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Death comes to "Larry King Live." (satire on tobacco lobbyist being interviewed)(excerpt from book "Thank You for Smoking")

Christopher Buckley's new novel, Thank You For Smoking, tells the story of Nick Naylor, chief spokesman for the fictional Academy for Tobacco Studies (the smoking lobby). Here, just after an interview on "Oprah" in which Naylor was confronted with a boy dying of cancer linked to second-hand smoke, he goes on "Larry King Live" to try to repair the damage.

Sammy Najeeb, Larry King's producer and a force of nature, six-foot-something, big, hearty, came to fetch Nick in the reception area and take him to makeup. "I used to smoke like a chimney," she said.

"It's never too late to take it back up again," Nick said. "By the way, who's on the second segment?"

"You don't want to know," Sammy said.

Nick stopped. "Not the cancer kid?"

"No. This isn't Oprah. But you're in the right ballpark."

"Who?"

"Trust me, you won't have to be in the same room at the same time, I promise. It's all fixed. I gave instructions."

"Who?"

"It's Lorne Lutch."

"I'm on with the Tumbleweed Man? Are you nuts?"

"You're not on with anyone. It's two completely different segments. Look, it's not a setup, Larry wanted you on, then Atlanta said he had to put someone else from the other side on after, for balance."

"Balance," Nick muttered.

"It's gonna be fine. Larry loved what you did on Oprah. He's a fan. He used to smoke three packs a day."

"Hi there," said the makeup lady.

Fuming, Nick took his seat. "Have you got Innocent Bisque?"

"I'm out of Innocent," she said. "But Indigo is close."

"All right. And Tawny Blush highlight."

Jesus, the Tumbleweed Man. For over 20 years the very symbol of America's smoking manhood in the saddle, his rugged, granite face on the back cover of every magazine, on bill-boards, on TV, in those happy bygone days. Now he was breathing through a hole in his throat and with every breath he had left--which was not many, thank God, according to Gomez O'Neal, the head of the Academy's intelligence unit--paving his way to the Pearly Gates by warning everyone about the evils of smoking. Ironically, it was Nick who had talked Total Tobacco Company management out of suing him for breach-of-faith, on the grounds that it would do no good to the industry's image to sue a dying man with three kids and 12 grandchildren, especially since his croaky pleas to the nation's youth not to smoke had made him a media darling (at least with the broadcast media since they couldn't accept cigarette ads anyway). Maybe, thought Nick bitterly, he could trot out this pathetic little detail in his defense tonight.

Sammy was hovering, as if she didn't trust him not to flee down the fire stairs with his makeup bib still on.

Larry King was very welcoming. "Good to see you. Thanks for coming."

"Pleasure," Nick said tightly. His trapezius muscles were hypercontracting. He was going to need a session with Dr. Wheat soon. He could use a session with Dr. Wheat right now.

"I used to smoke three packs a day," Larry said. "And you know something, I still miss it. We're gonna have a good show tonight. Lot of calls. Very emotional issue."

"I understand Lorne Lutch is on the second segment," Nick said.

Larry shrugged. "I know, but what can you do? Tell you something, though."

"What's that?"

"He's a nice guy."

"Yes, that's what we hear."

"By the way, you know what that hole is called? The one in the throat. Stoma. Must be Greek, right?"

"Undoubtedly." Nick screwed in his earpiece.

"Good evening everyone, I'm Larry King. My first guest tonight is Nick Naylor, chief spokesman for the tobacco lobby here in Washington, D.C. Good evening, Nick."

"Good evening, Larry."

"A couple of days ago you were on the Oprah show and stirred up quite a fuss, right?"

"Apparently, Larry."

"And now the secretary of Health and Human Services and the surgeon general are calling for you to be fired, I understand. Kind of rare, isn't it?"

"Well those two aren't exactly unbiased when it comes to tobacco. Actually, I would have thought they would have been pleased by our announcement that our industry is prepared to spend five million dollars on a very high-level campaign to keep underage kids from smoking. But I guess politics got in the way. Too bad."

"Lot of money, five million."

"You bet it is, Larry."

"Let me ask you something, Nick, Smoking is bad for you right? I mean..."

"No, Larry, actually that's not true."

"I used to smoke like a chimney and I had three heart attacks and bypass surgery. My doctor told me I could either go on smoking or die."

"I wouldn't be comfortable discussing your medical history, Larry. I don't know what the incidence of heart disease is in the King family. I'm certainly happy that you're feeling better. But if I could steer us a little away from the anecdotal and toward the more scientific, the fact is 96 percent of heavy smokers never get seriously ill."

"Isn't that a little hard to believe?"

"They get colds and, you know, headaches and the normal sort of things, bunions"--Bunions?--"but they don't get seriously ill."

"Where does that figure come from?"

"From the National Institutes of Health, right here in Bethesda, Maryland." Let NIH deny it tomorrow; tomorrow people would be on to the next thing, Bosnia, tax increases, Sharon Stone's new movie, Patti Davis's latest novel about what a bitch her mother was. As long as he was at it, he threw in: "And from the Centers for Disease Control, in Atlanta, Georgia."

"That is news," Larry shrugged. Larry was basically too polite to accuse his guests of being shameless liars. It was probably why Ross Perot liked him so much. With any luck, no one from NIH or CDC would be watching.

"Of course," Nick said, "neither Secretary Furioso nor the surgeon general, both of whom continue to refuse to debate with me on the merits of the issues, want you to know that or their budgets will go down. Sad, but true."

"Interesting."

"There are a lot of things," Nick sighed in a world-weary way, "that the government doesn't want people to know about tobacco. Such as..." --What?--"... the indisputable fact that it retards the onset of Parkinson's disease."

"So we should wait till we're 65 and then start smoking like crazy?"

"Well, Larry, we don't advocate that anyone should take up smoking. We're just here to provide the scientific facts. Like the report that just came out showing that tobacco smoke is replenishing the ozone that has been lost due to chloroflorocarbons."

"Really?" Larry said. "Well, maybe I should take it up again, do my part for the ozone hole. I better check with my doctor first."

"Doctors tend to have their own agendas. I'd also like to call to your attention the report last week that smokers who are clerical workers tend to get less carpal tunnel syndrome, you know, the wrist thing, because they take more breaks. There's something else the quote medical science establishment unquote doesn't want you to know about."

"We're going to take some calls. Spokane, Washington, you're on the air."

"Hello?"

"You're on Larry King Live."

"Oh. Uh, yes, hello."

"Do you have a question?"

"Yes. I would like to ask your guest how he can live with himself."

"I take it you don't approve of what he does."

"I think he's a criminal, Larry. He should be locked up. Or worse. There should be a death penalty for what he does."

"Nick, care to comment?"

"Not really, Larry."

"Blue Hill, Maine, you're on the air."

"Yes, I smoked for many, many, many years. And then I developed these like, lumps?" Oh-oh. "And the doctor said it was from smoking, so I gave it up, but the lumps still didn't go away, so I'm thinking about taking it up again."

"Uh-huh," Larry said. "And your question?"

"The doctor who told me that was a young fellah and I think he just told me that to get me to give up. I don't think the lumps had anything to do with smoking."

"Okay, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, you're on the air."

"I smoke and it hasn't made me sick. I'll tell you what made me sick is drinking Milwaukee public water. I thought I was going to die."

"Thanks. No one has a question tonight?" Larry looked over at Sammy in the booth, who gestured to say that they'd said they had questions.

"Okay, we need a question. Atlanta, Georgia"--Nick's gut went into Condition Red--"you're on the air."

"Thank you, Larry. I work for the Centers for Disease Control and I would like to try to correct the extraordinary misimpression that this... individual is trying to create. While it may be true that as many as 96 percent of smokers never get seriously ill, it simply does not follow that smoking is not dangerous. It is extremely dangerous. It is the number one preventable killer in the United States. There have been so far over 60,000 studies since the 1940s showing the link between smoking and disease. For this guy to claim that we're saying it's all right to smoke is just beyond immorality. It's grotesque."

"Nick?"

Nick cleared his throat. "If this gentleman wants to debate the science, I'm all for it. Our attitude has always been... bring on the data."

"He's lying through his teeth, Larry. That guy is lower than whalecrap."

"Well," Nick said, "it's a little difficult to carry on a rational discussion while being verbally abused. But abuse does seem to be the lot of the modern-day smoker." Oh yes, please, let's do shift this steaming pile away from ourselves... "They're scorned, victimized, shunned--if they're lucky they're shunned, most of them are actively abused. They have to huddle in doorways in the dead of winter. I would like to ask the gentleman from the CDC, if that's really where he's from, about the recent rise in the cases of pneumonia--"

"What rise in pneumonia? There's no rise in pneumonia."

"Hoh! Who's lying now? Larry, there has been an extraordinary increase in this ghastly, life-threatening disease, well documented by medical authorities, thank you very much, and it's happening because smokers are being forced out-of-doors in freezing temperatures. Let's face it, sir, you and your ilk have turned one-fifth of the population of the United States into lepers. Talk about your tyranny of the majority."

"I give up, Larry, I can't listen anymore, I'm going to get violent."

"Emotional issue," Larry said. "Herndon, Virginia."

"Yeess," said a man's voice with a nervous air to it, "I have a question for Mr. Naylor. I would like to ask him his opinion of these nicotine patches that so many people are wearing."

"Good question," Larry said.

"Yes it is. Frankly, sir, we at the Academy of Tobacco Studies are a little concerned about these things."

"Why?" said Larry. "They dispense nicotine into the system, same as cigarettes, and your position is that cigarettes aren't bad for you, right?"

"Well," Nick said, "your typical cigarette delivers a relatively minute amount of nicotine into your system, a very minute amount. Where-as one of these deadly little Band-Aids--"

"Hold on," Larry said, "you said 'deadly'?"

"Oh, absolutely. People have been dropping dead all over as a result of these patches. Even our previous caller, Dr. Doom down there in Atlanta, would admit to that."

"I read that some people who have kept on smoking after they started wearing the patches had heart attacks," said Larry. "But--"

"Well there you go. Heart attacks. I tell you something Larry, and Mr., sorry, I don't know your name, there in Herndon, I wouldn't let one of those things get near my skin."

"It's very interesting that you say that," said the voice. "I will certainly be careful with them. Larry, has anyone ever announced that they're going to kill someone on your show before?"

"No," said Larry, "but we do get a lot of angry calls."

"Then this is your lucky day, because I'm here to tell you that within a week, we're going to dispatch Mr. Naylor for all the pain and suffering he's caused in the world."

There was an awkward pause. "Wait a minute," Larry said, "are you threatening him?"

"Yes, Larry. I have really enjoyed talking with you. You have a very nice show." There was a click.

"Emotional issue," said Larry.
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Article Details
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Author:Buckley, Christopher
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Excerpt
Date:Jun 1, 1994
Words:2090
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