Comedy is not usually associated with conservatism in our Daily Show/Stephen Colbert era. Fair or not, the popular image of the conservative is that of dead-serious-head-exploding-in-anger a la Ann Coulter or Glenn Beck. Liberals have seemed for a long time to have a lock on the profession, and they use it to make Republicans look bad (with Stephen Colbert going even further by assuming, during the nine years of the Colbert Report, the persona of a comic-book version of Fox’s Bill O’Reilly).
When it comes to their own political party, of course, off come the Groucho glasses, and a John Stewart or a Jimmy Kimmel becomes worshipful. Or take Al Franken. (Please.) The corrosive wit in Franken’s 1996 book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot gets shut off suddenly when the subject turns to then-President Bill Clinton, and Franken informs the reader that he can’t make fun of Clinton because he is “the greatest President” the country has produced. (Maybe Franken was lining up fundraising assistance; he would later enter the U.S. Senate as a Democrat.) Or moral vanity reigns, as in the case of the usually satirical Rosie O’Donnell’s dreary lectures of National Rifle Association supporter Tom Selleck.
But the conservative movement does boast a few comedians. Rob Long, who wrote the television show Cheers, comes to mind, as does Larry Miller, who writes a column for the Weekly Standard. P.J. O’Rourke was there first, however. A former 1960s activist, O’Rourke eventually made the Baby Boomer lurch back to planet earth and into conservatism sometime around the disco era, when his compatriots were taking up jogging and snorting nose candy.
O’Rourke’s “road to Damascus” moment wasn’t portentous or soul-searching or a crisis of conscience in the manner of Whittaker Chambers or David Horowitz. It occurred when he saw his pushing-30 reflection in a store window in the late 1970s. Still clad in bell bottoms, a pea soup-colored jacket, and hair everywhere, he realized he looked ridiculous. But he kept his anti-liberal Establishment sense of humor and, unable “to bear the dreadful earnestness of the Left,” found libertarianism and conservatism a better fit.
From the libertarian vantage point he could attack Soviet Russia as no damn fun: the Soviets had “no good bands, no dance halls, no racy movies, no spicy magazines, no horse tracks, no burlesque shows—they don’t even have modern art,” he wrote in 1979. Most importantly, he finds conservatism much more amenable to humor than a Left that wants jokes “to make a point.” His own view is that “laughter is involuntary and points are not.”
That said, O’Rourke is most laugh-out-loud funny when he does make points. For example, while on a cruise to the soon-to-implode Soviet Union, he notices his Old Left fellow passengers doubted the comforts of actual state socialism: “These were people who believed everything about the Soviet Union was perfect, but they were bringing their own toilet paper.”
Even when he is crying along with others while personally witnessing the Berlin Wall dismantled piece by piece, he’s thinking:
They may have had the soldiers and the warheads and the fine-sounding ideology that suckered the college students and nitwit Third Worlders, but we had all the fun . . . in the end we beat them with Levi’s 501 jeans. Seventy years of communist indoctrination and propaganda was drowned out by a three-ounce Sony Walkman. A huge totalitarian system with all its tanks and guns, gulag camps, and secret police has been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian shoes.
O’Rourke can engage in a “pox on both your houses,” and in this he reminds us that a true satirist has no sacred cows. In his view, Republicans can be as bad as Democrats. One of his more famous bons mots:
Democrats say that government works. Republicans say it doesn’t, and they get elected every four years and prove it doesn’t.
Or, defining the difference between the parties:
Democrats are in favor of higher taxes to pay for greater spending, while Republicans are in favor of greater spending, for which the taxpayers will pay.
He finds Republican administrations to be ripe targets. Then-President George H.W. Bush seemed to him more confounded than celebratory about the collapse of communism, treating it as akin to “some kind of odd dance craze.”
As with most comedians, O’Rourke keeps up a specific colorful persona. In his case it’s the 1960s radical who, depending upon your point of view, evolved or devolved into a cigar-chomping, suspenders-wearing Right-winger. Although he has battled political correctness for years, he was more funny when he channeled Archie Bunker in the early 1980s. As in his contrarianism about liberals’ penchant for calling conservatives Nazis, which is not, as far as he’s concerned, a big deal:
I don’t let it bother me for one simple reason. No one has ever had a fantasy about being tied to a bed and sexually ravished by someone dressed as a liberal.
Or one could say, regarding O’Rourke’s feelings of guilt for not serving in Vietnam, that it is a case of Meathead turning to Bunkerism. Dedicating a book (the hilarious Give War a Chance, 1993) to the person “who had to go” in his draft-deferment place, he writes: “I hope you’re rich and happy now. And in 1971, when somebody punched me in the face for being a long-haired peace creep, I hope that was you.”
In proud reactionary fashion, he even claims to pine for the “political troglodytism” of the McCarthyite 1950s and offers his own “enemies list.” True to form, those who appear on it have made the cut as ridiculous more than dangerous. (Then again he does express the hope that he is inciting these people to go “out demonstrating again so policemen can hit them over the head.”)
As the years go by, as chronicled in Thrown Under the Omnibus, a newly published collection of essays from the 1980s to today, O’Rourke does not alter his youthful views in one respect: Vietnam was a “mindless,” and “unnecessary” war in a “Third World sinkhole.” He takes on Ann Coulter, who can be as bombastic and preachy a Right-winger as he used to be a Left-winger (although, unlike Coulter, he entertained the possibility that he was full of it). We read here his trademark acerbities on the whining and selfishness of his fellow Baby Boomers. This time out, the so-called Greatest Generation gets it, too: While Hitler was conquering Europe they sat on their hands. Same with Stalin’s subsequent takeover of Central and Eastern Europe. And with Jim Crow.
Like H.L Mencken, O’Rourke functions best when attacking a big target. For a while, after the Cold War ended, Leftists wandered around with a deer-in-the-headlights look and he, too, seemed a bit lost. He turned to the kind of navel-gazing that the Sage of Baltimore indulged in when his beloved (which is to say, parodied) 1920s “carnival of buncombe” ended. O’Rourke retreated into essays about cars, fly-fishing, and golf. But luckily for him, along came Bill Clinton, and with him the return of certain flower children and Black Panther operators whom he’d mocked in the past. To him they are still “bake-heads” who treat policy formulation like some dorm-room all-nighter, piling up “pizza boxes in the Old Executive Building.”
Regarding health care, the administration reveals itself as a bunch of bumbling pratfallers:
Health care is too expensive, so the Clinton administration is putting Hillary in charge of making it cheaper. (This is what I always do when I want to spend less money—hire a lawyer from Yale.)
Bill is lampooned as a lip-biting philanderer, but more barbs are directed at Hillary. This reviewer deeply regrets that O’Rourke’s take on her 1996 tome It Takes a Village is not here. It is priceless, with O’Rourke calling “fascist” and “doggedly anti-libertarian” Hillary’s stab at being a humane fan of kids who believed that government—her village—had a role in raising children. This, he said, from a woman who held her baby upside down the first time she breastfed her.
There is enough in Thrown Under the Omnibus about her husband to show the humorist at his best. Bill’s “anything for peace” policies somehow resulted in his use of the military “more often than any other previous peacetime president. He sent armed forces into areas of conflict on an average of once every week.” And still Osama Bin Laden broke through.
And he retains some partisanship. Describing George W. Bush as a nitwit, he nevertheless feels better about the “adults” in the form of Republicans being in charge than he does about the other party:
It is true that Republicans are squares, but it’s the squares who know how to fly the bombers, launch the missiles, and fire the M-16s. Democrats would still be fumbling with the federally mandated trigger locks.
This collection shows O’Rourke to be a truer comedian than the ones who reserve “The emperor has no clothes” for emperors with an “R” next to their names. What keeps him honest is his view of the human comedy. Life is a cosmic joke and to try to analyze what makes humans tick is futile, because individuals don’t know what makes them tick. Hence the race is foolish, and even more so the politicians who don’t know this and think they can solve mankind’s problems. From this flows the conclusion, vindicated by history, that a collection of such fools results in calamity, and worse, no fun.