Saturday, June 12, 2004

Conservative Fantasy

No Way To Treat a First Lady
, by Christopher Buckley, Read by Tim Matheson, Random House, 2002

The New York Times Magazine recently did a lengthy article on New York Times columnist David Brooks, referring to him as liberals’ favorite conservative writer. In it, Brooks was described as cuddly, reasonable, and approachable, unlike, one would imagine, William Saffire, Nixon’s old speechwriter and fellow Times columnist.

Sadly, I find Brooks to be just as much a shameless hack as The Saffliar, his dowdy glasses and pudgy innocent face simply a façade for kinder, gentler lies than Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and their ilk. The conservative writer I would give my biggest thumbs up to is Christopher Buckley, son of notorious world class asshole William F. Buckley.

What sets Buckley apart is that while he’s rather conservative and unlikely to agree with me on many issues, he is genuinely funny without referring to generic liberal bashing that’s all the rage among his ideological peers to get his laughs. That seems to be about the single note that most conservative “humorists” are able to blow these days, unless of course, you wish to consider bashing the Clinton’s high humor. His books are also satires that manage to be bipartisan in their attacks.

And I say that prefatory to reviewing a book that contains one long swipe at the former First Family. What Buckley’s book serves up is a philandering President (hmmm, who might that invoke?), his former law-student wife who chooses to include her maiden name as middle, Elizabeth Tyler MacMann (this does sound familiar eh?), and a media and lawyer driven circus surrounding a sex-related scandal (how original!). Only this scandal is a bit more of a doozy.

The First Lady, you see, is the one on trial here. As her husband President Ken MacMann returns to their bedroom following a rutting session with starlet-turned-activist Babette Van Anka, an argument ensues and Beth beans him on the head with an historic Paul Revere spittoon. The next morning, the President is found dead. The attorney general begins to try the first lady not only for murder, but assassination. And who does Beth hire as her attorney? None other than her former fiancé Boyce “Shameless” Baylor, a fast-talking, smooth-moving caricature of everything slick about lawyers.

Despite all the cheap shots you might expect from Vice President George H.W. Bush’s former speechwriter when portraying these Clinton stand-ins, Buckley’s actually rather sympathetic to his Hillary doppelganger. He drapes her with all the Hillary touches like law degree, spitfire image, and saucy (for a First Lady) comments, including MacMann’s tart statement that she doesn’t intend to spend her day going over menus. At the same time, Buckley gets into Beth MacMann’s vulnerability, her sense of betrayal toward her wayward husband, and her desperation as her trial drags on.

Which is peculiar simply because it is an article of faith among conservatives that all of America hates the Clintons, especially Hillary, as much as they do. While Buckley isn’t overt in demonstrating this (he’s very covert with a number of his prejudices, so covert he might not even be one hundred percent aware of them himself), it shows in how his plot develops. For a book that supposedly presents itself as a send up of the legal profession and its parasitical cable TV punditocracy, Buckley is also rather in the corner of his hero lawyer.

Prior to the trial, Boyce does a focus group test to see what the public thinks of First Lady MacMann. In the book, the public hates her, thinks she's a greedy, power-hungry bitch beloved by the lesbians. Any casual reader of supermarket tabloids is familiar with this caricature of Hillary Clinton, which is wholly subscribed to by only barely rational people. Yet this portrait from both the tabloids and Boyce’s focus group reflects the conservative fantasy of what the American people think of Hillary.

This idea demonstrates the disconnect between conservative “thinkers” and the public. Tucker Carlson, host of CNN’s Crossfire, once proclaimed on the eve of Hillary's book release that he'd be stunned if anyone bought it and he'd eat his shoe if it sold a million copies. It did that within a few weeks, but he didn't eat his shoes. Hillary’s Living History proved to be Borders bookstore’s fastest selling new release ever and rocketed to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. Bill Clinton’s autobiography has become a bestseller on the basis of pre-orders alone.

Apparently, the Clinton’s are terribly popular people for being so thoroughly hated by conservatives. (Let’s also note during this week of St. Ronnie hagiography that Clinton left the White House with a higher approval rating than the Gipper.)

Further, often in the course of the book, Beth questions Boyce’s legal strategy and appears to have no understanding of court or the law whatsoever. As a portrait of Hillary it's rather unpersuasive as she was, by all accounts, the better of the husband and wife lawyers who make up the Clinton family. As a character who went to law school with Baylor, it's ridiculous that her grasp of the law and of courtroom tactics would be so slender.

But setting aside the knee-jerk conservative response to the Clintons (which is admittedly a subtextual part of the novel), Buckley’s book rather hilariously slices and dices the media rather amusingly. What’s described, I’d imagine, quite accurately as The Trial of the Millenium garners an enormous amount of press coverage, and this provides Buckley with what is described as a “target rich environment.”

His best sitting duck is a preening television shyster named Alan Crudman (the barely disguised Alan Dershowitz) who pontificates on a legal talk show named “Hard Gavel” every chance he gets, turning every conversation of the trial back to himself. For anyone who’s ever seen Dershowitz, he’s an enormously self-infatuated poppinjay who you could easily imagine kissing his own portrait every night before bed. He also manages a kick in the pants to bowtied jackass George F. Will, who returns in the guise of pompous blowhard John Oliver Banion from Buckley’s earlier Little Green Men. Dan Rather's unusual choice of tortured midwest metaphors come in for their licks as well.

And it’s when Buckley’s guns are trained on the media rather than on lawyers in general that he’s being most amusing. He can’t resist working in cheap points by attacking lawyers, which is simply too elementary a shot to take. Easy lawyer jokes are a dime a dozen. And Buckley spends about ten bucks.

But the novel’s overall tone is zippy and ebullient, snarky while never getting nasty. Buckley even manages to get a little dig at his literary nemesis Tom Clancy with a joke about naval aircraft carrier technical difficulties that is subtle enough to be missed. And it’s this lightness of Buckley’s touch that saves him from falling into the trap of other conservative writers. Most right-leaning humorists approach comedy with a bludgeon when all good comedy is finer when a scalpel is in hand.

The book is ably read by bit part actor, Tim Matheson. Perhaps the nicest thing about Matheson, is that he's a minor enough actor so that you're familiar with him and his voice, which is a pleasant tenor, but he's not a celebrity whose fame overshadows the work. Though there are a number of arguments in the course of the book and Matheson's tenor becomes generally shriller and less pleasant as these quarrel sessions stretch into three and four minutes. Matheson's over-excitement in scenes that are not arguing, but immediately follow argument scenes, grows tiresome quickly. I ultimately turned the volume down greatly. And left it down.

The director of the CD did a very good job with the timing in that each disc leaves off with some kind of mystery or climax or revelation which draws you along. It makes the books five CDs zip by much faster as each disc’s end propels you toward the next.

But what are we to make of this ongoing conservative fantasy of this wide spread loathing of the Clintons? Perhaps we’ll let Buckley himself tackle that:

People believe unbelievable things because it is self-flattering to think that you are intellectually daring enough to accept what others find preposterous. It's why people believe in UFOs, assassination conspiracies, certain religions, and the possibility that the Boston Red Sox will one day win the World Series.

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