Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Book Review: "The White House Mess," by Christopher Buckley (1986)

"The White House Mess," by Christopher Buckley, 1986.

Christopher Buckley’s first novel was the very funny political satire “The White House Mess,” published in 1986. Buckley had worked as a speechwriter for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, which no doubt gave him many of the insights that he used to create “The White House Mess.” The novel takes the form of a fictional memoir written by Herbert Wadlough, Personal Assistant to Democratic President Thomas Tucker. “The White House Mess” is a spoof of political memoirs, which is a rather narrow target. Fortunately, Buckley aims other arrows in his quiver elsewhere, and one not need be a political memoir junkie to appreciate the book. 

The book opens on Inauguration Day, 1989, (which was in the future when Buckley wrote the book) and one of the funnier episodes of the book, as outgoing President Reagan refuses to leave the White House on Inauguration Day. Wadlough asks if President-elect Tucker has spoken to Reagan. Tucker says, “He told me his back was bothering him, that he was feeling tired, that it’s cold outside, and that he just didn’t feel like moving out today.” (P.xiv) Reagan is eventually persuaded to leave when members of the staff lie to him and tell him that the Russians are attacking and that he needs to go to Andrews Air Force Base to command the operation. That excites Ronnie enough to get him out of bed.

Wadlough, our narrator, is a rather milquetoast fellow whose drink of choice is hot water. Nope, not tea. Just hot water. “I do not drink coffee or tea; in the mornings I find a nice, hearty cup of hot water soothing and stimulative of the digestive functions.” (P.5) Wadlough takes himself entirely too seriously, which makes him the perfect narrator for a satire, as he makes even the most mundane tasks sound as though he is making the world safe for democracy. 

The White House Mess refers to the White House dining hall, which is called a “mess” as it is run by the Navy. Wadlough is in charge of the Mess, and it’s through running the Mess that he exerts most of his limited power. The Tucker administration takes on some odd problems, like trying to normalize relations with Cuba, and getting the U.S. on the metric system. Of course, everything that happens during the Tucker administration is a spectacular failure. Wadlough also has to smooth over relations between Tucker and the First Lady, a former actress who is keen to restart her film career. And then there’s the situation in Bermuda, as radicals threaten the U.S. military installations there. President Tucker is soundly defeated for re-election in 1992 by George H.W. Bush.

Buckley clearly knows enough about the White House to make all of the ridiculous characters and vain egotistical posturing seem all too plausible. As Buckley said in a 1998 interview, “I read a lot of White House memoirs. They all have two themes: It Wasn't My Fault and It Would Have Been Much Worse if I Hadn't Been There.” One of the funniest ongoing jokes in the book is that all of the other former White House staffers have written memoirs as well, all with the word “power” in the title. They include: “The Outrage of Power,” “The Bowels of Power,” “Power, Principle, and Pitfall,” and President Tucker’s own memoir, “The Sorrow and the Power.” These fake titles would certainly blend in with real-life books like H.R. Haldeman's "The Ends of Power," and John Ehrlichman's "Witness to Power."

Buckley even keeps the charade of Wadlough being the author of the book going through the acknowledgements at the end of the book, which are written in character as Wadlough, who thanks Christopher Buckley, “who rendered editorial assistance in the preparation of the manuscript.”
I think that Buckley’s satire has gotten sharper as the years have gone on, and his later books have made me laugh more, but if you’re a fan of his writing, or have read too many White House memoirs, then you’ll surely enjoy “The White House Mess.”

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