Grand Ol’ Partier
America’s favorite blue-blooded satirist takes on red-state politics and turns the looming Social Security crisis into the stuff of comedy.
You know the saying, “Don’t get mad, get even’?” asks Christopher Buckley. “Mine is, ‘Don’t get mad, write a novel.'” Satire as anger management has proven effective for the 54-year-old parodist emeritus, whose deft touch has made him the scourge of flimflam politicians, Orwellian lobbyists, and pretty much every other breed of Washington top-feeder.
Today, over a wine-soaked lunch at Manhattan’s Union Square Cafe, he’s discussing his latest target: Social Security reform. Snooze, you’re probably thinking. Think again. Boomsday (Warner Twelve) is an uproarious crystal-ballish tale about what could happen if Generation Y stopped being polite and started getting real about paying for the retirement of 80 million baby boomers. Think J. Crew-clad mobs storming Florida retirement communities, upending golf carts and defiling putting greens-forcing the government to actually consider tax incentives for boomers who choose to kick the bucket (“voluntary transitioning”). “I have an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old,” says Buckley, “and they’re going to be paying for my incontinence pads. Sooner or later, there will be a reckoning.”
Maybe so, but Boomsday is more comedy than caution-after all, Buckley keeps a sticker on his laptop that reads KIF, for Keep It Funny. “It’s there to remind me-as if I needed reminding-that I’m not Proust,” he says, insisting that if only his editor would let him, he’d write about ne’er-do-well bachelors and their valets, in the tradition of his literary idol, P.G. Wodehouse. Appropriately enough, Buckley’s alter ego in Boomsday is Massachusetts Senator Randolph Jepperson, who’s like the Bertie Wooster of Capitol Hill. Says Buckley, “I hate to admit it, but that’s sort of me: craven, feckless, opportunistic, but faintly amusing.” Indeed, before Jepperson runs for president on a Social Security reform platform, he is perhaps best known for the fact that, back at Harvard, he turned down the prestigious A.D. Club on the grounds that it was a “marble shithouse.”
With his round tortoiseshell glasses, jolly comportment, and right eye that tends to wink every few minutes, Buckley does have a satisfied, patrician air about him. But make no mistake: The son of National Review founder and supreme conservative William F. Buckley, Jr., has built a career that’s as much oblige as noblesse-notwithstanding his angsty teenage years, when he tripped on acid during a 60 Minutes interview and had “Fuck Off” tattooed on his wrist (he’s since removed it). Pop psychologists might say it couldn’t have been easy to grow up in Bill Buckley’s formidable shadow, but the truth is that the elder Buckley armed his boy early on with the courage to step out of it. “I was a sophomore in college and I remember reading a letter he had sent me,” Buckley relates. “I’d been sending him my stuff from the Yale Daily News and I remember him saying, ‘What has happened to your writing? It’s tough, rhythmic, downhill, and spare.’ This was his way of saying, ‘You’re good, you can do this.'” Of course, Bill being Bill, “I’ll send him something and he’ll say, ‘Needs editing, doesn’t it?'”
These days, Buckley eulogizes the decreasingly grand old party that his father devoted his life to. “I’m a self-loathing Republican,” he laments. “We went from being a party of confidence and fiscal restraint and individual liberty to being the party that encouraged intervention in Terry Schiavo’s case, this disastrous experience in Iraq, Katrina, and an $8.5 trillion debt. It was hogs feeding at the trough from Jack Abramoff to Karl Rove. I’m just sad and angry.” Salting the wound is the fact that in the early eighties Buckley was a speechwriter for then vice president George H.W. Bush, whom he still considers a dear friend. “I think all this must be terribly difficult for him,” says Buckley of the mess that 43 has made.
Prodded for an anecdote about his former boss-whom Buckley refers to as The Vish, on account of 41’s amusing affection for a plaque of the Hindu god Vishnu Indian officials once gave him on a state visit-Buckley launches into a story about the time he hijacked Air Force Two. “We had done a weeklong swing through Latin America and were all bone-tired and punch-drunk,” he recalls. “We had been promised a night in Rio, but The Vish decided that he wanted to go back to Washington so he could play tennis with Jimmy Baker. So we had a boat trip in the harbor just before we left, and a couple of us got pretty well oiled. We get on Air Force Two, and Bush’s press secretary had bought a black leather jacket, and we made a sash for him. The Secret Service wouldn’t give us guns, but they gave us holsters. So I went up and got on the P.A. system, and in a Spanish accent announced that the ‘Popular Liberation Front’ had seized the plane and we were going back to Rio. The crew came running with guns with safeties off! I have a photograph that someone took of Bush as I’m reading the list of demands that says, ‘Chris Buckley-Who is forgiven for a revolucion failed; but whose probation includes 14 speeches per week-all on “respect for the office.” Signed, Geo. Bush.'”
With a dozen books now under his belt-including 1994’s Thank You for Smoking, which spawned the Golden Globe-nominated film and an upcoming NBC series-Buckley still manages to hold a day job (he has been editor of ForbesLife since 1989), compose the occasional dinner speech (he ghostwrote John McCain’s boffo address at the Gridiron Dinner a few years ago), and sneak off for the rare, requisite writerly bender, most recently a 10-hour “lunch” with friend and foil Christopher Hitchens. “Do you remember what Lincoln said when someone complained to him about Grant’s drinking?” asks Buckley. “‘Find out what kind of whiskey he drinks, and send a case to all my other generals.’ I feel that way about Christopher’s drinking.”
Buckley has already turned in the outline for his next book, a peek beneath the robes of the Supreme Court. “The clerks take on the personalities of the justices,” he says. “And they form little cliques and cabals and are very mean to each other.” He smiles impishly. “I delight in that.”
MORE THOUGHTS ON SUNDRY TOPICS
ON AWKWARD SOCIAL MOMENTS
“My favorite faux pas story-we tell it with reverence in my family-happened to David Niven, who was a pal of my dad. He was the kindest man on earth, didn’t have a mean bone in his body. A sweet, kind man. So he’s at a white tie ball and he struck up a conversation with a man. They’re standing at the foot of a grand staircase and two women appear at the top of the staircase and start to walk down and David nudges the man and says, ‘I say, that must be the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen in my life.’ The man stiffens and says, ‘That’s my wife.’ Desperate for a lifeline, David says, ‘I mean the other one.’ The man stiffens again and says, ‘That’s my daughter!’ And David says, ‘I didn’t say it!’
“We call that in our house the ‘David Niven Defense.’ It does come in handy.”
ON WRITING HABITS
“I live on the Acela train. I started Boomsday on the train. I’d been dillydallying-you have the contract, you’ve done the research-and I thought, It’s time to pee or get off the pot. I noticed that it was December 21st, the winter solstice, and I thought, Cool, let’s start it now and try to finish it by June 21st, the summer solstice. And I finished it on July 13th, which was close enough and solstice-y. I wrote a third of the book on that train. You get three hours, if you sit in the quiet car, otherwise known as The Car They Don’t Let the Loudmouth Assholes with Cell Phones On. I’ve also become the Nazi of the quiet car. I’m the one who enforces the rules. I found myself sitting behind Louis Freeh, the former director of the FBI, on the quiet car, he was yakking away with some man, and finally I leaned forward and said, ‘Mr. Freeh, you’re a great American and I’m a huge admirer, but this is the quiet car.’ So, I shushed the former director of the FBI.
“There’s something about being on the move that I find conducive to writing, or being in a hotel room. If you’re in a strange hotel room with nothing to do but wait for the gig, there’s no better consolation than having to crank out 1,000 words. Otherwise I’d go mad!”
ON OTHER WRITERS
“I’m reading Gore Vidal’s last book, Point to Point. I’ve always been a great admirer of Gore Vidal’s writing. I haven’t read his novels, but I think I’ve read just about all his other stuff. Let’s put it this way: I think Gore Vidal was the Christopher Hitchens of his era. There’s no one I’d rather read. Actually, Christopher Hitchens is my idea of a perfect writer. But he’s a prodigy, as Vidal was. I think Christopher’s talent is of the kind, you know, that you don’t get every generation.
“I’m with Vidal on a lot of stuff, I accompany him about three quarters of the way, but then he drives it off the cliff, you know, and starts talking about how JFK was assassinated by General Motors. I think the ultimate argument against the conspiracy theory involving JFK is: When has the U.S. government ever done anything so efficiently or successfully?”
ON AMERICAN DYNASTIES
“I think George P. Bush (nephew of W., son of Jeb) is the GOP’s Barack Obama. He speaks fluent Spanish. I wonder if he’ll be running against Chelsea. We’ve gotten ourselves into a situation where, you realize, we’ve had presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush, and now the frontrunner is another Clinton. You have to ask: Are we turning into a Latin American country?” [Laughs]
ON HIS OWN STATUS IN HIS CHILDREN’S EYES
“Neither of my children has ever read one word that I’ve written, even though I’ve dedicated books to them. They just won’t. But they have classmates who have read everything I’ve written. I understand it. I think it’s just that children have a way of compartmentalizing. And I’m dad, the font of all money.”
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