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From Left to Write

Libertarian curmudgeon and author P.J. O'Rourke muses about fatherhood at 50, the politics of cigar smoking, and why economics is funny.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 3)

It is O'Rourke's ability to connect with the average man in the middle of extraordinary circumstances that engages him in a special relationship with his readers. Bob Love, managing editor at Rolling Stone (who began working with O'Rourke 16 years ago when Love was a fact-checker at the magazine) gives his take on O'Rourke's role: "The things that he does are based on his interest and engagement in the world. He's a true journalist before he's ever humorous--the facts are very, very important to him. He's such a brilliant phrase master, but he's also deeper than that; that's why he's such a prize for us to have." And the fact that they share a passion for cigars hasn't hurt the editorial process.

O'Rourke clearly loves working for the magazine. "I like it that I'm not preaching to the choir," he says of Rolling Stone's liberal readership. "I think it's much more fun to get a little tension going between the readers and the writers.

"My point of view is not very fluid," he adds. "There are certain real bedrocks that I always come back to: respect for the individual, sanctity for the individual, the importance of individual liberty and individual responsibility. A suspicion of big systems and a suspicion of idealism. I don't mean idealism in a sense that we should all be better people. I mean idealism in a sense of creating systems that are going to fix the world, whether it's Hillary's health care or Karl Marx's socialism. I don't believe that there are any easy answers to things, and I'm suspicious of people who have easy answers. Life's too complicated for that."

Sitting in the screened-in porch, listening to the crickets, watching flashes of distant lightning illuminate the horizon, O'Rourke pours two glasses of Port, lights a Padrón Anniversary, and puts some perspective on the territory he has covered as a journalist and how that work has set the stage for his latest book, Eat the Rich. "At first I just wanted to cover wars and disorders and violence and stuff because I thought that was more interesting. Then I began to realize that underlying the wars and the riots and so on was politics, so I became very interested in politics and that's what got me down to Washington to write about government.

"I began to get interested in economics because I realized how important economics was to the political process, especially in the wake of Bush getting unaccountably defeated by this unknown governor of Arkansas two years after he'd been the most popular human being on the entire planet. Obviously it had to do with that economic downturn that we suffered in the early '90s."

Arguably, it is hard to make economics interesting, and even tougher to make it funny. O'Rourke says, "When it affects every aspect of your life, how can it be dull? Once I got into it and I started to face this as a determined amateur, just go places and see how circumstances were and how they were changing for people, it was lots of fun. I didn't have to talk about numbers and graphs and crap like that. I talk a little bit about their gross domestic product, but only as much as I absolutely have to. Mostly it's looking at how people live. Do they have enough to eat? Are they living in garbage heaps or are they living large?"

It's every middle-aged man's dream: O'Rourke is driving fast down a heavily wooded New Hampshire road in a Porsche, holding an illegal Cohiba in one hand, downshifting with the other. (For O'Rourke devotees: The only drug consumed was nicotine. There were neither cocktails spilled, nor any Wing-Wang squeezing during the drive. Sorry.) O'Rourke seizes the opportunity to rant eloquently about the government: "The government must have something better to do with themselves! Everybody knows what tobacco does to you and to what extent it's good for you and to what extent it's bad for you. Bug off! Free people should be able to make an informed decision."

Without missing a beat, he takes a puff. "Obviously, the government is looking for new sources of revenue. People don't want to pay any more income tax, they don't want a national sales tax, their property taxes are too high, their state sales taxes are too high. The government is looking for some place that they can raise revenue without taking a real beating in the polls. And since everybody is at least publicly opposed to cigarette smoking, the government is saying, 'Boy, can we get some more revenue here!' "

Typically, O'Rourke has issues with people on both sides of the aisles. "Liberals can't get over [their belief] that government has some of the answers for all of our problems. It just doesn't. And conservatives can't seem to get over [their belief] that there aren't any answers for quite a few of the problems, or the answers only work to the extent that individuals can figure them out for themselves. It comes down to something that's very fundamental to politics: everybody wants to boss everybody else around. It's chock-full of big brothers and big sisters, bossy aunts and interfering grandmothers."

Slowing down momentarily to point out local points of interest, O'Rourke makes the larger, more important point that underlies the issue. "The whole idea of freedom is to let people do what they want and take the consequences of their actions. Anytime the government tries to curtail peoples' freedoms, the weight of that argument should be very much on the government's shoulders. The government should have to defend its intervention, and it's only justified under the most grave circumstances. But to say to people that you can't smoke, or you can't drink, or you can't mow the lawn on Sundays and so on, I mean, why? You better have a very, very good reason for this, because any time you violate freedom, any time you detract from human freedom, you're moving away from everything that civilization has been moving towards since 500 B.C.--which is greater respect for the individual, sanctity of the individual, more responsibility for the individual. And little freedoms are just as important as big freedoms. If the government can regulate your health and your safety, why shouldn't the government be regulating your finances? And, of course, in a lot of countries, that's what happens. It's not the kind of country I want."

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