FEATURE P.J. O‘ROURKE
ay, just for the purposes of argument, that you wanted a zippy little guide to the entire US system of government. from Congress to the budget. taking in rest stops at foreign policy and defence. and making a detour through the Social Security system. Do you get Dr David Deadly-Dull. Professor of Political Boredom at Yale on the case, or do you plump for the man who wrote the legendary essay ‘How To Drive Fast On Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed And Not Spill Your Drink“? OK. no contest.
That is the basis of P.J. O‘Rourke‘s sales pitch for Parliament 0f Whores, the aforementioned whistle-stop tour of the American state machinery. The humourist. turned facetious political commentator. should have just the right credentials in absurdity and cynicism to unravel the minutiae ofgovernment. That‘s the theory anyway.
At National Lampoon magazine in the 705. and as Hunter S. Thompson‘s successor at the Rolling Stone National Affairs Desk for most ofthe subsequent decade, O‘Rourke established a reputation both as an unrepentant running-dog Republican celebrant, worshipping the libertarian ideals of untrammelled consumerism and hedonism. and as one of the funniest writers in the USA. His first collection of essays and taunts. Republican Party Reptile, assembled some of his more provocative pieces in praise of hallucinogenics. fast cars, sex and bourbon, in that order and liberally stirred, shaken and imbibed. It also led to him becoming adopted as a spokesman by the New Right. pushed forward by a bunch of less articulate hard-living conservatives who said ‘Yeah, we kinda agree with this guy?
Those were the days. The P.J. O‘Rourke. currently settling down for a ‘power nap‘ (‘I never used to need those‘) in his genteel London hotel room. is a mellower (and more jowly) specimen by far. and the new book a far more studied and. hell. even
analytical work. He wouldn‘t admit to it. but this is a writer who seems to want to have his Lviews taken just a little seriously this time.
rPJ. O’ROURKE, the Republican Party Reptile who almost made extreme libertarianism fashionable, has turned his attention to the American political system for his latest work. Tom Lappin finds him ﬂirting dangerously with respectability.
‘I‘ve been moving in this direction for a while,‘ he says. ‘The stuffI was doing in the 705 for National Lampoon was just straight comedic. We might have thought there was some social content but I‘m not sure there was. But for most of this last decade. I‘ve been covering events rather than just writing about anything that came into my head. So finally I decided it would be interesting to try and tackle one coherent subject. and do a whole book rather than a collection of articles. I also wanted to better understand how the American government worked. and make some effort to explain that to a bored and apathetic American public.‘
Whether that bored and apathetic public will be any the wiser after reading the book (‘No.‘ thinks O‘Rourke) isn‘t really the point. The American body politic offers a
Beautiful women are always on the cutting edge at social trends. . . Where the beautiful women are is where the country is headed.
huge canvas for O‘Rourke to doodle his usual blend of rabid libertarian views and scathing jokes. and simmer the facts down to a basic scummy stock, which he can spice up with ideology. ‘I do think I manage to explain how certain things work.‘ he says. ‘not in a better way than others have. but in an amusing and palatable way. Things like our agricultural policy, and our Savings and Loans scandal. and the pansy Social Security scheme. I think I managed to boil down a lot of figures into fairly digestible bits of information.‘
As it turns out. Parliament ()f Whores is something of a turkey, and a cross-bred one at that. As a political textbook. it offers a self-confessedly slanted and simplistic viewpoint on complex organisations. and as a satirical work. it lacks novelty. Somehow, the old Republican rants aren‘t as palatable coming from a curmudgeonly 43-year-old as
they were from a hip young gun. O‘Rourke either can‘t be bothered with an issue (Social Security) and dismisses it with a burst of textbook right-wing invective or gets carried away (poverty, drugs. defence) and goes on butt-kicking raids with the Guardian Angels, or cleaning up Panama with Operation Just Cause. A crisply argued chapter on army and navy efficiency is completely blown out of the skies by a concluding paragraph: ‘But the best and final argument against cutting defense spending cannot be put into words. It‘s visceral. hormonal. It is that excitement in the gut. that swelling ofthe chest, the involuntary smile that comes across the face of every male when he has a weapon to hand.‘ (Parliament ()f Whores p176.)
‘Getting a little silly. there, Is‘pose,‘ admits O‘Rourke. ‘But I have this constant fear of getting carried away in earnestness rather than carried away in frivolity. I guess if I had life to live over again. I may not use that sort ofending. Also when l was writing it, I didn‘t foresee any imminent military action on the horizon. It was just a case of “hey. you‘re getting a little glum here O‘Rourke“.‘
How funny you find O‘Rourke depends a lot on your political perspective. Crackpot collectives of well-meaning liberals are fair
' game all season. but others have taken
exception to O‘Rourke‘s habit of applying gags to subjects like war, poverty or drug addiction. ‘It‘s not so much to keep things happy as to relieve tension.‘ he says. ‘All laughter comes from things that scare us and make us nervous. People have a tendency to get humour and happiness mixed up. There‘s a lot of laughter comes out of fear and frustration. People say “how can you do that when people are suffering‘?“. but hey they aren‘t going to be any less dead just because I‘m there cracking wise. and their suffering isn‘t going to get any worse.‘
Glib humour unfortunately has the side-effect ofweakening any coherence in the argument. O‘Rourke can never resist a gag. and invariably they are at the expense of some minority or victim. It‘s a complaint more apparent to a non-American reader.
’ and one he can‘t accept. ‘We don‘t have that l attitude in the States. Americans have a
coarser sense of humour. it‘s a coarser country. It‘s more violent. less self-controlled with a cruder. rougher humour. The closer you get to the front, the rougher the humour gets. I‘ve never been able to stomach the attitude of “Oh, you can‘t make fun ofthat.“ that really is a misunderstanding ofthe nature ofhumour.‘
O‘Rourke certainly won‘t put up with people telling him what to do. In fact he sees it as the current vital threat to the future of Western civilisation. ‘Just at the moment when we‘ve got rid ofthe horrible Marxists, in come the health Nazis and the caring ‘ police, telling us we don‘t care enough, we‘re not showing enough compassion. Compassion fascists are here with that human trait of bossing and bullying others with the excuse that it‘s good for us.‘
Phew. O‘Rourke obviously still has a few things that get him fired up, but part ofthe problem with Parliament 0f Whores is that he is no longer saying anything new. Extreme conservatism is a far more
8 The List 13 — 26 September 199T T