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Christopher Buckley Takes His Own Shots

July 21, 1994|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As anti-smoking terrorists slap nicotine patches on every square inch of tobacco spokesman Nick Naylor's body, it dawns on him that "a massive, probably lethal amount of nicotine is at that moment being delivered, through his skin, into his bloodstream."

"Not that there is any scientific proof that nicotine is bad for you," he reminds himself.

But soon, a wired and nearly dead Naylor is staggering through a Washington park, where he is rescued by police and ultimately transformed into the antihero of "Thank You for Smoking," a dead-on parody of the cigarette industry, Congress and Hollywood.

It's the kind of tale that could spring only from the mind of Christopher Buckley, former air conditioner repairman for Ella Fitzgerald, would-be corpse salesman at Lenin's tomb and drug-addled interview subject on "60 Minutes."

Buckley, 41, educated by monks and married to an ex-CIA staffer, is also the son of conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. He shares with his father the trademark Brahmin accent, keen intellect and, in the words of one writer, "eyes that pop wide open in moments of inexplicable startlement, as if some unseen source had dumped hot tea in his lap."

But he doesn't do the weird, lizard-tongue thing his dad is famous for--and his mission in life seems considerably less political.

"I just write what comes along," he explains during a recent book-tour visit to Los Angeles. "I don't have a detailed master plan."

Shipped off to a boarding school run by Benedictine monks at age 13, Buckley used to sneak into the woods to smoke cigarettes and imagine himself aboard one of the freighters steaming out of nearby Providence, R.I. After high school, he ran away to work as a deckhand on a Norwegian liner sailing to "all the fleshpots of the Far East" (a similar trip after college was the basis for his first book, "Steaming to Bamboola") and had an obscenity--later removed--tattooed on his hand.

His rebellious-son phase also included an LSD trip in which he stopped home for a sweater, tripped over a coaxial cable snaked across the foyer and "looked up into the face--the very interesting face--of Mike Wallace." A crew from "60 Minutes" was taping a segment on Buckley's father and Christopher was reluctantly drafted for an interview.

It was a bizarre encounter, he recalls: "All those lights. And Mike's face. It looked a little like Picasso's middle period."

From there, he eventually followed his father's footsteps to Yale, where he began writing for a campus publication and attracted the attention of legendary editor Clay Felker of New York magazine. Felker sent Buckley to Caesar's Palace to try to interview Frank Sinatra. Buckley couldn't get near Ol' Blue Eyes, but he did corner Ella Fitzgerald, who warmed to his questions after Buckley agreed to fix the broken air conditioner in her hotel room.

Next, he worked at Esquire magazine, ascending to managing editor at 24. Then, in 1981, George Bush hired Buckley as a vice-presidential speech writer--after making him promise not to publish any kiss-and-tell memoirs. Buckley kept that vow, but he did write a spoof of such books, "The White House Mess," which made the New York Times bestseller list.

"Everyone who works in the White House for more than five minutes writes a book about it," he says. "And the theme is always 'It wasn't my fault' and 'It would have been much worse if I hadn't been there.' "

In Washington, Buckley also met and married the daughter of Bush national security adviser Donald P. Gregg. She worked for the CIA at the time but now labors in the couple's million-dollar D.C. estate raising their two young children. In other words, says Buckley, "she's still dealing with terrorists."

Son of William F., meanwhile, is now the editor of Forbes FYI, a quarterly leisure supplement to Forbes magazine. It was there that he concocted and published a hoax about cash-starved Russian officials auctioning off Lenin's glass-encased corpse--and exulted when ABC News unwittingly broadcast the story.

Now, Buckley is basking in the serendipitous timing of "Thank You for Smoking," which hit stores shortly after U.S. cigarette barons testified to Congress that their product hasn't been proved harmful.

Mel Gibson has optioned the movie rights; favorable book reviews are piling up, and the publisher recently sprang for an author party at the Washington Ritz-Carlton featuring so many smoke machines that firetrucks showed up, plus a Marlboro-shaped ice sculpture, smoked meats, leggy cigarette girls with gas masks and a band that played "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," "Light My Fire" and "Puff, the Magic Dragon."

*

Buckley started the novel two years ago, after watching "one too many tobacco spokesmen on McNeil-Lehrer saying there's no link between smoking and disease. . . . I thought, 'What an interesting job that must be. Get up in the morning, brush your teeth and go sell death for a living.' "

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