Pick up a paper or go online and the news is bad --- homeland insecurity, war in Iraq, corporate scandals, suburban snipers. The media landscape is similarly bleak. Movie theaters are running something called "Jackass: The Movie." Television offers has-been celebrities boxing other has-been celebrities. Americans have not had enough good reasons to laugh this year. Enter Christopher Buckley.
Buckley has been thinking about first ladies for a while. Early in 2001, The Wall Street Journal published "Hillary: The Op-Ed" written by "Hillary Rodham Clinton (as told to Christopher Buckley)." In the piece, Buckley channels the former First Lady in describing the lengths to which she would go to distance herself from the taint of political scandal: "(L)et me say that I was as surprised as anyone when I was informed that I have a brother named Hugh Rodham. He does not bear much resemblance to me. While I did grow up in a household with numerous other people, I was never informed that I had brothers . . . Clearly, exhaustive DNA testing is required before a conclusive biological link can be established between me and this alarming individual."
It is not inaccurate to claim that Buckley operates in a genre of satire that is all his own. His novels, set deep inside Washington's political class, are powered by Buckley's access to the kind of people who populate his novels --- politicians, big-time lawyers, media talking heads, K Street lobbyists and other folks who lord over the nation's capital. The people mentioned in the books' Acknowledgments read like a Who's Who of The Really Very Truly Important People in Charge of Serious Government-Related Things. Access to people who hold the levers of power is but one piece of Buckley's success. The bigger piece is his ability to create clever, morally challenged characters, place them in their natural professional habitat and set them loose after one another. Buckley makes serious-minded, inside-the-Beltway types funny and likeable, despite their numerous loathsome characteristics. Boyce Baylor, the big-dog criminal defense lawyer who sits at the center of NO WAY TO TREAT A FIRST LADY, is particularly loathsome.
Boyce is hired by the First Lady, Beth MacMann, to defend her against the charge that she killed her husband following a presidential post-coital tryst with Hollywood star Babette Van Anka. Complicating matters is the fact that Beth and Boyce attended law school together, dated and were engaged to be married before Beth dumped him for the man who would be president. Boyce recovered to build one of the most successful criminal defense practices in the country. His flamboyance, arrogance and willingness to make silly-putty of the law would shame even O.J.'s dream team. Indeed, Boyce's hard-won nickname, "Shameless," is apt and it is with this in mind that Beth asks him to defend her. "I mean," Beth says, "the very idea of you 'normal' not being involved in this case --- they're calling it 'the Trial of the Millennium.' It doesn't make sense." "Shameless" signs on and fireworks follow.
Buckley makes it hard to sympathize with either Boyce or Beth. Boyce lies, cheats on his girlfriend, colludes with sworn enemies of America, lies, enlists criminals to commit jury tampering, destroys whatever gets in his way, lies and speaks badly of his fellow lawyers. He's a pain in the butt. For her part, Beth is a Rodham Clinton variety ice queen, crazy with ambition and usually the smartest person in the room. That we care at all about such people --- and we do --- is a tribute to Buckley's breezy, high camp style and ability to write quick, snappy dialogue. The courtroom scenes, of which there are many, are strong. Boyce controls the courtroom in masterful fashion, skewering anything and anyone on his radar. These big moments are nice, but the author also has a firm grasp on the smaller ones. For example, in Buckley's hands, the mere act of sitting can be funny. A guest is invited on a Court TV-style show "to provide gravitas and to shift uneasily in his seat when the other guests said something provocative."
But not all the gags work. Buckley seems to think that sidebars --- those moments in open court when the lawyers confer privately with the judge --- are funnier than they actually are. He also tries to get too much mileage out of the fact that the judge's glasses tend to fog over during times of emotional upset. Buckley re-introduces the protagonists of his last two novels. Nick Naylor, the forlorn tobacco lobbyist from THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING, re-emerges as a shaky public relations manager for Babette Van Anka, the Hollywood star with whom the President has an affair. Naylor is fun to watch here as the paid hand wringer. He is not given much to do, but fans of SMOKING will nod knowingly as he flails about in trying to keep Babette out of trouble. John Bannion, the media madman hero of Buckley's last book, LITTLE GREEN MEN, is pointlessly added to the stew. Bannion's role is smaller than Naylor's. He engages in some gratuitous rock throwing at the President, but there is no meaningful place for Bannion in NO WAY TO TREAT A FIRST LADY.
Like these other novels, NO WAY TO TREAT A FIRST LADY is character-driven. Buckley surrounds Boyce and Beth with a host of supporting players, including a fetching female media celebrity, a harried prosecutor and the increasingly distraught Judge Umin. These characters are well drawn and will be instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the refrain "If the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit." Buckley adds another layer of farce by using real life media players to cover the trial. Peter Jennings, Jeffrey Toobin, Dan Rather and Barbara Walters, among others, all have cameo roles.
This all adds up to a wonderfully easy read. Buckley is operating at peak performance here. With NO WAY TO TREAT A FIRST LADY, he proves again that, when it comes to skewering all things D.C., he's our roast-master general.
Reviewed by Andrew Musicus on August 28, 2001
No Way to Treat a First Lady