It was a little after 4 o'clock in the morning when Chief Justice Rehnquist let the four men into the Smithsonian. The halls were dark and empty of prying eyes. They soon reached the room where the dueling weapons were kept; all the presidential weapons were gathered together.
Vincent paused for a moment to look at the Kennedy Pistols: nine inch, smooth bore, black powder. At one time they were perfectly matched, but no longer. The one that had sent a ball bounding through JFK's skull was still intact, but the one that the president had held on that deadly day was shattered. It had virtually exploded in JFK's hands, giving rise to countless conspiracy theories. So ended Camelot. Vincent wondered if another "Camelot" would end today.
The other men had moved on ahead and Vincent quickened his pace, hardly glanced at the heavy Roosevelt Sabers. When he caught up, Rehnquist had already swung open the glass front of the display case and was now removing the Fords. Two exquisite rapiers gleamed in the partial light. Vincent held his breath in awe of the perfect weapons. Even the two Secret Service men seemed frozen by their majesty.
Kenneth Starr grunted and harshly grabbed one of the rapiers. He swung it around a couple of times, flexed it, looked closely at handle, and performed other "tests" which he had probably read about in some fencer's handbook somewhere. When finished, he handed the sword to Vincent and then repeated his performance with the second weapon.
Vincent held the Ford in his hand. He couldn't help himself: he stuck angarde and moved through a few fundamental exercises. The rapier was fabulous and Vincent felt honored to be holding it: he also felt humbled and undeserving. He remembered the same mix of emotions when Bill had asked him to serve as Second in this current affair of honor.
Reverently he placed the sword into the velvet lined case that the Chief Justice was now holding open. Starr placed the matching sword in its place parallel to the first. Rehnquist closed the case and the two snaps on the front. Vincent placed a simple golden band through the first snap. Starr place a store-bought padlock on the second. "Can't be too careful", he grunted. Vincent ignored the insult and took the case. All five men then left the Institute.
Officially, of course, the Fords were still in the museum. Officially Vincent and Kenneth were still asleep in their homes. Duels had always been illegal, even though civilization always demanded that men act with honor.
Vincent rode in the limousine with the sword case across his knees. Bill seamed relaxed and confident, but Vincent had known him long enough to since his tension. Bladensburg Park looked almost deserted when they arrived. The Secret Service had discretely prevented anyone "unauthorized" from entering the park.
Stephen Decatur is remembered to have toasted, "To our country! . . . may she always be right; but our country, right or wrong!". Decatur is also remembered as the hero of Tripoli and as a hero of the War of 1812. But he did not die in battle, he died here at Bladensburg Park, in a duel. And his death made these grounds almost sacred. Congressmen and Senators came here to settle their affairs when no other course of action would satisfy. But no US President had blazed on this turf. Teddy Roosevelt's duel had taken place on board a ship five miles off the coast, and John Kennedy had stood in Texas. Gerald Ford had fought here twice, but he held the post of Vice President at the time. Vincent reflected that only a fool would stand against a sportsman of Ford's ability. A fool with honor, of course.
Their limo arrived at the chosen ground and Vincent saw that a small folding table had been set up holding a jug of water and two glasses; as if for some speaking engagement or lesser event. He walked to the table and set the sword case down. He then looked around to take in the moment. It was early and the fog had not yet burned off. The sounds of the city seemed very distant and muted. Perhaps it was muted. Although the coming duel was ostensibly a private affair the entire world knew about it. The entire world awaited the outcome.
The other principle and second had not yet arrived.
Vincent noticed one of the Secret Service men standing near the center of the field, shaking his leg strangely. Vincent recognized him as Frank; one of Bill's "favorites".
"Chilly morning!" Frank said. Vincent nodded. Frank continued talking, "It's true: all your senses become heightened when life is at risk, even if it isn't your own."
Vincent looked around again, and again he nodded, "It must be difficult for you agents. You spend your whole career protecting the President and now you must stand aside while he risks his life ."
"For honor," said Frank with a lopsided grin. "And we have taken what precautions we could."
Vincent looked at him questioningly and Frank gestured toward a nearby stand of trees. Two ambulances were parked on the far side, the medics had already laid out stretchers. He grimaced. "And there is a helicopter just over there," Frank went on, "in case it's needed."
"God I hate this!" Vincent spat. "How many good men die? And for what? Honor! Without duels the world would be better, I'm sure."
Frank took a step back and looked darkly at Vincent, "If men would not stand for honor how could nations be defended? How could civilization stand?" Frank flashed that lopsided grin of his again.
Vincent opened his mouth to say something but stopped short as the sounds of a saxophone filled the chill air. Clinton had taken out the sax and was beginning to play the Rolling Stones tune "Can't Get No Satisfaction". Everyone chuckled. Vincent knew the sax helped Bill relax, and the Rolling Stones joke was an old one Bill had used preceding his college duels as well. Politicians: they endlessly repeat their jokes.
Vincent let out a sigh. Dueling was undoubtedly necessary for civilized man. The advantages were many. Clinton was in fantastic physical shape due to his daily fencing practice. Imagine a world where the cowardly and unfit were allowed to govern! Even Franklin Roosevelt, who was stricken with polio, regularly demonstrated his skill with a pistol. Vincent paused in his thoughts, considering the dark path he himself may have taken if the power of honor had not kept him from the brink of suicide.
Another limo moved slowly on a distant hill and stopped. It was another of the presidential limousines; the First Lady's. Hillary Clinton sat in the back with a set of binoculars, watching the proceedings. Unconventional; but Hillary was a strong willed and unconventional woman. Besides, her honor was at stake today as well.
At last the final car arrived, carrying Newt Gingrich and Kenneth Starr.
Newt Gingrich jumped out, puffed up with self righteous pride. Vincent felt a quick burn of hatred toward the man. It didn't mater that the charges against Clinton were essentially true: the fact that Gingrich had made such public charges at all proved him to be no gentleman.
Mr. Starr approached the table and, with Mr. Foster, opened the sword case. Speaker Gingrich selected his weapon and then President Clinton took the remaining blade. Each principal walked some distance away. They were allowed a minute to stretch and get the feel for their sword. Gingrich then stood in a ready pose.
Clinton surprised everyone by thrusting his sword into the ground. He fell to his knees, clasped his hands together, and then loudly and unashamedly prayed to God. Newt shifted uncomfortably but then bowed his head and said a prayer of his own. Clinton then stood, pulled his sword from the ground and held the ready pose. His sword glistened with dew from the grass. Gingrich again also assumed the ready pose.
Then the duel began.