Timing is right for tobacco-lobby satire

June 02, 1994|By Linnea Lannon | Linnea Lannon,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Timing is everything. And, boy, Christopher Buckley could not have asked for better timing.

Mr. Buckley -- he's the son of William -- is the author of "Thank You for Smoking," a satire of the tobacco lobby. This is tricky terrain because, as recent congressional testimony suggests, it's hard to make these people appear more inane than they make themselves appear.

But Mr. Buckley pretty much succeeds. Actually, he succeeds at ridiculing all sides of the smoking "issue" and all of Washington, from the Mod (Merchants of Death) Squad -- the chief lobbyists for the tobacco, alcohol and gun lobbies who lunch weekly and argue about which is responsible for more deaths -- to our elected leaders:

"Nick graciously thanked Chairman Finisterre for the opportunity present his views before such a distinguished committee. How proud the founders would have been of the senators before him: over two thousand bounced checks between them, a seducer of underage Senate pages, three DUIs, one income-tax evader, a wife beater whose only defense was that she'd beat him up first, and a case of plagiarism, from, of all sources, a campaign speech of Benito Mussolini. (The senator had manfully blamed the episode on an 'overzealous staffer.')"

Nick is Nick Naylor, chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a.k.a. cigarette manufacturers. Times are tough for Nick. Yes, he's used to being compared to Hitler and Stalin, but Satan? Hey, he's got a mortgage and tuition payments, too. (The yuppie Nuremberg defense, his critics call it.) OK, fine. He's paid to deal with the anti-smoking zealots.

But his boss is threatening to stop paying. For "one-oh-five a year, I think we can do better," says BR. Nick has only days to dream up something dramatic.

Lucky for Nick, he's soon on "Oprah" -- lucky if you think defending the old Joe Camel campaign in the face of a dying high school senior who started smoking Camels at 15 is a break. But Nick is good. In a moment of inspiration he attacks Ron Goode, the Department of Health and Human Services rep:

" 'Well let me tell you something, Oprah, and let me share something with the fine, concerned people in the audience today. It's not pleasant, but you, and they, need to hear it. The Ron Goodes of this world want the Robin Willigers to die. Yes. Awful, but true. . . . And do you know why? I'll tell you why. So that their . . . budgets' -- he spat out the distasteful word -- 'will go up. This is nothing less than trafficking in human misery, and you, sir, ought to be ashamed of yourself.'

"Ron Goode did not recover."

And it didn't help that Nick in vented on the spot a new campaign -- sponsored by the tobacco industry -- to battle teen-age smoking.

Nick is soon a hero among his peers. Doing a similar bit on Larry King, his life is threatened. ("Emotional issue," says Mr. King repeatedly.) And when he's kidnapped and nearly killed -- his body is covered with nicotine patches -- he becomes an international celebrity.

Mr. Buckley, the author of three other books, was once a speech writer for Vice President George Bush and is now the editor of Forbes FYI. He has a lot going on in "Thank You for Smoking."

There's the ad campaign that can't be too good ("Does it gobble?" Nick asks the art director). There's what to do about the dying Tumbleweed Man, who's bad-mouthing cigarettes ("Your pal Oprah had him on with the Silver-O's girl. You should have seen them, both talking through their voice boxes. It was like a duet for two kazoos," complains BR).

There's Nick's meeting with a Mike Ovitz-type Hollywood mega-agent about getting cigarettes placed in movies. ("He was dazzled. The man was a titan of ambiguity. He could learn from this man.")

Mostly it works. For a while, I thought Mr. Buckley couldn't sustain a whole book, but I soon found myself laughing out loud. By the time I got to the part where the advertising agency is using Mr. Rogers' skull to illustrate the newly imposed skull and crossbones warning on cigarette packages ("All that's missing is the cardigan sweater. We didn't have room for that.") . . . well, I'm still laughing.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Thank You for Smoking"

Author: Christopher Buckley

Publisher: Random House

-! Length, price: 272 pages, $22

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