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THANK YOU FOR SMOKING
3.03.06
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BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS.

Having trouble telling fact from fiction these days? "Spin" is in.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: It is sometimes tough competing with reality in America. And but it's a dirty, a dirty, lousy, rotten job and I guess someone's gotta try.

Christopher Buckley's satire about spin and lobbying is now a major motion picture.

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING CLIP: We want to talk about numbers, perhaps Vermont cheese should come with a skull and crossbones.

The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese.

BRANCACCIO: Hang on for an insider's view on the way Washington really works.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Lobbyists didn't descend from a spaceship. They evolved organically from the way we do business.


BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

Did you ever get the feeling these days that politics is upside down? Facts on the ground seem to matter less than how those facts get spun. How else to explain those incredibly successful Washington lobbyists for the alcohol, gun and tobacco industries?

Now that's the premise of THANK YOU FOR SMOKING. First as a book and now a movie, it's a look at the way Washington really works tongue-in-cheek, sort of. The book's author, Christopher Buckley, is the son of legendary conservative opinion-maker William F. Buckley, and he himself is the product of an inside-the-Beltway upbringing. Chris, welcome to now.

DAVID BRANCACCIO: Chris, welcome.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Good to be here.

BRANCACCIO: Is this true, I gotta ask you, or, is it spin, lore, that you got part of your inspiration for this repulsive main character in the book from whence the movie came from watching public TV?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: David, this book wouldn't have happened without public television, and viewers like you.

BRANCACCIO: No pledge drive necessary. Well, what happened?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Well, some time in 1992 I think, was watching the-- as it was then called THE MCNEIL LEHRER NEWSHOUR and the latest evidence had issued from some scientific authority that smoking was still bad for you, and they had on a woman from the Tobacco Institute, which now no longer with us, sadly. But, this was the front lobby for the tobacco industry. And, her job was to airily dismiss this scientific evidence.

BRANCACCIO: And, that caught your imagination?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: And, well, it did. She was very attractive. She looked sort of like Lauren Bacall and she was obviously bright, and I thought, "Well, you know, what an interesting job to" You get up in the morning. You brush your teeth, kiss the kids goodbye and go and sell death for a living.

And, so I became fascinated by people who did that, and I called her up, and followed her around for a few days.

BRANCACCIO: And so you're inspired to create and you're sort of like Dr. Frankenstein this monster of a character. He sure is attractive, though, this monster. Lets take a look.

The movie opens up with a fake talk show where the main character, lobbying for the tobacco industry takes on a young man dying of cancer caused by smoking.

BEGIN VIDEO CLIP #1:

NICK: How on earth would big tobacco profit off of the loss of this young man? I hate to think in such callous terms, but if anything, we'd be losing a customer. It's not only our hope. It's in our best interest to keep Robin alive and smoking.

WOMAN: That's ludicrous!

NICK: Let me tell you, something Joan, and, please, let me share something with the fine, concerned people in the audience today: the Ron Goodies of this world want the Robin Willingers to die.

WOMAN: What?!

NICK: You know why? So their budgets will go up. This is nothing less than trafficking in human misery, and you, sir, ought to be ashamed of yourself.

MAN: I ought to be ashamed of myself?!

NICK: As a matter of fact, we're about to launch a $50 million campaign aimed at persuading kids not to smoke. Because I think that we can all agree that there is nothing more important than America's children.

END VIDEO CLIP #1:

BRANCACCIO: Wow. That guy's good.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: He is good, isn't he?

BRANCACCIO: But, here's the thing. In the 12 years that have elapsed since the book came out it finally gets on the screen, what has happened to your one of your central themes that spin rules in Washington?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Well, we live - on a spinning planet in a world of spin. It goes on today. The Tobacco Institute is gone and the tobacco lobby is at this point really very much on the defensive. But, I, you know, there-- there are people who do this everyday for a living, and even, you know, imagine what it must be like to be the White House spokesman and to have to deal with Vice Presidential shootings and things. So I find the-- he's-- what Nick essentially is, is an American PR guy, and I find this a fascinating type — the PR hustler.

His job is to make it sound as though smoking is not bad for you. And, I became — I thought that must be surely the greatest challenge in PR-- and, to remain somehow likeable.

BRANCACCIO: Well in the book and in the movies, a very charming character. You-- it's awful, actually, you end up rooting for the guy.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: You do. But it's a fascinating balance. I don't know quite how he pulled it off. But his two best friends are the chief lobbyist for the booze industry and the gun industry. And, they called themselves the "MOD Squad".

BRANCACCIO: MOD Squad?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Well, it stands for "Merchants of Death".

BRANCACCIO: Well, lets see that MOD Squad in action.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Okay.

BEGIN CLIP #2

WOMAN: Did you see the coverage the fetal alcohol people got themselves over the weekend? They made it seem like we were encouraging pregnant women to drink. I'm surprised I didn't get kidnapped to my way to work this morning. NICK: I don't think people from the alcoholic beverage industry need to worry about being kidnapped just yet.

WOMAN: Pardon me?

NICK: Look, I mean, nothing personal, but tobacco generates a little more heat than alcohol.

WOMAN: Oh, this is news.

NICK: My product puts away 475,000 a year.

WOMAN: Okay, now, 475 is a legitimate number.

NICK: OK 435,000. 1,200 a day. How many alcohol deaths a year? 100,000, tops? That's what, 270 a day? Wow, 270 people, a tragedy. Excuse me if I don't see terrorists getting excited about kidnapping anybody from the alcohol industry.

NICK: How many gun-related deaths a year in the U.S.?

MAN: 11,000.

NICK: Thirty a day. That's less than passenger car mortalities. No terrorist would bother with either of you.

END CLIP #2

BRANCACCIO: You know, Chris, we laugh, but, you know-- we're trying to run a democracy in this country in which we debate important issues. What is the future of this country? I mean, it's almost as if truth doesn't enter into it anymore. That guys like the MOD Squad control the debate and they can say whatever they want.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Well, I didn't have a big agenda in writing this book. It's a book about us and the way we are in Washington. It's a book, very much I think about political correctness, and I think, perhaps by 1992, which was looking back on it perhaps a high watermark for all political correctness.

BRANCACCIO: When the book came out. Yeah.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: We were continually being told, "Don't do that. Don't do this. You can't do that." And so this book is was perhaps a way of addressing that. The one-- I was genuinely curious as to what motivates someone to do that. I went and I interviewed this lady that had seen on public television.

And, I mean, I wondered, you know, does someone go to college wanting to prepare themselves to become a tobacco flack? No. Probably not. What I found was that her previous job had been at the Department of Health and Human Services.

She had worked for at some point, for Dr. Edward Everett Koop. And, she now the tobacco people-- their nickname for the Health-- the Department of Health and Human Services was "Helpless, Hopeless and Stupid."

What I found was that all these people had a very strong libertarian streak. They didn't like being told what to do. And, it wasn't that she was ardent for that Americans died of cancer. It was that she was reacting to the the big nanny phenomenon, "Don't do this. Don't do that. Don't do that."

BRANCACCIO: You talk in the book, and it shows up in the movie, this notion of when he's challenged-- when this slick spin doctor, lobbyist, spokesman guy is challenged on this, he says, "Look, you know, gotta pay the mortgage."

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Well, my last interview with this lady from the Tobacco Institute--

BRANCACCIO: The real lady?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: The real lady back in 1993, I guess it and she was-- we were in her office and she was puffing away. A rather beautiful smoker, too, very elegant. And, I said, "You know-- there's a question I'm really kinda dying to ask you, but I feel a little bit awkward."

And, she said-- "What's a nice girl like me doing in a place like this?" And, I said, "Yes. Yes. That's exactly it." She said, and I'll never forget, - she paused and puffs-- she said, "I'm just paying the mortgage." And, I thought, "Wow," you know, and so I used that line practically word for word in the book and it becomes the Yuppie Nuremberg defense. "I was only paying the mortgage." And, Nick, he said, "Most of the evil that is done in the modern world is done because of a mortgage. It would really be-- the world would be a better place if everyone just rented."

BRANCACCIO: And, it's one of the resonances in the book and the film is that, you know, I'm never gonna be a tobacco spokesperson, but you do worry about the mortgage. You wonder how far one will go to pay the kids' college education bills.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Look, I read in the paper that the Dubai Ports company that wants to buy the port operations in these six companies--

BRANCACCIO: In the United States?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: In the United States, and that-- now that the-- we're in a frenzy of xenophobia and saying, "No, no, no. We mustn't let filthy Arabs have anything to do with running our ports." That company has now hired Bob Dole and Madeline Albright to lobby. So this is what they're doing this month to pay the mortgage. It's-- mortgages make-- us all do very strange things.

By the way, in the midst of this, Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal — so the timing for this movie is really quite interesting. Here's a comedy about a Washington lobbyist coming out at a time of the Jack Abramoff scandal, but in the course of reading all this stuff about lobbying, I found that there are-- the legislative population of Capital Hill is 30,000. That's Congress and Senators and staff. The number of registered lobbyists in Washington, 32,000. So, it's almost a one-to-one ratio.

BRANCACCIO: And, imagine what happens to the ratio, if you just look at elected members of Congress.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Yeah. Well, but and the answer is-- no one ever now leaves Washington. They stay and they become lobbyists.

BRANCACCIO: There was an interesting review of the movie recently, which pointed out a fact that I was unaware of-- apparently if you really wanna smoke indoors in this country, there's one place left — apparently in Congress.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: It struck me that the new House Majority Leader, Mr. Boehner is apparently a chain smoker. So- it's good to know that he has a place to smoke. By the way it's a little it's kind of fun to consider this in the context of- you know, there-- very often the Senate has laws for itself that are more pleasant that the laws that it inflicts on us.

BRANCACCIO: Some workplace rules about how for your employees.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Well, there's Social Security. They get free Social Security, which is rather more than we do.

BRANCACCIO: What do you make of that?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Well, we make our public servants jump through quite a few hoops, you know. We get hysterical if they accept a $50 lunch from a lobbyist. We get hysterical if they accept a ride on some corporate jet. We get hysterical, as I suppose just have in pointing out that they get they make their own- hey get their own free Social Security. But, you know, when you consider the lives that they lead it's a pretty tough life. I'm not as reflexively anti-politician as I used to be. I've been in Washington for 25 years now and I--

BRANCACCIO: Well, like-- 'cause you-- you--

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: --I actually have some sympathy for the bastards.

BRANCACCIO: But, you really do go to bat for the down trodden. I mean, you have this wretched tobacco lobbyist that you lift up through the fiction, and now you're telling me to be more sensitive to these members of Congress, who-- have it tough?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Well, I'm 53 now and I've lost some of my-- my youthful indignation. It maybe it happens. Maybe it's the Lipitor I've been taking.

BRANCACCIO: The book comes out a dozen years ago, but the spin doesn't stop. I mean, currently, there is an administration in power that in which some of the officials have argued in recent years that the facts don't matter so much. If you believe passionately in a policy outcome, that it'll happen.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: I think-- the-- you know, the-- American people are probably a lot smarter than they are sometimes supposed to be. I don't think, for instance, that anyone listening to President Bush say that-- "We need, you know, "we need to clamp down on government spending," is at all convinced by this.

President Bush has now borrowed more money than all other Presidents combined. The spending that he has enacted is amazing. It amazes me that he calls himself "conservative." So in that sense, yeah. He's a master spinner, but I don't--

BRANCACCIO: But, it doesn't outrage you when he says it? Because, you kind of figure people get it already?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Well, you outrage is kinda like a battery, you know. I think you,at least in my metabolism, you can only have so much of it and after a while it sort of depletes. I mean, yeah, I get quietly furious when I hear a statement like that.

I get quietly furious when I hear Hillary Clinton, you know, what she said on Martin Luther King Day to that group of African Americans that oh-- you know, the Republicans are just running the Congress like a plantation. Uh-huh. You know what I mean.

You know, I get outraged by a statement as absurd as that, too. maybe a book like this is a way of channeling that. Writing can be even better than psychotherapy I think sometimes. And you can actually make some money off it. But it is a way of- o I suppose coping, satire.

BRANCACCIO: Well, you are a satirist. Actually, it always sound like a epithet when you say--

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: It sounds--

BRANCACCIO: --"You, sir, are a satirist."

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: It, well, - as opposed to a satyriasis, I guess, which is a-- you know, a-- a sexual- over-sexual problem.

BRANCACCIO: I didn't know that.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: It's a word I learned from my father. I learned many words from my father. And it-- it's from the word satyr, which is sexually over-- over endowed.

BRANCACCIO: But you're the other thing.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: I'm the other thing.

BRANCACCIO: And--

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Yeah. It's a--

BRANCACCIO: But you're-- but you're the mold of, maybe, I don't know, oh, Jonathan Swift or something

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: I'm not, you don't often see Jonathan Swift and Christopher Buckley in the same sentence. I'm a poor man's-- Jonathan Swift, maybe.

BRANCACCIO: Be…

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Jonathan semi-Swift. But it is, I've found, it's a way of coping, I suppose. And it's a way of, I don't know, maybe they say living well is the best revenge. I think sometimes laughing well is a better revenge.

You can either get outraged well, maybe you, as the saying goes, don't get mad, get even. And I think, you know, with satire's a way of getting even sometimes.

BRANCACCIO: One of the words that tends to get applied to the book, and the film, is wicked. Wicked satire. So, you know, it with respect to that, I feel--

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: What is wicked--

BRANCACCIO: --a wicked--

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: --satire?

BRANCACCIO: I want to ask you a wicked question. Permit if--

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: That's a Canadian word. "That's wicked good." Actually, Maine, where I go in summers, they--

BRANCACCIO: And where I come from.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: --say, "Boy, it's wicked tasty."

BRANCACCIO: So I got what we call in Maine a wicked question for you.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Okay.

BRANCACCIO: And-- and it's this.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Do your best. Give me your best shot, David.

BRANCACCIO: You look at your resume. There's somethin' that does stand out, a whole bunch of things stand out. But you used to write speeches for George Herbert Walker Bush?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: I did indeed. I was his speechwriter when he was vice president.

BRANCACCIO: Does that make you a card-carrying spinner?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: I suppose I put in my time in the spin trenches. I wasn't-- yeah, looking back on it, I can--

BRANCACCIO: But you were completely--

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: --see that.

BRANCACCIO: --honest in all of your speeches?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Well, I certainly tried to be. What I found out-- I went down to Washington with all dewy-eyed and thinking that, you know, my speeches would be published in full on the front page of the NEW YORK TIMES and poured over at the Kremlin. Then I found it didn't really make any difference what a vice president says, unless he puts his foot in his mouth. I tried not to put-- my foot in his mouth too many times. But there were-- there were times when I did.

BRANCACCIO: Unless, by the way, you're this vice president in this administration.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: He would be an interesting challenge. Someone made the comment about Cheney in the wake of the shooting-- incident, that Dick Cheney is beyond P.R. I liked that. Surely the hardest job in Washington would-- I suppose would be Mary Matalin's at this point, she being his media advisor. I well, maybe that will be subject for the next book.

BRANCACCIO: When I raise this issue of you being a vice presidential speechwriter years ago, and tease you about yourself being a spinner, it gets to the next delicate question to ask an author. Which is when you look into the handsome face of that character, Nick Naylor, lobbyist, are you seeing yourself at any level?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: I certainly wish I were as good-looking as Aaron Eckhart.

BRANCACCIO: He's a fine-looking man.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: He's a fine-lookin' lad. No, not-- maybe-- perhaps. I-- it's-- it's--

BRANCACCIO: Never had to pay that mortgage?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: I'm not Nick Naylor, although I suppose any novelist probably has a few-- is working out a few Walter Mitty fantasies. Bu all I ever wanted to be was Mick Jagger. I didn't want to be a spokesman for the tobacco industry. And I am-- and I

BRANCACCIO: Why not sympathy for the devil?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: I-- but I have certainly failed at being Mick Jagger, but.

BRANCACCIO: Do you find it tough to write satire now when the world seems and the country seems just so bizarre on its own?

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: It's a challenge. It yeah, I think in a way the hardest part of writing satire in America is competing with-- you know, the day's headlines. But there is some brilliant satire being written. There's an abundance of satire. We live in, I suppose, satirical times. There are times when I think we live in what you might call post-satirical times. It is sometimes tough competing with reality in America. And but it's a dirty, lousy, rotten job, and I guess someone's gotta try.

BRANCACCIO: Christopher Buckley is the author of the newly reissued book THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, thank you very much.

CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY: Thanks for having me on.

BRANCACCIO: The film version of THANK YOU FOR SMOKING screened at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, and comes out in a theater near you March 17th.


BRANCACCIO: For more on the world of Christopher Buckley, check out our Web site: pbs.org.

And next week on NOW, We'll be talking about how to live a moral life in the midst of an immoral society. Unlikey lessons from, get this, a commedian.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW.

From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you again next week.

Connect to NOW online at pbs.org.

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