Fiction no Stranger Than Truth

May 22, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Although the phrase ''inside the Beltway'' has become an epithet, Washington has attracted many people who are so intensely interested in public policy they do not even take lunch breaks from their work of making the Republic all that it can be. For example, a new book describes three such people who call themselves the Mod Squad -- remember the 1960s television series about three young, hip, crusading cops? -- and meet regularly in a downtown restaurant for lunchtime discussions.

The three sometimes invite other people interested in policy questions, including spokespersons for the Society for the Humane Treatment of Calves, representing the veal industry; the Friends of the Dolphins, formerly the Pacific Tuna Fishermen's Association; the American Highway Safety Association, representing triple-trailer truckers; and the Land Enrichment Foundation, formerly the Center for the Responsible Disposal of Radioactive Waste.

The Mod Squad threesome consists of Bobby Jay Bliss of SAFETY, the Society for the Advancement of Firearms and the Effective Training of Youth, formerly NRTBAC, the National Right to Bear Arms Committee; Polly Bailey of the Moderation Council, formerly the National Association for Alcoholic Beverages, and Nick Naylor, of the Academy of Tobacco Studies.

Naylor, whose office is adorned with a sign saying ''Smoking is the nation's leading cause of statistics,'' recently was the target of would-be assassins who, true to the current axiom that extremism in pursuit of tobacco is no vice, kidnapped him and let him loose on the Mall in his boxer shorts, plastered head to toe with enough nicotine patches to pump a lethal amount of that drug into his system. He told his story on ''Larry King Live.'' ''Emotional issue,'' said King.

The ''Mod'' in ''Mod Squad'' is an acronym for Merchants of Death. Bobby Jay, Polly and Nick know the Nuremberg defense for their vocations: ''I vas only paying ze mortgage.'' Each needs a sense of humor because each is embattled.

Just the other day Bobby Jay spent lunchtime with his cellular phone to his ear because yet another of what newspapers call ''a disgruntled postal worker'' had gone with his gun into a church in Carburetor City, Texas, in the middle of a sermon on ''The Almighty's Far-Reaching Tentacles of Love'' and mowed down the minister and choir. Bobby Jay's need to develop a helpful spin for this story (''A mentally deranged federal bureaucrat today . . . '') nearly spoiled his lunch.

Polly, however, recently shared with her two companions some good news for her industry: A state court declared sobriety roadblocks unconstitutional. And Bobby Jay shared with her -- these are working lunches, and, hey, what are friends for? -- the information that you can beat a Breathalyzer test by holding activated charcoal tablets in your mouth. Polly, a droll one, suggested that her industry's Designated Driver campaign might use the slogan, ''If you must drive drunk, please suck charcoal.''

Nick warns that if the government succeeds in putting skull-and-bones labels on cigarette packs, soon such labels will be on beer, wine and whisky bottles. ''There's no room for any more warning labels,'' says Polly bitterly. ''I'm surprised we don't have to say that you shouldn't swallow the bottle.''

The idea of skull-and-bones labels for people who haven't heard that cigarettes are harmful comes from Senator Finisterre of Vermont, who recently got this riposte from Naylor when they both appeared on ''Nightline'':

''The irony in all this, Ted, is that the real, demonstrated number-one killer in America is cholesterol. . . . And here comes Senator Finisterre, whose fine and beautiful state is, I regret to have to say, clogging the nation's arteries with Vermont cheddar cheese, with his proposal. . . . I'm sure that the tobacco industry would consent to having these labels put on our product, if he will acknowledge the tragic role that his product is playing, by putting the same warning on those deadly chunks of solid, low-density lipoprotein that go by the name of Vermont cheddar cheese.''

Naylor cited a study from the Institute for Lifestyle Health, the ''research facility'' of the Academy of Tobacco Studies. The study, ''The Silent Killer,'' argues (on the assumption that anyone who ever ate any cheddar, and at some later point died, died because of the cheddar) that every year Vermont cheddar fatally clogs the arteries of 2 million Americans.

All this and more is in a new book, ''Thank you for Smoking,'' by Christopher Buckley. It is either a hilarious satiric novel about Washington, or a fine piece of journalism. Mr. Buckley says it is fiction. People who live here aren't sure.

9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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