Not long before the Sept. 11 attacks, P.J. O'Rourke released his tenth collection of essays, “CEO of the Sofa.” The book was a departure in the sweetest sense, focusing on his newfound fatherhood and domesticity instead of politics and war. Yet, brilliant as it was, in one terrible day, the book was lost in the shuffle of history.
In the aftermath, O'Rourke did what longtime fans expected him to do: He packed his bags and went out into the big, bad world to find out what the heck was going on. And, where appropriate, mock it mercilessly. His latest book, “Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism” is the result.
While the book has plenty of sharp wit, amusing insights, and loads of Menckian bad behavior, O'Rourke is taking a more sober (figuratively, the man still loves his booze) look at the current state of the world. O'Rourke is dogmatically un-dogmatic in his writing. Enemies of reason, whatever their political stripe, get the spankings they deserve.
"We saw the results of Clinton's emotional, ad hoc, higgledy-piggledy foreign policy,” O'Rourke writes in “Peace Kills.” “It led to strained relations with Russia and China, increased violence in the Middle East, continued fighting in Africa and Asia, and Serbs killing Albanians. Then we saw the results of Bush's tough, calculated, focused foreign policy—strained relations with Russia and China, increased violence in the Middle East, continued fighting in Africa and Asia, and Serbs killing Albanians. Between the first year of the Clinton administration and the first year of the Bush administration, we went from attack on the World Trade Center to World Trade Center attack.”
After positing that the world is crazy, O'Rourke sets out to prove his point, traveling through Kosovo, Israel, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, Iwo Jima, and demonstrations in Washington, D.C. For good measure he spends an entire chapter making fun of a bunch of Nobel prize winners.
“This book is a departure for me in a fundamental way,” O’Rourke said in a recent telephone interview. “Its message is much more nuanced than those of my pervious books. It reflects the fact that while I support our current aggressive foreign policy, it’s not without regret.”
This “nuance” has led some to slap the dreaded “mature” label on the longtime raconteur.
“I don’t get it when people start talking like that,” he said. “I’m 56 years-old for God’s sake. How immature am I supposed to be?”
BRAVE NEW WORLD
O’Rourke, a self-described “small government conservative, with kind of a libertarian bent,” will be the first to admit it’s difficult to fit his philosophy into the current puzzle of world affairs.
“For a long time now, I’ve been writing about situations so stupid even I could figure out what needed to be done,” he said. “In this case I’m writing about a problem that has perplexed minds far better than my own.”
The question is, how does a pundit who believes “government is a poison well” that one should not drink from “more than you have to,” reconcile the moral obligations and realities of the modern world.
“When you get into something like an altruistic foreign policy things get complicated,” he explained. “The United States is involuntarily the only superpower in the world, and trying to put our principles into practice while also accepting all the responsibilities that have been thrust upon us by the laziness and cowardice of the rest of the world is a daunting task.”
The reality, O’Rourke said, is that no one, Republican or Democrat, has the answers because this is a historically unique situation.
“The truth is that history never repeats itself,” he said. “But it does spiral. Usually out of control. It’s not that it’s not worth reading history. Certain patterns are detectable. But if you were to go read the history of the British empire, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t provide us a blueprint for what we should do tomorrow in the war on terror. Clearly, the British didn’t know what to do next in the Nineteenth century. Where’s their empire now?”
One of the major problems with America’s foreign policy, O’Rourke writes in “Peace Kills,” is that it is based on crisis management.
“Americans would like to ignore foreign policy,” he writes. “Our previous attempts at isolationism were successful. Unfortunately, they were successful for Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan…We are perplexed by the subtle tactics and complex strategies of the Great Game. America’s great game is pulling the levers on the slot machines in Las Vegas.”
We should be wary of oversimplifying the threat we face, O’Rourke said. For example, the words “fundamentalist” and “terrorist” are not interchangeable.
“We have to be careful not to lump pious Muslims in with the Islamist, Osama lot,” he said. “I don’t want to call them ‘fundamentalists’ because Muslims have fundamentalists just like our fundamentalists who are perfectly harmless. You know, the kind that might annoy their neighbors or family members, but pose no danger to the world.”
Now that P.J. O’Rourke has a wife he adores and three young children, the old reporting insanity--you know, sneaking into Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock Mosque disguised as P.J. of Arabia; hanging with Communist insurrectionists in the Philippines; etc, etc--is significantly less appealing.
“Nothing short of the war in Iraq would have dragged me back over there,” O‘Rourke said. “I did not want to go, and as you can imagine, my wife didn’t want me to go. But I’ve been a reporter for all these years, and these are events which, for good or ill, will shape history for a long time to come. I didn’t feel like I could miss it. I had to see it for myself.”
A personal loss in Iraq brought home just how dangerous the whole situation could be. O’Rourke’s former Atlantic Monthly editor and UNH alum Michael Kelly was killed while reporting as an embed with the U.S. Army.
“He was the best of them all, an amazing man,” O‘Rourke said. “His death was a personal loss, of course, but it was also an aesthetic loss for the world.”
“Peace Kills” is dedicated to Kelly. The book carries the following inscription: “He could have advocated the war in Iraq without going to cover it. He could have covered it without putting himself in harm’s way. But liberty is an expensive feast. And Mike was a man who always picked up the check.”
O’Rourke said the irrepressible Kelly would be bemused by the way, after his death, he suddenly gained the respect of the mainstream media establishment.
“It wouldn’t bother him,“ O’Rourke said. “Far from it. He’d laugh at the way one suddenly acquires respectability in death. He’d be the first one to make a joke about that.”
With another war behind him, O’Rourke said his fans should not expect too much more of the old bravado, unless something huge comes up.
“I’m not anxious to do it again,” he said. “It is to be hoped the days of my ‘Holidays in Hell’ are over.”
WRITERS AND WRITING
P.J. O’Rourke has had a long and storied career publishing everywhere from The American Spectator to the National Lampoon to Rolling Stone. He’s been labeled “the funniest writer in America” by both Time magazine and The Wall Street Journal, and he has more citations in “The Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” than any other living American writer. Currently, he’s a regular at what is probably the most respected magazine in America, the Atlantic Monthly.
“Oh, working there is totally cool,” he said. “I’ve quit splitting my infinitives. I’ve started to actually be able to tell the difference between a comma and a semi-colon. It definitely makes you work to a higher standard. It’s a challenge.
“I’m fairly well established in my what passes for my job,” he added. “And most people my age are at a point no one is editing them anymore and nobody is telling them what they’re saying isn’t any good. All of a sudden I’m back at a magazine where people are really good and some of my writing is not quite up to snuff. It’s a little embarrassing, but it’s also a good experience to have.”
O’Rourke said it’s a different world than the one he came up in.
“When I first started to try and write funny stuff in the early 70s, if you had a dark tinge to your humor you were just screwed for an outlet,” he said. “You could go a bit further in stand-up, but even Lenny Bruce got nailed. Then along came Saturday Night Live, and Animal House and Caddyshack and In Living Color and all the other things that spun out from SNL. Everything changed.”
Change is expected, but O’Rourke said occasionally the degree of change has caught him by surprise.
“I don’t watch television that often, but every time she has a baby she watches a lot of television because it’s the only thing you can do while nursing--unless you can knit with your feet or something like that,” he said. “So I’ll sit with her and watch ’Friends’ or something and I just can’t believe how filthy it is. Stuff that would have been borderline for us at the Lampoon, stuff we’d have printed but would have gone, ‘Ooh, there goes another advertiser’ is just totally normal now.”
While this sea change in what was culturally acceptable gave writers an opportunity to push the envelope a bit, it also drew talent out of the magazine world, O’Rourke said.
“Somebody with that kind of sensibility, someone who would have written funny magazine or newspaper pieces, who would of struggled to make a living in my era, now goes out to Hollywood and makes a $100,000 a year,” he said. “It’s not just humor writing that‘s suffered. This is not a golden age for journalism, overall.”
Not that he’s over-idealizing the good old days.
“If you go back to the beginning of new journalism--Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and all those guys--it was a very energetic period in journalism,” O‘Rourke pointed out. “What we forget now, of course, is that there was a lot of crap that came out of that time and some really crappy influences on the next generation of writers which would be…ah, me.
“For example, people who are going to write probably shouldn’t be allowed to read Hunter Thompson until they’re over 35,” he added. “Not to take anything away from Hunter’s genius, but as an influence…eh, it’s tricky.”
So which writers does O’Rourke turn to when he wants his muse tickled?
“Dave Barry I’m crazy about,” he said. “I don’t know how he does it every week. I like David Brooks, wish we hadn’t lost him to the New York Times. Andy Ferguson at the Weekly Standard is a master. Caitlin Flanagan at the Atlantic, knocks me out. I have a huge crush on her. I mean, I’ve never met her, she may be 500 pounds, for all I know, but wow.”
As for the future, O’Rourke said no big changes. He’s hoping to dive back into writing about public policy, dissecting the jokes out of bills that otherwise would make a conscientious tax payer cry.
“I’m looking at the new Transportation bill right now,” he said. “Have you seen that one? You can almost hear them yelling, ‘Soo-eee!’”
More than a decade after exposing the sloth of the United States government in “Parliament of Whores,” O’Rourke’s prognosis for today is not altogether hopeless, but definitely a bit surly.
“It is the natural tendency of political systems to accumulate power,” he said. “Power, unlike money, is a zero sum thing. When power is accumulated it is taken from someone, and of course, who is it taken from? The states and the people thereof. Political situations grow unwieldy and I worry about us growing almost inevitably towards a European style intrusive state.
“Put together the natural tendency of the state to grow and the American tendency to butt into people’s personal lives, and, I don’t foresee a disaster, but I do foresee greater and greater annoyances of the zero tolerance kind,” he continued. “You know, have you taken a drink in the last week? You lose your driver’s license. Fail to put a seatbelt on your kid while in your home and custody is taken. That sort of thing. All for our own good, of course.”
America is still where it’s at, though, O’Rourke quickly pointed out.
“It’s true that Europeans, despite often overbearing governments, do have a way of minding their own business about other people’s personal lives,” he said, laughing. “Unless you’re Jewish or something.”
So what’s changed in American politics since “Parliament of Whores”?
“Nothing,” O’Rourke answered quickly. “It’s the same, just more expensive.”