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Speechwriter turned satirist Christopher Buckley has made a career of skewering Washington culture with novels — Thank You for Smoking, Boomsday, White House Mess — that wickedly lampoon the people and powers that make up American politics. His latest work, Supreme Courtship, out next week, imagines a well-intentioned, slightly dopey president who nominates a Judge Judy type to the nation’s highest court. Buckley spoke to Vulture from his vacation home in Maine about the genesis of the new book; the difficulties of mocking Bush, McCain, and Obama; and why he’d rather wield an ax than attend the conventions.
When your wife answered the phone, she said you were busy “being manly”?
I was being manly. I was chopping wood. It’s my one time of the year I get to be manly.
Sorry to take you away from that! So, you’re known for your satire, but at least one reviewer has said that this new book isn’t a satire; it’s a farce.
I disagree. I think I know the difference between satire and farce at this point! It’s what I do! Well, whatever it is, it retails for $24.99. And that’s no satire.
I think they said that because the plotline seems pretty plausible.
I’ve always said that the hardest part of writing satire or farce in America is that you’re in competition with tomorrow’s front page of USA Today. It’s very hard to improve on American reality.
So why did you decide to take on the Supreme Court?
I live in Washington, and I’ve sort of moved around the institutional checkerboard: the White House and Congress; a little Pentagon; a little CIA. I thought I’d give the Supreme Court a little jab. The sign that Truman had on his desk, “The Buck Stops Here,” well, the buck actually stops at the Supreme Court, which would be a less elegant motto. It’s the ultimately consequential institution, and I thought it would be worth a shot. And the only way I could figure out of getting in was this slightly nonsensical but not altogether impossible way. Nothing is implausible in America.
In the novel, you’ve got the president successfully nominating a TV judge to the Supreme Court.
You don’t actually even have to be lawyer to sit on the Supreme Court, according to the Constitution. There have been a couple of justices who were never judges, like Rehnquist. But it’s probably never going to happen. One of my favorite characters is the president, dear old Donald Vanderdamp, who’s really kind of a sweetie. He’s trying to do the right thing, and he just wants to get home to Wapakoneta.
I feel like Bush probably feels the same way right now.
Yeah. I don’t know about his future. He’s young — 62. It’s difficult right now to imagine him in the senior-statesman role. It’s hard to imagine him writing long, thoughtful books. I imagine he’ll be out of sight, a little out of mind.
As a satirist, has his administration been…
Satisfactory? Yes. If I wrote a scene in the book where the vice-president shot a lawyer, wouldn’t you say, “Oh, come on”? If I wrote a novel that recapitulated in every factual detail the Lewinsky saga, you would probably say, “Oh, come on, you’re overreaching.” Bush was funny up until 9/11. One of my theories of why people started to not like Bush was because after 9/11 you couldn’t make fun of him.
What about McCain and Obama?
Well, as satirical material, Obama presents, as we used to say back in school, problems and opportunities. You have to be careful because he’s black and certain things are off limits. But also, the idea of the son of a Kenyan goat herder becoming president? McCain is easier to make fun of. I’ve always found it easier to make fun of Republicans, because I’m one of them. I get shit about it: “Why are you going after our own people?” Well, someone has to.
Does any part of you wish you were at the convention?
Not one molecule. I’m sitting here with an ax in my hand, looking at blue herons, hummingbirds, and we’ve got an American eagle, ospreys, cormorants, and loons. To quote the Paul Simon song, “I get all the news I need on the weather report.”