Parting Ways With P.J. O'Rourke
P.J. O'Rourke is suddenly respectable, and that's too bad. Because now when he speaks, or writes or cracks wise, his words are accorded the weight of wisdom. When he lectures on college campuses, students jam the auditorium and adjoining hallways. They laugh and applaud in the right places, then toss him softballs such as, "What made you decide to become a communist in the '60s?" (Answer: "Sex.") The man who once wrote a deliciously indulgent piece of gonzo titled "How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink" now opines on 60 Minutes opposite Molly Ivins while Mom and Pop America nod their heads in agreement -- just another well-spoken white guy in a nice jacket and tie making hash of those silly liberals.Make no mistake: O'Rourke is funny. He deserves his success. If we didn't have P.J., who would pillory environmentalists, bureaucrats, teetotalers, socialists and the entire country of Sweden with equal parts alacrity and wit? Rush Limbaugh? Spare me.The trouble is, it's not just fun anymore; maybe it never was. There's a message in O'Rourke's work that's as troubling as his uncritical admiration of Ronald Reagan, his belief that abortion is murder, or his latest book, The Enemies List. As R. Emmett Tyrrell, editor of The American Spectator, noted in an Esquire profile of O'Rourke, "One of the secrets of the American intelligentsia is that if they think you believe in nothing, you're okay, you can say anything. P.J.'s Waterloo will be when some critic sits down and reads him and finds out that he actually believes in something."I grew up reading O'Rourke's work in Car & Driver magazine, and thinking he believed only in having a good time. This was back in the late '70s and early '80s, late in his stay at National Lampoon, but pre-Rolling Stone reporter/respected satirist. I don't recall ever being much of a fan of O'Rourke's National Lampoon -- too many booger jokes even for a teenager.But his Car & Driver stories were eloquent, pedal-to-the-metal road trips, the stuff of which adolescent dreams are made. O'Rourke seemed, at the time, the ultimate screw-off. People gave him money, expensive cars and free rein, and all he had to do in return was write something funny. The real world, in which actions often bring unwanted consequences instead of fame, fortune and free beer, didn't seem to apply. Here was the framework for the laissez-faire P.J. America would someday know and love. Ideology wasn't a prerequisite back then--he just had to be hungover, irreverent and hilarious.In one memorable piece titled "High-Speed Performance Characteristics of Pickups," O'Rourke had this to say about trucks and the people who drive them: "But, when all is said and done, it really would have looked silly at the end of Easy Rider if Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper had been shot by a couple of guys in a Fiat Brava. And what's life for you if you never get a chance to shoot the likes of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper?"In a beautifully turned essay titled "A Cool and Logical Analysis of the Bicycle Menace," O'Rourke presciently ridiculed the entire bicycling craze years before it was fashionable for adults to chuff to work on two wheels: "Considering the image projected, bicycling commuters might as well propel themselves to the office with one knee in a red Radio Flyer wagon.""So this is journalism," I remember thinking. "Sign me up." But looking over these old magazine articles, I've come across bits too blatantly stupid or outrageous to be waved off as whimsy. It's obvious to me now, 20 years later, that behind all the boozy frolicking there always was an unyielding conservative yearning to breathe free.In a story about a cross-country trip in a borrowed Ferrari, O'Rourke came up with this stunningly bone-headed revelation while speeding through the vast landscape of Texas. The fact that he felt it important enough to set on paper speaks volumes:"Why did we fight all those wars, conquer all those nations, kidnap all those Africans and kill all the Indians in the Western Hemisphere. Why, for this [car]! For this perfection of knowledge and craft. For this conquest of the physical elements. For this sense of mastery of man over nature."A bit of hyperbole? Certainly. But the grain of truth at its center -- O'Rourke's early vision of manifest destiny -- is chilling.It was about this time, the early '80s, that O'Rourke performed another of his transformations -- this time from boozy gear-head to international sociopolitical commentator. With the 1982 publication of "Fellow Travelers: Up the Volga with the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship" in Harper's, his star was rising."Fellow Travelers" has our hero tagging along with a group of "peaceniks" on a tour of Russia organized by The Nation magazine. For O'Rourke, the outing was like shooting fish in a barrel -- or, as he later described his verbal pummeling of the conservative Christians who patronized Jim and Tammy Faye Baker's Heritage USA theme park, like hunting cows with a deer rifle.The story proceeds much as you'd expect: P.J. mercilessly flogs the fussy, geriatric, toadying, touchy-feely peaceniks while drinking copiously and noting how damn ugly the Soviet Union really is. In one amazing scene, he relays the tale of a woman so ideologically hidebound that she flies into a rage when a Soviet passenger mistakenly uses the word "girls" instead of "women.""'Girls?!' shrieked the old bitch. 'Girls?! We don't call women girls. That's an insult!' The Russian kids stared at her, mystified. The hag turned on [the translator]. 'You explain to them that calling women girls is a demeaning thing to do.'"Talk about your ugly Americans.Rolling Stone knew a good thing when it saw him, and signed P.J. up shortly after "Fellow Travelers" was published. The rest, as they say, is history. Bolstered by the magazine's success and a fat expense account, he traveled the world filing stories on war, political unrest, social upheaval and silly foreigners. He did it well, striking a perfect tone for the jingoistic '80s.For example, overlook the military-boot-licking and you have some of the best reporting to come out of the Persian Gulf War in Give War a Chance. Overlook the blinding conservatism, and you have one of the funniest, most insightful peeks into government yet put to paper in Parliament of Whores. Overlook the gross inhumanity of poking fun at people who are starving to death, and you have an excellent tome on world order in All the Trouble in the World.So what are we to make of P.J.'s latest, The Enemies List?Depending on your political orientation, the book is either P.J. hitting full stride, or a vicious diatribe designed to further pad the coffers of a writer who's found a niche that pays. The truth is probably a combination of these.To understand The Enemies List, you must understand from whence it came. The result of a running feature in the ultra-conservative The American Spectator, the book is what happens when you ask people who think Joe McCarthy got a raw deal to name the "comsymps," "pink-wieners," "condo-pinks," "lava-lamp liberals," "ratchet-jawed purveyors of monkey doodle and baked wind" and "Lhasa apsos of Poli Sci returning to the vomit of liberalism" they hate the most. (At least give him credit for creativity.)Here P.J. is able to take the kid gloves off. Here, as in no other work to date, the curtain is pulled back to reveal a man as ideologically hidebound as the shrew he immortalized on that cruise ship 14 years ago. And here, finally, we see what a curmudgeonly, elitist boor O'Rourke really is. In The Enemies List, he's preaching to the choir, and the result is uncensored and disturbingly reminiscent of the turd-and-spitball humor that propelled him to fame at the National Lampoon.On Donna Shalala: "Hey, Donna, you ofay broad, you crap-worshipping putty-faced Stalinist retard, molester of dogs and honorary citizen of North Korea, you're old." On Jocelyn Elders: "You've got to love a Surgeon General who's in such serious need of a StairMaster. If she can hand out condoms in the schools, why can't we hand out pistols?" On Hillary Rodham Clinton: "She's a bossy little rich snoot of a goody-two-shoes and not real bright who got into a fancy law school when girls were in season."Here then is a book with no redeeming qualities -- it's not funny, well-written or insightful. Coming, as it does, when P.J. is as high as his career has taken him, it shows an amazing lack of foresight. We can only hope Molly Ivins has read it and will thump him over the head with it repeatedly on 60 Minutes.Did I say The Enemies List has no redeeming qualities? I take that back. It's quite valuable, actually, as it displays O'Rourke's true colors -- lets his conservative freak flag fly, if you will. This lifelong admirer, at least, won't get fooled again.