Christopher Buckley's "The White House Mess" is a comic peek into the linty head of a political loyalist and winky-dink named Herbert Wadlough. A satire of Washington and Washington memoirs, "The White House Mess" is a tattling account of life in the Oval Office as seen by this nervous, pedantic weenie, whose job as personal assistant to the President is to stamp out fires before they become blazes. His feet are kept jitterbug busy. On Inauguration Day in January, 1989, President-elect Thomas Nelson Tucker ("TNT") arrives at the White House only to discover that President Reagan is still in his pajamas, too pooped to vacate the premises. Reagan's poky exit is a portent of worse to come. Over the next four years, Wadlough has a heap of mess to crisis-manage. The President's wife is a Debra Winger-like actress whose body and temper are always in a hot shimmy. The President's son is a Tom Sawyer-like terror who soaks up esoteric info from his Secret Service agents--"His teacher was somewhat taken aback when for show-and-tell at school he brought in some empty cartridges and gave a talk comparing the Uzi submachine gun and the M-14"--and is once caught sleeping in a ventilator shaft with his pet hamster. There is trouble in the Caribbean, rumblings from the Russians, nubile cuties on the campaign trail and a flubbed assassination attempt on the President in which two ERA supporters are ventilated by a shot fired by a mad Armenian. And through it all, Herb Wadlough tries to maintain a prim dignity proper to the office. He's like P. G. Wodehouse's immortal Bertie Wooster, braving the world's laughter in spats. But the laughter that wafts through "The White House Mess" is pretty wheezy.
The son of William F. Buckley and a former speechwriter for George Bush, Christopher Buckley certainly possesses an impeccable Republican pedigree and an inside track to the secret goodies of politics. But "The White House Mess" seems to have been written on the outside by a golly-gee innocent with big eyes; it's very cartoony, this book. Although set on the Potomac under a nuclear dome, "The White House Mess" harkens back in its style and slapstick to the comic novels not only of Wodehouse but of Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh. The novel is written in the chalky-white spirit of English aplomb in appalling circumstances. Buckley, however, would have been better off sticking to what he knows rather than imitating English models, because he simply isn't up to their cut. For example, when Wadlough awakens after a drinking session and compares the taste in his mouth to "a used Dr. Scholl insole pad," this seems a rather shabby echo of the famous hangover in Amis' "Lucky Jim" ("His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum"). Similarly, Buckley doesn't have Wodehouse's solid-brick story sense--the incidents in "Mess" degenerate into run-on goo--or Waugh's vampire bite.
And bite seems to me absolutely vital to a novel fancying itself as satire. Although Bob Woodward claims in a blurb for "The White House Mess" that "Buckley gives new meaning to the phrase, 'He'll never work again in politics,' " there's nothing in this book that would give Buckley's past or future employers pause. Cute in the tooth, "The White House Mess" is so far removed from malice and a sly insight into politicians' motives that Richard Nixon could safely read it at night with a cup of cocoa. Why, the novel even ends with George Bush being elected President in 1992, a coy bit of make-believe that could hardly do Buckley damage. Indeed, the only times "The White House Mess" is anything but kissy-poo is when it takes the by now obligatory whacks at Jimmy Carter. Cheap laughs are fine now and then, but cheap laughs are the only ones Buckley pursues in "The White House Mess." The jokiness is non-stop juvenile.