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Q&A With Christopher Buckley

The author of <i>Boomsday</i> riffs on everything from the social contract and generational self-indulgences to lobbyists, lawyers, literature, and the latest trends in text messaging.

Q: The other day my younger son, a college junior, complained to me, "I'm so sick of boomers! They think they did everything first and best!" Your 19-year-old son is in college. Might some similar intergenerational exchange in the Buckley household have been the inspiration for Boomsday?

A: I think it's the big ticking time bomb on the national agenda. It's the policy equivalent of weapons of mass destruction; unlike the ones in Iraq, this one, we know, is there.

The specific impetus was this: In 2004 I was in the vestibule of a hotel lobby in Chicago, tweaking some notes for a speech I was about to give to a large national insurance association. This bedraggled insurance executive wandered by and introduced himself.

"I sure hope you're going to make us laugh," he told me. "I've been at this conference for two days now, and all we have heard is doom, doom, doom."

Now keep in mind that these people were neither Democrats nor Republicans; they live in the ganglia of our economic system day in and day out. They are actuaries, and as such they deal with realities.

I was struck by his pessimism, so I asked him, "What would you say is the big problem?"

"Retiring boomers," he said. "And the demands they will put on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security."

So I decided to give it a shot.

Q: There's humor in political incorrectness, but how would you respond to those who say there's nothing funny about "Voluntary Transitioning"—suicide—as a solution to Social Security?

A: I don't buy the notion that some things are too sacred to lampoon. If something is wrong, it is fair game. I wouldn't try to write a satire about the Holocaust, though Mel Brooks created a classic with The Producers. But I just don't buy the premise that certain things are sacrosanct. If that were true, half the literature we studied in college wouldn't exist.

Now, obviously, I'm not advocating that boomers actually commit suicide as a way of solving the Social Security insolvency. I go to some lengths in the book to have the main character point out that her proposal is simply a stratagem to force discussion of the issue. Jonathan Swift did something similar when he wrote his article "A Modest Proposal" in 1729; it advocated that the Irish solve their poverty problem by selling their children for food. Anyway, it seems to be working. We're having a conversation about it, right?

Q: Boomers are known for their humor and irony, but can they laugh at themselves and the idea of aging?

A: I sure hope so. We're going to need a sense of humor to get through the next quarter-century. I've started to notice that as I watch the evening news all the ads are now directed at . . . me. This is hardly flattering when the product being hawked is a remedy for incontinence.

Q: You're a boomer, born in 1952, yet throughout Boomsday you skewer this generation for its self-infatuation. Your 29-year-old main character, Cassandra Devine, calls your fictional ABBA—the Association of Baby Boomer Advocates—"the principal lobby for the most self-indulgent, self-centered population in human history, with the possible exception of the twelve Caesars." Do boomers have any redeeming traits? Might it be time for a clarion call such as Boomers in Service to America? (BISTA)?

A: There are numerous exemplars of public spiritedness in the boomer cohort. Bill Gates, for one, gives away heaps of money.

Q: Okay, that's one. Can you name some others?

A: Uh, as they say in Washington, can I get back to you on that?

Q: You also make fun of the 29-year-old character as part of "Gen-W or Generation Whatever." What have today's twentysomethings accomplished?

A: So far they have come up with YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace, but beyond that I think it's too early to expect greatness from them. This will be a fascinating generation to watch because they came of age in a time of total comprehensive connectivity. Think of the technology changes we've seen in just the last 15 years—it's mind-boggling to me that today's twentysomethings take it for granted that you can flip open your cell phone and watch a video of a Mideastern dictator being hanged, then check your stock quotes.

But realistically, we're probably at a point of declining literacy. Far fewer of this generation will pick up books for pleasure. Instead, they will be on their PDAs and their BlackBerrys, and that's what makes me think we are on the cusp of a true cultural paradigm shift.

Still, I delight in this generation. I get a big kick out of them. Easily the most brilliant catch phrase they have come up with is "whatever." There is no argument or philosophical proposition that cannot be stopped in its tracks by an American 14-year-old saying, "whatever."

I'm intrigued and delighted by texting. My kids will ignore my phone calls and e-mails, but they'll get right back to me when I text them—largely, I suspect, because they can dispose of my presence in 10 seconds with "Luv ya!" I'll bet someone somewhere is working on the first text novel at this very moment and that we will learn of it in the next six months. ICEDI.

Q: Huh?

A: Oh, sorry. That means "I can't even discuss it." Evidently the phrase signals profound rapture.

Q: Your send-ups of politicians and spin doctors of both parties are dead-on. Did you draw on recent experiences for those portraits?

A: My fascination with the breed grew out of my research on Thank You for Smoking, when I was allowed to follow the Merchants of Death [lobbyists for the tobacco, alcohol, and firearms industries] on their daily rounds. The PR huckster is a great American archetype, and as a novelist you can do endless things with him. The spin-doctor persona works for me because it allows this character to attempt to solve outrageous problems in outrageous ways—all of them, sadly, plausible.

Q: Do I sense that you have recently undergone a similar shift in your own political outlook?

A: Well, I do think we—that is, the Republicans—blew it. We proved ourselves unequal to the task. Last August I suggested [in The Washington Monthly] that maybe we ought to lose the House and Senate—that it would be good for us. A little corner time, as it were. I think it's time to reset the circuit breakers. No one can look at the Republican Congress of the last 14 years with any admiration; certainly I don't. As for the current presidency, well, don't get me started.

Q: A less draconian solution to what you dub "Social Security's intractable insolvency" in Boomsday might be for those older boomers who self-select as "retirementally overendowed" to simply—and altruistically—decline their SS benefits upon becoming eligible for them. Or, better yet, to transfer benefits to their less well-prepared "trailing-edge" boomers. Given that you were born in 1952, what say you to that modest proposal? (And, given that the interviewer was born in 1955, do you have your checkbook on you?)

A: It's a nice and noble idea, and I'm all in favor of its being an option, but it's not terribly practical, is it? Still and all, voluntarily turning down Social Security benefits might be on the table when we reach the inevitable showdown, because let's face it: it is broken. To the extent that we demonize it as an issue—make it impossible for any politician to attack it without signing his own death warrant—as 77 million of us retire, the ticking of that time bomb will only get louder.

Q: You write in Boomsday that the character Senator Jepperson "had been in Washington long enough to know, in his heart of hearts, that presidential commissions are for the most part things to be ignored, a vermiform appendix to the body politic." Did someone slip you advance notice of what would befall the findings of the Iraq Study Group (Baker-Hamilton Commission)?

A: Any satirist working today lives with the haunting, and daunting, specter of being overtaken by reality. The presidential commission parts in Boomsday were written last spring, before I actually knew about the existence of the Baker-Hamilton group, so it was either prescient or lucky. Probably the latter.

Q: You also assail the abject failure of the Central Intelligence Agency to predict all manner of world events, from the Cold War to the current Iraq involvement. Given that your father's first job out of Yale in 1951 was as a CIA operative in Mexico City, could this passage be considered a case of lèse paternité?

A: My dad still loves to recite a line from a National Review article back in the 1950s or '60s. It goes something like this: "The recent attempt on Sukharno's life bore all the hallmarks of a CIA operation: everyone in the room was killed except Sukharno." That said, my father-in-law, Don Gregg, is a very distinguished veteran of the CIA. Also in the CIA: my wife, my mother-in-law, my aunt, and a goddaughter. So though I like to tease the agency, I am also a fan.

Q: In a 2006 article for The Washington Monthly, you describe a journey of personal political disillusionment that began with your voting for Bush 43 in 2000 and ended with your voting for a write-in candidate—Bush 41(!)—in 2004. I also couldn't help noticing that in Boomsday you brand the current U.S. involvement in Iraq as "Operation Oh Shit, Now What?" How much does your current distance from the GOP stem from the party's reluctance to address the projected shortfalls in Social Security and how much does it stem from the party's prosecution of foreign policy?

A: I suppose it's a bit of a mix. As a conservative, my settled belief is that government is not good at certain things. In the present context, it has proved unable to effect increasingly urgent reforms of Social Security. We've seen, just recently, that it has bungled an occupation in Iraq, with possibly catastrophic consequences down the line, and that it didn't exactly distinguish itself during Katrina. Or as Ronald Reagan used to say, "The scariest words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.' "

Q: One of the deepest delights of reading your work is the puns and neologisms you come up with. For example, you write that no politician ever feels all that guilty because "they're born with Original Spin." But you also got off some classic coinages in the TWM article, and I was disappointed not to encounter those again in the book. Can I therefore get you to define "swaggerometer" here? How about "incontinent conservatism?"

A: Fortunately we have Buckley's Book of Neologisms to draw from, which defines the terms thus:

Swaggerometer (n.): device used to measure swagger, usually in politicians. See also Boots, Texan.

Incontinent conservatism: phrase coined by Buckley, Christopher (see Literary Geniuses of Early 21st-Century America, pages 304–378): philosophy espoused by so-called conservatives for the purposes of getting themselves elected, and who then bankrupt the Treasury with programs that swell the national debt.

Q: As you've pointed out, your most convincing fictional creations are female characters. In Boomsday, for example, blogging soothsayer/PR whiz Cassandra Devine is convincingly limned, right down to her Google profile that auto-sends her reports of Senate votes and those peanut-butter Power Bars she washes down with Red Bulls. Did you have an unusually complaisant personal assistant who was willing to divulge the details of her day-to-day existence? If not, how do you do your research?

A: Let's just say I have a very good source among the twentysomethings. Her name is Jolie Hunt, and she is credited in the acknowledgments. As for the other, I've lived in Washington since 1981. For a satirist, it's an ongoing Disney World. I couldn't work without it.

Allan Fallow is the managing editor of AARP Books. He can be reached at afallow@aarp.org.

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