An interview for The Word with the American writer and satirist P.J. O’Rourke, at the Covent Garden Hotel in October 2004. Its format follows the magazine’s ‘Word To The Wise’ slot, in which we grouped the answers under a series of headings, each like a maxim or aphorism. The version below adds in material I didn’t have room for in the finished piece, including his thoughts on Iraq and climate change. O’Rourke was a clever and amusing interviewee. He was charming as well. In those days one could still smoke in London bars, and his trademark cigar made a wonderfully theatrical prop.
The warm, agreeable fug of fine cigar smoke emanates from our American guest, who reclines on a couch in his London hotel. The French, opines P.J. O’Rourke, think they’re so stylish. Just because they sit outside drinking small cups of coffee! Personally, he says, he prefers to sit inside drinking large glasses of whiskey.
But even by his standards it’s still too early in the day for that, so coffees are duly ordered. He wears a quiet, pinstriped suit with green tie and black brogues. So excellent are his manners and so genial those bons mots – if you’ll excuse my French – that you can be taken unawares. For at the tip of that cigar there is a fire, which he will poke at anything catching his legendarily shrewd eye. Mostly, gentle reader, this means the hot air of liberal smugness.
For decades O’Rourke has been the conservative that even lefties love to read. At Rolling Stone magazine he played the token Republican; he publishes books of essays under provocative titles like Give War A Chance and Age And Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, And A Bad Haircut. The newest is called Peace Kills. He travels to all the worst places in the world, like Bosnia and Iraq, and files reports that are laced with a mix of easy-going self-mockery and stinging aphorisms: ‘No one has ever had a fantasy about being tied to a bed and sexually ravished by someone dressed as a liberal.’
Like all his books, Peace Kills makes for fast and witty reading. I got through most of it on a train down from the North. As I crossed the concourse of Euston Station there was branch of Body Shop, purveyors of peppermint leg gel and other essentials. Posters adorned its windows, proclaiming ‘DEFEND HUMAN RIGHTS’… ‘PROTECT OUR PLANET’… and my personal favourite, ‘ACTIVATE SELF ESTEEM’. And I wondered, Could there be something hollow and self-regarding in this sort of stuff? For a moment, I suppose, I was seeing the world through P.J. O’Rourke’s eyes.
‘GIVING MONEY AND POWER TO GOVERNMENTS IS LIKE GIVING WHISKEY AND CAR KEYS TO TEENAGE BOYS.’
Every now and again one has an insight. I think the normal person is limited to two or three in a life and that was all three of mine. I had gotten the feeling during the 1970s, as I ceased to be a pretend Leftist and started to be a grown-up with a job, that the government was too bossy and intrusive. And the reason for that was that we were asking governments to do too much. I stumbled on Friedrich Hayek, the economist who wrote The Road To Serfdom, and it was one of those books that I ended up turning down nearly every page. I realised there was a whole school of thought out there and I wasn’t alone in worrying about this, that government had for generations been violating the very basic rule of civilised existence – which is mind your own business and keep your hands to yourself. Or as we said during the Clinton administration, ‘Hillary, mind your own business. Bill, keep your hands to yourself.’
And when I began to read economics I realised how important for our material welfare it is that people be allowed to make their own decisions and how very badly central planning works. That’s as well as fundamental principles such as freedom of speech and whether girls should be allowed to wear headscarves in school. Of course they should. I mean, if you think of all the foolish things the French have put on their heads over the years, headscarves are so far down the list.
‘THE FORCES OF ORGANISED SAFETY ARE LEADING US TOWARDS AUTHORITARIANISM.’
[He holds up his cigar packet.] ‘You’re going to die! Shame on you, you terrible person!’ The Nanny State, as you would call it. Among the things that we ask too much of government is to make the world safe. The reverse of the coin of freedom is responsibility, and if you don’t take responsibility you can’t be free. Making everything terribly safe is a way of doing away with one’s own freedom. In a democracy, freedom is always surrendered for the best reasons, because this is ‘safer’, this is ‘fairer’, or even ‘more patriotic’. But we should be suspicious about those reasons. That isn’t to say there’s no role for government, there’s all kinds of things we can’t see in our food that we expect government to lend a hand to regulating, but the idea that by now there is anyone who is under the misapprehension that smoking is packed with vitamins… [Points again to the health warning on his cigar packet.] I always think when I see these huge, frightening warnings, that when I was 16 I’d have started to smoke even earlier and more heavily if I’d been able to carry something so scary looking. For 14-year-old boys it’s the next best thing to carrying a gun or a switchblade, a skull and crossbones with ‘This will kill you’ on it.
‘NEVER TALK TO IMPORTANT PEOPLE.’
As a reporter I’m too lazy to jump through all these hoops and make calls on funny foreign phones that make odd noises. But also I figured early on that going to talk to the Foreign Minister of wherever would be useless for my writing. Those people didn’t get where they are by being dumb enough to tell reporters the truth. What did I expect, that I would get to interview Putin and that he would take me aside and say, ‘Just because I like you, and mum’s the word here, but tomorrow we nuke Chechnya.’ It’s actually better just walking around and looking. I was in Poland in the bad old days under martial law and I was walking down the street and there was a crowd gathered around a store window. I pushed my way through to see what they were staring at. And it was plumbing fixtures. That told you everything about life in Poland.
‘THE BIG IDEAS ARE THE BAD IDEAS.’
What’s the big idea? That’s a really wonderful American phrase. I don’t know where that phrase came from but it’s so perfect. It really means, ‘You are an asshole.’
‘THERE ARE ONLY FOUR WAYS TO SPEND MONEY.’
Milton Friedman explained it all in a simple way. You can either spend your own money on yourself, or you can spend your own money on someone else. You can spend someone else’s money on yourself or you can spend someone else’s money on someone else. It’s perfect logic. If you spend your own money on yourself you will get as close to what you want as possible, at the best possible price. And, as any kid will tell you, spending your own money on yourself is freedom. If you spend other people’s money on yourself, you will get exactly what you want, but damn the price -– as any parent will tell you. If you spend your own money on other people, you will be very attentive to the price, but you may not be too attentive to what those other people want – as any charity recipient will tell you. And then when you get to government – which is nearly all spending other people’s money on other people – then it’s damn the price and damn the purchase. You end up getting anything you can think of at any price. And for that very simple reason we should restrict government.
‘IT’S BETTER TO SPEND MONEY LIKE THERE’S NO TOMORROW THAN TO SPEND TONIGHT LIKE THERE’S NO MONEY.’
That was my younger self speaking, before there were college funds to be paid. But not only do I not regret some of things I said then, I don’t even remember them. I do like to drink, but that’s just part of being a fellow. And I’m not fibbing as ferociously about my pleasure intake as Hunter Thompson. Hunter’s got to be about 67, and he’s still alive, so he can’t quite be telling the truth, can he? The world does not want someone who is fundamentally a humourist to sit around taking himself very seriously. As for drinking, I just obey the rule of the tropics. Wait until six o’clock. Or when the sun is over the yard-arm. Whatever that means.
‘DRESS LIKE A GROWN-UP’
I quit being ‘hep’ one day in my twenties when I caught a reflection of myself in a store window. I thought, ‘That guy’s a little old to be dressing like that’, and it was me. Oh shit. I was managing editor of a magazine, not a very respectable magazine, The National Lampoon, but I had to deal with grown-ups. I was a grown-up. I was pushing 30 with a short stick, and I didn’t have the clothes for it. So I went back to where I used to shop when I was in High School, before fashion happened. My friend the movie director John Hughes had a similar thing happen. Suddenly he had a wife and child and job in an advertising agency and he didn’t know how to dress. So he went back to Brooks Brothers where his mother used to take him, and the lady behind the shirt counter recognised him and said, ‘John Hughes, I knew you’d be back.’
‘LEFT WINGERS THINK MAN IS PERFECTIBLE. HUMOURISTS KNOW HE ISN’T.’
Left wingers think Man can be made to be good. Helvetius was one of that bunch of philosophers whose thinking led to the French Revolution. He was the guy who came up with the idea that you could use education and the structures of society. You could re-design society so that human beings would be good. You could create a New Man. And maybe you can, but Golly, an awful lot of people have to die before you do it. Liberals have this sweet, spacey idea that deep down inside us there is good, whereas conservatives and of course humourists feel that there is something else.
‘MICHAEL MOORE HAS SET THE CAUSE OF LEFTISM BACK FOR CENTURIES.’
I figure he’s set the cause of leftism back for centuries. All over the world there are impressionable college age kids thinking ‘Shall I become a leftist? Well, does it mean looking like that? I’ll never get a girl.’ So I think Michael Moore is doing the world a huge favour. And it’s not just his looks, it’s his manner. Before he had hit the scene I was covering some lefty demonstration on Capitol Hill with a friend of mine and he said, ‘Don’t you remember when all the cute girls were out at these demonstrations? Wasn’t that one of the reasons why we demonstrated against the war in Vietnam?’ You would go out and scream and yell and get tear gassed and then you would say to Sunshine, ‘We’d better go back to the crash pad and get this tear gas off us. And we should double up in the shower to save the earth’s resources.’ Wonderful period. We looked around and there simply weren’t any cute girls. One remembers 40 years back when it was the left that was dashing and stylish, and now you have Michael Moore. I see this as huge progress.
‘MARRY YOUR SECOND WIFE FIRST.’
That’s an extremely wise move. Other than that I don’t know much. I’d have to ask my wife.
‘FOLLY IS PERSISTING IN ERROR.’
It’s not my phrase, it’s from Barbara Tuchman’s book The March Of Folly, though it’s probably one of those phrases that comes from Virgil or Cicero. She makes the distinction between mere Error, to which we are all prone, and Folly which is persistence in error. And that’s a distinction I would make right now about the situation in Iraq. We may have made a mistake in Iraq. It hasn’t yet proceeded to being folly. Give it a couple of years it may! Having set ourselves up to fight a set of forces that really hate our civilisation, and by civilisation I mean everybody in the world who’s got one, be it European, Indian, Chinese or whatever, all the things that we’ve worked for since the Renaissance, individual dignity and responsibility, liberty, accountable government and so on, these people hate all that. And we set out to fight them, not without provocation. We may have chosen the wrong place at the wrong time to have the battle. May have, I don’t have any special wisdom on that, But that’s different to being wrong to fight them. If we can’t figure out a way to get that to calm down, if we’re still having this discussion five years down the road, Vietnam style, then we’ll be working on folly.
PDN: Your new book is called Peace Kills. Many would say that was arrant nonsense.
PJO: It’s a paradox! More than a few people have asked what that means. It’s not original to me, I think it may have been a piece of graffiti on a helmet in the movie Platoon by, speaking of arrant nonsense, that lunatic whose name is eluding me, who did the JFK film.
Yes. So I picked up on it having a taste for oxymorons, conundrums, et cetera, but the truth is I don’t think I really understood what the title meant until after I’d decided to use it. I was using a collection of Michael Kelly’s writings – he was my boss and friend and he was killed in the assault outside Baghdad Airport, the book is dedicated to him -– his book is called Things Worth Fighting For and in there is a piece about a place in the former Yugoslavia where Mike and I worked at different times. In there Mike talks about ‘they could have had peace but it would have killed them.’ Oh, that’s what I’m getting at! I knew I meant something.
You mean that under some circumstances inactivity is not a viable option?
It’s the idea that peace is some perfect and positive value like Christian charity. It isn’t. You have to pick and choose your peaces.
You are more than any armchair pundit, aren’t you? You’ve spent time in some of the world’s hardest places.
I’d like to think that most of what I do think is drawn largely from experience, not from books. Certainly it was personal experience that inclined me away from the academic leftism that I, like every other person who went to college in the1960s, subscribed to. After a number of years of being a hippie I finally got a job in 1972 as a messenger for a weekly newspaper in New York where I was getting I think $300 dollars every two weeks, and I was so excited. This was more than I’d had my hot little hands on in quite a while, I was living in this Godawful place and I thought, With this I can pay my rent for six months! So I get this pay cheque and I nett out on the cheque for $158 dollars or something, and I thought Wait a minute. I’m a socialist, but it turned out we had socialism already. They just took half my pay: state tax, federal tax, city tax, social security contributions, pension fund, you can imagine how excited I was about that. I thought, I’ve been screeching in the streets for a Marxist redistribution of wealth and it exists already. So it began with personal experience. I didn’t go overseas much until I went to Russia in 1982 and that was an eye opener, to see it up close, and for the next 20 years a lot of what I’d do was do cover these places.
Have you developed a view on Global Warming?
I live in northern New England and it’s ‘Can’t come soon enough’ for us! No, I was sceptical for a long time, probably more for the hysterical tone, and I never did well in science myself and the science seemed extremely confusing. But there seems no doubt that worldwide global industrialisation is not doing the world’s climate any favours, Hard to say what the alternative is. You can approach this in two ways, you can either enforce global poverty which nature itself did a pretty good job of for the past billion years, or you can push on through to the other side. It’s going to take an enormous amount of money and resources to make energy clean and readily available and I’m afraid we’re just going to have… In the first place, the poor people of the world are not going to let us stop their economic development, you can talk about global warming till you’re blue in the face to some fellow in the streets of whatever they’re calling Bombay these days, Mumbai. And he wants a motorbike, he wants a refrigerator. And who can blame him? He’s the one with kids sick at home because the food’s spoiled. So we’re going to have to work harder at getting richer to do anything about this, we’re not going to do anything by getting poorer. A lot of the environmentalist prescriptions involve people voluntarily getting themselves poor. Usually us, the prosperous people. We can afford to be poor. We could do that but it would be a disaster for the global economy if we were to pursue that course. If we were to voluntarily get poor then we wouldn’t have the excess capital to help them develop. Not to mention the huge intrusions on personal life that would be required. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to make car exhausts nicer. Did you know the new Saabs are so clean it’s now very difficult to lock yourself in a garage and commit suicide?