Blowing Smoke

On its opening weekend in Washington, Thank You for Smoking, the new movie based on Christopher Buckley's novel, played to sold-out houses on multiple screens at the Lowes Cineplex in Georgetown. Smoking has no overt political agenda -- it isn't exactly pro-tobacco -- but it betrays Buckley's conservative leanings nonetheless. It is the story of Nick Naylor, a tobacco industry lobbyist, and death-dealing sleaze, who you can't help loving. He and his buddies from the alcohol and gun lobbies call their weekly lunch club the M.O.D. squad, short for Merchants Of Death. Merrily amoral, cheerfully morbid, and maligned by self-righteous health and safety advocates, they're the vessels for Buckley's essentially conservative message, delivered, in his father's style, with a grin rather than a grimace.

And that is where the film's subterranean conservative message lies: in a sympathetic portrayal of the profit-driven Naylor and an unsympathetic portrayal of his public-interest driven adversaries. Naylor is a tool of an industry that has poisoned hundreds of millions of people over the years, but he's the best-looking guy in the movie, and he delivers all the best lines. Meanwhile his ugly, blustering opponents in the Senate and the anti-cancer lobby sputter with indignation when befuddled by Naylor's rhetorical skill. They are also funny, but the audience laughs at them, while they laugh with Naylor.

Buckley, son of conservative godfather William F. Buckley Jr., also co-wrote the screenplay. Since his years as George H.W. Bush's vice presidential speechwriter, he has become the kind of nominally apolitical satirist upper middle brow opinion makers adore, skewering both sides with an affectionate touch. But amusing as it was, the film left me with the strange feeling of having just seen Ayn Rand for Dummies.

Take the charming Naylor's foil, Senator Ortolan Finsiterre, (D-VT), played to priggish perfection by William H. Macy. The Birkenstock-wearing anti-smoking crusader is an insufferable hypocrite and a walking compendium of every clichéd trope about limousine liberals: Finisterre loves his Vermont cheddar, hates cigarettes and the people who make them, and he wants to tell everyone else how to live when it suits his political purposes. Of course, Robert Duvall's affected, Southern tobacco executive is equally exaggerated. But while he is avuncular, Finisterre is a schoolmarm. Naylor shuts Finsiterre up on television by questioning his simultaneous proclamations of opposition to tobacco-growing and support for the American farmer.

And in private, Finsiterre terrorizes a subordinate for losing a round of rhetorical jousting with Naylor on a talk show. "I send people like you to speak on my behalf. & So when [you're] a complete asshole on the Joan Lunden show ... I am being an asshole on the Joan Lunden show." Not content to merely make a point of Finsiterre's vanity, Buckley suggests he views the cancer victims he is trying to help as mere props. The scene ends with Finisterre demanding "Where the hell did you find cancer boy? & When you're looking for a cancer kid, he should be hopeless. He should have a wheelchair. He should have trouble speaking & He should not have a sense of humor." The implication is clear: Liberals who crusade against a deadly substance are really just self-aggrandizing opportunists.

This is not to say that Buckley lets Naylor and company off easy. They are portrayed as greedy spinmesiters. But what Buckley does with his depiction of Finsiterre and the anti-smoking activists who violently kidnap and attempt to murder Naylor is create a false moral equivalence: Finsiterre and Naylor both grandstand. Finsiterre spins the truth and Naylor spins the truth. Tobacco executives kill hundreds of thousands, anti-tobacco activists (in this movie, it's never happened in real life) try to kill a tobacco lobbyist. For both sides, the ends justify the means. It's all just a game, and an amusing one.

This implicit moral equivalence is a core assumption of the conservative movement: that liberal activists and corporate lobbyists are just competing interest groups. If you accept that premise, then it is much easier to side with Big Tobacco (they create jobs, after all) than, say, cancer patients and their trial lawyers, who gum up the legal system. And it extends to the conservative mindset on almost every issue: environmentalists versus ExxonMobil, Mothers Against Drunk Driving versus Anheuser Busch, even anti-war activists versus Halliburton and Lockheed Martin. But this worldview is inherently corrupt. Some liberal Senators may be arrogant showboats, but when tackling the effects of smoking, they are showboating for a worthy cause. This is not same thing as shilling for an industry that kills an estimated 440,000 Americans annually. In both cases, someone is after a sort of personal gain. But, for one side, serving the public interest is the ultimate intention. For the other it is completely irrelevant.

While the portrayal of liberal crusaders as primarily, even exclusively, self-interested underpins much of contemporary conservative thought, the bogus personal-freedom argument Naylor makes in congressional testimony at the movie's dénouement is even more central to conservative thinking. Many films express their views on the issue at hand through a protagonist's windy speech and this is one of them. In the film's climactic Senate hearing, Naylor asserts that anti-smoking education is properly the role of schools -- but more so of parents, and that should obviate the need for graphic warning labels on cigarette packs. This is a classic libertarian trope requiring labels about a product's dangers usurps a parent's role in raising their children. Yet there is no mention of the tobacco industry's decades-long efforts to hinder responsible parenting and education about smoking by hiding the evidence of smoking's effects, nor the fact that it's the efforts of those whiny activists and image-conscious liberal politicians who changed the tobacco industry's message from "people should smoke" to "it's bad for you, but it's your choice."

One might even term the efforts of those individuals, whatever their personal flaws, heroic. To Buckley, however, politics has no heroes, only competing interests. Making policy, then, is just a process of choosing sides, and that's why government should never be trusted.

With this kind of libertarian claptrap as the movie's subtext, it's a fitting interpretation of a book dedicated to John Tierney.

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