Q&A: CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY
Highlights from The DC Issue
Photography by JOHN HUBA
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
HUMOR IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL
A ticket to the Washington carnival with Christopher Buckley
By Charles Haskell
There are many ways of defining Christopher Buckley. He is the son of William F. Buckley Jr., the late host of Firing Line and the so-called father of modern conservatism. He is a novelist, a political satirist concocting outlandish, though eerily real stories based on various elements of DC politics. At one time he was the managing editor of Esquire, and now he is the editor of Forbes FYI magazine. In the Eighties he was the chief speechwriter for George H. W. Bush and was recently featured on the Hoover Institution’s current affairs show, Uncommon Knowledge, critiquing and rating speeches by Obama, McCain and their respective running mates Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.
Above all Christopher Buckley is modest. Or, if not truly modest, at least forced into acting that way. On a recent taping of Hardball with Chris Matthews he half-jokingly referred to himself as a “hack novelist,” saying his political opinions are important only because of his last name. It seemed the statement was intended to muzzle, or at least calm, the Republican Party’s collective displeasure over his October 10th posting on The Daily Beast website. In the post, he made clear that his choice for president was no longer Republican John McCain. Instead, he was formally endorsing the Democrat Barack Obama who, according to Buckley, elicits “a first-class temperament,” among other Harvard-esque qualities. The endorsement led to his resignation from the conservative journal, National Review, that was founded by his father in 1955.
Two weeks before his appearance on Hardball, Mr. Buckley was the feature story on Hard Copy, or at least tabloid programs akin to that style. It was all thanks to an October 2nd New York Post story which told of William F. Buckley’s last minute choice to exclude his son’s “illegitimate” child from his will.
If only there were two Christopher Buckley’s. It must take all the strength of one man to go through highly publicized tiffs like these. Therefore we need another to write the ironic story of how a keen observer of Washington politics finds himself the object of scorn amidst his party’s breakdown. All for simply crossing party lines to support the candidate he sees fit. And further, how he resorts to calling himself a “hack” on national television, only to appease his aggressors and excuse himself from further scrutiny. This, if nothing else, should be the stuff of satirical fiction.
At one point in the very near past Mr. Buckley was in fact supporting John McCain for president. When he spoke to me in August from his cabin in Maine he mentioned the election. And, at the time, he was endorsing McCain, “with one hand on the lever.” McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin removed that hand, thus giving Mr. Buckley his first chance (in 37 years of voting) to go with a Democrat.
But of all the ways to define Christopher Buckley, you must deem him the expert of explaining the Washington DC political carnival. Mostly, because he has now had a part in the show.
Mr. Buckley has written 13 books in all, seven of which are satirical novels and his eighth, Supreme Courtship, was published this last September by Twelve.
Stop Smiling: Many people seem to hold a rather negative opinion of
Washington, DC. What’s your take on the city? Do you enjoy living here?
Christopher Buckley: I love it, I confess. I may be one of a handful of people. Everyone professes to hate it, that it’s a symptom of everything that’s wrong with our country. But I love it. I feel sometimes that just by picking up the Washington Post I’ve got a front-row seat at the biggest carnival in the world. My friend Christopher Hitchens would say, “It’s a feast of reason and a flow of soul.” It sure does make for good spectating, although it is hard making this shit up — but there are low-hanging fruits to be plucked. My comic sensibility was kind of formed there. I didn’t come to Washington in 1981 to write humor, although politicians do like to have a joke or two at the beginning.
SS: What do you make of the recent political sex scandals?
CB: They do seem to be a randy bunch, don’t they? Well, human nature doesn’t stop being human nature when it gets elected to office. And we are endlessly fascinated. It would probably be better right now if everyone were focused on finding an energy policy rather than where Mr. Edwards has been parking his pecker. But that’s what the people want, and the media will continue to give it to them. It won’t end, and in these spectacles we see all our internal parodies reconfirmed, all the hypocrisies. It’s no different from what Balzac was writing about. I grew up during the Eisenhower, JFK and LBJ era, and I never thought that a stained, blue Gap dress would become a front-page news item.
SS: Culturally, what does this say about America?
CB: Unfortunately it says quite a lot about our culture, and I don’t think it’s particularly pretty. During the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky incident I was doing a book tour in France and meeting lots of the French, and they just couldn’t understand what the fuck we were doing. I said, “Well, maybe we’re in the process of becoming a little more French.” How about Mr. Sarkozy and the first lady? Why can’t we have first ladies who used to date Mick Jagger? But that’s why I’m not running.
SS: Have you considered running?
CB: No, I’ll leave that to Al Franken.
SS: Do you know Mr. Franken personally?
CB: I know him a little bit. He’s a liberal. I’m not a liberal, but I like him. But I don’t hope he wins. I’d rather have a Republican.
SS: How conservative would you say you are?
CB: Well, I’m not a crazy Republican. I think the Republican Party has really screwed the pooch during the time that it’s been in power. I think it’s been a very disappointing presidential era, and a very disappointing congressional era.
SS: Are you against the war in Iraq?
CB: I wasn’t for the war in the first place. Now that we’re into year six of the war, I think it would be wrong to lose it just to prove a point. One way or another, we’ll be out of there substantially within two years, whether it’s McCain or Obama. I went on record in an op-ed piece in the New York Times being against the war. Really, no one cares whether I’m pro-war or anti-war, but I didn’t think it was a good idea.
SS: Do you have much contact with the current administration?
CB: No, almost none.
SS: How about Bush 41. Do you still talk?
CB: I stay in touch with him, sure. I count him as a friend. I’m very fond of him, and I think he is fond of me. I hurt for him and for how things have gone. This has to be terribly tough for him.
SS: Do you really think George W. has been sober his entire time in office?
CB: He certainly acts as though he has. I think we might be in slightly better shape if he had a drink here or there. The president of the United States is a born-again Christian and a recovering alcoholic — that tells you a great deal about someone right there. I’m not sure if the gestalt worked to the good but here we are. Let me put it this way: If someone were running for president as a recovering alcoholic and a born-again Christian, would you vote for him? Well, the odd thing is I did vote for him in 2000. But I didn’t in 2004.
SS: You didn’t?
CB: No. I voted for his father as a write-in candidate. I vote in DC, so any Republican vote is wasted. I couldn’t bring myself to vote for him again.
SS: What about the current election?
CB: I’m going to vote for McCain with one hand on the lever. But I do think Obama will win.
SS: Which one of these two candidates has more of a sense of humor?
CB: I’ve read two of Obama’s books. I’ve been told that he reads my books, which clearly speaks well for the man. He comes across on the written page as likable, highly intelligent, very thoughtful, and he seems to possess a sense of humor. On the other hand, McCain has a wild and crazy sense of humor. He’s all over the place. He’s a Navy jock, a fighter pilot, and he says things periodically that get him into trouble. They are very different sensibilities.
Ultimately I think it boils down to who you would rather have a drink with. And I’ve had a drink with McCain.
SS: Just the two of you?
CB: No. My wife and P.J. O’Rourke were also there. McCain is good company. And I imagine Obama would be good company too.
There’s perhaps a little hint of earnestness there on the Obama side. I thought that speech he gave in Berlin was just way over the top: “We are the moment we’ve been waiting for, we are the people” — I mean, come on. That’s Harvard speaking. I say that as a Yale guy. They do take themselves seriously. That’s why Reagan was a success. He didn’t come in saying, “Okay, I’m going to fix 50 things.” He said he was going to fix two or three things. And he stayed with them: tax returns and the Cold War. He always knew what his aim was.
I don’t know if you saw Michael Kinsley’s piece in the New York Times op-ed about the Democratic platform. It’s like Santa’s list: We’re going to cure cancer, we’re going to make everyone go to Mars, go to Pluto. We’re going to go beyond Pluto — we’re going to go to the Crab Nebula. I mean, come on. I think if a president limited himself, he could do great things.
SS: Some people say Obama is a Muslim in disguise. How offbase is that notion?
CB: Well, that’s just the stupidest thing. A portion of the American people are stupid. And whatever portion of the American people think
Obama’s a Muslim is the stupid portion.
What’s fascinating is Obama being a Muslim convert to Christianity. And in any Muslim country where sharia is the law of the land, it’s a capital offense. So if he were to visit the Sudan, or Iran, or any country where sharia is the law, he would be subject to being stoned to death, which would pose an interesting thought to the security apparatus.
Christopher Hitchens has hit this one pretty hard, but by what definition is Obama really black? His mother is white. He’s not completely black. We get all wrapped up in these things. That comment that Clinton was the first black president seems to have gotten off scot-free. Why is it okay to say Clinton was the first black president? I would find that insulting were I black, because it’s generally said in a mischievous context, and yet it’s completely permissible to say that. I don’t get it.
SS: How often do you get together with Christopher Hitchens?
CB: Not often enough. I wrote on the flap in one of my books that I’ve done a lot of things in life but the thing I’m proudest of is having had a 10 and a half hour lunch with him. We sat down at one o’clock at Cafe Milano, and we just never got up. We were just gabbing. We never run out of things to talk about. My hangover lasted about three and a half weeks, but he went home and wrote a biography of George Orwell. The man is not human. He is a prodigy. He is not like the rest of us.
SS: What do you say to those who think negatively of him and say that he’s just a showboat and hungry for attention?
CB: I say that I wish I could be a showboat of his caliber. Anyone who reads several lines of something Christopher has written will realize they’re in the hands of probably one of the greatest writers of English prose alive today. He just sent me something this morning, a review he tossed off for the Guardian about the new movie based on the Evelyn Waugh novel Brideshead Revisited. It’s just breathtaking in its sweep and total recall and effortless wit and substance. He is quite something.
SS: What books are you reading right now?
CB: Right now I’m reading a marvelous book that’s about to come out by my friend Alex Beam. It’s on the creation of the Great Books series by Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler. It’s called A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books. But I tend to read a bunch of different books at the same time.
SS: Do you find yourself reading more novels than nonfiction?
CB: No, I hardly read any novels. Well that’s not quite true. I just read a marvelous novel by Jess Winfield called My Name Is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs and Shakespeare. It’s really an excellent book, and a lot of fun to read. It’s like Shakespeare In Love on magic mushrooms.
SS: So who are some of your favorite present-day novelists?
CB: Certainly Mr. Winfield. I’ve read a lot of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan.
SS: How about Tom Wolfe?
CB: Yeah, he’s one of very few writers who I can say I’ve read everything that he’s written. Wolfe and Hitchens. That must be 40 books right there. I think my definition of a favorite writer is someone you can reread.
SS: What about Vonnegut?
CB: Yeah, I did. But like many people, I stopped. There was something about Vonnegut that appealed to one at a particular time in life. I think I stopped reading him when I was in college. I met him many years later and found him a very sympathetic guy. I heard him tell his story of surviving the firebombing of Dresden. You’re sitting there listening to him, thinking, “Oh my God, this is a guy who was present at one of the truly worst moments of the 20th century, and somehow escaped to tell the tale.” But he’s dead too. Everyone’s dead. All the grown-ups are leaving.