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Rational Lampoon; finally, P.J. O'Rourke breaks from the right-wing bad boys.

This is a much better book* than I would ever have expected. Its strengths reflect well on the author himself Its weaknesses are mainly those of a genre O'Rourke has let himself fall into, one he should begin crawling out of as soon as he can.

The genre in question, that of the Right-Wing Outlaw, didn't even exist 15 years ago. During the generation or two before that, to be a cultural outlaw was to be a left-winger. Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson and Michael Herr, John Lennon and Mick Jagger and the music world in general, they all implied that to be sexy and clever you also had to be on the left. The Young Republicans of those days were the overearnest strivers who wore neckties to college classes and later got hauled up before the Watergate committees. Right-wing activists tended to resemble Ayn Rand or Pat Buchanan or Jeane Kirkpatrick or Jack Kemp. That is, they were forceful and tireless but not exactly blessed with the light touch.

Hollywood still seems to operate on the liberalismequals-sex-appeal principle. Warren Beatty, Madonna, Spike Lee, and Jack Nicholson are all flashy. Charlton Heston, he of the NRA ads, is not. But things have certainly changed in the journalistic and political worlds. Tom Wolfe came out of the closet as a right-winger in the early eighties to become the first flashy conservative. The American Spectator made fun of, rather than moralized about, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. College newspapers like the Dartmouth Review and overaged collegians like the editorial writers of The Wall Street Journal specialized in being wiseguys. Lee Atwater playing blues guitar represented Right-Wing Outlaw style at its peak. Buffalo soldier

P. J. O'Rourke, who started out being a general-purpose outlaw as editor of the National Lampoon, has positioned himself as a right-winger for the past few years. He uses drugs but is against welfare. He loves it when the Republicans win but loves to make fun of them. (He says in this book that at the 1989 inaugural ball, Marilyn Quayle's chignon hairdo made her "look considerably less like a Cape buffalo than usual.... I have an idea that-like the Cape buffalo-if Marilyn gets furious and charges, you've got only one shot at the skull. You wouldn't want to just wound her.") The notion behind Parliament of Whores, apart from the idea that O'Rourke might combine some of his old magazine pieces with new reporting, is that the book will give a tour of the government and public policy that is conservative and funny at the same time.

The book is, indeed, very funny. What's more surprising is that so much of it is smart. Perhaps I'm overreacting, as with Samuel Johnson and the talking dog. It is so amazing to find that O'Rourke is serious and sophisticated about any governmental issue that it's tempting to forget the countless other issues about which he makes cheap-shot jokes. Still, the half or so of this book that is very strong shows that O'Rourke's main literary virtue is like Tom Wolfe's. That virtue is not showy writing nor glee in ridiculing leftist poseurs but a willingness to go out and look at things rather than sit home and work out bons mots. The most annoying trait of Right-Wing Outlaws in general is a lazy incuriosity about the real world. They know their lines, they're sure who the good guys and bad guys are. Therefore they view the passing world as a kind of animated Bartlett's Quotations-that is, as handy source material with which to illustrate, rather than challenge, preconceived views. Yes, everybody acts this way sometimes. But the very success of conservatism has made it quite complacent. When you read editorials in The Wall Street Journal, you sense, as with the Vatican Curia, that no conceivable event in the factual world could shake the cardinals' faith in their doctrine. One of the most successful (and funniest) current conservative outlaws, the radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, is happy to admit that his "research" consists of taking items off the newswire to fit his pat theories about animal rights, the Kennedy family, and so on.

P. J. O'Rourke, on the other hand, has spent a lot of time watching, listening, and apparently developing his views on the basis of what he sees and hears. The book is full of anthropological observations about the realities of daily life that make bureaucrats and reporters behave the way they do. "Numerous demonstrations, marches, PR stunts, and other staged events are held in Washington to give journalists an excuse for not covering real events, which are much harder to explain," he says. "Being in the White House press corps is essentially ceremonial. It entails-as all ceremonial roles do-ceaseless repetition, stultifying dullness, and swollen self-regard." This is not the first time such ideas have appeared in print-it's more like the 1,000th time, if you count the previous 999 mentions in this very magazine. Nonetheless, O'Rourke's view is an improvement over the usual right-wing moaning about pinko reporters.

In the same press-critic vein, O'Rourke says that "Peshawar was the principal Afghan war listening post,' which is journalese for 'place that's close, but not too close, to the action and has bottled water.' " This is imprecise; in reality, "listening post" means place where at least one hotel has a bar, a swimming pool, and a staff that speaks English." Even in the inexact form, the concept will be familiar to Washington Monthly readers. But it is nice to see the lights going on in other parts of the political world. Floored

O'Rourke's most intriguing excursion into political realities, and the one that shows most clearly how his experience as a reporter can shape his views, concerns Congress. The official conservative line about Congress, of course, is that it's a craven and unprincipled body, afraid to do anything except spend other people's money. It is easy to imagine O'Rourke writing just such a screed, especially since he includes a few of them in this book. But he also decided to see how a congressman actually spends his day. He accompanied one, whom he does not name, through a typical midweek schedule: two breakfast meetings; a hearing at 9:30 and another at 10; a baffling session on the floor; rushed meetings with constituents; cram-session briefings on a dozen issues the congressman has never heard of before but on which he must cast a vote. O'Rourke writes:
 Myself, I was completely exhausted by 7:00 and
 went home, leaving the congressman, 20 years my
 senior, looking as animated and energetic as a full
 school bus-shaking hands and trading chat with
 governors, firemen, ambulance drivers, other congressmen,
 and even, at one point, his own wife.

This is part of the human comedy of politics, as anyone who has seen it knows. Even those who have not seen it first hand may recognize it from James Boyd's famous "'Legislate? Who, Me?' What Happens to a Senator's Day," published in these pages 22 years ago. O'Rourke's description of Congress is impressive in several ways. He has focused on the main problem: the tyranny of the politician's schedule that barely leaves anyone time for two consecutive thoughts. He responds to and conveys the basic likability of the typical politician, however unlikable they may be as a class. While the official right-wing line, partly true, is that Congress sucks endless amounts of money into its own preservation and expansion, O'Rourke offers this semi-idealistic view:
 We Americans have struck a remarkable bargain.
 We pay $566,220 a year-less than a dollar
 apiece-for a congressman and his staff, and in
return they listen to us carp and moan and fume
and gripe and ask to be given things for free. Because
this is, in the end, what legislators do. They
listen to us. Not an enviable task.

Apart from all this, O'Rourke manages to explain the S&L fiasco with clarity, describes what it is like to go with the police on a drug raid, makes the right points about why farm programs and Social Security waste so much money, and inveighs against the American Association of Retired Persons for its greedy opposition to Medicare reform. I ended up with the wholly unanticipated feeling that, if O'Rourke went out and seriously boned up on a subject, he'd react with insight and, relatively speaking, good sense.

So what's the problem with this book? O'Rourke hasn't been as thorough in reporting every subject as he has with Social Security or the daily grind of a congressman's life. When he lacks reporting, he falls back on wisecracks and pat attitudes, and when forced to choose between making a joke and conveying a less snappy truth, he usually goes for the laugh.

A minor illustration is his relentless mockery of environmentalism. Yes, there is a pencil-neck, elitist side to the movement, but O'Rourke is pandering to Right-Wing Outlaw doctrine in sneering at the entire concept. He says:
 The average Juan and the average Mobutu out
 there in the parts of the world where every day is
 Earth Day, or Dirt and Squalor Day, anyhow,
 would like to have a color television, too.... I
 wouldn't care to be the skinny health-food nut
 waving a copy of Fifty Simple Things You Can Do
 to Save the Earth who tries to stand in Juan's way.

This sounds very hard-headed and Wolfe-like, piercing the delusions of the high-minded elite. But O'Rourke has traveled enough in the Third World to know that the average Juan and the average Mobutu are the ones whose lives are really being ruined by environmental problems. The most immediate effect of tropical deforestation, for example, is on the people in Borneo and Thailand who lose their homes and jobs and children when floods roar off denuded hills. The people who have the greatest reason to worry about air pollution are not the residents of Los Angeles but those of Mexico City and Bangkok. The average Juan does want a television and a car and name-brand tennis shoes. But environmental protection affects him in something more than the tooty-frooty way O'Rourke suggests.

The "skinny health-food nut" line represents the way O'Rourke approaches almost any issue that he hasn't gone out of his way to study. His natural instinct is to portray everyone except right-wing wiseguys as being ludicrous members of the Rainbow Coalition. The result is as fair and illuminating as if, say, Alexander Cockburn purported to describe modem Republicanism by profiling David Duke supporters in some Louisiana bayou. O'Rourke can be jolted out of the stereotypes by reporting, which is something. But he falls back into them when there's nothing else to go on.

A larger problem involves the two great pillars of right-wing orthodoxy: welfare, which is to say race, and defense. O'Rourke does not spend a lot of time on welfare, but what he does say is predictable and unconvincing. He takes the post-Charles Murray view that it's all been a mistake and that welfare, by trying too hard to "help" people, actually gives them incentives to fail. The significant point is that he seems to take this theory, donning it like a stylish suit, rather than developing it or testing it as he does some other concepts. His distinctive contribution to the welfare debate is to claim that he's been there himself and knows how corrupting charity can be:
 My own family was poor when I was a kid, though
 I didn't know it; I just thought we were broke. My
 father died, and my mother married a drunken bum
 who shortly thereafter died himself. Then my
 mother got cancer... But I honestly didn't know
 we were poor until just now, when I was researching
 poverty levels.... What we managed to escape
 in 1966 in Squaresville, Ohio, was not poverty. We
 had that. What we managed to escape was help.

O'Rourke goes on to say that he was saved by the stuffiness and intolerance of neighborhood values in the bad old unprogressive days. No one coddled or understood" this distressed family. Everyone was expected simply to shut up and behave. So should it be today. Maybe I'm being unfair, but O'Rourke's recounting of this experience, which is out of character with almost everything else in the book, sounds fishy to me. It seems like a convenient, Reaganesque rendering of family history, drawn to neatly fit the current right-wing line. At the same time, it's an attempt (like Peggy Noonan's in her autobiography) to maumau his fellow Republicans and many Democrats: Look, don't tell me about the culture of poverty; I was part of it while you were summering in Maine. Perhaps O'Rourke is being completely sincere, and I'm the one who's being too cynical. But when Russell Baker described a very similar childhood predicament in Growing Up, it was impossible to doubt that it affected Baker just the way he said it did. Without announcing it directly, Baker showed that his family's misfortune in the Depression permanently altered his view of the chanciness of life. He saw some families survive and some sink for reasons that were more or less accidental. In one family, the father got sick or was laid off. In another, the father kept his health and, even more luckily in those years, kept his job. After an experience like that, it was hard for Baker to view the world with a steely, moralistic sense that people high and low fully "deserved" their stations in life.

It is possible to have such an experience and not reflect on it. Ronald Reagan, who had a truly hard-luck childhood, seemed to be more affected by his own fantasized versions of his past. But if P. J. O'Rourke, who unlike Reagan responds very acutely to experience, grew up poor, as he says, it is strange that it had no apparent effect other than to make him embrace rightwing orthodoxy about welfare programs. On the basis of this book, it did not shake his complacency about the deserving rich and undeserving poor. Mild at heart

There is something more than fishy in his view of defense. If O'Rourke really wanted to be an outlaw, he'd make fun of the unending victory parades and We're-Number-One celebrations that followed the Gulf war. He takes just the opposite approach. The only budget he really likes is for the Pentagon, and he makes a little joke about it this way:
 The best and final argument against cutting defense
 spending cannot be put into words. It's
 visceral, hormonal. It is that excitement in the gut,
 the swelling of the chest, the involuntary smile
 that comes across the face of every male when he
 has a weapon to hand.

This is a nice, roguish-sounding line. The strange thing is, as Lloyd Grove pointed out in The Washington Post, it was written by a man who, when he had a chance to put "weapon to hand" in Vietnam, avoided service by producing a doctor's letter saying that he used marijuana, mescaline, and LSD too often to be draftable.

P J. O'Rourke is not the only male who is intrigued by weapons, or the only one who didn't want to go to Vietnam, or the only one for whom both statements are true. He is far from the only one, especially among the right-wing "chickenhawks," who finds the juxtaposition of these facts inconvenient now. But it is, well, shameful for O'Rourke to wisecrack his way around this subject, especially in a book saying that Americans don't take actions and their consequences seriously enough, that we live in a "well-padded little universe, a world with no sharp edges or hard surfaces."

Wisecracks and conventional wisdom are ways of avoiding the hard surfaces. In the many parts of this book that are good, O'Rourke has shown that he doesn't need to rely on these devices anymore. James Fallows is the Washington editor of The Atlantic and a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly. (*) Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government. P. J. O'Rourke. The Atlantic Monthly Press, $19.95.
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Title Annotation:Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government
Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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