SOURCE: Sobran, Joseph. “Screened Personnel.” National Review 34, no. 9 (14 May 1982): 571-72.
[In the following review, Sobran applauds Buckley's descriptive abilities in Steaming to Bamboola, but believes the book lacks Buckley's personal glimpses and cohesive plotting.]
Samuel Johnson observed that every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea. The present book assuages such regrets.
When a Buckley traverses a large body of water, the predictable result is a well-written book. That much is beyond controversy by now. Any mild doubts as to whether Steaming to Bamboola is true to form may be laid to rest by dipping in at random. Here is a description of a helicopter rescue of an injured sailor who needed to be flown ashore:
The helicopter caught up like a fat bumblebee. It came up over the poop deck very slowly. The Chief Mate yelled, “Don't touch the basket till they lower the grounding wire—you'll get electrocuted.” (If you grab a cable dangling from a helicopter before the cable has touched the ground, the electrical current generated by its engines can kill you.) The tupatupatupatupatupa of the rotor blades, now 15 feet above the poop deck, swept away every loose bit of dirt, tar, salt, rag, fuzz, lint, rust, butts, scum, slops, grease, soot, and seagull droppings. The poop deck was never again so clean. McGowan, lying in the stretcher, alone, directly beneath the source of the maelstrom, had his sunglasses stripped off his face and his Louis L'Amour paperback blown away. The grounding wire touched the deck, and down dropped a corpsman in a bright orange flight suit.
The deck is that of the pseudonymous S.S. Columbianna, a 523-foot merchant-marine ship with seven decks, all told, and an inordinate concentration of misfits. Christopher Buckley (son of Bill) fulfilled a boyhood yearning by joining the crew on a voyage across the Atlantic and back. If his account has a moral, it is an entry in the Captain's routine report of a fight between two of the crewmen: “Recommend more careful screening of personnel.”
The personnel, however, seem in most cases to be at sea as a result of having been screened out of the landlubber community. One had shot his brother to death. Another admitted to having killed a man ashore, but wouldn't say for what offense he had done time. Still another suffers from chronic acidity issuing from a stabbing by a jealous girlfriend. (He had, with fatalistic charity, declined to press charges. “What the hell? You put her in jail, and that ain't gonna heal the wound. And the kids—hers, not his—'ll go to an orphanage.”)
A town so populated with such men might be eventful enough. A ship crammed with them simmers with menace. “Bodine and Francis did not overlook many chances to call each other ‘nigger’ and ‘you old drunk’ when they met in passageways, but this had been going on so long it was clearly a platonic relationship.” The hostility is circumscribed by mutual fear—Hobbes would have nodded knowingly—but also by mutual need. Even the misfits aren't, on the whole, crazy. They save most of their violence for when they go ashore and get drunk. And of course they are usually ready to intervene in others' fights, maintaining a general peace. Despite the chronic problems of drink and drugs, most of the crew are instinctively ethical about the life of the sea.
They take a certain pride in their grim experiences, each having his harrowing tale to tell: they have been witness to...
(This entire section contains 1061 words.)
suicide, murder, accidental death, the execution of a stowaway returned to port in the new Ethiopia.
They are practiced raconteurs:
I took the watch. And the moon came out behind the clouds—like tonight—and ahead of us I see this … thing on the horizon. I think—the Jap sub! I sound the GQ [General Quarters]. I'm going to ram that Jap son of a bitch. I'm calling down to the engine room and telling them to give me everything they've got—15 nozzles! I say, ‘Get ready to ram. We're going to ram that Jap bastard.’ The engineer says, ‘What?’ I say, ‘We're going to ram that Jap submarine.’ The guy in charge of the navy gunners calls me up on the bridge and says, ‘What's going on here?’ I say, ‘We're going to ram this sub. Get on the guns!’
But the guns turn out to be jammed from salt water. They can't get the triggers to depress. Fine time to find out. ‘Well, to hell with the guns,’ I say. ‘Get ready to ram. Get ready!’ We're almost on top of it. ‘Stand fast!’ People are running all over the ship. There's all sorts of confusion. Now we're about thirty yards from it, closing fast, about to hit—and up out of the water comes a big tail.
The tail of a whale.
Buckley records thousands of details and conversations with excellent eye, ear, and vivid precision of style. The parts are admirable. The whole is another matter. One longs for a few of what the movie business calls distancing shots, backing off from individual incidents and personnel to give the big picture. How many crewmen are there? About two hundred, I gather. But the reader is left somewhat foggy about the social order of the ship.
As narrator, Buckley suppressed himself and tells his story in the third person. This severe objectivity may enhance the accuracy and clarity of the parts, but it costs something in texture. Without wishing he were Hunter Thompson, giving himself top billing, I wish he had shown his own interaction with the other characters. He might have made his own reactions explicit without obtruding; in fact, since there is no unifying thread of plot to supply significance, a more personal tone would have helped complete the characterizations. Edit Boswell out of the Life of Johnson, and you have a poorer book.
I gather that Buckley's reaction to his experience is somewhat like my own: a kind of affectionate pity for the men he met, with an underlying despair at the spectacle of lives so given to unfocused dissipation—lives that need, not censure, but sanctification. Steaming to Bamboola is a brilliant maritime Inferno. But there is scarcely a hint that this world can even co-exist with a Paradiso.
SOURCE: Janos, Leo. “A Speech Writer's Revenge.” New Leader 69, no. 4 (24 February 1986): 16-17.
[In the following review, Janos praises Buckley's insider knowledge and comic perceptions in The White House Mess.]
In the dark years of the late 1960s, when Vietnam, civil rights protests and a rebellious youth were tearing the nation asunder, I worked in a small bare office on the first floor of the Executive Office Building with a splendid view of the White House front lawn. I used a Royal standard to tap out drafts of speeches, letters, proposals, and statements on behalf of a certain tall Texan with large ears.
Twelve of us were spread around that building; Lyndon called us “damnwriters” (as in, “Get one of those damnwriters to fix this up”). Oh, he loved us. Once he placed a conference call to his dozen faithful scribes at 6:30 A.M., rousing us from fitful sleep (we all dreamed about him) to whisper (when he was truly furious he favored sotto voce) into our ears: “Boys, I don't have the time or strength to write my own stuff. But I can't use the awful crap you send in to me. You boys trying to kill your President?” He hung up, leaving 12 now wide awake writers on the line, and one of us said, “Do you guys think he's really serious or just in a mood?”
The White House, it became apparent, was a madhouse. I remember how we scribes scrambled, calling professional joke writers in Hollywood and New York, when orders came down from you-know-who to provide him with “wedding jokes, and keep them clean, goddamnit,” for remarks he had to make to his daughter Luci's wedding party. I saw certain senior staffers actually stand at attention while talking on their POTUS line (the direct line to the Oval Office). During my first week on the job, before my security clearance had come through, I needed access to certain sensitive documents. Marvin Watson, Johnson's chief of staff, was consulted. “That's okay,” he said, “limit him to ‘Secret.’” To Watson, who filled the President's in-box, a “Secret” designation was worth barely a glance.
I've traded on White House stories for nearly 20 years. What makes them amusing is not only Johnson's larger-than-life eccentricities, but the very nature of the institution. Like the Vatican, the White House is a world unto itself where an army of staff and servants bask in the reflected power and glory of a ruler whose word is law, where even a marching order relayed second-hand (“The President wants”) is an electrifying summons to action. It is also a place where you can knock the socks off your most sophisticated friend simply by phoning him through the White House switchboard: “The White House is calling.”
In the Administration of Christopher Buckley's President Thomas Nelson Tucker, a beleaguered Democrat at the nadir of his poll ratings, the staff is sent into a frenzy one night at 11 P.M. when the President impetuously decides to stroll out the front gate and cross the street to meet the people in Lafayette Park. The chief of staff, informed too late to stop his boss, is amazed and relieved when the President returns home safe and refreshed, having encountered a comely woman stroller who assured him she still believed in him and would vote for him again. “Jesus, what luck,” the chief of staff exclaims to the head of Presidential security. “Not really,” he's told. “She is one of ours.”
The Nelson White House is the locale for Buckley's accurately mean-spirited satirical farce, The White House Mess. He worked as a speechwriter for Vice President George Bush and, having impeccable family connections (he is the son of William F.), undoubtedly enjoyed an intimate view of the Reaganites in action. Pettiness, bureaucracy and power are the stuff of comedy, and the White House, with its pomposity and self-righteous solemnity, is always an explosively funny place—although the laughs are usually on us.
To his credit, Buckley implies that Ronald Reagan and Company might be the funniest bunch yet. We meet our President only briefly in the book's opening pages, when the President-elect arrives at the White House on inauguration day. After a long private meeting, the President-elect emerges ashen-faced and tells his aides:
“He told me his back was bothering him, that he was feeling tired, that it's cold outside, and that he just didn't feel like moving out today. … He was very nice about it. Hoped it wouldn't inconvenience me.”
“I see [replies the chief of staff]. Did he say when he might feel like moving?”
Buckley writes with a delicious sense of irony and a keen understanding of the Machiavellian world behind the Presidential gates. His farce—a genre cruelly difficult to pull off—is based on memories and observations, exaggerated and given a manic twist or two. But peel away the chuckles and the unfunny White House, with its perks and power relationships, is here knowledgeably revealed.
One can get a better sense of the place by reading The White House Mess than by tackling most Presidential memoirs. I learned, for example, that a new direct phone line called FLOTUS has been added to the White House. I have no doubt that every time it rings aides hop to, probably standing at attention, as in the good old days of my memory. FLOTUS stands for First Lady of the United States. It was installed by Nancy Reagan. If she called me, I think I'd stand, too.
SOURCE: Wolcott, James. Review of The White House Mess, by Christopher Buckley. Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 March 1986): 1.
[In the following review, Wolcott expresses his disappointment with The White House Mess, arguing that the novel lacks the acerbic wit necessary for successful satire.]
Christopher Buckley's The White House Mess is a comic peek into the linty head of a political loyalist and winky-dink named Herbert Wadlough. A satire of Washington and Washington memoirs, The White House Mess is a tattling account of life in the Oval Office as seen by this nervous, pedantic weenie, whose job as personal assistant to the President is to stamp out fires before they become blazes. His feet are kept jitterbug busy. On Inauguration Day in January, 1989, President-elect Thomas Nelson Tucker (“TNT”) arrives at the White House only to discover that President Reagan is still in his pajamas, too pooped to vacate the premises. Reagan's poky exit is a portent of worse to come. Over the next four years, Wadlough has a heap of mess to crisis-manage. The President's wife is a Debra Winger-like actress whose body and temper are always in a hot shimmy. The President's son is a Tom Sawyer-like terror who soaks up esoteric info from his Secret Service agents—“His teacher was somewhat taken aback when for show-and-tell at school he brought in some empty cartridges and gave a talk comparing the Uzi submachine gun and the M-14”—and is once caught sleeping in a ventilator shaft with his pet hamster. There is trouble in the Caribbean, rumblings from the Russians, nubile cuties on the campaign trail and a flubbed assassination attempt on the President in which two ERA supporters are ventilated by a shot fired by a mad Armenian. And through it all, Herb Wadlough tries to maintain a prim dignity proper to the office. He's like P. G. Wodehouse's immortal Bertie Wooster, braving the world's laughter in spats. But the laughter that wafts through The White House Mess is pretty wheezy.
The son of William F. Buckley and a former speechwriter for George Bush, Christopher Buckley certainly possesses an impeccable Republican pedigree and an inside track to the secret goodies of politics. But The White House Mess seems to have been written on the outside by a golly-gee innocent with big eyes; it's very cartoony, this book. Although set on the Potomac under a nuclear dome, The White House Mess harkens back in its style and slapstick to the comic novels not only of Wodehouse but of Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh. The novel is written in the chalky-white spirit of English aplomb in appalling circumstances. Buckley, however, would have been better off sticking to what he knows rather than imitating English models, because he simply isn't up to their cut. For example, when Wadlough awakens after a drinking session and compares the taste in his mouth to “a used Dr. Scholl insole pad,” this seems a rather shabby echo of the famous hangover in Amis' Lucky Jim (“His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum”). Similarly, Buckley doesn't have Wodehouse's solid-brick story sense—the incidents in Mess degenerate into run-on goo—or Waugh's vampire bite.
And bite seems to me absolutely vital to a novel fancying itself as satire. Although Bob Woodward claims in a blurb for The White House Mess that “Buckley gives new meaning to the phrase, ‘He'll never work again in politics,’” there's nothing in this book that would give Buckley's past or future employers pause. Cute in the tooth, The White House Mess is so far removed from malice and a sly insight into politicians' motives that Richard Nixon could safely read it at night with a cup of cocoa. Why, the novel even ends with George Bush being elected President in 1992, a coy bit of make-believe that could hardly do Buckley damage. Indeed, the only times The White House Mess is anything but kissy-poo is when it takes the by now obligatory whacks at Jimmy Carter. Cheap laughs are fine now and then, but cheap laughs are the only ones Buckley pursues in The White House Mess. The jokiness is non-stop juvenile.
SOURCE: Edwards, Thomas R. “Boom at the Top.” New York Review of Books (8 May 1986): 12-15.
[In the following excerpt, Edwards offers a negative assessment of The White House Mess, contending that Buckley's satire is bland and imbecilic.]
It may seem some distance from a ludlum to a political burlesque like Christopher Buckley's The White House Mess, which declines to find much darkness just where we expected a lot, in the corridors of national power. Though the book carries dust-jacket testimonials from such as George F. Will, David A. Stockman, and John Kenneth Galbraith, who ecumenically agree that it's somewhere between funny and hilarious, its comedy seems rather feeble. Like Ludlum, Buckley wants to offend no one's politics, and he mixes jokes about Reagan and George Bush (for whom he once wrote speeches) with ones about Carter and Geraldine Ferraro, none of them nasty enough to be truly stimulating. This dark side is only golden brown—not brutality but petty buffoonery is the born identity politics reveals.
The book traces the first and only term of President Thomas Nelson Tucker (“TNT”), a Democrat who succeeds Reagan in 1988, through the memoirs of Herbert Wadlough, once Tucker's accountant and now his prim and inept personal assistant. Buckley can't quite make up his mind about Tucker, who often seems the only person in Washington who's capable of wit and good sense but whose policies are utterly disastrous. If his tribulations remind anyone of Jimmy Carter's, I doubt that the author will be greatly displeased.
Tucker wants to improve relations with Cuba, but when he meets with Castro the latter is overattentive to Mrs. Tucker, a former soft-porn movie star, and makes too long a speech, which somehow spoils all hope of détente, though we do give him back Guantánamo later. Tucker wants to meet “ordinary” citizens but is fed a sequence of oafs and psychopaths by his blundering staff, often with the wrong background information attached. He offers to return the Gadsden Purchase to Mexico; he tries to issue letters of marque authorizing private citizens to sink or shoot down drug runners; he has the Oval Office rigged as a bomb shelter which will sink deep underground when missiles approach, but it malfunctions, entombing the claustrophobic German chancellor. The decisive disaster is the humiliation of America by fanatic Bermudan nationalists and their charismatic leader, who assault our air base, hold hostage the President's screwy brother and his naive national security adviser, and say many rude things about Yankee imperialists. When Tucker sedates them with sleeping gas and declares the island's only airport a naval target range, thus destroying tourism and the local sweater industry, America is outraged that he did so little and the world community that he did so much.
But Buckley is less interested in public matters than in the backstairs pushing and shoving among the White House help. All of Tucker's staffers aspire to “access” and perks, some fighting over playing time on the presidential tennis court, others over invitations to the Summer White House or relative degrees of security clearance; Wadlough's own struggle is to control the executive mess and its menus (hence the book's title). When Tucker muses that “This place could turn us all into assholes,” the reader may prefer to think that they were such before they ever got there. Buckley works hard for his comedy, but unless you are ready to laugh at an accounting firm called Dewey, Scruem and Howe or a pair of bureaucrats named Phetlock and Withers, I doubt that The White House Mess will vastly amuse. It wants to say that Washington is just a silly place like any other, and that this should cause no great alarm. What it may show, however, is that we find our rulers so frightening that only nervous laughter seems a safe response. This is the kind of “satire” that grins at whatever it touches but damages nothing at all—to find it funny is to confess how badly one wants not to take the subject seriously.
SOURCE: Simonds, C. H. “Bumbling Down the Corridors of Power.” National Review 38, no. 8 (9 May 1986): 52-3.
[In the following review, Simonds praises Buckley for maintaining the balance between satire and insight in The White House Mess.]
Once in too great a while comes along a book that does in, for good, a whole dubious genre. Jane Austen and Catherine Morland finished off the Gothic novel (at least in its eighteenth-century manifestation; the modern form awaits, bodice unlaced, at your pharmacist's). Before Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm, readers could dislike the efforts of Mary Webb and her school, or be bored to tears by them; after Miss Gibbons, the only possible response was a snicker. Pick up Precious Bane, browse anywhere, and you'll recall only Aunt Ada Doom who saw something nasty in the woodshed, and the rotting farm hung to distraction with Sookbine, and the porridge boiling over. Now Christopher Buckley has lopped that perennial weed, the Forgettable Memoir.
The Crawfie syndrome must be as old as writing itself: That I Was Attila's Manicurist and Backstairs at the Hanging Gardens have not come down to us is no proof that they did not once exist. Human nature being what it is, sycophants will continue to recount their days pandering to, covering up for, and laughing on cue at the jokes of the mighty, for a long time to come. But we consumers, after years of buying such books in hope of finding something spicy in the way of straight poop, and being punished for our prurience with hours of leaden, suffocating boredom—we are redeemed: In The White House Mess, Buckley has deftly and amusingly finished off the genus Memoirist, species hanger-on, subspecies crashing bore. From now forward, when the men around the men around whomever rush into print, we shall be ready, with all needful antibodies in place.
Our memoirist is Herbert Wadlough, sometime Personal Assistant to President Thomas Nelson Tucker, who fictively succeeds Ronald Reagan but is in reality Jimmy Carter (for Wadlough's Idaho, read Georgia; for Bermuda, Iran; the parallels click into place with oiled precision). For all that Wadlough (like his chief) is a plodding bumbler, the vicissitudes of his White House years are hilarious.
President Tucker is surrounded by some dismayingly believable types: Bamford Lleland IV, the Ivy League snot whose block-long motor yacht, Compassion, is a continuing embarrassment to the Tucker Administration; the press secretary, Mike Feeley, ultimately opportunistic (his only comment when war is about to break out weeks before the election: “I hope this doesn't peak too soon”); a Vice President whose daily solicitude for the President's health is downright manic. Then there's the First Lady, a former film star whose effete Hollywood chums and willingness to play Lysistrata off screen are additional complications.
The high point of the chronicle (unless it is the mad pursuit of the First Hamster) is the Bermuda crisis. Makopo M'duku, né Cedric Pudlington, and his Bermudian United People's Insurrection seize sweater manufactories, turn golf courses into re-education camps, and threaten to invade the U.S. Naval Air Station. Marvin Edelstein, the nitwit NSC director, is sent to Hamilton for talks and promptly taken hostage—from which predicament he vigorously objects to being rescued (“I had a dialogue going!”) by a commando team that's also extracting the President's flaky brother before he can … No, mustn't spoil your fun.
As we already knew, success and prestige in Washington are measured not in power, not in money, but in Access. Poor Herbert starts out with Access: He dispenses parking spaces; tends to seating in the White House cafeteria (whence the title of the book); settles disputes over whose turn it is to use the tennis court. Thanks to the machinations of the unspeakable Lleland, he is “cut out of the loop,” migrating from the West Wing, where the action is, to the East Wing, where the First Lady is. He ultimately regains Access, but only when the Tucker Administration is in a George Price shambles, awaiting certain defeat at the polls.
So. It's clever (also chortlesome), but is it Art? I believe it is. The author who takes on the burlesquing of such a lumpish genre walks a precarious line. There is always the danger of slipping into heavy-handedness; Buckley succumbs only occasionally, usually in the matter of bestowing names (Wadlough's accounting firm back in Boise is the Perelmanesque Dewey, Skruem, and Howe). Then there's the temptation to easy irony, best seen in books like Patrick Dennis's Little Me, with the ignorant innocent recounting monstrous perversion and chicanery, all unawares. That trick quickly palls; Buckley avoids it: Herbert Wadlough knows exactly what he's saying, and the poor bastard really wants to say it.
But the toughest chore Buckley has set for himself is finding and maintaining the correct tone, and this he does with remarkable skill. All the elements of the target genre are here, in just the right proportions: We have deadly solemnity, suggesting the memoirist's presumptuous belief that Clio is perched on his shoulder. From time to time, the mask slips and we wince at a flash of naked malice.
Always, the dish is peppered with self-righteous, self-serving asides: “… perhaps I overstated the case by proposing that we nationalize the banks. I had not been informed that Treasury Secretary Lindsay had come out against bank nationalization at the June 27 Cabinet meeting, and that the President had concurred. The whole incident, overblown though it was, points out the need for greater coordination in government.” And no such work would be complete without clichés aplenty: “I girded my loins (figuratively speaking)” and pompous parenthetical elucidations: “The words sent a frisson—French for ‘a tingling sensation’—up my spine.”
Herbert Wadlough executes an unconsciously accurate portrait of the memoirist as the earnest, humorless, well-meaning, probably decent turkey his creator believes him to be. To Buckley's credit, the reader cannot leave his book feeling mere bemused contempt for Wadlough. Instead, a scene from an early chapter keeps coming to mind: “As the late-afternoon sunlight played on the bare branches of the oak trees outside, the President was philosophical. ‘Who knows?’ he said as his eyes scanned the curve of the Oval. I sensed it was a historical moment, a man reflecting on the immensity of power and on the implacable forces that would come to bear on him in the years ahead. ‘This place could turn us all into assholes.’”
SOURCE: Buckley, Christopher, and Chris Goodrich. “Christopher Buckley.” Publishers Weekly 238, no. 5 (25 January 1991): 38-9.
[In the following interview, Buckley discusses his writing career, his body of work, and his future projects.]
Christopher Buckley has just returned from a two-week sailing voyage across the Atlantic—Canary Islands to Barbados—when he meets with PW [Publishers Weekly] at his office in the Forbes building in Manhattan. The experience shows: in his tanned face and bleaching-to-blond hair, of course, but also on Buckley's desk, piled high with mail and manuscripts awaiting his attention as editor of FYI, a new quarterly “life-style” magazine sent free to Forbes magazine subscribers. Clearly, much work awaits, but Buckley wears the prospect lightly, partly because of the holiday season—also on his desk is a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne and a scattering of gingerbread cookies—and partly because … well, he's a Buckley, and consequently seems fazed by nothing.
Chris Buckley not only looks quite like his father, William F., but shares the same facial tics, ingratiating charm, deft wit and occasional unpredictability. The office is dominated by a work of art, but not the sort of thing one associates with the Buckley clan; it's a sexy, life-size female nude, a color photo-collage by David Hockney. Yet introductions are hardly accomplished before Buckley produces a photograph of his one-year-old daughter, having heard his interviewer also has a young child.
PW is here to talk about Wet Work, just out from Knopf (after originally being scheduled for last November). It is Buckley's third book and second novel, and marks a departure for him, being a thriller involving off-Broadway theater, Miami stakeouts and South American drugs. But then, all of Buckley's books have been departures of one sort or another. Steaming to Bamboola, an account of nearly three months spent on a tramp freighter, was well received by the critics; The White House Mess a satire on political memoirs, garnered rave reviews—“hilarious” was the typical adjective—and quickly became a national bestseller. One could argue that Buckley's newest is a combination of the elements found in his earlier books, since it incorporates both ocean-going vessels and governmental gamesmanship, but in spirit it's closer to the wry, political-operative comedies of Ross Thomas. What would happen, Buckley asks in Wet Work, if a U.S. citizen, acting outside the law, used his personal fortune to take on Peruvian druglords?
Buckley is chagrined that the plot doesn't seem as fresh today as when it came to him in 1986, the intervening years having witnessed the publication of Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger and the release of the James Bond film License to Kill, both of which told somewhat similar stories. (The coincidence didn't deter Paramount from optioning the film rights, however.) “It's too pathetic to have been made up,” Buckley says of the long-drawn-out torture he experienced learning that other writers were pursuing similar projects and would beat him to the bookstores: “I received for blurb requests two books about people avenging themselves on drug lords”—he returned them unread—“and they were like pig irons inside me. I thought the world was passing me by.”
But there is at least one thing that distinguished Buckley's plot—the fact that it was inspired by experience. He traveled 1200 miles up the Amazon—from Manaus, Brazil, to Iquitos, Peru—on a yacht with Malcolm Forbes, and he saw the enormous role that the modern drug trade plays in local economies. At one point, Buckley remembers, “We hit a cocaine Dodge City—we went past endless numbers of fast speedboats and seaplanes with no markings. ‘Hmmm,’ we wondered, ‘what could those be for?’”
That is a skeletal description of the genesis of Wet Work, in which fabulously wealthy defense contractor Charlie Becker, occasionally helped but mostly ignored by the U.S. government, tracks down the man who made the drugs that gave his granddaughter a fatal heart attack. “It's a melodrama,” Buckley admits, but to his own surprise he discovered it involving nonetheless: “I found myself feeling sorry for people as they were getting killed.”
Becker, naturally, gets his man—as well as numerous accomplices—and in so doing gives the book its title, “wet work” being a genuine if gruesome term (Don DeLillo used it in Libra, Buckley points out) to describe a killing of the up-close-and-personal variety. “When I explain the phrase to people,” Buckley says with the famous Buckley grin, “they look at me like I'm Bret Easton Ellis.” He hastens to add, however, that the novel isn't “too grisly”; compared to many other current books, Buckley says, “it's Apollonian.”
Curiously, the author's presence on Forbes's Amazonian adventure was fortuitous. Buckley had heard about the trip—in which Forbes and his yacht The Highlander would be accompanied by John Kluge (the “richest man in America,” according to Forbes) and his yacht—from Forbes himself, while writing about the boat for Architectural Digest. He recalls thinking, “What a great novel this could be, a comedy of manners—two billionairios going up the Amazon!”
For one thing, each tycoon would have his own set of blue-bloods aboard: Forbes had invited the ex-king and queen of Bulgaria, and Kluge the ex-king and queen of Greece (not to mention a couple of Roosevelts). So when an editor of Conde Nast Traveler, having read Steaming to Bamboola, asked Buckley whether he would be interested in covering the voyage, he jumped at the chance. “It was all I had been thinking about for three months,” he says. “It was an amazing coincidence.”
Buckley had a fine time on the cruise. He says the ship and its voyage were “something out of the 19th century,” though with the most up-to-date equipment. As for turning it into material for the novel, however, he found himself “entirely hampered” by having gone along. To be sure, the trip furnished exotic raw material. “You'd go between the boats [for dinner] in a tender, and these B-52, Stealth-bomber-sized bats would circle the ladies' hair. You'd hear the shrieks!” But the heightened nature of the experience interfered with the writer's reimagining.
Upon returning, Buckley says, “I wrote 80 pages of the worst sort of ‘faction,’” and ended up throwing out virtually all of it—all but the passage in which a character says, “We're heading into the coke belt, but don't mention that to Charlie, you know what happened to his granddaughter.” Buckley started in again from scratch, and five drafts later he had his novel.
“It dismays me,” he says, “that it was so hard to write this book, harder than the others, which were more challenging.” The political scenes—which Knopf editor Ashbel Green asked him to cut down somewhat, thinking they went on too long—were “the only things that flowed out of me. It would be an understatement to say that the other stuff flowed like glue.” Buckley ended up following “a lot of cul-de-sacs—doors saying, Sexual Complications! Enticing Flashback!” and recognizing they didn't work, “only after 20 or 30 hard-fought pages. It was like those false chambers in the pyramids; you go in and you fall 80 feet straight down a hole.” The action scenes, he says, “were a little boring to write, and I know I'm leading with my chin there because the critics will be saying, ‘Well, it reads that way.’ So many red lights went off, I should have paid more attention.” The rewriting went on and on; Buckley guesses that the final book may be as much as 20٪ changed from the bound galley.
Buckley attributes his difficulties with the thriller genre—which in fact are hardly noticeable in Wet Work, the book being propelled largely by its humor—to the fact that he was writing the sort of novel he doesn't usually read. “I read Clear and Present Danger only to satisfy my curiosity,” he says of his post-sail encounter with the Clancy book on a Barbadian beach. “Under the category of ‘what I should have done’ I could put ‘write a parody of Tom Clancy,’” for such a work would have capitalized on the satirical skills Buckley demonstrated in The White House Mess. While reading Clancy, Buckley reports, “parodic sentences began to form in my head like ice crystals.” He bemoans the fact that if Wet Work hadn't proved so difficult to write, his book might have been “ahead of the curve.”
Given the stressful nature of Wet Work's gestation, it should come as little surprise that Buckley has no current plans to write more fiction—not even Washington-based fiction, though he says, “That gene does twitch; you think, ‘We could have great fun with this.’” The reluctance may be due to the fact that Buckley, by self-admission, is “a real dilettante: I've done a lot of things—travel writing, fiction, journalism, satire, plays,” adding with typical modesty, “and probably none of them particularly well.” Buckley is critical, too, of his writing output—“10 drafts of a play and five of a book: that's not very much, is it?”—but then, not too many writers have fathers able to boast of publishing 30 or so books, as has William F. Buckley (whose new Blackford Oakes novel, Tucker's Last Stand, is just out). The younger Buckley tells PW with undisguised glee, however, that all of his father's books have received bad notices in Kirkus—though he admits that his own have shared a similar fate.
At the relatively young age of 37, Buckley can already look back on a varied career: he held a number of editorial positions at Esquire, starting there right out of college (Yale, of course), then quit to join the merchant marine to research Steaming to Bamboola. He worked at the White House as a speechwriter for George Bush for 18 months in 1981-83; that led to The White House Mess. He became FYI's editor just as he finished Wet Work—“the offer came along at just the right time.”
This last novel, he says, “has told me it may be time to settle down. Why does Ross Thomas write in one genre particularly well? What makes Dave Barry probably the funniest writer in America?” The answer, in all likelihood, is because they specialize—an idea about which Buckley has mixed emotions. On the one hand, he says he became “a little frightened” when people asked of the unfinished Wet Work, “Oh, is it another funny book?”—but on the other hand, he realized that “my tropism is going for the funny bone.”
More nonfiction books are in store, though: “I'd be happy to sink myself into a good narrative like Steaming to Bamboola, in many ways my favorite book. I enjoy getting inside a world, like Michael Lewis in Liar's Poker. Got any ideas?”
Buckley does have one current writing project that's close to his heart—a play he's co-writing with humorist Paul Slansky, taking off on the journalistic stakeout of Gary Hart and Donna Rice. (Buckley's first play, Campion, written with James McGuire, was published by Ignatius Press of San Francisco.) At first the collaboration on Pressing the Flesh, as the new play is called, may seem an odd match; Buckley describes Slansky, whom he met at Esquire, as believing the Reagan administration to be “an evil second only to the Third Reich.” But the Buckleys are known for friendships that transcend politics—Buckley allows that Slansky may be his version of John Kenneth Galbraith—and that broadness of vision helps keep the writing honest. “We play each others' bullshit detectors,” says Buckley of their daily three-hour phone calls (Slansky is based in Los Angeles) over the play, which he characterizes as “a romantic comedy.” “And it's so great to be working with somebody,” he adds.
Working alone, Buckley says, “I don't find writing fun,” and PW believes him. … at least for the moment. Given Buckley's myriad interests, it's only a matter of time before a story comes along that simply won't be denied.
SOURCE: Miner, Brad. “Blood Feud.” National Review 43, no. 6 (15 April 1991): 55-6, 58.
[In the following review, Miner commends Buckley's suspenseful narration in Wet Work, finding it well written, unnerving, and humorous.]
Each time some poor kid croaks on coke, there's a trail left behind: from the OD to the pusher; from him to the dealer; finally to some big supplier. Now if you wanted revenge, if, no matter what, you loved that dead kid and wanted wild justice, and if you went down that trail to get some, it would surely be wet work; wet, for the splatters, the puddles of the sticky red stuff—some of it your own—that come with the trouble.
Down low along this deadly food chain, among the rats and the roaches, the exterminating is easy, although there are always more vermin. But as you move up, up through the sharks to the men, “Revenge,” as Milton put it, “at first thought sweet, / Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.” When Charley Becker, hero of Christopher Buckley's deftly plotted, precisely detailed, and remarkably funny new novel [Wet Work] attempts to avenge his grand-daughter's death, he voyages ever deeper into the heart of darkness. And, cinematic structuring and naturalistic dialogue aside, one is tempted to say that in this novel, Mr. Buckley's writing compares not unfavorably with Conrad's. Then too there's a bit of what future critics may call “early Harold Robbins”—our hero's background is awfully heroic, suggesting that Mr. Buckley doubts tragedy alone spurs ordinary men to revenge. But let's abstain from prospective criticism; of Wet Work it is enough to say it's an elegant entertainment.
The odyssey of Charley Becker, Texan, orphan, billionaire, and grandfather, leads him and his well-armed crew on a path from Manhattan's Alphabet Town, through downtown Miami, and finally into Peru's Hullaga Valley. Except for one weary DEA agent (until Becker's scorched-earth policy threatens to create an international incident), law-enforcement officials watch the mounting body count with a notable lack of interest. Frank Diatri, whose career at DEA is nearly at an end, simply has nothing better to do than follow the trail of the man he can't help thinking of as Mr. Becker. In one of the book's finest scenes (and ultimately one of its few disappointments, since Father Rebeta makes just two brief appearances) Diatri visits a priest who may have information, based upon a single anonymous telephone call. Of the mysterious voice on the phone (Becker's), Father Rebeta's observations are astonishingly complex, yet wholly believable. But as he says:
“I've spent almost twenty years of Saturdays sitting in a black box listening to people spill out their souls through words. I have an appreciation of the words they choose. Like a blind man, I suppose.”
“I get to see their faces when they confess,” Diatri said. “That way I can tell when they're pulling my chain.”
“Oh”—Father Rebeta smiled back—“I can tell too.”
The priest goes on, with only a few clues from Diatri, not only to accurately characterize the voice, but eventually to all but actually identify its owner, even though he's never met Charley Becker. How? Listening to a tape of Becker's voice Diatri plays for him (it's a portion of an address Charley made upon receiving an expensively purchased honorary degree), the priest just about scares the hell out of the narc by calmly explaining that “it's all there on the tape.”
The accent, clearly west of the Mississippi, less elasticity to the vowels, the glottal stops are harder. It's more twang than drawl. So, Texas. As Oscar Wilde would have said, ‘My dear, no one is from Arizona.’ It's obvious he had no formal education himself, from the tone of awe. ‘Halls of higher learning,’ ‘ivory towers of knowledge.’ Believe me, no one who ever saw the inside of a university classroom would say that. It would therefore follow that he's self-made …
And so on until Diatri and the reader are convinced they're in the presence of the great-grandson of S. Holmes and H. Higgins.
Mr. Buckley has great fun with names: Charley Becker's mercenary aides are named Bundy, Rostow, and McNamara, and are indeed more wisemen than wiseguys. But Mr. Buckley has the most fun with the voices of some very well known Washingtonians, although depending on the level of their own good humor Messrs. Sununu, Thornburgh, Webster, and Baker may or may not be amused. “John” wants to keep “Jim” out of the loop on news of Becker's Peruvian expedition, because everybody knows State leaks and Jim and the Boss have no secrets. And before John goes down the hall, he makes sure the AG and the DCI are on board coveragewise. “Dick” is worried that Joe Six-Pack will think Charley Becker's a hero.
“I'm just saying—”
“I know what you're saying.”
“John, I think what Dick is saying—”
“I know what Dick is saying, Bill.”
“Actually, I wasn't saying that.”
“What you were telling Bill I was saying.”
“Maybe the thing to do is go the ad hoc route. Let it ripen a little and look at it then.”
“We could do that. We could definitely do that.”
“I don't have any problem with that.”
The reader is not quite sure who's speaking, and that's the point. Not every crisis is a Desert Storm, although choking clouds of sand blow all around.
Mr. Buckley's Peruvian … entrepreneurs are fascinating, chilling. Money hasn't bought them happiness—just everything else. The poison they export to the U.S. funds pleasure and politics equally, and they are local heroes, ready (oh, so very ready) to die pro daemone et patria. The results of Becker's War in the Amazon resemble those early, bad guesses about Desert Storm. This work is wet, all right. In the end, revenge is bitter, not even bittersweet, and yet the reader closes Wet Work believing recklessness preferable to desperation.
SOURCE: Hamilton, Joan O'C. “Warning: Hazardous to the Tobacco Lobby.” Business Week, no. 3377 (6 June 1994): 15-19.
[In the following review, Hamilton finds Buckley's satire funny and engaging in Thank You for Smoking, praising the novel's exposé of the tobacco industry.]
In the recurring nightmare that makes reporters wake up with the cold sweats, you believe a source who has just tipped you off to the Big Story, and then, after you run with it—whoops. Well, the nightmare came true for poor Nick Naylor.
A Washington television reporter, Naylor is on a run-of-the-mill assignment covering the President's trip to a Marine base when he overhears Secret Service agents fretting about Rover choking on a piece of meat. As Naylor happens to know, “Rover” is the President's code name. When somebody pronounces Rover dead, Naylor grimly tells the nation the news, sending the stock market plunging 180 points before the White House reassures everyone that the President is fine. The late Rover, it turns out, was the base commandant's dog.
Nick Naylor is author Christopher Buckley's fictional answer to the question: What kind of person would take on the Sisyphean task of doing public relations for the tobacco industry? Naylor, a smooth, shamed, soul-sapped sell-out, that's who—the star of Buckley's fiendishly funny send-up of Big Tobacco and Washington spin control [Thank You for Smoking].
Nick's Rover fiasco, it turns out, was precisely the reason the head of the “Academy of Tobacco Studies,” J. J. Hollister (“a man born with tar in his blood”) hired him to be the ATS spokesperson. Hollister reassured the tobacco industry's wheezy old generals: “That boy is going to work his behind off putting this thing behind him. … That boy is going to be one angry young man.”
Quite a judge of character, that J. J. Sure enough, that embarrassment is the reason Naylor can muster the guts, while seated between a hairless, 15-year-old, former Camel-smoking cancer sufferer and a do-good bureaucrat from the Office of Substance Abuse Prevention, to tell Oprah that the feds wanted the kid to die. Why? “‘So that their budgets’—he spat out the distasteful word—‘will go up. This is nothing less than trafficking in human misery and you, sir, ought to be ashamed of yourself.’”
It also explains why Naylor can huddle merrily with the chief spokespeople for the alcohol industry and the gun lobby at weekly “Merchant of Death” luncheons. Sequestered at back tables in low-profile restaurants, Naylor and his “Mod Squad” cronies trade black humor and try out “sound bites de-emphasizing the lethality of their products.”
The work poses some interesting challenges. One of Naylor's chums is charged with positioning the massacre of a Texas church choir as evidence of why gun control is dangerous. How so? A parishioner in the front row insists she would have had a clear shot had she been packing her piece. Naylor's other pal, representing the Moderation Council (whose slogan is “strength through unity at a time of volumetric decline”) ponders whether she should try to out-maneuver Diane Sawyer on Prime Time Live to be first to hug a child with fetal alcohol syndrome on camera.
These characters earn their pay. So does Naylor, whom Buckley manages to make likable despite his cynicism, which is thicker than the three-pack-a-day smoke that swirls, around him.
Buckley, the editor of Forbes FYI, is a Washington insider who knows this turf. His previous, well-received satire was The White House Mess. Even though some of his one-liners read as though they were written for Murphy Brown to deliver and then wait for the laugh track, most of his humor is well-grounded in ironies that have tickled tobacco-industry watchers for years, beginning with a certain personal problem that some real-life tobacco lobbyists and employees have trouble controlling. For example, the receptionist at ATS, after answering the phone cheerfully, “began to cough. No dainty little throat-clearer, either, but a deep pulmonary bulldozer. ‘Academy of—harrg—Tobacco—kuhh—Studies.’ Nick wondered if having a receptionist who couldn't get through ‘hello’ without a bronchospasm was a plus.”
The plot is a farcical romp through the second-biggest event in Nick's life: His kidnapping, allegedly by antismoking advocates who cover his body in enough stop-smoking nicotine patches to kill him. He manages to escape, however, and is found in his boxer shorts, stumbling and wired, by the police. Nick becomes an overnight celebrity and a hero to his benefactors when he miraculously escapes death—in part because of his high tolerance for nicotine. For that, he earns a big salary increase, the laser-beam lust of a sexy co-worker, and the cushy assignment of working out bribes with a big-name Hollywood producer to put cigarettes in the celluloid hands of hot young actors. But it also raises the antennae of the FBI, who wonder: Isn't this the second time Nick Naylor has captured the spotlight through unusual circumstances?
An ace satirist, Buckley will have you roaring, but the feeling fades to an edgy sadness. Flip on the nightly news lately and there are those tobacco executives mouthing the very assertions you laughed at when they came from Buckley's characters—that the smoking debate is not about recruiting children to smoke, it's about an assault on American civil liberties; that cigarettes aren't addictive, they're just a pleasurable habit, like sweets or coffee. However broad the comedy in Thank You for Smoking becomes, it often feels as though only the names have been changed. This book is also a broadside at the purse-lipped politically correct. But its cut-the-bull humor stands a better chance of making their points than product labeling or self-righteous rhetoric ever will.
The only thing funnier to be said this year about smoking could well be whatever reaction the tobacco industry will have to this book. Imagine the Tobacco Institute press release denouncing it—with Nick Naylor's logic-suspending indignation propelling every line. A possible correlation between reading satire and blindness, perhaps? Better yet, make it wrinkles. Laugh lines could be a big problem here.
SOURCE: Ferguson, Andrew. “Up in Smoke.” National Review 66, no. 11 (13 June 1994): 68-70.
[In the following review, Ferguson applauds Buckley's wit, political savvy, and characterizations in Thank You for Smoking.]
In the daily melodramas of Washington life—at least the stock versions offered by the hometown paper and the network news—the plots are predictable and the characters easy to read. We have good guys (public-interest lawyers, environmentalists, idealistic congressmen calling for an “expanded federal role”), and we have bad guys (pro-lifers, Second Amendment enthusiasts, people with Pentagon contracts). And then we have the really, really bad guys: the publicists, talking heads, and spinmeisters of the Tobacco Institute, the infamous lobbying arm of the tobacco industry.
Watching one of these poor souls bob and weave on MacNeil-Lehrer, or grimace through a grilling on the morning shows, you can't help wondering: What's it like to be so openly hated, so contemptuously disbelieved, as the fellow who drags himself from bed each morning to defend a product only slightly more popular than Thalidomide? Does his mom hate him, too? Does his wife believe him when he explains why he's late for dinner? Do the kids mind when the Discovery channel compares dad to Himmler? Has he never thought of chucking it all for an easier job—say, writing jokes for Elie Wiesel?
Not all of those human questions are specifically asked and answered by Christopher Buckley in Thank You for Smoking, his new satirical novel; actually, none of them is. But Mr. Buckley has set for himself the large task of entering that rarefied circle of PR hell where the tobacco spokesman resides, to give him flesh and depth, to show with some sympathy his inner life, to share his pain. And then to kill him off. Or almost kill him off.
Our hero is Nick Naylor, chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies (for which read: the Tobacco Institute). Like many spokes-folk, Nick is a journalist who failed upward. As a local Washington TV reporter he made the mistake one evening of announcing to a live television audience that the President had, in fact, died, when he had, in fact, not. For that minor error he was removed from the trade of journalism and entered the trade of public relations, where inaccuracy is more highly prized. The pay is better, too.
Nick's job of ceaseless prevarication does not especially trouble him. And Mr. Buckley records his dissembling with such precision, and such relish, that we won't be especially bothered by it, either. Here, to take one of his riffs at random, is Nick pleading for a ceasefire in the smoking wars, with Katie Couric (one of many media stars who make cameos in the novel): “Well, Katie, you can't spell tolerance without the t in tobacco. Our position all along has been, we understand there are people who care strongly about smoking. We're saying, Let's work together on this. Let's get some dialogue going. This is a big country, a great country, and there's plenty of room in it for smoking and nonsmoking areas.”
The patter is worthy of Elmer Gantry or Professor Harold Hill. Like them, too, Nick is a bottomless fount of information. Did you know that smoking prevents Parkinson's disease? Scientific data suggest that it does. And smoking reduces the incidence of carpal-tunnel syndrome, since smokers take more frequent breaks from their computer keyboards. At the same time, bans on smoking in the workplace have led to an alarming rise in pneumonia, from thrusting smokers into the elements merely because they've chosen to enjoy a pleasurable recreational activity enjoyed by forty million other Americans.
In thus defending the right to smoke, Nick is cheered on by the MOD Squad—a small luncheon group that takes its name from its members' reputations as Merchants of Death. Charter members are Bobby Jay, of “SAFETY, the Society for the Advancement of Firearms and Effective Training of Youth, formerly NRTBAC, the National Right to Bear Arms Committee,” and Polly of the “Moderation Council, formerly the National Association for Alcoholic Beverages.”
I do not doubt that in the vast chow dens of Washington, some equivalent of the MOD Squad actually exists. “Their guests had come from such groups as the Society for the Humane Treatment of Calves, representing the veal industry, the Friends of Dolphins, formerly the Pacific Tuna Fishermen's Association, the American Highway Safety Association, representing triple-trailer truckers, the Land Enrichment Foundation, formerly the Coalition for the Responsible Disposal of Radioactive Waste, and others.”
What brings this sad band of brothers and sisters together is their shared fate: to defend, for pay, the quotidian pleasures and practices of American life against the assaults of a new, aggressive, and spectacularly priggish political culture. But the MOD Squad's solidarity is sorely tested when the going gets even tougher, as it does when a band of anti-smoking zealots (or so it seems) kidnaps Nick and attempts to terminate him with extreme prejudice, by plastering him with (what else?) nicotine patches. From here the plot accelerates; I won't spoil your pleasure by telling you where it leads, except to say that you'll be amazed at where you end up.
This is Mr. Buckley's third novel. His first, The White House Mess, was the funniest Washington novel since John Dean's memoirs. His next, Wet Work, was darker and more ambitious, illuminated from time to time by hilarious send-ups of Washington life. Thank You for Smoking is, in its own way, just as ambitious, at once a mystery, a political drama, and a knowing social satire of the first rank. It's a dicey combination, and I can't think of another contemporary American novelist who could pull it off with such dexterity and high spirits. Mr. Buckley's ear for the cant of bureaucracy and publicity is pitch-perfect, and his rendering of the essential absurdity of so much of Washington life is unsparing but always humane. Christopher Buckley's Washington is much more entertaining than the stock version, and, I'm sorry to say, much more believable.
SOURCE: Tavcar, Larry. “Smoke and Mirrors.” Public Relations Quarterly 39, no. 2 (summer 1994): 3-4.
[In the following review, Tavcar examines Thank You for Smoking in relation to the American public relations industry, noting the critical response to the novel.]
“Why do you do this? What motivates you?”
Nick Naylor confronts those questions about a third of the way into Christopher Buckley's satirical novel, Thank You for Smoking, published in May. Naylor, the novel's “hero,” is chief spokesman (“smokesman”) of the Academy of Tobacco Studies. It's 1990, and Naylor is being interviewed by a reporter from the conservative Washington Moon after a stellar performance defending the tobacco industry on “Larry King Live.”
“You want to know why I really do it?” Naylor, 40, lapsed Catholic, divorced, responds. “To pay the mortgage” [on the house his former wife occupies]—and tuition to St. Euthanasius for his 12-year-old son.
“It's a kind of yuppie Nuremberg defense, isn't it?” the reporter shoots back.
So goes Naylor's combative life. His boss wants to fire him. (“You're stuck in a reactive mode. You need to think proactive … You're supposed to be our communications guy. Communicate.”) A female colleague wants his job.
He lunches regularly with a firearms spokesman and a liquor spokeswoman to share travails and talk PR tactics. The trio calls itself the Mod Squad, an acronym for “merchants of death.” (“From time to time they invited other spokespeople to lunch to promote camaraderie among the despised”—such as guests from the American Highway Safety Association, representing triple-trailer truckers, and the Land Enrichment Foundation, formerly the Coalition for the Responsible Disposal of Radioactive Waste.) Sometimes the Mod Squad slips into “unholier than thou” exchanges of death statistics.
Naylor goes proactive. His life is threatened, he's abducted, and he nearly dies after being plastered with nicotine patches. He impresses a tobacco mogul (who becomes his “godfather”), manipulates support from a Margaret Thatcher-like ex-British Prime Minister, jets to Hollywood to arrange product placements in movies (fondly remembering classic scenes featuring smoking), and leaves ＄500,000 with the “Tumbleweed Man” (a cowboy dying of cancer after a career posing for cigarette ads and decades of smoking) to persuade him to stop attacking tobacco. Naylor's successes propel his annual salary from ＄105,000 to ＄200,000.
At times author Buckley, editor of Forbes FYI, lifestyle supplement to Forbes, writes as if he had been an onlooker when the tobacco industry planned the PR strategies implemented in 1994.
(Ever the defender of capitalism, Forbes, in a two-page article in its July 4 issue, declares that “smoking might be, in some small ways, good for you,” mentions Buckley's book, doesn't indicate its ultimate position, accuses the tobacco industry of “corporate cowardice and bureaucratic inertia,” and concludes that smokers are “defenseless” against “the epidemic of power-hungry puritanical bigots.”)
Naylor is cool, quick, aggressive, resourceful.
Appearing at a conference of health care professionals, he begins: “I'm delighted to be here at the Clean Lungs 2000 symposium because it is my closely held belief that what we need is not more confrontation, but more consultation.” (In its “viewpoint” ads R. J. Reynolds declares “Together, We Can Work It Out” and advocates “an informed debate.”)
As a panelist on the Oprah Winfrey Show Naylor assails a U.S. official appearing with him. “For a member of the federal government to come on this show and lecture about cancer, when that same government for nearly 50 years has been producing atomic bombs … capable of giving every single person on this planet … cancers so awful …” And then he announces a ＄5 million campaign (impetuously inflated on the spot from a planned ＄500,000) aimed at persuading kids not to smoke (he later directs the campaign's creation to make sure it's minimally successful).
On Nightline he challenges a senator who wants cigarette packs to carry a skull and crossbones: “the irony in all this, Ted, is that the real, demonstrated number-one killer in America is cholesterol … And here comes Senator Finisterre, whose fine and beautiful state is … clogging the nation's arteries with Vermont cheddar cheese. …”
The witty, fast-moving narrative weaves in observations about the media, media personalities, current events, government and Hollywood. It uses tobacco history and statistics adeptly, and it pokes fun at some of tobacco's opponents as well as its supporters.
Rarely is a PR executive the lead character in fiction, and rarely has a novel delved so extensively into the practice of PR. Thus, Thank You for Smoking is almost a must-read for PR people—and a different kind of primer for newcomers to the field. Old pro or neophyte, PR readers are likely to find the Mod Squad luncheon and TV talk show scenes particularly engrossing.
What does the book do for perceptions of PR?
Among the positives: As Buckley portrays PR it requires hard work and a range of talents, even writing ability. The members of the Mod Squad are able, intelligent, likable.
Among the negatives: Naylor is amoral. He puts self-interest first and ultimately confesses to being a liar. The PR colleague after his job is devious, and sex is her principal career aid.
Media reaction to the book? Favorable reviews in The New York Times Book Review (“hilarious”), The New York Times (“savagely funny”), The Wall Street Journal (noting Buckley's “good eye, and a spare kick in the teeth, for stiffs who seldom get their due in the real world”) USA Today (“this book will make you laugh aloud”), and Time (“superior goofball plot”). None of the reviews mentions “public relations”; the references are to “lobbyist” or “flack.”
Mel Gibson has bought the film rights to the novel. Thus, Thank You for Smoking could reach the nation's movie screens in 1996.
So the public relations profession may see another addition to its image woes, as the tobacco industry takes still another hit. The Tobacco Institute is “enormously disappointed” that Buckley's satire is so one-sided, a spokesman told The Ragan Report in June. “He knew from visits over here that we take what we do very seriously, and that we pay very exacting attention to the facts.”
SOURCE: Wallberg, Larry. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (31 July 1994): 9.
[In the following review, Wallberg praises the comedy and cinematic qualities of Thank You for Smoking, but comments that the novel lacks strong characterization and a well-developed plot.]
The ability to turn readers into would-be stand-up comedians is one of the things that distinguishes a successful comic novel. Humor screams to be shared.
Which is not to say that Christopher Buckley's newest work, Thank You for Smoking, is merely mouth-pleasing, a collection of quirky jokes and smirky turns-of-phrase. It's got some neat visuals and nifty dialogue, too. In crazy scene after crazy scene, the author urges you to turn on the film projector in your head, to watch and listen to his characters as they act out his satiric script.
Take, for example, the luncheon meetings of the “MOD Squad”—that's MOD as in “Merchants of Death.” Our hero, Nick Naylor, socializes and commiserates on a regular basis with two other shills of shame, Bobby Jay Bliss and Polly Bailey, representatives of, respectively, the gun and booze lobbies. The three frequently spend their mealtime hours together trying to one-down each other, playing at being “unholier-than-thou.”
At a place called Bert's, they sit in the smoking section, around an ersatz fire, and take turns complaining about society's do-gooders who want to blame them for berserk postal workers on shooting sprees, the prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome among offspring of women who drink “a gallon of vodka every day in the third trimester,” and the imminent cancer death of the Tumbleweeds Man, “for over twenty years the very symbol of American's smoking manhood in the saddle.”
Naylor's adventures lead him to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show, where he discusses the phallic-nosed advertising icon, Old Joe Camel, with fellow guests—the head of the National Organization of Mothers Against Smoking (NOMAS), the executive director of the National Teachers Assn. In Washington, the deputy director of the Office of Substance Abuse Prevention and “the Cancer Kid,” a stricken high school senior who has told Oprah that he “no longer thinks smoking is cool.”
Somehow, Naylor—who until that telecast was in danger of losing his job to a good-looking protegée of the man he works for—manages to turn in a matchless performance defending smoking by attacking its attackers. And that's the moment you've been waiting for, right there at long last in Chapter 5, when Buckley's manic-movie plot is finally set fully into motion. Before the tale burns itself out, Naylor's little odyssey-ette will have brought him into contact with Hollywood “hypesters,” a North Carolina tobacco squire, a Margaret Thatcher clone, would-be killers, a sex-wielding newspaperwoman and, yes, Larry King (“Author's Note: Some real people appear here under their own names, but this is fiction.”)
Unfortunately, that's also the moment, right there in Chapter 5, when you'll realize how thin the novel really is—as a novel. Its cinematic strength is its literary downfall; you're reading a novelization. The wilder the episodes become, the less involved the reader does. This is no page-turner that will keep you lighting up into the wee hours. Instead, you'll find Buckley joking more now and enjoying it less. He throws his two-dimensional characters into outrageous screwball-screenplay situations, and they're funny, funny, funny. But they never really come alive, never really step out of the book and into our hearts. Because of that, they fail to fully engage our interest; also because of that, the book ultimately becomes nothing more than a collection of humorous plot contrivances and verbal pyrotechnics.
But, wow, is it going to make a terrific and hilarious Hollywood flick if the right creative people get hold of it and flesh those characters out with some high-priced actors. (Wallberg's Tip: Michael Keaton as Nick, John Goodman as Bobby Jay, Madeleine Stowe as Polly, Howard Stern as Larry King.) Who today still reads the ain't-I-clever writers of yesterday, the Max Shulmans, the Leonard Wibberleys or the Thorne Smiths? But sit for half an hour with an episode of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, or watch The Mouse That Roared, or check out Topper in any of its incarnations, and you'll find yourself thinking you're dealing with a classic—a minor one, granted, but a classic nonetheless.
Thank You for Smoking is a very enjoyable read that's going to make one hell of a film. Watch for it soon. But remember: No smoking in the theater.
SOURCE: Foreman, Jonathan. “Boomer Humor.” National Review 49, no. 5 (24 March 1997): 55-6.
[In the following review, Foreman praises the unpredictability and the variety of subjects discussed in Wry Martinis.]
At the end of our phone call I asked the genial fellow who assigns book reviews for [National Review] if Christopher Buckley was in any way related to the illustrious founder of the magazine. “Oh, he's his son,” came the reply. I then jokingly asked if that meant I had to give the book a good review. There was a silence and then what sounded like a harrumph before my interlocutor hung up.
Glowing with the integrity for which book reviewers are famous, I resolved to read the book over the weekend and, if it was no good, to return it to the editor claiming that I had injured both wrists in a snowboarding accident. But I couldn't help wondering why anyone willingly writes book reviews. They pay very little for a great deal of work, and you run the risk of either making powerful enemies or earning a reputation as a logroller and a suck-up.
Fortunately, Wry Martinis turned out to be one of those rare assignments that make being a book reviewer seem like less of a raw deal. I chortled so loudly on the subway that a crowd of puffy-jacketed, baggy-jeaned teenagers moved to the other end of the car. I had read Christopher Buckley's stuff in The New Yorker and decided he was rather hit-and-miss. But this ten-year collection reveals a satirist at the top of his form, the best of the baby-boomer humorists.
To be funny in the way that Buckley is requires more than literary talent and good comic timing. You have to care about things. But not care so much that your sense of humor fails. This is one reason why you rarely see anything really funny in, say, The Nation or The Weekly Standard, especially when such magazines are trying their hardest to be satirical.
Buckley is a Republican but, like P. J. O'Rourke, not an orthodox one. Indeed, he is not an orthodox anything. This is why conservative true believers feel uneasy about him—in the same way that liberal true believers have their doubts about Garry Trudeau. Buckley's imagined “three-martini debate” between Clinton and Bush (published in The New Yorker) is hilarious, a classic of its kind. But a hard-core partisan wouldn't have been able to resist the temptation to give one candidate all the good lines, or to make him sober while the other one collapsed.
In fact, unpredictability and variety are Christopher Buckley's hallmarks. This collection includes interviews with his mother and with Ann Landers, and mock letters to Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber suspect, from counselors Johnnie Cochran, Alan Dershowitz, and Gerry Spence. Then there are the personal essays. My favorites were the ones in which Buckley described the joys of pulling nine Gs in an F-16—he threw up only five times—and his disastrously expensive efforts to air-condition his Washington, D.C., study. But Buckley is best at pure satire—like his wonderful spoof of the New York Times best-seller list and the transcript of phone sex between the Prince of Wales and his mistress which hints at an unusual use for Marmite, the infamous English sandwich spread.
Buckley has a soft spot for the military and feels guilty about not going to Vietnam though he genuinely failed the physical. But this doesn't stop him from making deliciously cruel fun of Tom Clancy and his techno-thrillers. Nor does his Republicanism make him unwilling to skewer Big Business. When a tobacco-company flack defends her work to him, he comes back with, “Of course: the Yuppie Nuremberg defense: I vas only paying ze mortgage.” And some airlines' decision to circulate less fresh air into airplane cabins inspires him to draft a memorandum suggesting that more money be saved by “adding a mixture of sawdust and polyethylene foam to the food.” In his imaginary focus groups “it was determined that only 3 per cent noticed they were eating wood and plastic instead of the standard fare.”
Satirical humor flows from anger in the defense of something the writer thinks is important. What gives satire its force is its implicit ideas of the way the world should be. Buckley's targets are therefore a pretty good guide to his values, literary as well as moral and political. Like Orwell, he particularly detests the despoliation of language by hucksters or politicians or those who would make the Bible more politically correct. And Buckley is well placed to hurl linguistic thunderbolts; his own writing is never anything but gin clear.
In the introduction to Wry Martinis, Buckley worries about the title. But I can assure the reader that it is spot-on. These pieces are dry, sharp, and smooth, and once you've had one you need another right away.
SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “Shouts and Murmurs.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 March 1999): 6.
[In the following review, Levi argues that the humor and satire in Little Green Men is too reserved and tame.]
Back in the late 1970s, while a massive truckers' strike was choking the motor-ways of England, the House of Lords was debating the existence of UFOs and companion creatures like the Loch Ness monster, which, as one lord postulated, was created by the lesser cherubim and seraphim from leftover divine essence, much in the way “Mummy used to give us bits of extra dough to make those funny little men with sultanas for tummy buttons.”
As always, Britain was way ahead of the United States. But not ahead of Christopher Buckley. In his latest novel, Little Green Men, Buckley posits the existence of a super secret government agency dedicated to creating and maintaining a public belief in the existence of extraterrestrials. MJ-12 came into being “during that golden Cold War summer of 1947. It had staged the first sighting of unidentified flying objects over Mt. Rainier on June 24 and followed that debut two weeks later with the Roswell ‘crash’ of alien spacecraft. The idea was simple enough: convince Stalin that UFOs existed and that the United States was in possession of their technology.” MJ-12 would not only put fear in the hearts of the Soviets but also put money in the pockets of defense contractors. “A country convinced that little green men were hovering over the rooftops was inclined to vote yea for big weapons and space programs.”
It's a brilliant conception with its overtones of Strangelovian Doomsday devices. And into its maw, Buckley throws an unlikely straight man, John O. Banion. Banion is the premier power pundit of America. Author of meaty policy tomes from Pig's Breakfast: The Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy from Cuba to Beirut to Screwing the Poor, a controversial bestseller on welfare reform, Banion is, most importantly, the host of Sunday, the most influential political television program in the country. Congressmen, senators, Supreme Court justices, even the president of the United States himself, creep cap in hand onto Banion's show, hoping to escape with some fraction of their own messages in the face of Banion's withering style. Stanley Kubrick could not have made a defter choice of hero.
Banion's connections and ratings are extraordinary. Add to that a wife named Bitsey and a spotless character drilled into him by generations of WASP forebears and Banion seems clothed in an impenetrable armor. Yet, as we all learned in Dr. Strangelove, the real danger to both nation and man is not from foreign aggressor or domestic foe but from common garden-variety boredom.
A low-level MJ-12 operative named Scrubbs, responsible for staging mock-alien abductions of overweight housewives (in order to keep the supermarket tabloids on a state of high alert), decides to break the tedium of routine by giving Banion a close encounter of the third kind. Without authorization, Scrubbs has Banion abducted and “probed” by a foursome of “aliens,” just off the fourth hole of the Burning Bush golf course.
Suddenly, Banion is filled with the fire of a Moses. Forget about the trouble in Russia, forget about the political shenanigans of the current occupant of the White House. There are little green men from outer space on the loose. And Banion must harness the power of his TV show, his syndicated newspaper column and his high-priced speaking engagements to warn the country that the sky is falling.
Were he English, no doubt young Buckley would be a lord-in-waiting, a viscount or marchioness, as a card-carrying member of the media-cracy, heir to the journalistic mantle of Father William (founder of the conservative magazine the National Review) and the political peerage of Uncle James. The DNA of Little Green Men is full of the below-the-beltway in-jokes and acronyms that must have suckled its author at an early age. But the blood that runs through Christopher's veins is less toxic than the blue stuff of his father. Equal parts quicksilver and curare, it quickens Buckley's pulse with the delight of an entertainer rather than the passion of a true believer.
Some of the funniest passages, in fact, are little entertainments, footnotes that Buckley kindly includes for those of us from a galaxy outside of Washington. Pierre Salinger, it is explained in bottom-of-page fine print, is an “increasingly obscure figure, believed to have been JFK's press secretary.” Juggs magazine, in a dig against one political rival to the National Review, is qualified as “a glossy magazine devoted to large-breasted women, begun as a color insert in the Atlantic Monthly.”
Here are the reasons why Buckley's “Shouts and Murmurs” in the pages of the New Yorker is so enjoyable. And indeed, one might imagine the outline for the novel provoking fits of phlegm and laughter on West 43rd Street. Yet short stuff does not a novel make.
Though the premise of Little Green Men is A-1, with all the elements for a first-class farce, the in-between bits, the dough that connects all the chocolate drops and sultanas, lacks the divine essence of comedy. The novel goes about its business with its collar firmly buttoned down. Even its occasional silliness is more of the accountant-with-a-lampshade-on-his-head variety. Buckley's comedies of good manners have always tended to tickle rather than skewer, to wink rather than chomp. But though Banion, even at the heights of romantic ecstasy, may have trouble loosening his necktie, one wishes that Buckley would drink a little more deeply of his own wit and howl at, if not reach for, the stars.
SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “We Are Not Alone—But We Are Very Funny.” Christian Science Monitor (1 April 1999): 16.
[In the following review, Charles offers a positive assessment of Little Green Men, calling the work “a prankster's greatest fantasy.”]
The key to an April Fools' Day prank is plausibility. Tricksters crave that perfect blending of the ordinary and the ludicrous that can spin victims into a moment of comic panic.
Years ago, a friend of mine and I taught at a conservative private college in the Midwest. One semester, he hung a series of his quiet, muted paintings of the Maine coast in the school lobby. My stage was set. Using office stationary. I wrote him a letter—from the chairman of the college—complaining about the shockingly pornographic nature of his paintings. I concluded gravely, “The trustees will be meeting soon to discuss your employment status.”
Kids: Don't try this at home. My friend swallowed it hook, line, and sinker—and then swam off in a rage toward the chairman's office. Fortunately, someone caught him, or the trustees would have soon met to discuss my employment status.
April 1 is obviously Christopher Buckley's favorite holiday, too. Today the comic author releases a hysterical novel called Little Green Men. It's a prankster's greatest fantasy.
The story opens on Washington's most pompous and feared political commentator. Every Sunday morning, John Banion runs the capital's most powerful elected officials through a brutalizing interrogation on his top-rated TV show, sponsored by a leading maker of electrocution chairs.
Senators and presidents sweat under Banion's owlish gaze, but “in a medium glutted with sound bites, people were happy to come on and have 20 minutes of national TV exposure all to themselves, even if Banion sometimes extracted an admission price of flaying them alive, on air.”
Far from Banion's rarefied world, Nathan Scrubbs is “waiting for his computer to advise him that somewhere in Indiana another housewife had been abducted and sexually probed by aliens in a flying saucer.”
Poor Scrubbs works for a supersecret government organization called MJ-12. His job is to keep “the taxpaying U.S. citizenry alarmed about the possibility of invasion from outer space, and therefore happy to fund expansion of the military-aerospace complex.”
The project had started modestly by towing pie-shaped reflective disks around the desert sky, but “when the thrill of disabled vehicles and freaked-out pets wore off,” MJ-12 had to start staging alien abductions. “This was trickier.” Buckley notes. “For one thing, it meant finding dwarfs with security clearance. For this reason, aliens have gotten considerably bigger over the years.”
In a moment of recklessness, Scrubbs decides to defend the nation's new space station by converting its most vociferous critic: John Banion.
Before high-ranking officials can call off their faux invaders, Banion is abducted—twice!—by aliens and becomes the world's most famous UFO proponent, the “Paul Revere of the Milky Way.”
Washington has endured all kinds of shocking conversions, surprises, and transformations, but for this there is no precedent. His wife pleads, his friends intervene, the press attacks, and his sponsor cancels, but no one can derail Banion's efforts to awaken the American people to the alien threat.
He quickly repackages himself on a new TV show that looks “like the bar scene from Star Wars.” More powerful than ever, though with a decidedly different group of fans, he calls for a Millennial Man March on Washington to demand congressional hearings on alien abduction.
“My name is John O. Banion,” he tells the adoring millions on the Capitol steps, “and I am an abductee.”
“Ich bin ein kook,” reads the next day's headlines.
Buckley's collection of alien fanatics is worth more than a ton of antimatter. (The Tall Nordie Singers perform “We Are the World” during the Millennial Man March.) It's a decidedly bawdy book, with that classic Monty Python mixture of highbrow satire and lowbrow ribaldry. His flights of comedy zigzag through the story like UFOs over Area 51, and his ear for the ridiculous is out of this world. Tuck Little Green Men away for a quiet night in the crop circles.
SOURCE: Stuttaford, Andrew. “Contact.” National Review 51, no. 7 (19 April 1999): 65-6.
[In the following review, Stuttaford examines the political satire and humorous situations in Little Green Men.]
Space aliens are a nasty, bug-eyed lot, always plotting to subjugate the galaxy and firing off death rays. Not much use to us humans, you might think. But you would be wrong. As a plot device, the extraterrestrial can be most useful, a light shone on the peculiarities of this planet. And so, in his latest, and very funny, novel, [Little Green Men,] Christopher Buckley employs a motley and distinctly home-grown bunch of ETs to take a look at a close encounter between two different worlds, both of which happen to be located here on Earth.
His hero, John Banion, is a king of the first of these worlds, Beltway Washington: a prince of pundits, a griller of presidents, his Sunday-morning show a D.C. must-see. And the Washington Buckley portrays with his customary collection of one-liners and insightful zingers is a venal, absurd place. He reproduces its portentous language with perfect pitch (an intern program—no, not that one—called “Excellence in Futurity”) and its pretentious inhabitants with perfect bitch.
The city described here is salon Washington, the home of power politics at its most trivial, inhabited by a Renaissance Weekend of grotesques, including a widowed hostess who married a fortune and became an ambassador in Europe, and a “suave, immense, baritone-voiced” African-American, the president's “first friend.” What of the president himself? He's an “ozone-hugger” who speaks in a “slow, overly patient tone of voice that suggested he wasn't sure English was your first language.”
Which may be wise, for as John Banion is soon to discover, it's a different world out beyond the elite enclaves. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, Sherman McCoy arrived there by means of a wrong turn after the Triborough Bridge. For Christopher Buckley's soon-to-fall Master of the Universe, there's no wrong turn—in effect, somebody else grabs the wheel. The luckless pundit is abducted by things, subjected to unpleasant procedures, and then abandoned on a golf course, with a pain down below “that reminded him of how he'd felt after the colonoscopy, a feeling of stretching …”
It gets worse. A second abduction convinces Banion that the alien threat is real. He has to become the “Paul Revere of the Milky Way” and warn the world. The problem is that his world, the Washington world, doesn't want to know. He quickly becomes an embarrassment, an intergalactic Pierre Salinger. With wicked relish, Buckley shows us how Banion loses wife, contacts, and contracts. Cruel man that he is, the author even makes his Job-like hero go through the ordeal of an AA-style “intervention” by friends.
The inhabitants of another world altogether, Planet Ufology, however, prick up their (wish-they-could-be-pointed) ears when they hear Banion's message. The newsman is just what the saucer crowd has been waiting for. He's famous, possibly even sane, a plausible spokesman far closer to the mainstream than most in the UFO world, a world that Buckley has obviously researched with care. Its celebrities (with changed names: flying writs are more dangerous than flying saucers) are on parade. And so are its stories, speculations, and just plain hoaxes: Roswell, Area 51, Grays, Nordics, cattle mutilations, even that Richard Nixon/Jackie Gleason business (long story, but, as usual in these matters, it involves alien corpses). And Banion? Well, he's no Sherman McCoy. He refuses to remain fallen but instead picks himself up and becomes a master of this new universe.
Yet even as he is lionized by the crowd at a (marvelously described) UFO conference, our protagonist can't help noting that “there was something lacking in these people's lives.” The ultimate insider exchanges his Washington post for plebeian life in the USA today but … well, as Egalitarian of the Year he simply does not cut it. Nor does the author, who cheerfully resumes the political incorrectness displayed so enjoyably in his last novel, Thank You for Smoking, Potential offendees include Canada, dwarves, the space program, Eleanor Roosevelt, PBS, electric chairs, Cuban detainees, Indiana housewives, and Sammy Davis Jr.'s missing eye.
As we discover, the UFO nation is not a small one. In fact, you are living in it. Its credulous hordes are large enough to overwhelm John Banion's old Washington kingdom, and the rewards it offers, both financially and in terms of sheer adulation, are far greater. Like one of those Roman generals sent off to deal with the barbarians in the latter days of the empire, Banion is able to return to torment the capital at the head of a vast army of co-opted provincials, in his case a three-million strong “Millennium Man” march.
Then what happens? What can be disclosed without spoiling the plot (the author reveals this detail early on) is the book's underlying premise that the whole UFO business, including Banion's abduction, was a fraud from the very beginning, engineered by Majestic, the most secret of all government departments. Its purpose? Initially, to worry Stalin, but later to keep the U.S. taxpayer sufficiently “alarmed about the possibility of invasion from outer space … to vote yea for big weapons and space programs.”
It's possible (think of the health-care “crisis” or global warming), but X-philes who read this book will find the idea a little farfetched, even for a satire. Conspiratorially, they will talk about the documents that purport to show that Majestic really did exist. Patiently, they will explain that the aim of this real Majestic was not to fabricate UFO evidence, but to conceal it. Darkly, they will tell you that, if these documents are genuine, Buckley's tale can only help to mislead a country that has already been misinformed for far too long.
And why would the author do this? For a clue, check out the career of his hero, the television pundit he puts in the firing line. That's also his father's job. Yes, his father, that same “W. F. Buckley” who was mentioned twice in Jim Matts's Alien Agenda, last year's exposé of the UFO cover-up. Could Buckley the Son be part of the conspiracy?
I don't know, but next time you are in the Buckley neighborhood, watch out for those black helicopters.
SOURCE: Heilbrunn, Jacob. “She Stoops to Conquer.” Los Angeles Times (13 October 2002): R5.
[In the following review, Heilbrunn offers a positive assessment of No Way to Treat a First Lady, calling the novel a “heroic and pioneering effort.”]
Christopher Buckley is, to borrow Major Bagstock's self-assessment in Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son, a devilishly intelligent fellow. In his bestseller Thank You for Smoking, Buckley mocked the pieties of political correctness. Now, in his novel No Way to Treat a First Lady, Buckley has surpassed himself. He has become a presidential historian. The result isn't humorous; it's hilarious.
The Clinton presidency might seem beyond parody. But Buckley offers something even wackier: a parallel universe in which Hillary Rodham Clinton is fondly remembered as a meek tea-serving first lady. It is First Lady Elizabeth Tyler MacMann who is loathed for her grasping ambition by a public only too ready to believe the worst of her. The trial of the century results when she is accused of using a historic Paul Revere spittoon to assassinate her philandering husband, President Ken MacMann. Our story opens with President MacMann in the Lincoln Bedroom, grunting and wheezing on top of his favorite mistress, Babette Van Anka, Hollywood starlet, singer and activist. Afterward, after immersing the presidential member—still raring to go, thanks to a solution of Viagra—in an ice-cold carafe of water, MacMann returns to his own bedroom, but his dissimilatory efforts are most unavailing. Beth is not fooled; an argument ensues; next morning, the president is found dead.
“Beth,” as the first lady is known, has no choice but to turn to her jilted lover and the country's leading trial attorney, Boyce “Shameless” Baylor. A canny self-promoter, Baylor leaks the news of their first meeting so that hundreds of TV cameras and reporters can film him outside his Manhattan office waiting to meet her: “[M]aybe—just maybe—to make his revenge perfect, he would deliberately lose this one. But so subtly that even the Harvard Law bow-tie brigade would hem and haw and say that no one, really, could have won this one, not even Shameless Baylor.”
But as he falls in love again with Beth, Baylor throws himself into the trial. No fewer than three connecting suites at Washington's tony Jefferson Hotel were, Buckley reports, transformed into a command post; a television studio so that Boyce can comment live at a moment's notice; a fitness and meditation center complete with oxygen tank; and, most important, a ground zero room that is immune to bugging. For Boyce's audacious thesis isn't simply that Beth is innocent. It's that a vengeful Secret Service and FBI agent found the president dead and embossed his forehead with the fateful Paul Revere mark to inculpate Lady Beth Mac, as she was known among the White House staff.
Although the narrative starts to careen out of control once Buckley has Baylor impregnating the first lady and getting mixed up with shady Central Americans, Buckley's sheer verve makes up for such lapses. In one courtroom scene, an FBI agent testifies that he discovered Beth vomiting in the bathroom after her husband's death. “The TV commentary that night,” Buckley writes, “featured detailed analysis by criminologists, gastroenterologists and psychologists on the subject of vomiting in general and whether doing it in the presence of law enforcement is a reliable indicator of guilt.” Buckley sews up the narrative by letting Beth go free because—no, it would be wrong to give away the ending. Suffice to say, President MacMann's poor vice president, Harold Farkey, loses the election to an opponent whose first piece of legislation is the Lincoln Bedroom Protection Act.
Unlike Henry Adams, whose Democracy created the genre of the Washington novel, Buckley does not seek to evoke consternation about the fall of the American republic. On the contrary, No Way to Treat a First Lady is really a nostalgic paean to the antics of the Clinton administration. No scolding moralist intent on discovering broader lessons in the president's indiscretions, Buckley revels in the buzz and spin control efforts of the president's janizaries and lawyers, reproducing them word for word with uncanny fidelity.
No doubt Clinton's legacy will continue to be debated, with the revisionists arguing that he was really, as Joe Klein put it in his book, “a natural.” If Clinton was hardly the most successful of presidents, he was surely one of the most entertaining. Perhaps Buckley, in his bemusement at both right and left with the media and lawyers in between, has written the most discerning social history of the Clinton era that will ever appear. It is a feat that will be difficult to replicate. So let us declare: a memorial Paul Revere spittoon to be awarded, whenever appropriate, to the presidential historian who strives to match this heroic and pioneering effort.