Christopher Buckley rolls up the right sleeve of his salmon-colored shirt. Engraved on his bicep is a tattoo the size of a car-inspection sticker.
"It's a honey," he says. "Cost me 10 bucks."
Buckley, 29-year-old speechwriter for Vice President George Bush and son of conservative columnist/author William F. Buckley Jr., is sitting on the patio of his rented Washington town house talking about "Steaming to Bamboola," his recently published account of 78 days on a freighter.
It's The Love Boat on bad LSD, McHale's Navy meets Jerzy Kosinski--bizarre, bittersweet, romantic.Not unlike Buckley.
"Just the end of the f and the end of the k is left," he says, holding up the outside of his wrist where a second tattoo is barely visible. He got both tattoos in Hong Kong. He was 17, a deckboy on a Norwegian freighter, and very drunk. He had the tattoo on his wrist, most of it anyway, taken off two years ago. It was getting embarrassing, he says. The tattoo read, "---- off."
"As I was walking out of the dermatologist the day he did this, Jackie O was walking in. I was wondering what she was having removed," he joked. " 'Property of Hell's Angels.' "
He giggles, thin lips curling over uneven teeth, ice blue eyes crinkling at the corners. His looks are unmistakably Buckley: the Buckley forehead, broad and high, with strands of auburn hair teasing the receding hairline; the Buckley nose, long and imperious; the Buckley voice, throaty, theatrical, Long Island lockjaw dripping with wit, money, breeding and old boys'-school charm.
He says he grew up spoiled until the age of 13, then weathered turbulent teen-age years of drug use and rebellion at a Catholic boarding school run by monks. "Not quite David Copperfield, but scary as hell."
The summer after graduation, he signed on the Norwegian freighter.
"I was an overachiever," he says. "Fear of being left behind. I had grown up on yachts, but I didn't want yachts. I wanted a freighter. I wanted to ship out. I was pretty much running away." He was gone for six months, to Panama, Manila, Hong Kong, Bangkok. His mother worried a lot, Buckley learned later. "She was constantly waking up about 2 o'clock in the morning, clutching my Dad and saying, 'He's cold. I know he's cold, wherever he is, he's cold.' And my Dad would say, 'Duckay, shuttup. He's south of the equator. He caaan't be cold.'
"I surprised them when I came back and they were real glad to see me so I hit them with the tattoos real fast. My mom, she did the classical clutching of the curtains. 'Be still my heart.' "
Then he told them he wanted to go to college. They were delighted. He said he was thinking of the University of Hawaii. His mother reached for the curtains again.
But family tradition prevailed and Buckley went off to his father's alma mater, Yale, where he majored in English and started The Yale Daily News Magazine with several friends. He left school for a year, free-lanced and became a prote'ge' of then-New York Magazine editor Clay Felker. After finishing school, Buckley continued writing and became, at the age of 25, managing editor of Esquire magazine. In 1978, his diary of a transatlantic sail was woven into his father's best-selling book, "Airborne."
Two years ago he put his three-piece suits in mothballs and signed on a second freighter with the idea of doing an oral history of the men on board, a saltwater Studs Terkel. "Steaming to Bamboola" was born. One critic called it "funny, high spirited and an immensely enjoyable book." Publishers Weekly said, "One of the best compliments that can be paid a book is that the reader is sorry to have it end. Such is the case with this entertaining memoir . . ." Ironically, the only publication so far to give the book a lukewarm reception is The National Review. William F. Buckley's National Review.
"When I wrote this book, I wanted it to be a great book and then I was pretty much convinced it wouldn't be," says Buckley, sipping tomato juice. "I've been very lucky. I'm rich in friends. I've done different things. I've been blessed. There's not enough time in the day to be thankful for it."
He says he's ambitious. "I'd rather be a success than not. I usually don't admit that. It's kind of a safety net. That way, if you screw up, at least you never tried.
"I'd just rather have little happinesses," he says. "I would like five daughters to sit in my lap and call me Daddy. That to me would be success."
He pauses for effect. "To me, someone who is successful is someone who's not afraid to die."
By his own definition, Buckley still has a way to go. There were violent times on the freighter, times when he did fear for his life.
"There was a guy who threatened to throw me over the side. This is a mean guy. He killed his brother. He's going to kill someone else."
Buckley called him Jefferson. "This was someone whose story I wanted to hear. He'd smoke this reefer and his eyes would narrow, yellow eyes, and he'd say, 'Mebbe you a cop.' " Buckley rolls his eyes. "When he'd get high he'd reminisce about the first old lady he had beaten up."
The other crew members thought Buckley worked for the CIA. He took notes and tape-recorded for most of the day, at night transcribing the diary. "I wrote it, really, for them," he says, although one suspects he knows he really wrote it for himself. "These are forgotten guys. I'm not surprised they were suspicious of my motives. I mean, who really does want to hear their stories?" Like the mate who caught syphilis from an inflatable doll, the violent seaman who was handcuffed to a bed and managed to commit suicide with lint (suffocated by stuffing balls of wool from the blanket down his throat and up his nose), the half-crazed cook who spit in the second helpings, the sailor who fell through a smokestack.
Buckley was hired as Bush's speechwriter last summer, replacing Vic Gold. As for his own politics, Buckley likes to call himself "a right-wing nut," though his conservative credentials hardly qualify him as a flake. He jogs seven miles most days, eats sushi, plays racquetball, shoots skeet, throws knives, says he's hopelessly lazy, dates a woman 17 years his senior and avoids the social scene. "I've been to exactly three cocktail parties and one embassy party," he says.
Buckley does have a mischievous streak. Friends say he has a videotape of himself doing a parody of his father's television interview show, "Firing Line." Buckley also masterminded a "coup" on board Air Force Two recently by announcing over the PA system that the plane was being diverted to Jamaica while Vice President Bush was being served a dinner of bread and water. "He's Bush a lovely man. He's that kind of guy," says Buckley.
Calling him immature is close to a compliment. "I like to try NOT to be mature wherever possible, if maturity is measured as seriousness. You know, there are a lot of serious people in this town."
Serious yes, but the White House is also a safe harbor.
"About a week after I got here, I drove up to Capitol Hill to see a friend. I parked the car. It was a convertible. I had the pang of New York Car Anxiety, which is put up the top, seal the glove compartment, lock the boot, batten down the hatches. And then something just said, 'Leave the top down.' I went away for about two hours, and was sort of fretting about the car and I came back and there was a red carnation on the seat. I thought, 'I've found my home.' "