Thursday, June 17, 2004


In the ‘80s, when P.J. O’Rourke was becoming famous for his right-leaning humor pieces in Rolling Stoneand other magazines, a standard line was that you didn’t have to agree with him to enjoy his work. Nowadays, on the other hand, you often do have to agree with him to enjoy P.J. O’Rourke, and even then it’s probably difficult. Once an entertaining combination of the styles of the National Lampoon (which he used to edit), his friend Hunter Thompson, and whatever libertarian writer he’d skimmed recently, O’Rourke is now less a humorist than a conservative oracle that happens to crack an occasional joke in mid-pronouncement. That's not to say he's a bad writer; his most recent Atlantic Monthly piece is very good. But it's a good piece of non-partisan political punditry, and since political punditry was basically created by Satan, this limits its appeal. It's not primarily a humorous piece. The stuff that made O'Rourke's reputation -- his National Lampoon stuff, his early Rolling Stone travel pieces, his pieces for Car and Driver, and completely insane stuff like his side-by-side comparison of The New York Review of Books with an evening of network television -- is collected in the book Republican Party Reptile.

The book includes O’Rourke’s best piece, “Ship of Fools,” written for Harper’s in 1982, about the passengers on a “peace cruise” down the Volga (it was originally published under the far funnier title of “Fellow Travellers”). Michael Kinsley was editor of Harper's at the time -- he was fired soon after for making the magazine too politically diverse, and Lewis Lapham was brought out of retirement to lead it back down the path of respectable boredom -- and he commissioned O'Rourke to go on the cruise and report his experiences; the letters column that followed the publication, from fellow peace-cruisers complaining about how dare this drunk criticize peace and love, is an even bigger hoot than the piece itself. As with most of O’Rourke’s travel pieces, it’s a little hard to believe as reporting: most of the people seem drawn from literary cliches rather than life, especially the Russians, who are all either shifty Party types or boisterous, friendly drunks. But the piece still works as a portrayal of the anti-nuclear hysteria of the ‘80s, of different kinds of overzealous activism (O’Rourke distinguishes between the Old Leftists on the tour, who want to protect the Soviet Union from “reactionary forces,” and the relatively apolitical peace activists, who are not so much pro-Soviet as anti-nuke). Most interestingly considering when it was written, the piece shows us an Iron Curtain being broken down by an infusion of American culture. A running joke is that the Russians are more interested in American music and cars than most of the Americans on the tour, and at one point an Old Leftist woman, a left-wing reactionary in the mold of Lillian Hellman, snaps: "Why do young people, even in the socialist countries, pick up that awful rock music and those sloppy blue jeans?" Through O'Rourke's self-admitted drunken stupor, you can almost see the Soviet Union crumbling already.

It’s pretty easy to identify the point where O’Rourke became an Institution: The 1991 book Parliament of Whores, recently reissued with an introduction telling us what a hit it was in Washington. It was O’Rourke’s first book that attempted to be a full-fledged book rather than a collection of short pieces; though it incorporated many Rolling Stone articles, there was new linking material creating sections and chapters, and an attempt to frame the book as a full-length explanation of why the federal government doesn’t work. This isn't about the politics themselves. This attempt to use humor for “respectable” purposes - to be at once a humorist and a political pundit - has watered down O’Rourke’s writing to the point that it seems hard to distinguish from ordinary political "humor."

O'Rourke's writing now belongs to a truly flesh-crawling genre: the political pundit who thinks he or she is funny, or as I like to call it, the "fundit." Prominent fundits include O'Rourke, Michael Moore (as a writer), Al Franken, and Mark Steyn. The father of the genre might well be R. Emmett Tyrell of the American Spectator (side note: did you know that Lewis Lapham of Harper's guest-wrote a long Carter-bashing article for that publication?). Tyrrell is best known now as an insane Clinton-basher, but he became sort of famous in the '70s by fancying himself the reincarnation of H.L. Mencken, writing a lot of Carter-bashing columns where he called everyone a "poltroon" or "the honorable" something. His columns were what Mencken would have been had Mencken been a political hack, and paved the way for more "funny" political hackery from right and left.

Funditry is basically a standard political column or book, organized around a point and backed up with statistics the writer's assistant pulled off the Web. The only difference is that it adopts the tone and rhythm of comedy writing, with the result that the writer can say anything, however stupid, and claim that he was only joking. It's a political pundit's dream: he can say whatever he wants in defence of his argument, and if anyone says boo about it, they come across as humorless cretins.

If funditry is bad political writing, it tends to be worse humor. Michael Moore, as Daniel Radosh pointed out some time ago, is a poor writer with a shockingly stale sense of humor, going in for weary old "observational" jokes. Mark Steyn, a talented arts and entertainment writer who Conrad Black decided to turn into a political columnist (as if the real Frank Rich isn't bad enough, we get the right-wing version) muddles through on the strength of a few lame puns ("the vast bulk of his credibility derives from his vast bulk") that he recycles several times over.

P.J. O'Rourke is a better writer than these guys, and he hasn't descended as deep into the pit of funditry. But a book like All Trouble in the World is still basically funditry: a political tome without the courage to play it straight, a humorous book that commits the sin of sacrificing humor to argument. If you want the Republican Party Reptile O'Rourke you're more likely to find it in his interviews, like this one. Always better to write funny stuff, and leave the funditry to the people who aren't funny enough to be humorists and aren't smart enough to be political writers.

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