EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the June 13, 1994, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here).
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 spokesfolk, 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.