peppering of academics and military careerists – all unhampered by the collection of ills and decay, moral and physical, that comes with age.
So the National Running Initiative that sat on the President’s desk awaiting his signature was a logical first step to take. The Cabinet had put together a presidential proclamation that would solve several of the nation’s problems with one dramatic move. The National Running Initiative would require all people eligible for Social Security to register on a daily basis that they had run a mile each day in order to receive their National Health Insurance and Social Security benefits. Registration centers were to be set up in each community to administer the program. Still, the burden of this first major decision in office was already making him feel older.
“Bob, do you really think this will work?” he questioned the Secretary of Health.
The Secretary was both a runner and a doctor and had no doubt. “Mr. President, the population’s the highest it’s ever been – over 400 million. Social Security and National Health Insurance are burying the country alive. It’s proven that running improves the cardiovascular system, and those diseases are the main source of claims for National Health Insurance. With our mandate to protect the well-being of our citizens, we are well within our power to enforce a mandatory fitness initiative. If we don’t do something drastic and quickly, the country will be bankrupt. This is mild compared to what might be necessary in the future.”
The President studied each member of his Cabinet until he felt the consensus he sought, then picked up his pen.
“Let’s get to work.”
Selling the new program to the country required every ounce of the President’s charisma, and in his first year the National Running Initiative dominated his time. It was a challenge to initiate a change that required personal effort on the part of the people. Soon his own body rebelled from the public appearances, the late night meetings, the massive reading, and the unending demands of the presidency. Only 32, he developed backaches, eyestrain, and chronic fatigue, and his daily run of three miles was pre-empted by urgent matters more times than he liked. He weathered press conferences, Cabinet meetings and briefings, challenges from the House and the Senate, and never-ending international crises. His greatest satisfaction came from the town meetings he’d initiated, each week visiting a new city to learn firsthand its individual problems. He believed this gave him the truest pulse of the country. At first he’d dreaded being asked a question for which he had no believable reply. But over time he’d gained confidence, and with his quick wit it was now rare he felt insecure.
However the town meeting he was attending today would be a unique challenge. Because of the National Running Initiative, Fairmont had lost its mayor and the state its governor to undetected heart disease within the last year. The city was in a state of transition, which always made it difficult to predict what questions might be raised. He tried to quash his anxiety as he heard the loud buzz of conversation in the room and walked onto the stage with a brisk, confident step. A chant immediately began.
“Murder the old, next the young; who’ll be left when you are done?”
It was repeated a dozen times before the President could take command at the podium. But he was prevented from beginning his opening remarks by a man who charged up to a microphone and said, “Mr. President, you campaigned for an improved life for the elderly. Why did you hide the fact you intended to accomplish that by murdering them?”
Immediately from the other side of the hall someone shouted, “Nineteen hundred people have already died in our state because of your damn Running Initiative. When are you going to repeal it?”
The President cut off the next person. “Wait a minute—you’re only seeing one side of this issue. Many of you are employed today because of this initiative. Already there’s been a significant decline in the demands on Social Security and the claims filed for National Health Insurance. The National Running Initiative is proving to be the single most important program for achieving a balanced budget.”
As he’d been speaking, an elderly woman leaning heavily on a cane had made her way to a microphone. Her ancient voice crackled from the speakers.
“Mr. President, my husband was suffering from congestive heart failure when your proclamation was passed. It took two days to kill him. I have arthritis in all my joints, and the pain is unbearable. How can you say this is improving my life?”
Sweat beaded on the President brow as he replied, “I mourn your husband’s death, as I do all who’ve given their lives. But a nation is only as strong as its individuals. America became as great as it is through the courage, strength, and endurance of its early citizens. We have to do the same if we are to survive as a nation. Let us look at the total problem, and let each of us ask what sacrifices we can make for the common good.”
Some in the audience applauded. But more began to shout “Murderer! Murderer!” The President was ushered quickly from the stage by the Secret Service.
Three years in office produced dramatic changes in both the country and the President. Barely 36, his hair was mostly gray. His body was still trim, but his back ached constantly. He now wore glasses and accepted that bifocals were inevitable. His daily run was a habit but no longer a joy. National media had made such an issue of his running injuries that he’d taken to jogging privately within the White House grounds.
At the same time, the health of the country had vastly improved. Social Security was manageable at last; no longer a drain, it had developed a surplus. National Health Insurance had also curbed its appetite for federal funds. Hospital beds were now competitively priced because of decreased demand. The nation’s population had dropped by 10 percent, and a greater percentage was employed than ever before. It had taken time, but the country had settled into a comfortable peace with the National Running Initiative. Months had gone by since there’d been a critical article in the newspapers. Van Hartman approached the end of his first four years in office confident of re-election.
So it was unexpected when his campaign manager demanded an emergency meeting. The President was surprised to see deep concern etched on his face as he strode into the Oval Office, speaking abruptly, discarding the amenities.
“Mr. President, I’ve got some figures that just came in. We’ve got to change our strategy.”
The President took the papers and examined them. He had always admired the classic neatness of columns of numbers; there was nothing ambiguous about them. But not these. As he studied the pages, his anxiety grew.
“What does it all mean?” the President asked.
“It’s hard to predict what such a big change in the voting population will mean. Look here,” he said, pointing to one chart. “This state alone registered 32 percent more people for this election than the last one. Nationally, there’s about a 25 percent increase in the number of voters. Even with a 10 percent decrease in the population!”
“Where are they coming from?” the President asked.
“A quick survey of the major cities shows the majority are in the older population. Perhaps now that they’re less sedentary they’ve gotten out to register. I’ve seen some media coverage of large groups of retirees jogging together to the nearest voter registration office.”
The President leafed through the papers and grew increasingly disturbed. In his first campaign, all the statistics had been a source of deep satisfaction to him, each report reinforcing his belief the country was behind him. But it wasn’t the same world it had been four years before.
The campaign that year was lively. Van Hartman fought valiantly against a candidate he barely knew and with whom he had little in common. What the followers of his opponent lacked in youthful vitality they made up for in numbers. Rather than travelling exhaustively they used the friendships spawned from running partners and the contacts made from the National Running Initiative registration centers to make powerful coalitions on the local level. It was a struggle; without the advantage of youth, one had to work harder. But it made success that much sweeter.
Looking around him at his first Cabinet meeting, the new President was proud every member already had a full life’s experience and, thanks to the National Running Initiative, had received a new lease on life. The average age was 78.
The President opened the meeting. “Okay, you’ve all seen the agenda. The report from the Pentagon is the first item I want to tackle. It’s disturbing to learn we’re seriously behind every other major power in our military strength. Our technology has kept pace, but we desperately need people in the armed forces. I’d like your ideas.”
The Defense Secretary shrugged and said, “The answer’s easy. We’ve dealt with this problem before. Years ago there was something called a draft. Young men were required to give mandatory service to supply the necessary manpower for the military.”
“That’s right,” said the Secretary of Health. “It was eliminated because of strong public opinion against it and replaced with a volunteer system. And when unemployment became a problem, people who needed jobs volunteered because the military was hiring.”
“I was one of them,” added the Secretary of the Treasury. “And it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It paid for my education and helped me get started in business.”
They looked at each other. It made sense. Bolstered by the consensus he felt within the Cabinet, the President leaned back in his chair and said, “Well, our country’s shown in the past four years it’s willing to make sacrifices for the common good. No one could argue against the potential benefit to the entire country if those capable of serving in the military were required to give several years of service to their country.”
“I propose we draft a presidential proclamation requiring every man and woman eligible for military service to give three years service to one of the armed forces,” said the Secretary of Defense.
“We could make it a condition for receiving National Health Insurance and Social Security benefits,” added the Secretary of Health.
They felt proud of their first decision as a Cabinet, and the President felt supreme confidence when he said, “Then let’s get to work.”