Sunday, October 03, 2010

A conversation with P.J. O’Rourke

"I’ve been shot toward, not shot at," says a modest P.J. O’Rourke about his decades as a war heckler. He’s been to some dicey places — Afghanistan, Iraq, LaGuardia Airport. It was at the latter that he was most nearly blown to bits.

New York Post
October 3, 2010

"Long before I was ever a war correspondent, my first experience with pieces of dead bodies — was at LaGuardia. It was Christmas 1975, and I was upstairs when the bomb went off in the locker on the level below. Killed 11 people. The presumption was that it was Puerto Rican nationalists. They were the bombers of the day.

"So I’m sitting at the bar at LaGuardia, waiting for my plane. Ka-WAMMMM! I had just ordered a Jack Daniels on the rocks. Bartender turns to me, says, ‘You want to make that a double?’ Swear to God."

So O’Rourke, whose cousin lived a couple of blocks from the West 11th Street townhouse where several members of the Weather Underground accidentally blew themselves up in 1970 and whose girlfriend was in the crowd when National Guardsmen killed five student protesters at Kent State two months later, is amused by chatter about "polarization" today. "Bull - - - -," he says. "Anyone who lived through the Civil Rights era knows this is nothing compared to the polarization — anger, hatred, murder — that went on then. Or to take a better example, 1860. That’s polarized. This is arguing."

O’Rourke, the reformed ex-radical, editor of National Lampoon during the "Animal House" era, war correspondent and, lately, target of what he calls "ass cancer," continues the anti-statist argument in his new book, "Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards" (Atlantic Monthly Press). References to Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith (to whose "Wealth of Nations" he once devoted an entire volume) prove O’Rourke can do the philosophical heavy lifting — yet make it all float on a fluffy cloud of wit. Among his best one-liners:

* "The free market is a bathroom scale. We may not like what we see when we step on the bathroom scale, but we can’t pass a law making ourselves weigh 165. Liberals and leftists think we can."

* "We’re individuals — unique, disparate, and willful, as anyone raising a household of little individuals knows. And not one of those children has ever written a letter to Santa Claus saying, ‘Please bring me and a bunch of kids I don’t know a pony and we’ll share.’ "

* "The most sensible request of government we make is not, ‘Do something!’ But ‘Quit it!’ "

* "Conservatism is a flight from ideas. As in, ‘Don’t get any ideas,’ ‘What’s the big idea?’ and ‘Whose idea was that?’ "

O’Rourke, 62, is a cool Republican. It’s a lonely job. What can the rest of the party do to join him?

"I don’t think Republicans have ever been cool," he says. "Abraham Lincoln tried growing a beard."

Yes, and look what happened to him.

"It’s always going to be cooler to have wild visionary ideas for society and the future. All we can really do is see that we’ve got a society where as many people grow out of cool as fast as they possibly can."

Even O’Rourke admits "I thought it was pretty cool myself" to be part of an America that elected a black president. But if his new book barely mentions President Obama, Sarah Palin or any other topical punchline, it’s because "I wanted to write something that, 20 years from now, people don’t need footnotes for."

Dressed like a CEO in a sober suit, he looks unscathed by the colon cancer that attacked him a couple of years ago.

"Touch Formica, things are going well," he says. "I spent about six months being treated. It was early stage, it was not particularly invasive. I got my two-year checkup a couple of months ago. They said I was good to go."

Some friends have been less fortunate. O’Rourke reeled when his friend of 30 years, "The Breakfast Club" director John Hughes, dropped dead of a heart attack while walking on West 55th Street last year.

O’Rourke, who in the book cops to being "a little to the right of Rush Limbaugh," says Hughes was "quite conservative."

Hughes, once a hot creative at a Chicago ad firm was O’Rourke’s first hire when he took over editing National Lampon around the start of 1978. "One of the things John and I saw alike was a larval conservatism. We disliked [Jimmy] Carter. We weren’t upset when Reagan was elected."

Later, O’Rourke says, he and Hughes didn’t see the need to talk politics much because they agreed on everything. Is conservatism in Hughes’ films, though? "It’s there for those who care to see it," says O’Rourke. " ‘Home Alone’ is all about self sufficiency, freedom and responsibility, basically. The kid eats all the junk food in the house then watches all the terrible movies and then he has to bring himself together."

O’Rourke was once an irresponsible brat too, a semi-pro rioter who ranted about the fascist pigs "in stints between the water bed and the water pipe." Then "I became a Republican when I had to pay taxes. I became a conservative when I had kids. Everybody is a conservative with their kids.

"Obama very much absorbed the lessons that we in the ’60s were trying to put forth," O’Rourke says. "While most of us who actually tried the ’60s got over this, he didn’t, because part of it went on that long march through the institutions that he was obviously influenced by — without, perhaps, the hedonism. He’s like a fun-free ’60s."

The progressive mindset, O’Rourke thinks, amounts to a faith that "if you could just get the smartest people in the world together in a room, then by golly you can figure out a health care program. It’s this kind of contempt for the ordinary person’s expertise and what is best for him or her — contempt for the fundamental principle interest of self-interest that the world rests on — that [Obama] took away from the 1960s in large bags and cartons."

But the ’60s ultimately gave us Reagan. Obama has already given us the Tea Party and useful instruction on just how little can be accomplished by even the most eloquent and appealing of leaders. "We don’t vote to elect good people," O’Rourke says. "Certainly not great people, because they aren’t too great. We hold elections to throw the bums out."

As for another ex-communist who took a deep breath and re-evaluated, O’Rourke says he sent Christopher Hitchens a long e-mail about cancer treatment.

"This should probably be off the record," O’Rourke says. "I said, just make sure your doctor is generous with the painkillers. I said doctors must know this, but don’t tell you, that Scotch and Percocet happen to go together perfectly."

Off the record? Really?

O’Rourke considers. "Oh, go ahead."

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