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A High Calling : STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS By John Buckley (Simon & Schuster: $19.95; 386 pp.)

September 09, 1990|Jeff Silverman | Silverman, a former Herald Examiner columnist, is certain he lived through the '60s but doesn't quite remember it.

Those Buckleys. How cheeky can a family get?

All right, I admit it from the start: I've spent half a lifetime shielding myself from the Yahoo world view of Citizen William F. and the logorrhea he schleps with him. But I admit this, too: The guy's charm, wit, and overworked erudition can be thoroughly engaging. So what if his lips hardly move, his spy thrillers do. Now there's his second son's drug-themed second novel to contend with.

So, caveat emptor and Liberals of the world, unite, because John Buckley has most assuredly been dunked in the same socio-political gene pool as his old man, but with a few serious adjustments we can be thankful for. First, Buckley fils writes a helluva lot better than Buckley pere . Second, the kid is much funnier and a good deal less self-righteous. But, more importantly, there's the younger Buckley's take on things, darkly comic and a shade askew. He's no mere ideologue. He understands that life overflows with moral ambiguities: "You didn't have to live in a city as wracked by crack as the District of Columbia," writes Buckley, ". . . to realize how things had changed from the days . . . when smuggling drugs into the country was a high calling, no pun intended, since it was a game no more serious in the larger questions it raised than moonshiners versus 'revenuers.' "

Still, conservatives need not worry. His bloodline and partyline lean far enough to the right as to almost topple over. But while he served as a deputy press secretary to the '84 Reagan-Bush campaign before heading off to run the press staff for the Republican Congressional Committee, he's also toiled as a rock critic, a line item that begs a veto from most right-wing resumes. If John Buckley hasn't completely embraced what passes for culture in this the twilight of the 20th Century--you know, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll--he at least acknowledges its presence. Reading him, you get the picture he might have indulged a little himself.

In short, he's a Buckley all right--at times extreme right--but with pretensions towards hipness. Things could be worse, no?

Well, maybe not. Because what John Buckley has pulled off in "Statute of Limitations" is really a kind of cosmic joke. He's elected a sort of decent if weak-willed Democrat (for a Buckley, is there any other kind?) to the White House (a Democrat in the White House?), given him a speech writer with a very good heart and very bad judgment, and then embroiled the latter in a drug-running plot that's hinged on his drug-using past.

What salvages "Statute of Limitations" is the question it raises about a generation's past drug use. "Statute of Limitations" is, of course, the phrase given for the time limit within which a crime can be prosecuted. Murder has none. Drugs do. But given America's vehement anti-drug temperament these days, just how long must the Baby Boomers be held accountable for their experimentation with recreational pharmaceuticals in the Good Old Days?

The question's an important one, and will continue to be raised in the coming years. We've already seen one Supreme Court nominee shot down in part over his admission to smoking pot, and, in a Massachusetts election last year, several of the state's politicos--from Sen. John Kerry, a decorated Viet Nam vet, down--came clean with the fact that they'd blown some weed back when hair, and tolerance, both seemed a little longer.

So, just when will the statute of limitations lapse on an activity that, illegal as it may have been, became a de facto part of life for a significant segment of the country's population now stepping into real roles of power and leadership?

Until then, we are all potential prisoners to our pasts, law-abiding citizens forced to sneak around the back alleys of our lives for fear that someone, somewhere, might point a finger and say, "Remember when?" It is a scenario for emotional blackmail.

Which is precisely the predicament Thomas O'Malley, subscriber to the old prep-school creed of "Admit nothing, deny everything" and speechwriter to the newlyelected Democratic president of the United States, finds himself in when his old Amherst roommate, David Nicole, former campus dealer extraordinaire, reappears with a scheme that almost results in the collapse of the presidency. O'Malley doesn't bring down the President, but, in the end, he does bring down the novel.

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