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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #272: Nick Naylor

This is what we get when money = speech.

Nick Naylor is a lobbyist. For a big corporation. That makes cigarettes. Scum of the earth, right? Sleazy paid influence-peddler. It's a role Nick embraces, even hanging around with fellow professional advocates for alcohol and firearms (a crew that refers to itself, tongue firmly in cheek, as the Merchants of Death). Nick's good at his job, glib, smooth, affable, armed with every shred of quasi-data big tobacco can spin out and not above the occasional bribe. He also believes fervently that in a democracy every side is entitled to a voice, and that freedom of choice is the cornerstone of our way of life. It's a lesson he tries to pass along to his skeptical young son.

The film Thank You For Smoking (based fairly closely on Buckley's novel) follows Nick's kidnapping, misguided affair with a journalist, and fall from grace as his unethical tactics are exposed in the press. Despite all of this he still does his job, testifying in front of Congress against new tobacco regulations. He's so good that big tobacco wants him back, but Nick has had enough. He hangs up his own shingle as an independent lobbyist. There's suggested redemption at the end of the film, the only saccharine note in what is mostly a dark, satirical take on the byplay between corporate interests and public policy.

We watch The West Wing and wish it was like that, or House of Cards and pray it isn't like that. In reality, it's probably more like Thank You For Smoking than either. Politicians come and go, and public policy is determined by Armani armies wielding campaign cash and convenient statistics. We dream of Jed Bartlet and cringe at Frank Underwood. Meanwhile Nick Naylor kills bills and blocks progress and cashes his check. it's just business, and democracy. It's nothing personal.

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