“We can only give you a couple of minutes with the President, so make your points quickly,” his aide said opening the door to the Oval Office, where I instantly felt the full force of the smile that has charmed the world.
“As you know, Mister President, my client Alphonse Capone is in the Federal prison in Joliet, Illinois—“
“For shipping cigarettes into Illinois without paying Federal and State taxes,” the president interjected. “See, I’ve read his case. A six million dollar swindle.”
“Right. But he was born into a Mafia family. He grew up in an organized crime culture. As a boy he was forced to sit through the entire ‘Godfather’ trilogy every year on St. Valentine’s Day.”
“Your point being—“
“He was programmed to do his job. He didn’t know it was wrong. He was only following orders.”
The President shook his head. “If you’re going to ask me to release him on that basis, forget it. No can do. If I were to release every Mafioso who said he was taking orders from higher-ups half the prison cells in America would be empty and their guards would be out of jobs, and this is a bad time for that.”
“Look,” I persisted. “There are lots of poor people, smokers that can’t afford to buy cigarettes any longer, who, thanks to my client, could light up and relax. You know yourself how it is to want to smoke.”
“It’s a terrible addiction,” he said, suddenly reaching for a Nicorette. I felt I was making progress.
“Who did my client hurt, really?” I persisted. “The smokers that bought his cigarettes had freedom of choice.”
“Alphonse had to undertake the covert smuggling action to help the poor and the underprivileged---just the kinds of people you helped in Chicago---and he did. It’s not as though he hurt anyone. He never slammed anybody’s head into a wall.”
Putting his finger on the file, the President said, “He cussed out an Illinois State trooper.”
“But he never covered anybody with caterpillars or waterboarded them.”
The President shook his head. “It won’t wash. Your client stays in until 2018.”
I leaned forward and pleaded, “But now that you’re in the White House, Alphonse has promised he’ll never to do it again.”
The President removed the gum he was chewing, reached into his shirt pocket and lit a cigarette. “This is between us…” he smiled. I nodded vigorously.
“Mr. President,” I continued, “I think you said recently this is a time for reflection, not retribution.”
A smile of pleasure wreathed the President’s face as he exhaled.
As forcefully as I could, I pressed, “Didn't you also say 'Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past'?”
“He did what he did,” the President said.
“Then I’m the one who should be in Joliet,” I said. The president looked surprised. “I’m the lawyer for the organization that ran Alphonse. I wrote the opinion that okayed importing cigarettes over the State line. Alphonse did it based on my say-so. How can you make him suffer for taking erroneous legal advice?”
The President shook his head, then patted his shirt pocket and asked, “Pardon me, would you like a cigarette?”
“No thanks, Mister President. Uh, did I hear you use the word ‘pardon?’”
“No you didn’t,” he chuckled, and pointed to his watch.
“Look,” I said, taking one last, desperate swing. “My client Al Capone will never, I swear on my Mother’s honor, will never harm another soul. If you free him, I promise he will never go around the world assassinating political leaders, poisoning sugar crops, overthrowing governments or torturing prisoners. I promise you, the man is reformed.”
The president crushed his cigarette in an ashtray: “So how can we use him?”
Sherwood Ross is a Miami-based writer who formerly worked for the Chicago Daily News and as a columnist for wire services. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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