BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Christopher Buckley, author of "Wry Martinis," you have a hard time getting that title?
Mr. CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY (Author, "Wry Martinis"): I did, Brian, and thereby hangs the introduction.
LAMB: What's the story?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, titles are important. The--Al Franken published a book last year called "Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot." That book has sold 700,000 copies in hardcover. When I heard that, I thought, `Well, let's come up with a good title.' But "Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot"--I'm--being a conservative, I couldn't use that one, so I had to go looking elsewhere. So I went to work and--well, let's see, what were--what were some of the almost titles? The...
LAMB: You know, by the way, what point in the process did you name it?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, it's a collection, so it was--I was trying to come up with a name as I was compiling the pieces. There are about 20 years' worth of stuff in here. The first title was "Oeuvre to You," which I faxed off to my dad, and he faxed back, `No!!!' exclamation, exclamation, exclamation, which I took to be a negative comment on it. So...
LAMB: And the word `oeuvre'...
Mr. BUCKLEY: `Oeuvre' is a--you know, the-- it's the classy French word for collection. But it sounds as though you're about to throw up, so I guess he--it's also somewhat pretentious, certainly in my case. So `oeuvre'--`oeuvre' was out.
Then I think it was--oh, yeah, "Ruined Weekends." For some reason, and I think any writer watching this will probably appreciate this, that most of the pieces in here, for some reason or other, were due on Monday. It--for some reason, this is the way that journalism seems to work. So "Ruined Weekends" was thought to be a--a downer. Publishers are--they want upbeat titles. I'm not to put myself in the same category with Edward Gibbon, but I'm not sure that Edward Gibbon today could get away with the title, "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire." I think it would have to be "How Kinky Sex and Lead Goblets Brought About the Decline of the Roman Empire and How it Can Rise Again." Anyway, that was out.
The next one was, I think, "How to Buy a Dead --Want to But a Dead Dictator?" which I quite liked. And this was a reference to a hoax-- I guess the verb is `perpetrated'--in the pages of the magazine I edit, Forbes' FYI, which is a quarterly publication of Forbes. In 1991, we announced, with very straight faces, that the Russians were so strapped for hard currency that they were preparing to auction off the embalmed remains of Lenin, and did it with a very straight face, faxed it out to news organizations at 4:30 in the afternoon, just as they're preparing to--their news stories for the night. I think we sent it to you, too, but for some reason, you did--you didn't bite.
LAMB: The good news is we don't have an evening program.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, we were hoping for the Washington Journal. But one person did bite, Peter Jennings, God bless him. I was on my NordicTrack cross-country ski machine that night watching Peter Jennings, whom I watch normally in the course of things, and on came a photo of Lenin. And I thought, `Oh, my God.' I felt a little bit like, you know, the kid who puts the rock on the railroad track and the next day hears grownups talking about the train derailment. So that became a big story, quite a big story. Steve Forbes, my boss, sometime presidential candidate, called me early the next morning and said, `Chris, the Russians have gone ballistic,' which reminded me a little bit of the moment in my favorite movie, "Dr. Strangelove," where the presidential aide says, `Mr. President, it's Premier Kissoff on the hot line, and he's huffing mad.'
So I spent a very busy day on the phone. The interior minister of Russia had to actually break into TV programming in Moscow to assure the Russian people that he was, in fact, not planning to auction off Lenin. He then spent the rest of the morning denouncing me, which I found to be actually a rather pleasurable sensation--`brazen liar,' `international provocateur.' As an old cold warrior, these--this was music to my ears.
And anyway, six months later, oddly, I picked up my Washington Post and saw the headline: Kremlin Deluged With Offers for Lenin. News of this being a hoax had apparently reached everyone except my 750,000 Forbes readers, who took it quite seriously. And the top bid had come in from a man in Dallas, accompanied by a rather sweet letter saying, `Well, we've just finished our new headquarters here, and I've discussed this with our interior
designer, and he thinks Mr. Lenin would make a very nice addition to our
lobby, sort of the ultimate Texas conversation piece.'
Anyway, my editor, John Carp, a very difficult fellow--very difficult fellow at Random House, said, `You can't have the words "dead" and "dictator" in the title. No one will buy it.' So it was back to the drawing board. There are more if you want to talk about those. But it--well, quickly, what are--what else did we go through?
Oh, you know, it's a funny thing about titles. We--there have been some interesting almost titles in the history of books. Do you know what the "Great Gatsby" was almost titled? "Trimalchio in East Egg." And "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh was almost titled "The House of the Faith." And finally, our own Woodward and Bernstein's famous "All the President's Men" was almost called "At This Point in Time."
LAMB: So "Wry Martinis" means what?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, it doesn't really mean anything. I guess it was just the last of about 10 titles I came up with. It's, if anything--well, I guess I'm hoping people will mistake it for a book on mixology and make--make--make me accidentally rich. But if--if it refers to anything, it refers to the title of the first piece that I sold to The New Yorker, which is a big day in any writer's life. And it was about--it was a piece called The Three-Martini Debate. It's Bush and Clinton having their presidential debate at Tom Brokaw's house while drinking martinis and getting looped, Bush calling Clinton a `diberal Lemocrat' and...
LAMB: I counted 60 pieces.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Yeah. I won't question your math.
LAMB: Well, you should. Twenty-five of them from The New Yorker, and then nothing else had more than six, like The Washington Post had six; Forbes' FYI, six. But then there's a whole lot of different publications, even something called Allure.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Oh, Allure, yes. Allure is a big-deal, Conde Nast women's magazine. And they I wrote a piece on--I think it's on fashion--for Allure. I'll write--I'm a working writer. I'll write for anyone, as long as they pay. But, you know, you want to reach--you want to reach as wide an audience as you can. I just wrote a piece for the Neiman-Marcus catalog. It's this--Have you ever seen it? It's called The Book. It's-- it weighs 10 pounds. And they pay rather nicely, and I've had quite a lot of response to it because it goes out to every Neiman-Marcus buyer in America.
LAMB: And one also for the Key West Restaurant.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Yes, the--that immortal purveyor of literature. But again, yeah, I wrote a piece on--for Key West restaurant magazine called How to Introduce Yourself to the Waiter. You know, somewhere--sometime around 15 years ago, waiters began introducing themselves to you. And I thought, `Well, now--we now need etiquette on how to introduce ourselves to them.' So we're--in an effort to shut up and just bring the food.
LAMB: You have a piece in here on Ann Landers.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: When did you do that, and why did you do it?
Mr. BUCKLEY: For money, Brian. All the pieces in here were written with one motive: to pay my mortgage. I wrote that for The New Yorker. I wrote it because Tina Brown asked me to write it. I wrote it because I like Eppie Lederer, who is the woman known as Ann Landers, an interesting lady in her 70s. That piece became momentarily radioactive because in it she called the pope--she referred to the pope as a Polack. Now you have to perhaps be a Chicagoan to appreciate how innocuous a statement that is. Every--it's the most Polish city in the country. She has more Catholic-Polish friends than anyone I know. And she said it very, very innocently. She's not a fan of the pope's politics. She said, `You know, he doesn't like women. Of course, he's a Polack.'
Well, the local CBS affiliate, to make I think, some mischief, saw an early version of it when it--when it--when it came off and called up the--some poor archbishop and woke up some archbishop in Chicago and said, `Ann Landers has just denounced the pope as a Polack. Do you have any comment?' And the poor archbishop, sort of flailing in his bedsheets, said, `Oh, well...'
So it became, you know, for a couple of days, you know, pa--sort of a page-three story, and she was forced, as--as she put it, to--when she--when she does something--when she gets caught in controversy, she does what she calls `taking out the wet noodle and administering herself 40 lashes.' So she did that, and--and then it died. But she's--she's an interesting lady. She has, she claims, more readers, I think, than any other columnist. I think she claims something like 80 million readers. It's a--it's a tough calculus, because that assumes that everyone who gets The New York Daily News that day is reading Ann Landers. But it's a formidable readership.
LAMB: What role do you think she plays in society?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Ann?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, she plays--she plays a large role in the sense that there are a lot of us--lot of us looking for advice. The English call this genre of person, the advice column-- columnist--they have kind of a nice title for it: agony aunts. But she took me into her office one night after dinner and showed me the stacks of mail, and they're voluminous. They're like hay bales, and each one is labeled, you know, `drugs,' `sex,' `Jewish question,' you know, `hair,' `cuticles.' And she's a--she's a nexus point for the insecurities and anxieties of the American people. She gets, I think, 1,200 to 2,000 letters a day. She was--put it this way, she was an Internet before we had an Internet in that sense. That's--and that's a large role.
LAMB: And you found that--that she didn't have the original Ann Landers name, but she's going to retire it when she finishes her work.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Ann Landers was the name of the column before she took it over. Ann Landers was a nurse in Chicago. She mostly gave advice on how to--you know, what to do if you cut yourself and, you know, it's--if your children stub their toes. And anyway, she died, I think, and so she basically took over the name, and she says--she--I asked her what--what--Eppie is 70--of a certain age. And...
LAMB: I think you say she's 77.
Mr. BUCKLEY: I think I say she's 77. You know, there's no point in being...
LAMB: This was in '95.
Mr. BUCKLEY: ...discreet. So--but all--she's extraordinarily robust. But I asked her the in--I asked her the question I suppose I had to ask, which is, `Well, what--what happens when'--and she said that she planned to keel over at the typewriter--she has a Selectric, an IBM Selectric. She stockpiles Sel--IBM Selectric ribbons and erasing tapes because she's afraid they're going to stop making them and she doesn't want to go over to a computer. And she plans to keel over at the typewriter and take the name with her. She's been offered, she said--told me, millions of dollars for the name when she goes, but she's going to take it with her to the grave, which I think is a noble thing to do. It's like hanging up the jersey.
LAMB: Had she talked about the relationship, either with her sister or with her ex-husband, in other articles for New Yorker?
Mr. BUCKLEY: No, actually, to the extent this piece was--had freshness or exclusivity, I think she talked frankly about her husb--how she--the breakup with her husband pos--I think it was possibly the first time. Her hus--she caught her husband in an affair and threw him out. He was the founder of Nati--of Budget Rent A Car. Andhe was--Jules, I believe, is his name. And he was quite-- surprised by her reaction. And it turned out he had an apartment in London, I think, that was well stocked; and anyway, she found out and she-- tossed him out. And then she-- wrote about it. She didn't write about the details of it, but she wrote about it in her column and she said, you know, `I, who have been giving advice to all of you on how to keep a marriage together, must now, you know, confess to you that I was unable to keep my own together.' It was real--rather poignant, and she got some very heart-wrenching mail.
LAMB: Why did you come to Washington and work for George Bush as his speechwriter back in the early '80s?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, I won't say in this case it was the money. If--anyone who's drawn a government paycheck...
LAMB: Where were you before you made that decision?
Mr. BUCKLEY: I was at Esquire magazine in New York. I came because I got a ph--I got a phone call from Air Force Two one day from a guy named Pete Teeley, who forever changed my life. Pete is a legendary character around Washington. He was George Bush's press secretary. And he had read some pieces that I had--I'd written in Esquire. And Pete is not a guy to orchestrate a six-month talent search, or clearly, I never would have gotten the job. He just--he needed someone quick, he needed someone cheap, and he needed them tomorrow, so he--my phone rang. So I came down and I--you know, how could you pass that up? I was 29 years old, and it was a--you know, it was a chance to ride around in Air Force Two.
LAMB: How long did you do it?
Mr. BUCKLEY: I did it--I did it for a total of almost two years. I left after a year to go back to writing. I needed to write some stuff, and then I came back on sort of part-time. I thought as a speechwriting experience, it was, in a way, more fun than working for a president because there are many layers between a president and his speechwriter, unless the speechwriter is an important person who has been with the president, you know, for many, many years. Ken Khachigian would be--would be an example. But...
LAMB: With Richard Nixon...
Mr. BUCKLEY: With Ron...
LAMB: ...and Ron--Ronald Reagan both.
Mr. BUCKLEY: I was thinking, actually, of Ronald Reagan, yeah. But in the main, there are-- the White House staff is very jealous. The top White House staff is very jealous of his--of its access to POTUS, as he is called, the acronym for President of the United States, and they try to keep them away. I kept--I knew some speechwriters on the Reagan staff who, you know, would go months without seeing him, and then it was just sort of a very fleeting thing. So I got to hang out with George Bush, which I-- was cool. It was fun. The--fortunately, we--didn't have to parachute out of any airplanes with him.
Mr. BUCKLEY: But we had-- some adventures, actually. He was-a great experience overall.
LAMB: What-- did you conclude about speechwriters and that role that people play after you'd been there for a couple years?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, I concluded personally that it wasn't what--something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. It's ultimately pretty mind-numbing. I've--I would have-- literally at--toward the end, was having dreams in which I was typing, `It's great to be back in Chicago with you today.' You know, it's--I won't say it's not important work. It's-there's--there can be--you can take great pleasure from shaping a good speech. There are--it's--there--it has its amusing elements because--well, let's face it, I was writing vice-presidential speeches, and in the main, they don't matter. It only matters if you stick your foot in it, which I did a couple of times. If you want, I will get around to that.
But every now and then, Bush gave an important speech, and when it was an important speech, the advisers came like flies to honey, and I would--I would have to circulate my drafts, and they would--and everyone would want to, you know, have their say. And it became almost like writing a--I think, a Hollywood script. You read about these movies where they have 13 sets of writers. And I think very often, you can tell a speech that has--that has had 13 sets of writers. It sounds like it had 13 sets of writers. So I think if you're a--if your aspirations, such as they are, are literary, it's not a job for the long--for the long haul. But it's--but it can be a very satisfying job.
LAMB: When did you stick your foot in it?
Mr. BUCKLEY: I'll tell you when I stuck my foot in it. Funny you should ask. Back in 1981, we--the Reagan administration wanted to sell AWACS to the Saudis. The--the Israelis were very upset about this. The AWACS, you'll --is the long-range surveillance plane, and the Saudis were convinced that the Israelis were convinced that the Saudis would use this against them. So we fanned out, giving speeches to important groups about the importance, indeed, the urgency of selling AWACS to the Saudis. About that time, Sadat was murdered. Sadat had just been to the White House, and he was-- beloved at the White House. He was--he had stood next to Reagan and said, `America, you are a great companion.' People loved Sadat. It was a very emotional day. And within hours, Qaddafi--Colonel Qaddafi of Libya was sort of claiming credit for it and saying it was a great thing and, you know, this guy was a swine.
So we all got a little hot under the collar, and I did an insert--you have the same speech, and then when you go around to different audiences, you put a one-page--it's called an insert--on the top of it that will be topical to that audience. So that day--he was giving a speech just here--I put in the line, `We certainly don't need to hear anymore from--on this subject from Mr. Qaddafi, the--who harbored the--that archvillain, Cor--Idi Amin.' So he gave the speech. In all fairness, the insert was circulated in the White House staff, you know, the national security people signed off on it. They thought, `Good, good. Hard-hitting.' So we get back to the office, and I got--there's one of these pink slips saying, `The AP called.' Now this never happened, so I called with some--thinking, `Oh, the AP has taken note of this marvelous speech the vice president has given and I am probably up for some credit.' And there--I got this sort of crusty old AP bureau voice: `Uh, yeah, you guys aware of the present whereabouts of Idi Amin?' Well, Saudi Arabia. He had been given--there's some aspect of Muslim law where you can be granted asylum. So the resulting AP headline was: Bush Takes Aim at Qaddafi, Hits--Shoots Self in Foot. Well, these things happen.
LAMB: Mr. Bush upset with you?
Mr. BUCKLEY: No, no, no. You know, that was the thing; he was not at all. There are probably some other people in government who would have just chewed my rear end off, despite the fact that his own chief of staff had signed off on the insert. He's the most gracious man I think I've--certainly I've ever worked for.
The only time I saw him really frosted was when someone--a Time magazine story came out and someone on the staff had clearly been a leaker. And he--Bush, for two reasons, hated leaks. One was, I think, that he was an upright Episcopalian from Greenwich who thought that that sort of stuff was dishonorable. In an earlier era, he would have been Henry Stimson, who, you'll recall, instructed the intelligence agencies not to read--not to intercept correspondence because gentlemen don't read other people's mail. The second was probably because he had been, in the 1970s head of CIA. But he was just--he had a thing about leaks. Well, they all do, ultimately. Nixon had a thing about leaks, and that led-- to something called the plumbers.
But, no, I never--you could do-- be playful with Bush. I once hijacked Air Force Two.
Mr. BUCKLEY: You want to hear that story? All right. No, no, we'll get on to--we'll get around to that later, let's talk about the deficit first.
Well, it was at the end of a very exhausting South American trip. As you know, American vice presidents must go to South America. It's sort of a ritual thing; they have to go down and be jeered, you know? Nixon did it: 1958, Caracas--remember the demonstrators attacked him? One lesser-known detail in all that is that Nixon actually got out of his motorcade and kicked one of the Caracas demonstrators in the shin, I thought--which was sort of a lovely notion that, you know, the man who once said we wouldn't have him to kick around anymore had dealt a kick to a South American demonstrator.
Anyway, we did that, and it was an eventful trip. We--the first stop was Bogota, which is really Dodge City. It's like a--maybe you've seen the--you know, the Tom Clancy movie "Clear and Present Danger." The motorcade and--our motorcade and-- in Bogota was wild. They had a van--the Secret Service had a van. I was-- behind it and saw them unstrapping a Stinger anti-aircraft missile. This is, you know, perhaps the ultimate option on a Chevy Blazer. `Yes, I want the Stinger missile and the CD player.' And-- the next day, they discovered 75 pounds of C4 explosive under the threshold of the runway, but apparently, the wind had shifted and we had used a different runway, so I missed being an asterisk--a little tiny asterisk in American history.
Anyway, these trips are very tiring. I was sort of up all night writing testimonials to, you know, US-Ecuadorean friendship. And let me tell you, those are tough. `The history of our peoples are intertwined uniquely and forever.' Anyway, by the time we got to Rio a week later, we were exhausted, and we had been promised a rest overnight in Rio--in Rio--I mean, Rio. So we were very excited about that, and there was a cocktail party on some rich Brazilian's boat, and we --all I remember was suddenly singing the Wiffenpoof song. And anyway, Bush announced that we would fly back that night because he wanted to play tennis, you know, probably with Nick Brady or Jim Baker. And so we were in the spring-loaded position. We thought that was a bit much that we should be denied our rest overnight in Rio.
So when we got on the plane, Teeley--Pete Teeley dressed up--he borrowed the military aide's jacket and hat and turned a tablecloth into a sash and got some medals from somewhere. The Secret Service gave him an empty holster; they wouldn't--they wouldn't give him a gun. And I got on the PA system--there's a PA system on--on Air Force Two and, in my best sort of Jose Jiminez accent, announced that--we'd taken off at this point--that there had been a revolution and that the world order had been been overthrown and that Teeley was now in charge. I must have done it somewhat convincingly, because the PA system also fed into the cockpit. You have these very sort of sober Air Force colonels who heard--all they heard was that their plane had been taken. And the Air Force security people came sort of rushing back with drawn weapons. But Bush was great. I mean, he--you couldn't do that with--with a lot of vice presidents. He--you know, he just rolled with it.
LAMB: Did you both go to the same college?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Yeah, yeah. We...
LAMB: Did that matter to your relationship?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, I won't say it didn't. Sure. But I mean, we--you know, it's not as though we sat around talking about the food at Morey's all the time. He had been there--he had gotten out in 1948; I got there in 1971. And they were very different places, too. But, sure, there was--would he have hired me if I had been a Harvard man? We'll never know.
LAMB: What impact did Yale have on you?
Mr. BUCKLEY: I got a great education at Yale. It was-- I got-- I blush to say I probably got most of my education at the Yale Daily News, which is more a vocational training than--than a classical liberal arts education. But I loved Yale. It was-- a great challenge. I had spent the previous year in the Merchant Marine on a--as a deck boy on a Norwegian freighter, because I wanted to do something different before going from four years at Benedictine boarding school to four years of college. It was--1971 it was kind of like the hangover of the '60s. All the excitement was gone. The-- classes were no longer being canceled. And there was a --it was as if there was a lot of sort of psychic mess to clean up. You could almost see the psychic trash piled up everywhere. It was, in a sense, I think, the beginning of what we now call PC, huge sensitivity. You couldn't--you know, if an attractive woman walked by, you weren't supposed to, you know (whistles). You know, you could be shot for doing that. That's an extreme example, obviously.
But it was-- --it was sort of the dawn of the age of diversity. And there were--when I was at Yale, the secretary of state of the United States, William Rogers, --was told by the administration that he should not come and speak because they could not guarantee his safety. I mean, crazy that the secretary of state couldn't speak at Yale University.
William Shockley--name from the past; I haven't thought of him in a long time--he was--recall, he received the Nobel for co-inventing the transistor, which changed his life. And he then devoted the twilight of his years to controversial theories about eugenics and genetic his theme, basically, was that African-Americans were intellectually inferior. And, wow, he came to Yale. And the man who came to debate against him--in other words, to refute that idea, was William Rusher, publisher of the magazine called National Review. Rusher was physically attacked by the black students. In other words, the guy who had come to refute Shockley was roughed up, and spat upon, and his car was trampled. So there was--this was a real mob mentality going on. And the Yale administration sort of stood back and shrugged and said, `Well, boys will be boys.' That said, I got a good education. Yale taught me a lot and I'm very grateful to it.
LAMB: How would you define your political ideology at this point?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Oh, my political ideology isn't all that interesting. You know, the only reason people are interested in my political ideology is is it different from dear old dad's? And the answer is it's mostly not. But dear old dad is an interesting case. He is not predictably conservative on every issue of--across the broad band, legalization of drugs among others.
I'm not a political person. I vote Republican. I vote conservative because I think those are the--but I--this is not necessarily a time to be a proud Republican. So I think it's more-- when I do political satire as I do occasionally in this book, I think you'll find that I probably go after the right as much as I do the left.
LAMB: I kind of wanted to ask about that because if you--as you read the book, you see little things like my British chum Christopher Hitchens...
Mr. BUCKLEY: Sure.
LAMB: ...who calls himself a socialist. The book is endorsed by David Halberstam. You write more in this book for The New Yorker, which is not a conservative publication.
Mr. BUCKLEY: No. Right-wing bastion. No.
LAMB: And you know what I'm getting at here. I mean, can you move in and out...
Mr. BUCKLEY: Am I a fellow traveler?
LAMB: No. Can you move in and out of these different worlds without people caring what your politics are or--how do you do that? I mean, what do you sense a welcome at other-than-conservative places?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, I'd certainly--yeah. Yeah. I mean, I do at The New Yorker. I grew up in a--How to put it?--I grew up in my father's home. My father's home was full of surprising friends: John Kenneth Galbraith, Norman Mailer at an early point. It was--in other words, there were non--it was full of non-Republicans and--and...
LAMB: Where was the home?
Mr. BUCKLEY: The home was Stamford, Connecticut, and New York City. So I--you know, kids look around them and see, well, this is normal. So it's normal and comfortable for me to have friends who are on the left. I like interesting people. I tend not to hang out with out-and-out Stalinists, though I actually have here and there. It--I--my friends are my friends. I don't--you know, I don't pose litmus tests or anything like that. Their only qualification must be that they are interesting people.
LAMB: How many were there in the family?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Just me.
LAMB: One child?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, one--one child, yeah. My--but I have--I have a lot of first cousins. I have 49 first cousins. Catholic family. But...
LAMB: At what point did you decide you wanted to write for a living also?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Probably about the time I realizedI couldn't do anything else. I lack your mathematical prowess, so it was just--I don't know. I always kept a little diary. A only children tend to tend to have some lonely moments. I mean, there's--often there's no where--no one else around. And so I've filled some of those times by, you know, keeping a little journal and whatever.
I grew up in a--I'm the son of a writer and at the--I remember when I was about seven or eight, one night he --after dinner, he sat me on his lap and turned me --and then taught me how to touch type. So a typewriter was almost like a toy in my household. It was--and then I got to school and I joined the Yale Daily News. Something made me put my hand on the door and go in and do what was called healing the news which was competing for membership in it. And one thing led to another.
But it was not something I had--some people are born writers. I had a little bit of talent to start with but not a lot. I'm not sure how much I have today. I've--it's worked for me. It's not--it--believe me, it's worked.
LAMB: When did you find that you had the humor?
Mr. BUCKLEY: A more interesting question even. My mother is a very funny woman. I think I get my sense of humor from her. She is a remarkable lady from British Columbia. She's not British colonial strictly speaking, but there's--she's something out of Noel Coward crossed with Bette Midler or something. And she kept a scrapbook. I remember it from the age of five or six. It was a great big scrapbook full of newspaper clippings that we think of as Esquire dubious achievement award-like clippings. You know, the little clippings at the bottom that, you know, say that, a goose managed to, you know, stop a train or something like that.
And there was one clipping in there I remember someone had sent her from a Mexico City newspaper. It was about two men, one who'd gone into--checked into the same hospital: one for a hemorrhoid operation; the other for a tonsillectomy. And you can guess what happened. The guy with the hemorrhoid woke up with a sore throat and the guy with the hemorrhoi--the guy with the tonsillectomy woke up with a sore other part of his body.
And she delighted in these. And she had cards--friends who sent her these. And I think this was sort of my Proustian tea-dipped madeleine. They--there was-- delight in here. And I think the theme, if anything, was sort of --human fallibility, things going wrong and people trying to cope with things.
In the introduction to this immortal work of literature on your lap, I mentioned a few items that--no, I-- didn't mean you had to do that--that delighted me as sort of latter-day examples of my mom's book of life. And I--we print these in the back of Forbes FYI.
Here's one: `A Wilmington, North Carolina, neurosurgeon's license was suspended after he left a patient's brain exposed for 25 minutes while he got lunch,' you know? What do you order? Sushi?
I mean--and here, `An airliner heading to South Africa was forced to turn back and make an emergency landing in Britain after 72 flatulent pigs triggered its fire alarms.' I think I was on that plane.
But--so--I don't know. I found it--at-- in this--I started out writing--you could call it straightforward magazine journalism. My first assignment given to me by Clay Felker, founder of New York Magazine and one of the great, great editors of our day. He now runs a journalism program out of the University of California at Berkeley.
LAMB: Married to Gail Sheehy?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Married to Gail Sheehy. Clay has edited everything. He gave me my first assignment and it was to go spend two weeks in Las Vegas following Frank Sinatra around. He w--he had a gig at Caesars Palace. Gee, what do you do with that? And I've just--you know, all my stuff sort of--if--found myself reaching for the--if you think of a--a piano as an organ--if you think of a typewriter as an organ, you know how there--there are those stops you pull out that'll make it sound like a flute or a cello or whatever. And I'm not sure, I think they're called diapasons or something like that.
But I would sort of subconsciously reach for the funny plug. And somehow it sort of evolved from there. My first book was about the merchant marine, which is the--not--which isn't necessarily a funny topic. I spent four months on a cramped freighter full of some very--almost tragic, if you will, characters. I mean this thing was a cross between the ship of fools and the-- song--the--"Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner."
But there was, in their tragedy, these poor lost people, often great humor. And I--and I tried to express that. And some of the reviews said, `Oh,' you know, `he has--he has a comic touch.' And I--it's funny to think that you need the--The Wall Street Journal to tell you that--you know, you have a comic touch, but --it was, in fact, The Wall Street Journal.
So the next book I wrote was, in fact, a comic novel called "The White House Mess," which was a parody of the White House memoir by a very stuffy--the narrator was a very stuffy, self-important chief of staff --and a White House-- not unlike some we're seeing.
LAMB: When you wrote the piece about Tom Clancy's book...
Mr. BUCKLEY: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...in The New York Times Magazine--or New York Times Book Review, did you do that with humor or was that serious? And his reaction was strong.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, I think it was a funny review if--it's--it's--it's in the book. It--The Times asked me to review a book of his which I've--I've--let me say for the record I loved "The Hunt For Red October." I--I thought that was a--just a crackingly good book. But Mr. Cl--Clancy, over the years, his books have gotten sort of bigger and bigger and bigger. And I--this--this book, which they asked me to review, I found--well, it was about the enemy and it is the Japanese. And I--I really found the depiction of the Japanese--well, let it be said, racist.
I mean, the--the--it was not unlike a World War II propaganda manual and so I said so. I--I said it, I--I hope, with--with humor. And I said a few other things. I--I said that he was the most successful bad writer in American letters since James Fenimore Cooper.
LAMB: This is 1994?
Mr. BUCKLEY: This was 1994. And I gave some examples of some of his sentences. It's in the back of the review. If you have it open to it, you could-- I challenge you to read one of those sentences without an...
LAMB: The--well, here's one. `The Indians were indeed getting frisky.'
`More surprisingly people made--made way for him, especially women and children positively shrank from his presence as though Godzilla had returned to crush their city.'
`"I will not become prime minister of my country," Hiroshi Goto announced in a m--a manner worthy of a stage actor, "in order to become executor of the economic ruin."'
Mr. BUCKLEY: QED. Anyway, Mr. Clancy took huge exception to this review, and
one day my--my fax machine began spitting out hate mail from him which I--which startled me somewhat because I hadn't--I don't know how he--my fax number isn't listed in the--in the--in the white pages. So I assumed that he had gotten it from his contacts at the CIA, which made me even more nervous. And so I fired back a response and--which made him even more cross. And he fired one back. But--and it found its way into The Washington Post. So I guess it's what passes these days for a literary feud.
LAMB: Have you ever met him?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Oh, sure. I profiled him. In fact, in the book is a profile of him which I wrote for Regarde's magazine--You remember that?--on the-- when "The Hunt For Red October" first came out. He--he's a remarkable success story. I take nothing away from him. He was an insurance salesman in Owings, Maryland, out here who just on the side tapped out this brilliant book called "Hunt For Red October." The rest was history.
I caught him just after he had become--at--when he was becoming a huge success, and I detected a germ of a fairly healthy ego. At one point he shrugged during the interview and said, `Well, heck, I don't know what all the fuss is about. It's not as though I've written "King Lear."' So--well, I--so I couldn't resist in the Regarde's piece saying, `Well, actually, we don't recall anyone suggesting that he had written "King Lear."'
And word got back to me that he was furious about that. He is--he's a man of obvious gifts. A sense of humor is not included among them. And life without a sense of humor can be a sad thing. But he has compensations.
LAMB: Where do you live now, permanently?
Mr. BUCKLEY: I live in Washington, DC. I have planted my flag here in the district.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Married with two children and a dog.
LAMB: How old are the kids?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Nine--a girl, nine, Caitlin, and a son, Connor, who just turned five.
LAMB: You refer in the book-- and one of the things about writing humor, I suspect from time to time, people don't know whether you're really serious or not. So this is why I'm asking you this question. You refer in the book that you're an agnostic.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Yes.
LAMB: Is that humorous or is that real?
Mr. BUCKLEY: No, that's real. That's real. I--to my poor father's eternal displeasure. I was raised Catholic and some years ago decided, amicably, to part--part company with the church, which I still greatly respect. But one has to become the captains--captain of one's own soul. I wrote a book--I wrote a play about St. Edmund Campian, the great Jesuit martyr of the seven--of the 16th century, about 10 years ago which was produced at the--the Williamstown Theater Festival. I maintain my allegiance to my high school, Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island.
But one has to ultimately weigh the--such evidence as one--as one discerns and make one's decisions. I'm not a--I'm not a bomb thrower, although the--my next book, which I've just finished writing with my friend John Tierney of The New York Times, is called "God Is My Broker," which is a self-help novel. The subtitle of it is "How One Monk Saved His Monastery and Discovered the Seven-And-A-Half Laws of Spiritual and Financial Success."
LAMB: Have you noticed, with your 49 first cousins, coming--all from Catholic families? Most of them?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: Are there others of the 49, given this age we're in, that are--feel the same way about religion as you do?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, I have a--one of those cousins is a monk in France at the Abbey of Solemn who-- remarkable guy; my cousin Michael Bozell, whose brother is L. Brent Bozell III who runs the Center for Media Research, I think it's called. And I--you mean, how many of them are practicing Catholics?
LAMB: Well, I guess, it--you know...
Mr. BUCKLEY: I would guess--well, let's see, we all a lot of us recently attended the wedding of a very beloved cousin, Trisha Reiley, and so there were about I suppose 20--20 of us --in the church. And-- when time for communion came, we looked around and noticed that none of us was going to the rail. And I said--I whispered to my cousin Jay who was next me, `This church is full of bad Buckleys.'
But I would guess maybe-- I couldn't tell you--maybe-- two-thirds are still in the church. But as Jimmy--remember, as Jimmy Breslin says, `No one ever leaves the Catholic Church.' Once-- a part of it, somehow it always stays a part of you. And who can tell what the future brings? Maybe I'll go from here to a doctor's office and he'll say, `Buckley, you have a dark spot on your lung,' and maybe my next stop will be church. I mean, who knows?
LAMB: You did write about headaches.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Yeah. I had a-- for about 15 years, I had something called cluster headaches, which I wouldn't wish on anyone. They're a very severe form of a vascular headache in which the-- a side of your head feels as though it's going to explode. It's-clinically, I've-- been told that the pain of a cluster headache is up there with labor pain--with advanced labor pains. So the-- some people commit suicide.
My beloved dad found me my beloved doctor Frank Patito in New York who changed my life with certain medicines. For about 10 years, I'd went from one doctor to another who just prescribed painkillers, which are lovely in their-- in their own way, but they take sort of--by the time they kick in, the headache is pretty advanced. These days they can do a lot with them.
Finally, one doctor--Dr. Patito said, `Do you smoke?' I said, `Well, you know, in fact, I do.' And he said, `Well, I think if you gave up, you wouldn't have these headaches in five years.' I said, `Really?' He said, `Yeah. Well, the'--he said, `We don't know why, but we know that the correlation between cluster headaches and cigarette smoking is higher than it is between cigarettes and lung cancer.' So I gave up.
LAMB: Took a ride on a jet aircraft.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Yes. Yes. Last year I went flying with the US Thunderbirds, and I wrote about it. It's--it--it's the piece in there called, `How I went nine Gs in an F-16 and only threw up five times.' It- was...
LAMB: Is that a true headline?
Mr. BUCKLEY: That's a true headline. That's the--it appeared in Forbes FYI. It's--it was a remarkable ride. I was in the back seat. They strap you in. You're sort of--kind of hunched up like this. The advantage of this ride was that I'll never feel cramped riding on USAir again. They give you a safety briefing which attracts your attention because they tell you things like, `If you hear the pilot saying, "Eject, eject, eject," eject before he gets to the third eject,' because he's going out on the third and you don't want to be left alone. And it would be a very isolating experience.
We took off at 450 knots--my friend P.J. O'Rourke defines a knot as like a mile, only more expensive--and went straight up--just straight up from 2,000 feet to 16,000 feet in about 10 seconds. And then came upside down which was a nice touch.
And then they handed over the controls to me and said, `Well, would you like to fly?' It's so computerized. Here I am sounding like Tom Clancy, but the stick is so computerized that it moves only about an eighth of an inch in any direction so that you put your hand on it and just do that and you're doing corkscrews.
The--finally we did a nine G turn so he accelerated to--I think it was about--it was almost 600 miles an hour and then turned sideways like this and yanked back on the stick so we did a very tight inside turn. And at that point, it feels like--it feels like an elephant has been sort of plopped on your lap. It --not for the weak of heart. A lot of these Thunderbirds had flown missions during Desert Storm into Baghdad and they're fine lads, all of them.
LAMB: We don't have much time and--and it'd take more time to talk about, but just a little bit on your Vietnam guilt. You write a piece in here on that. Do you still have guilt about Vietnam?
Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, I--look, I was a--I was a legitimate 4-F. I mean, I had--you know, I have asthma that occasionally puts me in the hospital. I have these cluster headaches. I'm not--I was never a candidate for the US infantry. I--that said, having gotten my--having gotten my 4-F, I went years later to watch the Vietnam Veterans Memorial be dedicated. And I noticed I saw a Marine standing by the side in dress whites and he turned and began to--he put his fingers to his nose and he began to sob. And it was-- it affected me greatly.
I was new to Washington then. I didn't know many military people. I--one of the nice things about coming to Washington is that I have gotten to know a lot of military people who--for whom I have the highest respect and admiration. And, logically or not, I was left feeling--I was left with feelings, if you want to call them guilt, that was just--that was the headline Esquire magazine put on it.
I call it sort of a sense of having let my country down. James Fallows has written about this very eloquently. The point he made, the point that I reiterated, was that people of my, call it class, if you will--the privileged class, the upper-middle class, whatever you want to call it--prolonged that war by not participating in it because if it had been us getting killed, the--our parents would have been on the phone to the congressman who were--and the president who were running this country and saying, `Stop this goddamn war.' But as it was, it was the blue-collar kids who bore the brunt of it. And so I was left with--yeah, call them feelings of profound sadness.
LAMB: That's it. We're out of time. And this...
Mr. BUCKLEY: On that note...
LAMB: ...is the cover of the book--on that note. Sixty pieces if I can't write, somebody might want to check that, from Christopher Buckley in "Wry Martinis." Thank you very much.
Mr. BUCKLEY: Thank you, Brian.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1997. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.