Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Christopher Buckley's Modest Proposal


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Americans use up about 20 percent of the world's resources. And you know who will use up most of them before they go? Baby boomers, the bumper crop of children born just after World War II but before The Beatles, is on its way to retirement, and they don't want to leave the stage.

They invest in fanny lips and Botox, gym memberships and erectile dysfunction drugs. And when they reach retirement age they may strip the Social Security cupboard bare - unless someone has an idea. An outrageous idea to avoid bankrupting the future, and the war between what he calls the un-greatest generation and generation whatever is at the heart of Christopher Buckley's latest novel, "Boomsday." Christopher Buckley joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY (Author, "Boomsday"): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And at the heart of this book is - I almost call it an interesting idea.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Yeah. At the heart of the book is someone's modest proposal that since the government refuses to do anything about reforming Social Security, which is going to become a pretty big crisis soon, starting in 2008 or 2011, that the government ought to incentivize suicide among boomers so that if you - if you agree to kill yourself at 65, say, you know, they'll eliminate death taxes and estate taxes and the kids can inherit it.

Slightly fewer incentives for doing it at age 70 and 75 and so on. But of course, this being in Washington, you've got to have a good euphemism so they come up with voluntary transitioning.

SIMON: And the idea winds up getting entrusted to your principal character, Cassandra Devine.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Yes. She is the 29-year-old female blogger whose idea this is. And she has a personal reason because she worked hard in high school and got herself into Yale. Not easy these days, as we read. And her father, it turns out, took her 529 where you put college tuition money and spent it on his dotcom startup.

So she ends up in the army in Bosnia, escorting congressmen on visits. So she has a very personal reason to be mad at our - my generation.

SIMON: How do you go about building a national consensus for transition?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, she puts it on her blog, and this being Washington, the idea sort of ricochets around until an ambitious congressman, actually senator, decides to make it the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, making it very clear that this is, as Cassandra calls it, not a serious proposition. It is - they call it a meta issue.

It's simply in the spirit of Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal" - remember in 1729 he wrote his "Modest Proposal," proposing that the Irish sell their children for food to alleviate their famine. The idea was simply to get this on the table. But being Washington, the thing starts to acquire a life of its own.

SIMON: There is a whole campaign that's drafted to, in a sense, derogate and demean people of a certain age.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Yes. The idea is to stigmatize retiring boomers. And so they come up with phrases for them like, resource hogs, and wrinklies...

SIMON: Wrinklies were the one that - yeah.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Now that's the one you were looking for.

SIMON: I'm afraid so. Yes.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, you've got it.

SIMON: Thanks very much.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Good fishing.

SIMON: And that's all part of a conscious campaign to kind of...

Mr. BUCKLEY: Sure.

SIMON: ... alter...

Mr. BUCKLEY: Sure.

SIMON: ...the thinking of the American people.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Sure. Make old people look bad.

SIMON: May I ask you, you have two teenage...

Mr. BUCKLEY: I have a 19-year-old daughter and a 15-year-old son. And I look at them and I think, you know, they're going to be paying for my - because we're shoveling all this debt - very serious stead onto that generation, and they're going to spend a lot of their working lives paying for your and my gin and tonics on the golf course. So...

SIMON: They are in the book demonstrations on the golf course...

Mr. BUCKLEY: The book starts with the...

SIMON: ...and it gets ugly. Yeah.

Mr. BUCKLEY: A crowd starts attacking gated-boomer retirement communities and worse of all tearing up the golf greens, and that's when the government realizes it's serious.

SIMON: That's when they asked to intervene, I suppose so.

Mr. BUCKLEY: You gotta do something. You can't let that happen.

SIMON: I want to get you to read a section from your novel. Set us up a bit for us, about how this idea begins to take off in the campaign of Senator Randolph Jefferson of Massachusetts.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Randolph Jefferson. Well, he sort of hijacks the idea. But being a politician immediately starts diluting it and giving away chunks of it. He's trying to get elected president.

There's a group called ABBA, which is the American Baby Boomer Association. And they have split off from AARP, the American Association for Retired People, because they don't feel that AARP has been paying enough attention to the boomers. So they've - they're sort of a renegade lobby. And so Randy goes before the ABBA leadership and gives this speech.

Whatever you thought of his politics, Ronald Reagan was a great man, a courageous man. He took an assassin's bullet and joked to the doctors as they desperately worked to save his life. He survived and saw through his presidency. He outlived many of his adversaries and contemporaries. Survived, but for what? Only to come down with Alzheimer's disease - to die a long lingering and inglorious death. Was this any way to go? I think the answer must be no. No way, no way at all.

Cass snuck to the edge as the curtain peer out of the audience. They were stone silent, eyes fixed on Randy. She couldn't tell what they were collectively thinking but they weren't coughing or fidgeting or furtively BlackBerrying. Randy continued.

My fellow Americans, we are all of us going to make the great transition. We can inject ourselves full of drugs, have doctors replace our organs, change our blood, become bionic Frankensteins. My fellow Americans, as Country Joe and the Fish, balladeers of our youth, put it so memorably, albeit in a slightly different context, whoopee, we're all going to die.

Indeed, so I put it to you. Why not do it the way we've lived our lives, on our terms. Why, I put it to you, not do it on our timetable? And finally, I put it to you, my fellow Americans, indeed, my fellow boomers, if we are going to make the ultimate sacrifice, isn't the least our government can do for us is to show a little gratitude?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BUCKLEY: Sometimes it's fun to write speeches.

SIMON: Now, you used to...

Mr. BUCKLEY: I used to write speeches at the White House for George Herbert Walker Bush when he was vice president.

SIMON: Do you have to get up and look at the world in a certain way when you write satire for a living?

Mr. BUCKLEY: Well, I think, you know, I think satire is just a way of looking at the world. I think, probably, in my case it comes out of the sense of helplessness and sometimes frustration. I'm accused of, and perhaps rightly so, of not being mean enough. I've been taken to task in many a book review, a good satirist has to, you know, has to kill. I'm not a killer. I'm more, I guess, in the - though I wouldn't put myself in the same league with the Monty Python guys, I saw an interview with Michael Palin once and he said, you know, we all had pretty comfortable upbringings. We were raised by loving parents in a middle-class households, so we're not brick throwers. We have a certain affection for the institutions that we mock.

So I think you can do it. And I love Washington. I have an affection for the place. For a satirist I think it's sort of Disneyland. I mean, you know, there's always some inspiration in the morning's headlines.

SIMON: Christopher Buckley, thanks very much.

Mr. BUCKLEY: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Christopher Buckley's new novel is "Boomsday," published by Twelve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Become a sustaining member for as low as $5/month
Make an annual or one-time donation to support MTPR
Pay an existing pledge or update your payment information