On a day late in September, political satirist P.J. O'Rourke came to The Commonwealth Club of California to talk about his new book, Don't Vote: It Only Encourages the Bastards. Following his Club speech and audience Q&A, I sat down with him in our conference room for the following interview.
Much-shortened portions of this interview have appeared in the December/January issue of The Commonwealth and in the November edition of Northside San Francisco. Here, for the first time, is the complete interview, plus the short video of the final question.
JOHN ZIPPERER: About 18 years ago, I heard you speak in Indianapolis. An audience member asked you why you still called yourself a conservative when you have so many libertarian ideas. Your reply was, basically, that you did indeed agree with a lot of things libertarians said, but libertarians keep going further and further down their ideological path and soon they’re talking about privatizing the sewers. So, two decades later, are you more conservative or libertarian, and why?
P.J. O'ROURKE: It’s essentially the same thing. I have a feeling that that particular ... oh, I don’t know, the question is sometimes framed as, Why don’t you support the Libertarian Party? The reason I don’t support the Libertarian Party is that I don’t really believe in political parties and, in point of fact, in the United States we don’t really have political parties. We have two broad political tendencies. The Venn diagram has considerable amount of overlap, depending upon – back in the 50s, there was a great deal of overlap, so much so that [novelist] Allen Drury was able to write Advise and Consent. He’s got a president and opposing majority in Congress, and he never tells which party they belong to. You really don’t end up knowing for sure.
And then sometimes there isn’t much overlap. But basically, [the parties] describe two general tendencies. This would be 15 or 18 different political parties in Europe, with all the annoyance that that entails.
The other thing is that the Libertarian Party platform just isn’t electable, because essentially you’re standing up and saying, I can give you less; I can give you less of everything. You may get a few voters, but I don’t think you’re going to get them all.
I don’t have a problem with libertarianism; I really do agree with them about almost everything. But I think there’s a tendency in libertarianism to apply an excess of rationalism to politics. More than it can stand. Politics is not simply a rational activity. And the tendency of libertarians is to regard it as though it were simply a rational activity, as if it were a calculus, or a spreadsheet or something. There’s much, much more too it than that. I think they leave out that side of things.
JZ: I loved what you said in there [to the Commonwealth Club audience] when you said that law has to define certain things that in reality are not define–
PJO: Definable. Right.
JZ: It is sometimes funny to watch people who find themselves – they let their positions be defined by what the law is –
PJO: [laughs] Yes.
JZ: – take definable positions on these issues that I think are so much more interesting when you do find the [gray areas].
I’ve been reading and watching you for years, and [your Commonwealth Club program] is the first time I've heard you talk about religion.
PJO: Oh, yeah.
JZ: Maybe I just missed it, but that is often the missing element. A little less than 18 years ago, I remember working somewhere where there were lots of Christians – it being a Christian magazine, that kind of –
PJO: That happens!
JZ: But someone ... wrote something to the effect that here we are in this incredibly religious country – among Western countries – and yet we find almost impossible to talk about religion; we act as if it’s going to offend someone. What they were saying was that we now have lots of folks coming here from other countries – lots of religions, lots of cultures – but they’re not offended. They think it’s amazing that a Methodist is afraid to talk about their faith, but where they come from, everyone’s talking about ... it’s what their life is. Have you gone into talking about your religion, and do you mind talking about it?
PJO: No, I don’t mind talking about it at all. i don’t bring it up much, because it’s certainly not the area of life that I cover, you know. it’s not the sort of thing that I would write about – just because it isn’t a good source of humor [laughs]. I suppose I could -- what the Catholic church has been through over the past few years , you could make fun of it, but it wouldn’t be a very tasteful joke. What can you do?
JZ: You’re conservative/libertarian – whatever. But obviously a lot of liberals love you. I’m surprised I’ve yet to come across one who does not. When you write a book, when you are speaking, are you trying to reach non-conservatives?
PJO: Yes I am. Because what is the point – especially, I would say, in this book – of having a political view or a set of political beliefs that one believes to be worthwhile, why would you deliberately alienate people? Why wouldn’t you be inviting in your discussion of these beliefs with them? Why would you deliberately be off-putting?
Because, in the first place, I don’t have an elaborate, detailed political ideology, by any means. And a lot of what I think and a lot of what I believe is simply common sensical. I think if you put it right, a lot of people are going to, if not exactly agree with me, at least see my point. Of course, that’s part of using humor as a tool. There are a lot of ways to use humor as a tool, and you can definitely use it as a weapon, you can definitely use it as a form of displaced violence. There’s no doubt about it. But it can also be used to humanize things and put people at their ease.
If you were to use the word "humorous" in its traditional, 18th-century definition, it’s not really about being funny, it’s really about an understanding of the humors – the core drives that we all have, that move us. Some of us of course are moved more by anger, some more by sloth, some by whatever.
But we all have these internal things that drive us, and that’s what makes us human. Recognition of that is really the definition of a humorist, as opposed to making jokes.
JZ: You mentioned the Tea Party movement [in your speech to The Club]. I think a lot of people who are maybe not schooled in politics, or political history or political theory, say that THAT’s conservative. When you’re speaking to audiences about conservatism, do you think they understand what conservatism is, or do you think [they define it] as what’s being fed to them?
PJO: It’s tough, because Americans are really foggy on these terms. After all, ‘liberal” in Europe means what we would mean by “conservative” here. “Conservative” in Europe on the other hand means sort of an interest in preserving what’s left at least of their class system, and it often has religious implications that it doesn’t necessarily have here.
Yes, the fogginess of these terms is annoying and difficult. It makes it hard for you to mean what you say. And then this use of “progressive,” now that ‘liberal” has become a bad word. And with “progressive,” really what these people are saying is that they are leftists, they are socialists in the classic, small-”s” sense of the word, they are collectivists, they are socialists.
Then something like “Tea Party” is first and foremost populist, which is different. Populism can have a leftish cast, it can have a rightish cast. But populism is a thing unto itself. It has its own dynamics. The Tea Party fits into a long history of American populist movements that range from Jacksonian Democats to the civil rights movement. Politically all over the map.
The other thing about conservative – though I think this is less true in the wake of Reagan – is that it still carries a little bit of this taint of this sort of racist, southern white bigotry. Less and less so, but it’s still there.
JZ: Is that changing as generations switch over, or are minds actually changing on that subject?
PJO: I think it’s just time has gone by. I’m always quick to remind people, whenever somebody makes that connection, that all those bigots were Democrats. [laughs]
JZ: In the beginning of the book, you mention a number of political theorists. One of the ones you mention is Oakeshott.
JZ: I’d never heard of him except for reading someone mentioning that he was one of Andrew Sullivan’s political heroes.
PJO: I didn’t know this at the time I was writing the book, I found out about it later: Andrew Sullivan did his, I don’t know, his thesis or it was his area of specialization [about] Oakeshott. For which I admire him, because Oakeshott is exceedingly hard to read. But he has an essay [that] is “Reason in Politics,” which is a brilliant essay. It was his inaugural essay when he became the chairman of the political science department at the London School of Economics in 1953. Maybe it was clearer when he spoke it, but it’s a bitch to read.
But nonetheless, he makes a great deal of sense. And he talks about something that I had felt for some time but hadn’t really put into words. He talks about how politics has no beginning and no end. We tend to treat politics as though it is some sort of creation, it started at such-and-such a point – particularly Americans, because we actually do have a starting point, which Oakeschott was skeptical about; he remained skeptical into the '50s about the American revolution. But politics has existed as long as people have existed, and it will exist as long as people exist. Oakeschott, himself a conservative, makes the point that politics does not have a point to it. It’s not teleological. There is no object to politics. Politics is an arrangement among persons. Therefore it must be understood primarily as a mechanism, not as something that first and foremost must be good or bad; it can be both at the same time. First and foremost it’s there; it’s like weather.
JZ: You were asked by an audience member whether you meant the title of your book, Don’t Vote. You said something about how there are certain things we don’t need to make [into] voting issues. Of course, I live in San Francisco, which is referenda-gone-wild. We’ve voted on how often the mayor should have to appear before the Board of Supervisors, our city council. All kinds of ridiculous things.
PJO: Which is crazy, isn’t it?
JZ: It is.
PJO: A direct outgrowth of progressive political reforms in California at the beginning of the 20th century.
JZ: Which started in my home state of Wisconsin.
PJO: Bingo! Exactly.
JZ: But they didn’t go as crazy with it.
PJO: Yeah, yeah. It got out here, and like many things when they got out here, it exaggerated. But the sole referendum idea was part of the Progressive political agenda, which was of course initially Republican.
Very odd. I’ve studied that a little bit, because off and on over the past decade, I’ve been playing with a history of my home town, Toledo, Ohio. Not because Toledo is in and of itself particularly interesting, but because it is itself an example of a very typical American situation, where this town came out of nothing, on the hope of a boom due to canal systems. And that boom never came, as many booms in Toledo never came. And of course [Toledo] is suffering through the post-industrial [era], and so on. At one time it was extremely fast-growing – at one time.
It was also a hotbed of the Progressive political movement. There was a guy named [Sam] “Golden Rule” Jones, who was the mayor of Toledo back around the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century. He and a couple associates – one of his associates whose names elude me – went on to Congress eventually and eventually became quite close to President Wilson.
But yeah, that whole Progressive movement was quite interesting.
JZ: In Wisconsin, we got progressivism going back to “Fighting Bob” LaFallette, and I had heard when I was growing up that we had almost always had a member of the LaFollette family serving in Wisconsin government – as governor, attorney general, senator, whatever – since Bob LaFollette’s time.
PJO: I’ve heard that,too. I’ve heard the same thing; I’ve no idea ... [if there’s data to] back it up.
JZ: William F. Buckley Jr. died two and a half years ago. Shortly before his death, I read an article about his participation in a National Review cruise, where he found himself the butt of criticism and derision from the magazine’s readers and supporters because he had come out against the Iraq war. I found myself thinking, What a shame; here’s a guy who built up modern conservatism, booted out the anti-Semites, and made the movement respectable in polite society again. Has conservatism changed that much in your time commenting on it and following it?
PJO: Well, it’s broadened. It’s become mainstream to the point where you can have that kind of divergence of opinion among conservatives. Indeed, I think the Iraq War was a very difficult call. I personally was in favor of it, but I also was personally very disappointed in the follow-up to the Iraq War.
[Saddam Hussein] was a bad guy. His Baath Party was a bad, fascist organization. They were incredibly brutal. In the situation after 9/11, they weren’t exactly on the other side, but they showed every likelihood of making use of this. And then of course we only had the information we had at the time. We know now that there were no weapons of mass destruction. But everybody all the way up to Muhamad ElBaradie was convinced that they existed. Or at least the facilities for producing them existed. An awful lot of American troops had to spend a lot of hot, sweaty time in those stupid chemical suits, because there really was no good reason why he shouldn't have had them. And he wanted everybody to think that he had them.
Should our intelligence have been better? Well, maybe; perhaps. But that’s easy to say in retrospect.
I still think it was the right call, but the wrong execution.
JZ: When Christopher Hitchens was last here [at the Commonwealth Club], he told the story about this horrifyingly bizarre scene, where Saddam had the leadership of the Baath Party in a room with him. One of them was [brought into] the room, [having been physically and mentally destroyed by torture. He confesses to a plot to overthrow the regime, and then he implicates other members of the ruling committee]. One by one, others were taken from the room. Once people got the point of what was going on, they started falling over themselves to profess their loyalty to Saddam. Hitchens said even Hitler and Stalin hadn’t thought of doing something like that.
PJO: No, no. He was just a thug. Just really a thug. I think in the great geopolitical chessboard, we wanted that piece off. Was it black? Was it white? Who gives a fuck? Just get that piece off the board.
JZ: You’ve talked about baby boomers’ “blame shifting,” etc. As someone who’s Generation X, I kind of enjoy watching baby boomers take it on the chin.
PJO: Self-flagellating, yeah.
JZ: But that generation really did kind of sweep through, affecting everything. I don’t know if you remember two decades ago, Playboy had [an issue] where Harlan Ellison wrote a piece about how the '60s and that generation were wonderful, and I think it was David Horowitz wrote the opposing view, that it was a terrible time.
PJO: Yes, right: “Nooooo!”
JZ: What’s your verdict on what baby boomers wrought?
PJO: I really think it’s a combination of economics and demography. It’s simply a fact that we were an immensely large generation, with immense material resources, unheard-of material resources, and that the whole generation ended up acting like Shelley, Keats, and Byron. Because we could.
We had a lot of money, we had a lot of education, and there were a lot of us. We acted silly in the tradition of young irresponsible people time out of mind. But the scale of it was such that it affected the whole society in the way that the young Regency bucks and romantic poet twits and whatever sort of fashionable jerks in the oddly cut togas in times gone past. There’s nothing we got up to that [15th-century bad-boy poet] Villon didn’t. There’s one of him, and there were millions of us. Imagine a Woodstock full of Francois Villons ... ugh. [laughs] The mind reels.
JZ: Do you think the end result was positive? Negative?
PJO: Indifferent. The end result is simply expensive, because there again are so many of us. Funnily enough, we didn’t do that. Our generation did not design all of these entitlement programs that my generation will be entitled to; it was actually the previous generation that did that. Nonetheless, with those entitlement programs in place, and us coming on for all those entitlements, it’s going to be damn expensive. So the real damage that the baby boomers did may have nothing to do with sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll; it may have everything to do with Medicaire and Social Security, and we ain’t seen nothing yet. I’m sort of at the point, the thin edge of the wedge. I was born in 1947, and the baby boom continues until – depending on who’s doing the defining – until '60 or '62, something like that.
JZ: Back to the title of your book, Don’t Vote. It’s somewhat satirical, but are you looking at this election, which is expected to be a Republican year of Republican years, and are you expecting good things?
PJO: Yeah, I’m expecting good things. I do think that whatever happens on November 2, the Democrats are not going to emerge from this with as free a hand as they had during the past two years. The bloom’s off the rose with Obama as a president. Even if the Democrats manage to hold on to both the House and the Senate, their majorities will be diminished, and the more conservative members in the Democratic Party will be strengthened. The era of central-planning brainstorms will have come to a close. A little bit will of course depend upon events, but I have a feeling that the tendency that we see over this fall is going to strengthen at least over the next few years.
JZ: A tendency to ...
PJO: – to try to diminish the size and scope of government and try to get it back on a sounder financial footing.
JZ: It was interesting that it was Europe that first started saying we need austerity. It was Angela Merkel and –
PJO: I was talking to a semi-conductor executive last night, who was saying what we should do is vote for all the wrong people, because we have to make this thing so bad that there’s no choice but to deal with it. We have to turn the country into Ireland or Greece.
JZ: Isn’t that the claim, that that was what Reagan and [budget director David] Stockman were trying to do, run up deficits so high that you would have to cut government?
PJO: I don’t in fact think that’s what they were trying to do. I think Reagan was under the misapprehension that government would be forced to contract if he cut off its funding. I think Reagan was naive about [that]. The modern government has so many sources of funding that Reagan couldn’t put a finger in every dike. So that technique has been discredited. So a more direct attack on the spending itself has to be made.
JZ: I’ve been reading you for decades, and I think a lot of people have. But probably more people have seen you on Bill Maher’s program and heard you on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Have you ever been asked to have your own program on radio or TV, and if so, what would you do?
PJO: There have been a couple little tentative forays into TV, and I just don’t work on television very well. I think I’m okay as a guest, but I can’t handle that teleprompter and I have a tendency to move my fingers. My wife says it always looks like there’s some puppet show going on when I’m on television – little flesh-colored puppets at the bottom of the screen.
A couple of thoughts about a radio show, but to do a radio show really well is an all-consuming proposition. As a matter of fact, Chris Buckley and I talked about a television project some years back, must be a good 15 years back. We had a long, long talk about it. We actually outlined the whole thing. We had a proposal, and we were going to take this proposal to Fox, and I think we might have had some success with getting the proposal [accepted]. And then, having considered the question sober, we decided that we would go out and have a drink and consider the question drunk. When we got to drinking and talking to each other, we realized that if this thing worked, it would eat our lives. We would never be able to do any more writing, really. I mean, of a kind, maybe, but not of the kind that we wanted to do. And writing is frankly terribly time-consuming. If I were involved in some other medium, I couldn’t do it.
JZ: You mentioned you were going to be on The Daily Show sometime in the next couple weeks.
PJO: Yes, I think so.
JZ: Are you returning to [Bill] Maher’s show?
PJO: Yes. I know I’m going to be on the Bill Maher show, next week, as a matter of fact. The Daily Show I’m not positive about, I may have misspoke myself there. I hope Jon [Stewart] invites me on. He and I get along well.