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Marjorie Tench was smiling as she made her way downstairs toward the White House Communications Office, the computerized broadcast facility that disseminated press releases formulated upstairs in the Communications Bullpen. The meeting with Gabrielle Ashe had gone well. Whether or not Gabrielle was scared enough to turn over an affidavit admitting the affair was uncertain, but it sure as hell was worth a try.

Gabrielle would be smart to bail out on him, Tench thought. The poor girl had no idea just how hard Sexton was about to fall.

In a few hours, the President’s meteoric press conference was going to cut Sexton down at the knees. That was in the bank. Gabrielle Ashe, if she cooperated, would be the death blow that sent Sexton crawling off in shame. In the morning, Tench could release Gabrielle’s affidavit to the press along with footage of Sexton denying it.

One‑two punch.

After all, politics was not just about winning the election, it was about winning decisively‑having the momentum to carry out one’s vision. Historically, any president who squeaked into office on a narrow margin accomplished much less; he was weakened right out of the gate, and Congress never seemed to let him forget it.

Ideally, the destruction of Senator Sexton’s campaign would be comprehensive‑a two‑pronged attack sacking both his politics and his ethics. This strategy, known in Washington as the “high‑low,” was stolen from the art of military warfare. Force the enemy to battle on two fronts. When a candidate possessed a piece of negative information about his opponent, he often waited until he had a second piece and went public with both simultaneously. A double‑edged attack was always more effective than a single shot, particularly when the dual attack incorporated separate aspects of his campaign‑the first against his politics, the second against his character. Rebuttal of a political attack took logic, while rebuttal of a character attack took passion; disputing both simultaneously was an almost impossible balancing act.

Tonight, Senator Sexton would find himself scrambling to extract himself from the political nightmare of an astounding NASA triumph, and yet his plight would deepen considerably if he were forced to defend his NASA position while being called a liar by a prominent female member of his staff.

Arriving now at the doorway of the Communications Office, Tench felt alive with the thrill of the fight. Politics was war. She took a deep breath and checked her watch. 6:15 P.M. The first shot was about to be fired.

She entered.

The Communications Office was small not for lack of room, but for lack of necessity. It was one of the most efficient mass communications stations in the world and employed a staff of only five people. At the moment, all five employees stood over their banks of electronic gear looking like swimmers poised for the starting gun.

They are ready, Tench saw in their eager gazes.

It always amazed her that this tiny office, given only two hours head start, could contact more than one third of the world’s civilized population. With electronic connections to literally tens of thousands of global news sources‑from the largest television conglomerates to the smallest hometown newspapers‑the White House Communications Office could, at the touch of a few buttons, reach out and touch the world.

Fax‑broadcast computers churned press releases into the in‑boxes of radio, television, print, and Internet media outlets from Maine to Moscow. Bulk e‑mail programs blanketed on‑line news wires. Telephone autodialers phoned thousands of media content managers and played recorded voice announcements. A breaking news Web page provided constant updates and preformatted content. The “live‑feed‑capable” news sources‑CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, foreign syndicates‑would be assaulted from all angles and promised free, live television feeds. Whatever else these networks were airing would come to a screeching halt for an emergency presidential address.

Full penetration.

Like a general inspecting her troops, Tench strode in silence over to the copy desk and picked up the printout of the “flash release” that now sat loaded in all the transmission machines like cartridges in a shotgun.

When Tench read it, she had to laugh quietly to herself. By usual standards, the release loaded for broadcast was heavy‑handed‑more of an advertisement than an announcement‑but the President had ordered the Communications Office to pull out all the stops. And that they had. This text was perfect‑keyword‑rich and content light. A deadly combination. Even the news wires that used automated “keyword‑sniffer” programs to sort their incoming mail would see multiple flags on this one:

From: White House Communications Office

Subject: Urgent Presidential Address

The President of the United States will be holding an urgent press conference tonight at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time from the White House briefing room. The topic of his announcement is currently classified. Live A/V feeds will be available via customary outlets.

Laying the paper back down on the desk, Marjorie Tench looked around the Communications Office and gave the staff an impressed nod. They looked eager.

Lighting a cigarette, she puffed a moment, letting the anticipation build. Finally, she grinned. “Ladies and gentlemen. Start your engines.”