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05.12.09

Would My Father Have Voted for Obama?

You get asked a lot of odd questions when you go on a book tour. And give even stranger answers. Did I ever tell you about the time I collaborated with Proust? Or was an adviser to William Howard Taft?

I’m on a book tour.

I won’t call it “book tour hell,” as many authors do, because—dangerous admission—I’m actually enjoying this one. Why, I don’t quite know. Perhaps it’s the nature of this particular book (a memoir), as opposed to my more typical stuff (sort of high-concept comic fiction).

The high point of the three hours came after the first break, when the host announced, “We’re back with Christopher Hitchens.”

One Sunday ago, I spent three hours at C-SPAN. Three hours. I have about five minutes of intelligent conversation in me, but somehow the time went by, even enjoyably. The three hours was leavened by B-roll taken of me giving a tour of the Mall in Washington. I was wearing a pastel-colored shirt, tan jacket, shades, and a thin brimmed Panama hat, which gave me the appearance of a pudgy, gay CIA agent from the Bay of Pigs era. The high point of the three hours came after the first break, when the host announced, “We’re back with Christopher Hitchens.”

Continuing the Christopher theme, my friend Chris Matthews had me on Hardball last Friday. Chris was a big fan of my late father, William F., who was in turn very fond of Chris and appeared many times on Hardball. He showed clips of WFB’s appearances during our segment. It was a strange sensation, watching my father, circa 2000, on a monitor, younger and healthier than my last memories of him, as if his ghost had been conjured in a high-tech séance.

Chris asked, “Did your dad vote for Obama?” I said I rather doubted it, as he’d died in February 2008. Chris grinned in a Cheshire Cat way, recovering in about .002 seconds. He has one of the sharpest minds I know. I’ve been in his and Christopher Hitchens’ presence a few times and it’s like watching a tennis match played at the speed of light.

“Yeah, OK, but would he have voted for him?” Chris pressed.

I cleared my throat and said well, it’s tricky, you know, trying to channel the ghost of one’s dad. Hamlet tried it and look what—

Yeah, yeah, Chris said; or something like that—not buying my equivocation and pressing on with the subjunctive. Come on. Would he have voted for him?

I said it was possible. My father would have been impressed by Barack Obama’s mind and style and grace of manner, as well as by—I’m certain—his abilities as a writer. Whether he’d have pulled the lever for him… I’ll revert to my Hamlet-qualm.

I do know this much: Some of WFB’s great friendships were with Men of the Left. Every month or so, during John Kenneth Galbraith’s declining years, Pup would board a train in Stamford and go up to Boston to sit at his old friend’s bedside. Daniel Patrick Moynihan took away my father’s brother’s U.S. Senate seat in 1976; it didn’t affect WFB’s friendship with him. That’s bipartisanship. WFB secretly subsidized publication of Murray Kempton’s last book—an act of generosity Murray himself was unaware of. Ira Glasser, head of the ACLU, as in “card-carrying American Civil Liberties Union,” took my father to his first baseball game, some time in the 1990s(!), an event that was regarded as singular enough to be reported on by The New Yorker’s Talk of the Town. The most prominent politician at my father’s memorial Mass in Saint Patrick’s cathedral? George McGovern.

I did have an actual—or sort of actual—Hamlet moment last week. After taping a segment with Charlie Rose, he and I were making small talk as I was de-microphoned. Charlie allowed how he was a bit tired after a long day that had begun in Washington with a taping likely to air sooner than my own—with Timothy Geithner.

I quoted Twain’s great line, “Homer’s dead, Shakespeare’s dead, and I myself am not at all well.” And walked out, only to bump smack into Charlie’s next guest, who’d been standing there listening to our persiflage—Kenneth Branagh. What a memorable film-Hamlet he gave us a few years back.

Those are the fun moments of a book tour. Some years ago, I had Tony Curtis all to myself for half an hour in a green room in L.A.

“You know where the center of New York is?” he said. “Fifty-fifth street, in front of the Saint Regis Hotel. You know why?”

I said no, why?

“’Cause I used to shine shoes there when I was nine years old. Now I arrive in a limousine”—he said this with a half-smile that seemed to indicate he knew very well he was striking a pose—“and it’s ‘ Hello, Mr. Curtis!’”

Sometimes one can make one’s own fun. Some years back, I found myself in mid-book tour, 10 days or so in, a bit punchy and tired of my own voice. I was flogging a novel, my seventh or eighth book, and had wearied of the “About the Author” paragraph on the back flap, and so had just made it up, writing, He has been an adviser to every president since William Howard Taft. As well as claiming co-authorship with Proust of Remembrance of Time Past.

Walking into the radio studio in Boston, an AM drive-time show, I saw the host speed-reading the back flap with beetled brow. He looked up at me blankly.

“You were an adviser to William Howard Taft?”

“Yeah,” I said matter-of-factly. I was, as I say, punchy.

His brow furrowed. “So…we could talk about that?”

“Yeah,” I said. And we did. I haven’t been asked back, but you know, it was worth it.

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Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and is editor-at-large of ForbesLife magazine. His new book is Losing Mum and Pup, a memoir.