P.J. O'Rourke, Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government
When Republicans swept mid-term elections in 1994, newly elevated House Speaker Newt Gingrich encouraged his fellow Republicans to do something almost completely unprecedented: rather than living full-time in Washington, DC, legislators should reside in their home districts, only commuting into Washington for Congress’s notoriously short workweeks. The results have been disastrous. Legislators who once shared neighborhoods, taverns, and taxis have become complete strangers. Nobody reaches across the aisle anymore because nobody talks to one another.
This, probably PJ O’Rourke’s most influential, least doctrinaire book, appeared halfway through the George HW Bush administration, when elected officials still kept company, and Congressional floor debates still influenced votes. Ideas mattered. Therefore, though O’Rourke’s Libertarian conservative credentials permeate his analysis of American federal government, his side-splitting timbre has bipartisan bite; he cares less about parties, more about consequences. It’s a unilateral debunking clarity broadly missing from political commentators anymore, including, sadly, from O’Rourke himself.
PJ O’Rourke made his bones doing on-set script doctor work for Rodney Dangerfield films, which comes across in his comic timing, frequently coarse humor, and knack for unornamented language. O’Rourke and his close friend John Hughes called themselves the “token conservatives” at National Lampoon magazine; later, O’Rourke wrote this book, originally as separate articles, during his hitch as “National Affairs Desk Chief” at Rolling Stone. He claimed to share an office with Hunter S. Thompson.
O’Rourke describes a government beholden to conflicting forces: spending programs lingering from Great Society liberalism, underwritten with tax structures colored by the Reagan Revolution. Despite today’s ubiquitous Reagan worshippers, O’Rourke notes that, even in the Gipper’s long shadow, killing, or even cursorily remodeling, grandfathered programs was virtually impossible. O’Rourke’s unsentimental skewering of government priorities makes an excellent antidote to today’s unthinking Reagan hagiographies. (Many programs O’Rourke mocks were later dismantled under Bill Clinton, a Democrat.)
One reads O’Rourke’s description of a typical Congressman’s workday—he followed an actual Congressman for one day—with out-and-out nostalgia. Not because we ever remember doing anything similar ourselves; no, his description of eighteen-hour frenzies of meetings, debates, and gladhanding feels downright nightmarish to anyone lacking a Congressman’s ego. Rather, as O’Rourke describes his anonymous Virgil leading him around, we realize, he’s talking with colleagues, constituents, and regular citizens. Real conversations, not pre-scripted press junkets.
That human touch is broadly absent from today’s political scene. O’Rourke cracks wise about “the president act[ing] as a human augury” at budget meetings, or “the president heal[ing] the sick” by signing the Americans With Disabilities Act. Indeed, we still roll eyes at the meaningless ceremony attached to government actions. Yet these activities involve speaking with people holding different opinions. Like coelacanths, we know such beasts still exist; we’ve just never seen one.
Thus, O’Rourke’s cuttingly comical tracts reads like a time capsule. Though inarguably conservative in outlook (his disdain for public welfare and reverence for Reagan loom large), O’Rourke describes philosophical precepts uncolored by partisan cable news, web aggregators, and Koch Brothers talking points. In 1991, even talk radio was still nascent. Commentators like O’Rourke couldn’t expect ideologically unswerving audiences; communication with people who disagreed remained mandatory. This book reads like he cares what ideological opponents think.
O’Rourke describes a utilitarian conservatism here, one interested in reaching vast, diverse audiences, not just an ideological base. Tea Party loyalists certainly won’t appreciate his willingness to acknowledge complexity and nuance. But centrists and leftists would enjoy debating this version of conservatism, largely because it disdains dogma and sloganeering. O’Rourke channels Reagan’s folksy charm, Russell Kirk’s thought, and Jonathan Swift’s hilarious intolerance for hogwash. That’s why this notorious conservative enjoys many fans on the left.
Sadly, since this book debuted, O’Rourke’s views, increasingly untempered by interaction with diverse influences, have become increasingly partisan and dogmatic. He treats disagreement as indicative of stupidity, and reduces complex arguments to idiotic caricatures. Recent books have become virtually unreadable for anyone who doesn’t share his strict Libertarian nationalism. Worst, they aren’t even particularly funny. But for one shining moment, O’Rourke gathered a massive multilateral audience around this hilarious exegesis of Washington’s notorious power edifices.