What was going on in this smoke-filled room? Politically incorrect fun

June 10, 1994|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Correspondent

Washington -- It was like a breath of stale air. Refreshingly retro, curiously new somehow. Smoke. Liquor. Tanned skin. Cholesterol-defying pate. Republicans.

"It's become against the law to have fun anymore. You need parties like this where people can flout convention and check their political correctness at the door," says Vivian A. Deuschl, a corporate director for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, site of a party last night that was such a hot ticket that the fire trucks actually came out.

The firemen found no flames to douse, but left with autographed copies of the source of the hullabaloo -- Christopher Buckley's new novel, "Thank You for Smoking" (Random House, $22), which was been feted a bit too realistically with smoke machines that triggered fire alarms.

The novel by the former George Bush speechwriter, which drolly savages both the tobacco industry and its tiresomely earnest opposition, was celebrated with a party in which smoking was not only allowed but encouraged. Cigarette girls bearing Dunhills (as well as candy cigarettes and face masks for the nicotine-offended) worked the crowd of media and political figures, including Mary Matalin, David Brinkley, Mark Russell, Marlin Fitzwater, Sally Quinn, Michael Kinsley and G. Gordon Liddy.

A contingency of New Yorkers attended as well, including Mr. Buckley's mother, socialite Pat Buckley, (his father, publisher and writer William F. Buckley, was laid up after a moped accident in Bermuda) and Random House publisher Harold Evans.

But the glory days of smoking may be gone forever. Although some were elegantly puffing on long cigarette holders and others were relishing the cigars that seem requisite among fortysomething boy-men, most of the guests seemed to be getting their smoke secondhand.

Even the author himself.

"Not even after a third martini," Christopher Buckley, 41, says a bit ruefully of the habit he gave up six years ago after a friend died of lung cancer. "But I'm in search of new vices."

The well-reviewed book, however, has made him a hero among those weary of the growing sanctimony of the anti-smoking crusaders -- grown-up hall monitors, Mr. Buckley calls them.

And, in fact, life has imitated art: His book features scenes that could have come out of today's headlines and "Doonesbury" cartoons, what with tobacco lobbyists blithely dismissing the health hazards of smoking before huffy congressmen who have latched onto the safest political stance since motherhood and apple pie.

"When I saw the [U.S. Rep. Henry] Waxman hearings, my heart sank. I thought, no book can hold a candle to real life," Mr. Buckley recalls. "It shows how hard it is to be a satirist today."

"I called them up and said, 'When did you start tapping my phone?' " says Charles M. Boesel, press secre tary to a congressman on the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, which in April held the hearings in which seven tobacco executives were taken to task for their products. Mr. Boesel, whose boss, Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., was invariably called "the courtly Republican from tobacco-growing Virginia" in news coverage, says the book has already entered the vernacular on Capitol Hill, with people calling tobacco lobbyists "Nick Naylor," after Mr. Buckley's beleaguered main character.

Soon, they may be calling them, "Mel Gibson," after the actor who has already bought the rights to make a movie based on the book. "I couldn't stop laughing," the actor said in a letter read at the party by Mr. Evans.

"When people stop smoking, they stop reading," declared one of the hosts of the party, the unrepentant smoker and writer Taki Theodoracopulos. "I obviously loved the book, and for the younger generation, I hope it comes out on video soon since they don't read anymore."

Ms. Matalin, the Bush campaign strategist turned TV talk show host, had the opposite take on the book-and-smoking connection.

"I'm not smoking at the moment, although I am a smoker, because we're trying to finish up our book and if I were to smoke now, it would be two packs a day," says Ms. Matalin, who with her husband and campaign opponent, Clinton strategist James Carville, are writing a book. "James is one of those people who can smoke one cigarette a day, at the end of dinner."

Proving you can't always tell a smoker by his cover, Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, who, with his outlaw looks -- bald head, dark mustache -- seems a likely nicotiner, revealed that he gave up smoking as soon as he saw an advance copy of the first Surgeon General's study linking cigarettes to cancer.

"But Mrs. Liddy smokes," he says of his wife, Frances. "I keep trying to get her to smoke outside the house, but she only does that when her grandchildren are visiting because their parents don't allow them around smoke. But we've been married 37 years, so what am I going to do? Sure I worry about second-hand smoke, but you can't live forever anyway."

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