Supreme Satirist

Bill Steigerwald
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Posted: Oct 02, 2008 4:15 PM
Supreme Satirist

Christopher Buckley's latest satire about an unpopular president who nominates a sexy TV judge to the Supreme Court is kind of spooky. "Supreme Courtship" -- which he finished in January and has been praised in liberal places like the New York Times Book Review for its bipartisan skewering of the political elites in Washington who never seem to run out of ways to ruin our lives -- was only released in early September. Yet its antagonist-in-chief is a teeth-capped member of the Senate Judiciary Committee who looks, acts and never stops talking like Joe Biden and its main female character -- Judge Pepper Cartwright -- bears an eerie resemblance or two to a certain Alaska governor now seeking the vice presidency. Buckley, the late William F. Buckley Jr.'s son who was born in 1952, is a frequent contributor to top national papers and magazines and an editor at Forbes magazine. His 13 books include "Thank You for Smoking," which Hollywood turned into a 2006 movie. I talked to him Sept. 23 by cell phone as he slowly made his way from Washington to New York City on Amtrak's high-speed Acela Express.

Q: Tell us briefly what your book is about and who would play the lead character Pepper Cartwright in the movie version.

A: Well, it's about a president who is frustrated by his arch-enemy, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who keeps shooting down his Supreme Court nominations for very frivolous reasons. So one night at Camp David, when the president is in bed with the first golden retriever named Dwight, and they're channel-surfing looking for a bowling tournament, on comes this courtroom reality show starring Judge Pepper Cartwright, who looks sort of like a naughty librarian -- very, you know, dishy, with glasses. She packs a pistol underneath her robes.

So I give you a book that I handed in in January, where the antagonists are a cosmetically enhanced U.S. senator who has run for president a number of times and can't shut up, can't stop talking, pitted against a glasses-wearing, gun-toting TV hottie. So I return the question to you: Who do you think should play Pepper Cartwright? (laughs)

Q: I guess if she doesn't become the vice president .

A: (laughs) I tell you. You can't make this stuff up. It's very frustrating writing satire in America these days. You're in a losing competition with tomorrow's front page.

Q: My second question was going to be "It is a satire, right?"

A: I think it is. I'm no longer sure (laughs).

Q: Is there a message buried in your satire?

A: No, not really. I'm of the old school -- if you want to send a message, send a telegram. Although I suppose that's an outdated adage now; it's probably send an e-mail. It's intended as a satire of the Supreme Court. The sexy TV judge was really sort of a way in, if you will. The Supreme Court is a bit of a challenge, comedy-wise. As one of the characters in the book says, "It's basically nine old farts in robes sending footnotes to each other." So this was a way of, if you will, amping it up. That said, it is an institution that is richly deserving of satire, as we see every time there is a Supreme Court nomination hearing. Every now and then it does something genuinely funny, like decide one of our presidential elections.

Q: What so far has been pleasantly surprising to you?

A: Probably the way it sort of eerily seems to resemble this presidential election - you know, with the gun-toting TV hottie and .. The train is starting to stop. this must be very exciting for you. You get to experience the Acela in real time.

Q: I thought it was supposed to be going at 200 miles per hour.

A: No. No (laughs). Going at 200 miles an hour is about the one thing it does not do. It seems to stop every 10 feet and pick people up (laughs).

Q: Has your book been reviewed favorably or unfavorably?

A: I would say pretty favorably. There was an ad in the New York Times yesterday with some knock-out quotes I won't bore you with, but I would call them very favorable. I'm sure it's got unfavorable reviews too. It's never a clean sweep. I honestly endeavor not to read reviews, because the good ones are never good enough and the bad ones are always far too bad. (laughs)

Q: Tom Wolfe famously complained about 20 years ago now that it's almost impossible for a fiction writer to top the madness and absurdity or the real world. Do you agree?

A: Yeah, I'm with Tom there. He's a role model, certainly. His novels are meticulously researched. Mine are sort of semi-meticulously researched. They are very much grounded in real life. What I do is take reality and perhaps hit it with a cue stick just a little off center to give it some English. I try never to fly off the edge and make it completely implausible. I walk the line between I'd say plausibility and pure outrageousness. I aim to entertain. My stuff is pretty high octane. It may not be for everyone, but the ones who like it seem to like it.

Q: How do you describe your politics and do they differ in any significant way from your father's?

A: My politics are I would say at this point "post-ideological." I no longer grade according to a set of Mosaic conservative tablets. I don't know who I'm going to vote for in this election -- a statement that surprises even me, because I have never pulled the Democrat lever. But I may well pull it this year and for very complicated reasons. I find McCain's performance of late dispiriting. I fell immediately in love with Sarah Palin, but as the blush wears off, reality sets in and one says, "Come on. Wait a minute here."

This is a pretty darn critical time we've been handed. Look what's going on in Washington and Wall Street right now. We may be plunging, hurtling, toward 1929. I think the events of this week and last week have been sort of an injection of gravitas into the campaign. To the extent we amuse ourselves endlessly with the tribulations of the Palin family as some kind of a political Brady Bunch, we are laughing ourselves off the edge of the abyss.

I respect Mr. Obama. He's a lefty. I'm not. But I've read his books. I think he's a sentient, thoughtful guy, and my hope is that if he were elected that he would himself become post-ideological. Because if he just applies the usual lefty package to the economy, it will be ruinous. I think he's smart enough to know that, for heaven's sake. So there we are.

Q: You've just messed up my next two or three questions. I was going to put you down as a "conservative-libertarian" or a "libertarian-conservative."

A: You can put me down as "undecided, leaning both directions." (laughs)

Q: OK, then, are people who think like you - let's say "non-liberals" -- at a disadvantage when it comes to writing and selling fiction?

A: I think the main disadvantage of selling fiction, as a satirist -- as we used to say back in the days of Watergate, "I revert to my prior statement" - is the difficulty of outdoing American reality. I don't think good satire skews one way or the other, politically speaking. It is true that if you took John Stewart or Steven Colbert, I don't think they have any announced ideological inclination. Although I think if you ran them through the zeitgeist MRI, they would probably skew a little bit liberally. Whereas you have Michael Moore, who is a foam-at-the-mouth leftist - and does very well. My God, his books sell in many multiples more than mine. So maybe I should acquire some foam-in-the-mouth. It might be good for sales.

Q: Of your 13 books, which would you recommend to a reader who hasn't read your stuff yet?

A: I'd say "collect them all!" Probably the most well-known, because a movie was made from it, would be "Thank You for Smoking." I going tomorrow to speak at a college in Michigan where it was the book that all the freshmen had to read collectively. It's some program called "Central Reading." I'm delighted to go there and talk because for a book to last, to go on, it pretty much has to be read in the colleges. This one is being read in the colleges and with any luck people who like that book may dial me up on Amazon and as I say, collect them all.

Q: Are there any ideas brewing for a next book?

A: Well, I've already written my next book, actually. It's called "Losing Mum and Pup." I lost both of my parents in the last year. As one of Oscar Wilde's characters says, "To lose one parent is bad enough. But to lose two begins to look like carelessness." It'll come out in the spring. It's an account of my last year. It's something we all go through. That's No. 14.