Barack Obama rolls out of bed on Thursday morning. “Tell Joe we’re going to Quantico today, first thing.”
“What?” The staffer on the other end of the intercom has dealt with impulsive politicians before, but these sudden ideas still come as a surprise.
“We’re going to Quantico. Make all the arrangements. We’ll go by car. Don’t tell the base brass we’re coming. I want it to be a surprise visit.”
While Barack dresses, his Blackberry signals a phone call. “Say boss, what’s up?” It’s Joe Biden.
“Hi Joe. We’re going to the Quantico brig. I want to pay Bradley Manning a visit. Don’t tell people. I want to surprise him.”
“Fuckin’ A. Do you want some company?”
“Sure do. Meet me at the West Wing in thirty minutes. We’re going by car.”
Michelle rolls out of bed. “What’s your latest scheme, dear?”
“I wanna see how Bradley Manning is doing.”
“Good lord, Barack, what for?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“Well enjoy yourself. Drive carefully.”
She snuggles in for another ten minutes while Barack makes for the door. Time to accomplish the mission.
Barack strides out of the residence to the West Wing, wondering what he meant by, “I’m not sure yet.” In a minute he waves to Joe, who’s already sitting in the back seat of the limousine.
“Hey, Joe. Thanks for getting over here on short notice.”
“I wouldn’t miss this. What’s gonna happen?”
“I dunno. I’m gonna talk with Bradley. That’s all I’ve figured out.”
“Does anyone know?”
“Told Michelle on the way out. She’s sleeping.”
“Gonna tell Bob?”
“Yeah, gotta call him. Shall we invite him along?”
“Sure. Strength in numbers.”
Barack speaks into his Blackberry: “Hey Bob. Barack here. I want you to meet me down at Quantico this morning if you can make it.”
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Barack talk for a minute while they arrange to meet at the base entrance as soon as the morning traffic allows. Barack is as brief about the visit’s purpose as he has been since getting up.
“What’d he say?” Joe asks.
“You heard all the important stuff. We’re gonna meet him at the gate.”
“The reporters won’t be happy when they find out you gave them the slip.”
“They’ll find out about this soon enough.”
They both check their email and before long the limousine’s at the gate. Bob Gates is there and the Marine guard waves both cars through. The base is huge, and the drivers know where to go to reach the brig.
By now word of the president’s arrival has gone up the chain to the base commander, who figures he ought to greet the president at the brig. He makes it just in time.
Barack doesn’t have a coat and tie, and he doesn’t stand on military ceremony. He acknowledges the commander’s salute and moves toward the brig entrance. “I’d like to see Brad Manning,” he tells the commander.
“Yes, sir,” he replies.
The brig is a low, two-story brick building with linoleum floors, flourescent lights, and a queer atmosphere of inactivity about it. The party moves up to the building’s second floor. As they turn down the far hallway, Barack pauses. “Y’all wait downstairs, will you? I’ll meet you back down there.”
Everyone but the guard on duty returns to the stairway, while the guard leads Barack to Brad’s cell.
The guard unlocks the door and commands the prisoner, “Atten-hut!”
“Forget it,” Barack says, and dismisses the guard.
Brad looks a little bleary eyed, as if he’s been sleeping. He’s not sure he recognizes the man in front of him.
“How are they treating you in here?” Barack asks.
Brad looks at him. He starts to say something, but can’t articulate any words.
Barack smiles. “Here, let me take you to the little office we passed on the way down the hall.”
Barack and Brad move down the hallway to the empty office. Barack closes the door.
“So tell me, how do they treat you here?”
“I’ve been in solitary here for almost six months.”
“So I’m told.”
“They started giving me drugs.”
“How about the food?”
“Applesauce. Wonder bread. Some milk.”
“It’s enough to keep me alive.”
“I want to take you out of here.”
Brad gives no response. He stares blankly at the president’s top shirt button, below the collar.
“Go get your stuff.”
“They don’t let me keep anything. They bring stuff in, take stuff out. It all belongs to the brig.”
“Let’s go, then.”
“You know the Marines, sir. You have to have paperwork.”
Barack opens up the top desk drawer and pulls out a pen and a sheet of letterhead. He writes, Executive Order 23445: Pfc Bradley Manning to be released immediately.
“You think that’ll do it? Let’s go.” Barack looks up and asks, “You ready?”
“Let’s walk downstairs, then.”
The two men exit the office and rejoin the rest of the group at in the reception area.
“I’m taking Private Manning to the White House.”
“Sir?” It’s the base commander.
“Here’s the executive order. Have your staff work up the forms if you need more.”
The secretary of defense and vice-president seem slightly reluctant to go. Barack and Brad walk out the front door like buddies, though Brad slows down to let his eyes adjust to the morning daylight.
“What would you like for breakfast?” Barack asks.
“You can’t have a press conference with nothing in your stomach. I’d like you to have breakfast with me at the White House.”
“I’ll have whatever you have, sir!”
“That’s great. Lemme make a phone call now, ‘kay?”
Barack pulls out his phone and rings up press secretary Gibbs. “Say Bob, I need you to set up a press conference in the Rose Garden for after breakfast. 10:30. Can you do that? …No, can’t tell you what it’s for. …Yeah, I wanna surprise people. But one thing: I want you to have a Medal of Freedom on hand.” Barack ends the call and puts the Blackberry back in his pocket.
“It’s been some morning, sir.”
“Are you sure you want to keep calling me sir?”
“Yes, sir. I feel more comfortable that way.”
“You’re a good Marine, I can see that.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Presently the limousine pulls into the White House driveway and stops at the rear entrance.
“I sure haven’t been here before, sir.”
“It’s a place to live and work. You don’t want to let the appearance and history get in your head.”
They go in to enjoy a big breakfast with fresh bread, butter, juice, fruit and coffee. We don’t know what they say to each other during their interlude in the president’s dining room.
At 10:30 sharp, Bradley Manning emerges from the White House in a fresh uniform, hair combed and eyes bright for the first time in a long while. The president takes one more phone call, then follows Manning closely as they walk to the Rose Garden.
Barack moves to the lectern and signals Brad to stand next to him, on his right. Secretary Gates and Vice-President Biden stand behind Pfc Manning. The president begins to speak:
“Thanks for coming out here on this beautiful morning. Are you surprised to see who’s with me on this occasion?”
The president observes some nods in his audience, and a few quizzical expressions.
“Meet Private First Class Bradley Manning, a national hero.”
Silence. The president should have Robert Gibbs hold up a sign that says APPLAUSE.
“Here’s why he’s a national hero.”
As if the sound track is delayed a bit, everyone in the Rose Garden starts to clap. The applause rolls out to the edges of the garden and back again toward the center. Pfc Manning’s smile widens and he squares his shoulders a bit.
The president explains why he invited Bradley Manning to the White House. He apologizes to Brad and his family for the treatment he received while imprisoned. He thanks Manning for his good work, and for the good service he has performed for his country. “You have said,” the president declares as he turns to Pfc Manning, “that information is public. It belongs to all of us. Our democracy will not hide wrongdoing under cloaks of official secrecy.”
“To recognize your service, your patriotism and especially your courage, I want to award you the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest honor for distinguished service as a citizen. Let this medal speak to anyone who would try to make a political prisoner of a citizen who wants to do what is right. Thank you again, Bradley Manning, for the stand you have taken. You have done no less than save your country.”
The president moves from behind the lectern and raises the medal and ribbon in front of him. Bradley Manning remains at attention as the president places the ribbon over his head and adjusts it on his shoulders. The medal rests at the center of Manning’s chest.
The president indicates that Manning should take his turn in the speaker’s spot.
“Two and a half hours ago I was in solitary confinement at the Quantico brig. Now you see what’s happened. I don’t think I can remember another surprise in my life quite like this one.”
The audience is ready for humor. Quiet laughter floats above the people in the Rose Garden.
“I have felt confident from the start that what I did was right. I revealed secret information not to harm anyone, certainly not to harm my country. I revealed the information to benefit my country, as the president said. We’ve always been open in this country, we’ve always admitted our mistakes. That’s exactly what makes us special. If we don’t hold to our traditions of openness, we’ll become like every other unfree society that ever existed. We can’t let that happen here.”
Now the audience responds with enthusiastic applause. They can see that Pfc Manning is a person just like they are. He’s not the criminal they read about in their own articles.
“So thank you, President Obama, for inviting me here. Thank you for coming to visit me, and thank you for the leadership you’ve shown in my case. I sure hope the example I’ve set, and the example you’ve set, help our country stay open and free during its trials and difficulties.”
With that, Barack and Brad shake hands and walk back to the White House. Inside the two gentlemen wish each other well, and the president escorts him to the guest entrance. As Brad walks down the White House driveway, he looks down at the medal on his chest. “Should I wear this in public?” he asks himself.
Before he can decide what to do about the medal, a well-dressed, gloved man approaches from the curb. He raises a .45 caliber pistol to eye level and shoots Manning in the face. Bradley Manning is not ten feet from the White House gate.