In a conversation about books in Washington, one subject supplies endless mileage: the great Washington novel — or the lack thereof. Plenty of writers past and present have attempted to capture the truly unique culture of this town — Gore Vidal, Barbara Howar, David Maraniss, David Baldacci, Tom Clancy, Margaret Truman Daniel, David Broder, Charles McCarry, Ward Just, Bob Woodward, who is an industry himself, and the many “one hit wonders.”
One of the writers who best represent the pulse of the city is Christopher Buckley, who met his goal of publishing 10 satirical novels before age 50. (He’s now 51.) Although many find Washington humorless, Buckley disagrees: “To me, D.C. is Disneyland.” Fortune magazine called Buckley, the son of William F. Buckley Jr., “the quintessential political novelist of his time.”
Buckley doesn’t feel like an expert: “The more you know, the less you know,” he says. But he isn’t planning to switch subjects. “If you live in Washington, you’re defined by it,” says Buckley, who moved from New York to the nation’s capital in 1981 to write speeches for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. He has stayed here since, with a home in Washington with his wife, Lucy (daughter of Donald Gregg, former national security advisor to Vice President Bush) and his two children. As founder and editor of Forbes fyi magazine, he has an office in New York.
But though he sees material all around him in the capital, Buckley is selective in the way he uses it. “There are a lot of writers — Al Franken, Michael Moore — doing versions of what I do and doing it more successfully,” he says. “They sell far more books than I do, but I’m aiming at the literature shelf. I want to still be in print 50 years from now. Books that last are books that are timeless and have a value beyond the topical.” Jokes about Monica Lewinsky or hanging chads don’t hold up, he reflects, whereas a humor piece on trying to teach his 4-year-old son how to ski does.
Buckley also hopes his books will give readers a sense of the city and its people. “You don’t read Advise and Consent just for a portrait of Eisenhower’s Washington,” he says. “Those types that Allen Drury wrote about are eternal. You’d recognize them today.” The same is true of the political pundits who are satirized in Buckley’s Little Green Men, or the lobbyists in Thank You for Smoking. He insists, though, that his characters are not based on particular individuals. The White House Mess, a parody in the form of a White House memoir, pokes fun at those who use as a defense two well-worn themes: “It wasn’t my fault,” and “It would have been much worse if I hadn’t been there.”
Now at work on his 11th book, a comedy set in the Middle East titled Florence of Arabia, Buckley reveals that he hasn’t been invited to the current White House. Just as well. “I might have to make fun of these people,” he says.