Mock political memoir from Christopher Buckley

The White House Mess, by Christopher Buckley. New York: Knopf. 225 pp. $16.95. Following, more or less, in the conservative footsteps of his father, William F. Buckley, Christopher Buckley, whose literary credits include a book based on his experiences aboard a tramp freighter (``Steaming to Bamboola''), assorted articles, and a stint as a speechwriter for Vice-President George Bush, has turned his hand to political satire.

Written in the form of a mock memoir, ``The White House Mess'' gives us the recollections of one Herbert Wadlough, personal assistant and deputy chief of staff to President Thomas Nelson Tucker, a Democrat who succeeds President Reagan and is in turn succeeded by Mr. Bush.

Aside from putting his own candidate in office at the book's end, Mr. Buckley does not wield his pen to exclusively partisan ends. President Tucker's general stance does bear a certain resemblance to that of former President Carter (``No more Grenadas'' is one of Tucker's bywords), and Buckley has some fun with Tucker's efforts to re-establish ties with Cuba, return parts of the southwestern United States to Mexico, and deal with a hostage crisis in Bermuda.

But President Reagan also receives a quick going-over in the novel's opening scene, in which neither the incoming Tucker people nor the outgoing Reagan aides are able to dislodge the President, who politely but firmly refuses to leave -- until he's told that World War III has commenced.

But the main thrust of this satire is not at the Right or at the Left, but at the ever-expanding gap betwen political appearance and reality: in this case, the conflict between looking good and doing good.

In the contrast between image and substance, Buckley has hit upon a seemingly inexhaustible vein of comedy. Working this vein, however, he tends to pursue the easy laugh. Office infighting, an embarrassing Presidential brother, a First Lady who once starred in racy films, uncouth aides, and trouble with the President's image are among the familiar -- perhaps too familiar -- targets of this satire.

A truly exigent reader might also take exception to a trace of low-level sexism, which registers only faintly, like background radiation on a geiger counter, but which illustrates the author's penchant for making the obvious, time-honored joke instead of challenging our preconceptions with a more probing humor.

These shortcomings, however, are finally outweighed by the simple, incontrovertible fact that this is still a very funny book -- rueful, engaging, diverting, filled with amusing little touches and some all-too-believable insights into the nature of media-age politics.

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