Tobacco, climate change and spin

Cult novel Thank you for Smoking satirised the tobacco lobby. Here, author Christopher Buckley explains what his lead character would make of today’s world…

My novel Thank You for Smoking was published a quarter of a century ago, which I suppose is a highfalutin way of saying 25 years ago, but then it is a novel about spin. Its protagonist is Nick Naylor, Washington’s top tobacco lobbyist.

He’s good – at his job, that is, which is to flummox the opposition. He has a certain irresistible, boyish charm (Huck Finn on K Street) and delights in gleeful counter-attacking. He’ll do whatever it takes. At one point he’s sent to buy the silence of the cowboy who for years was the iconic symbol of a certain cigarette brand; now he’s dying of lung cancer and has become a public nuisance to his former employers, showing up at stockholder meetings to denounce them as scoundrels and mass murderers. Naylor succeeds, and in the process manages to make the dying Marlboro Man feel guilty for taking the bribe.

Naylor is a scoundrel – and yet many readers have fallen in love with him. He even became a meme on K Street and Capitol Hill, signifying a gleefully defiant lobbyist for a not very noble cause. I was surprised so many lobbyists self-identified.

The book has remained robustly in print and is on numerous college curricula. Aaron Eckhart played Nick in Jason Reitman’s fine 2006 adaptation of the book. A TV series is now in development. A few months ago, a stranger came up to me on the street to tell me that his best friend had recently read the book and was so taken by it that he – I am not making this up – was abandoning a career in law to become a tobacco lobbyist in Washington. I didn’t know quite how to respond. “How wonderful!” didn’t seem apt.

I’m telling you all this because Influence kindly asked me to reflect on the novel in our present era of fake news, disinformation and often shameless manipulation of public opinion.

Sometimes, when I hear people debating issues such as climate change, I’m reminded of the very moment when the inspiration for Nick came to me. I was making dinner and watching a thoughtful TV programme. The latest scientific news about the consequences of smoking had just been released. They’d invited the scientist who’d authored the new study to talk. I don’t remember his name, but he was un homme serieux, or as we Americans say less elegantly, the real deal. He had at least two PhDs after his name.

Also on the show, for balance, was the top lobbyist for the tobacco industry, a sexy and smart young woman. Every time the scientist said something scientific about his study, she shook her head, rolled her eyes and said “Oh, puh-leeze”, as in “You don’t really expect us to believe such nonsense, do you?” The poor scientist hardly knew what to do.

For me, it was love at first sight.

Much of the current climate change debate seems to come right out of Nick’s playbook. When he’s called on to dispute (irrefutable) evidence that smoking is (hello?) bad for you, he attacks the other side’s science. He’ll say: “All we [the merchants of megadeath who pay his salary] are saying is: ‘Show us the data’.” It’s his none too subtle way of suggesting that their so-called evidence is biased, if not criminally tainted. Once he starts the argument, the other side is automatically on the defensive.

It works – at least, well enough to cloud the issue.

What made Nick Naylor amusing or winsome, or whatever you want to call it, was that he knew he was a scoundrel. He was in it for the purest of all motives: money! He invoked what he called the “yuppie Nuremberg defence” – “I vas only doing it to pay ze mortgage”.

His two best friends are also lobbyists for industries that generally do not rank high on the Rolls of the Righteous: guns and booze. The three call themselves “the MOD Squad”, an acronym for ‘merchants of death’. Over lunch, they engage in grim – but somehow funny – one-upmanship over whose industry kills more of its customers.

At one of their lunches, Bobby, the gun lobbyist, sighs over his Martini that yet another lunatic has shot up a church. “If only the priest and choir had been armed,” he says. Sound familiar?

To paraphrase a cigarette slogan, we’ve come a long way since Nick first strode the corridors of Capitol Hill. The 24-hour news cycle, cable TV, iPhones, the internet, social media, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest have created a noisy world in which a thousand barking voices vie for our attention.

At times it feels like we’re inside the proverbial scorpion-filled bottle, shaken, not stirred. It’s dizzying, disorientating and deafening.

The world as it existed when Thank You for Smoking appeared was somewhat calmer, at least, so it seems. I wouldn’t make the claim that Washington was a more ethical place then, but there were at least certain norms. TV commentators were only just starting to treat each other like gladiators in the Colosseum, spitting and snarling. Lies were uttered, as they always have been, but with fairly straight faces.

Institutions of government and business were still held in at least nominal regard. No American president then would have publicly derogated the findings of his own 17 intelligence agencies. Seventeen! Presidents have always spun and bent the truth; today The Washington Post keeps a running tally of the demonstrable falsehoods uttered by the current occupant of the Oval Office. It’s approaching the 8,000 mark. At its current rate, it may surpass the Dow Jones Average.

Asked by a reporter after the 2016 election why he continued to bash the press, even after he’d won, Trump told her: “You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that, when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.” In the good old days, this would have qualified as a stunning admission. Today? Um, not so much. We’re callused. And there are more pressing things to worry about, aren’t there?

If you have nothing better to do, Google an October 1999 op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal. There you’ll find a parody, ‘The Donald goes to Washington‘, of Trump’s inaugural address, 17 years before he became president in real life.

Today’s satirists are painfully aware that whatever reductions ad absurdum or fantasies their brains confect will likely only be pale simulacra of reality. What satirist, say, would have the wit to come up with Russia’s laugh-out-loud attempt at damage control after Britain’s detectives nailed the louts who tried to kill Sergei Skripal and his daughter with novichok?

We were told, in the course of their ‘interview’ on Russian TV, that the poisonous pair had gone to “wonderful” Salisbury to see its “123-metre spire” and “famous clock”. And how devilishly clever was the interviewer’s nudge nudge, wink wink that the two were gay? Russia famously does not approve of homosexuality; therefore, it was illogical that two gay men swanning about Salisbury with a bottle of Nina Ricci perfume could be government assassins.

As Goebbels noted, if you’re going to tell a lie, make it a big lie.

We live in an age of disruption. I’m not calling it the age of Trump, if only to deny him naming rights. He’s got his name on enough things. To me, it all seems a bit depressing, and perhaps it would to Nick. Spin was fun back then. Now it feels like we’re all in a centrifuge.

Christopher Buckley is a political satirist and author.

A version of this article was first published in Influence magazine, Q1 2019, with the title If Nick Naylor Could See Us Now.

Photo by Sunrise on Unsplash

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