“The stink of corruption is just olid!” Christopher Buckley exclaimed, appraising the 45th president of the United States and his fanatical cult of enablers and acolytes. “Do you know that word ‘olid’? It’s a lovely word. It means stinky. But now we’re going to have to invent new words for stinky.”
Buckley, whose satirical novel of the current administration Make Russia Great Again is just out from Simon & Schuster, was speaking the morning after Donald Trump—in a typically belligerent White House press dump on a Friday night—commuted the prison sentence of his favorite felon, dirty trickster Roger Stone.
“I glimpsed him this morning on television,” Buckley said about Stone, who was convicted in a jury trial this past February of various counts of witness tampering, obstruction of justice, and perjury—and lied promiscuously to the press about his contacts with WikiLeaks and Russian intelligence operatives, including to this reporter, in order to protect his pal Trump.
“He seemed to be wearing a black mask that may have said ‘FREE ROGER STONE,’” Buckley said, speaking from the same garage office in suburban Connecticut where his late father, conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr., edited National Review, churned out thousands of newspaper columns and magazine articles, and nearly 60 books. “The only nice thing about Roger Stone’s mask is that it concealed what must have been a very smug grin.”
Stone has not only been spared incarceration, he’s also not a character in Make Russia Great Again—a rare instance perhaps of Buckleyan mercy. “The comic genius behind such classics as Thank You for Smoking has given us an outrageously funny novel equal to the absurdity roiling Washington,” book critic Ron Charles, of The Washington Post, wrote in a rave review, which noted that Buckley “is not angry about Donald Trump. He sounds instead as delighted as a fly discovering the world’s largest pile of manure.”
Buckley’s latest book—his 19th—is a political sendup in the tradition of his 1986 bestseller The White House Mess, a faux memoir by a fictional presidential aide, no doubt informed by Buckley’s stint in the early ’80s as chief speechwriter in the Reagan White House for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a friend of Buckley’s for many years.)
It’s hard to know whether it’s an advantage or the opposite that Simon & Schuster published Make Russia Great Again on the same day that it rolled out presidential niece Mary Trump’s mega-bestseller Too Much and Never Enough—only three weeks after the same publisher released disgruntled former national security adviser John Bolton’s best-selling Trump White House memoir The Room Where It Happened.
“My beloved Mr. Karp,” Buckley said, referring to his longtime editor, Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp, “has me sandwiched between Mr. Bolton and Ms. Trump. I feel like the stick of chewing gum between courses—the slight palette-cleanser before the second main dish. My slender consolation—or let me express it as a hope—is that my book might still be readable 10 years from now.”
His latest novel involves an unstoppable computer at the Pentagon, code-named “Placid Reflux,” that spontaneously meddles in the Russian election and denies a prearranged victory to Trump’s pal Vladimir Putin. The ensuing plot twists—which include a Supreme Court ruling ordering Trump to release his tax returns and the big reveal of just how the Russians are blackmailing him—lead to a great many high crimes and misdemeanors, all incompetently committed.
Indeed, the book is written as a prison memoir by one Herbert K. Nutterman, Inmate #107-3374-34-8 at Federal Correctional Institute Wingdale, but previously Trump’s seventh White House chief of staff and before that, for 27 years until his rudely interrupted retirement, a hospitality supervisor at various Trump-branded properties, including as food and beverage manager at the Trump Magnifica, assistant general manager at the Trump Farrago-sur-Mer, and finally as general manager of the Trump Bloody Run Golf Club.
“He’s an amiable schlub,” Buckley said about his protagonist. Also Trump’s “favorite Jew,” as in “How’s my favorite Jew?”—a form of presidential address Nutterman “didn’t especially enjoy,” he confides in his memoir, but “It’s just his way. Many people who grow up in Queens,” Nutterman explains, “talk this way. Mr. Trump called one of the White House butlers of color ‘My favorite African-American.’ There was a Navy steward in the White House Mess he always greeted with, ‘How’s my favorite Mexican today.’” To which Nutterman adds in a footnote: “The steward was actually Filipino, but he never corrected the president. To be honest, I don’t think Mr. Trump had any ‘favorite’ Mexicans.”
The victims of Buckley’s cheerful mockery—their identities undisguised by ridiculous noms de burlesque—include Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump (“Jored and Ivunka”), Kellyanne Conway (“Katie Borgia-O’Reilly”), Stephen Miller (“Stefan Nacht von Nebel”), Sarah Huckabee Sanders (“Beulah Puckle-Peters”), Hope Hicks (“Greta Fibberson”), Lindsey Graham (“Sen. Squigg Lee Biskitt of South Carolina”), Newt and Callista Gingrich (“Salamander and Clytemnestra Neuderscreech”), Sean Hannity (“Seamus Colonnity”), Tucker Carlson (“Corky Fartmartin”) and, of course, the president himself.
“I say in the author’s note that this is a work of satirical fiction and anyone who sees a resemblance to him- or herself should be ashamed,” Buckley noted. “But one of the pleasures of writing fiction is coming up with names. Dickens was pretty good at it. Tom Wolfe was brilliant at it. I smiled when the name ‘Colonnity’ swam to my ken. And ‘Squigg Lee Biskitt.’ Sometimes they come right to you. Sometimes you spend days making little crossword puzzles on the pad.”
Buckley felt no need to come up with a derisive appellation for Trump.
It turns out that the fictional Trump, while recognizable, comes across as a tad more nuanced and articulate than the genuine article. “I tried to render him as we know him,” Buckley said. “But if anything, my Trump is perhaps a little less voluble than the actual Trump. In the first draft, everything that came out of his mouth as a line of dialogue could have been rendered in upper-case boldface with five exclamation marks per sentence. And in this final version of it, I lowered the amperage. Because, among other things, it’s tiresome if all a character does is scream.”
As any current White House aide might ardently attest.
Buckley, meanwhile, disclosed that after he spent a solid year toiling on it, the novel almost didn’t happen.
“I wrote two drafts and submitted both—and when I reread them I was appalled,” he said. “I thought, my God this is terrible, so I withdrew them. My beloved Mr. Karp accepted them, although I can’t think why. I refunded the advance.”
Using an omniscient observer’s voice, Buckley had written what he came to believe “read like very bad John le Carré, with some humorous bits. But it just wasn’t funny,” he said. “Whenever I’m writing a book, I sit down and I put the capital boldface letters ‘KIF’ at the top of the page. And that’s an acronym for ‘Keep It Funny.’ It reminds me that I am not John le Carré, I am not Hemingway, I am not Dostoevsky—as if I needed to be told those things.
“I’ve got one little narrow talent and it’s the word ‘F’ in ‘KIF,’” Buckley said. “And that often acts as a bit in my mouth to rein me in when I think I’m being really clever.”
In this case, however, Buckley was stuck.
“Rewriting a novel is not much fun,” he said. “I don’t mind doing successive drafts of a book that has a sound basis, but rewriting it entirely, and changing everything entirely, is what my old man used to call ‘a real bore.’ Finally after the second draft, I said to Mr. Karp, ‘Look, let’s just forget it.’ I was thoroughly sick of the whole thing.”
Karp, however, resisted defeat.
“Clever old Mr. Karp said, ‘Why don’t you make this another White House Mess?’ And that unlocked it for me,” Buckley recalled. “The first-person point of view by this amiable schlub who’s in over his head, but he can’t say no to Trump because he worked for him in the hospitality context for 27 years. And I knew right away that this third version had a chance of working. It was liberating.”
When I asked the unavoidable, if hackneyed question—what would Bill Buckley have made of these strange times and this heterodox president?—the son cited a 20-year-old article about demagogues that the elder Buckley dashed off for Cigar Aficionado.
“In some cases, the vision isn't merely a program to be adopted.” Bill Buckley wrote about potential presidential candidates for the 2000 election cycle. “It is a program that includes the visionary's serving as President. Look for the narcissist. The most obvious target in today's lineup is, of course, Donald Trump. When he looks at a glass, he is mesmerized by its reflection. If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America.”
It’s hardly a surprise that Christopher Buckley, who divides his time between Connecticut and South Carolina (where he votes, since it’s the home state of his physician-wife, Dr. Katy Close), will not be supporting the incumbent this time around.
“You bet!” he answered when I asked if he’s voting for Joe Biden and Senate candidate Jaime Harrison, Sen. Squigg Lee Biskitt’s Democratic opponent.
For his part, Buckley has scant hope that Trump will ever pick up his new novel.
“There’s some speculation as to whether he can actually read above a fourth-grade level,” he said. “We know that he doesn’t read anything that he’s handed.”