06.11.09

P.J. O'Rourke's Ride on the Wild Side

The bestselling humorist talks to Marty Beckerman about his new car anthology, Driving Like Crazy—plus how the GM takeover is like an addiction, and why he didn’t get killed as a globetrotting reporter.

The bestselling humorist talks to Marty Beckerman about his new car anthology, Driving Like Crazy—plus how the GM takeover is like an addiction, and why he didn’t get killed as a globetrotting reporter..

P.J. O’Rourke is a relentless quote machine. The bestselling humorist and foreign correspondent, who inherited the Rolling Stone national affairs desk from Hunter Thompson in the 1980s, has cultivated an image as a bitter old man, but remains the only conservative whom left wingers admit is hysterical (in a good way). His new anthology of automotive journalism, Driving Like Crazy, is released this week.

Are we ready to start, or do you need to finish another interview first?

I was just finishing with Nancy Grace. Or was it Bill O’Reilly? They look so much alike, impossible to tell…

Hunter Thompson “was blogging before computers were invented. You should see some of his correspondence—he was Twittering with a postage stamp!”.

The book tour doesn’t sound quite as bad as a dozen years in a North Korean gulag.

No, I’m too old for that; I’ll leave it to the kids. I was a foreign correspondent for 20 years, but I’ve given up traveling to shitholes… I am in Washington, D.C. right now, come to think of it.

book-cover---driving-like-crazy
Driving Like Crazy. By P. J. O'Rourke. 288 Pages. Atlantic Monthly Press. $24. ()

Do you ever marvel that you didn’t get killed during your Holidays in Hell days?

The great thing about being a print journalist is that you are permitted to duck. Cameramen get killed while the writers are flat on the floor. A war correspondent for the BBC dedicated his memoir to 50 fallen colleagues, and I guarantee you they were all taking pictures. I am only alive because I am such a chicken.

What does globetrotting teach a reporter that D.C. and Manhattan cannot?

Wear long sleeves because malaria medicine makes you crazy. Seasick medicine makes you crazy, too, especially if you mix it with alcohol.

You can learn all about the human condition from covering the crime beat in a big city—you don’t need to go to Beirut for that—but a foreign correspondent begins to understand poverty from a different perspective. In wealthy countries, poverty happens because individuals were not raised the proper way or in the right conditions. In very poor countries, poverty results from a collective lack of money. I think the old-time reporters understood this, back when reporting was a blue-collar trade, because in those days American poverty was a lack of money.

Will we rediscover that understanding when journalism becomes a no-collar trade?

(Laughs) That is probably true.

Is America returning to that “lack of money” dynamic? Criticizing economic assistance might have made sense in the prosperous '90s, but now people who have a dedicated work ethic can’t pay their mortgages due to forces beyond their control.

Losing the six-bedroom McMansion with six full baths and a pool is a different form of deprivation than what they have in Tanzania.

“A friend of mine at the American Enterprise Institute says there are two parties: the silly party and the stupid party. I’m too old for the silly party, so I had to join the stupid party.” 

You are unhappy about the government takeover of GM. Is a technocrat-designed American car better than none at all?

I’m very skeptical. The idea of capitalism is not just success but also the failure that allows success to happen. I spent a lot of time behind the Iron Curtain, and their cars were abysmal. [O’Rourke predicts we will soon have “our feet stuck through a hole in the floor like Fred Flintstone.”] When the government bailed out Chrysler however many years ago it actually worked out pretty well—they even made some money from it—and they think the same thing is going to happen this time, but they’re like pathetic gambling addicts who get hooked forever because they won the slots once.

What did America lose as we gradually fell out of love with the automobile?

It’s all about freedom. Ask any 16 year old. You either have your license or you don’t. You become free when you get the keys from your parents. Everybody used to feel that way. Cars made us free. It’s also where we had sex, but now the house is always empty so you can just use Mom’s and her boyfriend’s waterbed.

You rewrote many of these articles because they “sucked.” At 40, you made a career out of ridiculing your 20-year-old self, and now you say 40 year olds don’t know anything. Are you in a constant war with your past?

Definitely. All sensible people are—until we finally achieve that ripe mellow wisdom so perfectly expressed by Eastwood in Gran Torino when he said “get off my lawn.” The movie got a little mushy at the end though.

In your classic piece “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink,” you mocked the archetypical boring old man “just waiting around to see what kind of cancer he gets.” As a self-admitted old man who has battled cancer, do those jokes make you wince now?

No, I don’t wince. I had fun then and I’m still having fun. It’s better to make fun of yourself because you’ve always got someone around to make fun of, and they can’t sue you.

When I was 15 or 16, I sent a juvenile letter to Dave Barry, my humorist hero along with you and Hunter Thompson, explaining that he had lost his “punk edge,” whatever that meant. Six months later, I received a postcard: “As for losing my punk edge, Fuck You… Dave Barry.” If there is any justice in the world, someday a jealous snot-nosed kid will tell me I’m decades past my prime.

(Laughs) Anybody who hasn’t lost their edge by a certain age… I knew Hunter Thompson since the ‘70s and I loved him, but he would wear me out as I got older. By the time I had three kids, we were no longer on the same schedule. I was asleep but he would talk to my wife when she was nursing our baby in the wee hours. He had trouble finding subject matter that made him happy toward the end. He missed Nixon.

Nobody appreciated his brisk, semi-structured online rants in the early ‘00s, but looking back on it Hunter Thompson was one of the very first bloggers. People thought he had lost his mind, but he was years ahead of everyone else—and sharper.

That’s true. He was blogging before computers were invented. You should see some of his correspondence—he was Twittering with a postage stamp!

You and Thompson differed on economics, but you were on the same page when it came to decriminalizing various forms of fun. Is there any place for libertarians in the ultra-religious Republican Party?

The Republicans had libertarian input from Reagan, and Goldwater had it, but fundamentally they have always been hostile to libertarianism. A friend of mine at the American Enterprise Institute says there are two parties: the silly party and the stupid party. I’m too old for the silly party, so I had to join the stupid party.

Conservative firebrands like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter alienate everyone who isn’t a true believer, whereas your work is accessible to a mainstream audience. Is that political ecumenicalism a conscious decision, or just who you are?

The bar is set pretty low if you want to be a hip, accessible conservative. I have no idea why more people aren’t doing what I do.

Marty Beckerman is the author of Generation S.L.U.T. (MTV Books) and Dumbocracy (Disinformation). He has written for Playboy, Discover, Radar and Huffington Post. His website is www.MartyBeckerman.com.