University at Buffalo: Reporter

P.J. O'Rourke takes aim at politics...and politicians

Reporter Editor
The Democrats took it on the chin. So did the Republicans. And so did a couple of Great Lakes cities. There were no sacred cows when P.J. O'Rourke took the Mainstage March 12 as part of UB's Distinguished Speakers Series.

"I'm here to talk about politics...and I'm going to try not to make you run screaming from the room. It's not an easy thing to do in the wake of last year's presidential campaign, which was as bad as a house visit from Dr. Kevorkian," said O'Rourke, foreign affairs editor for Rolling Stone magazine.

He's been called "the funniest writer in America" by Time and The Wall Street Journal, and is quoted in "The Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations" more often than any other living person. And regardless of their politics, the self-avowed Republican kept members of his UB audience laughing, even when he took a good-natured shot at Buffalo.

"I am a native of Toledo, Ohio, so I am familiar with your weather and your economy and the lake. All I can really say is, 'It's a wonderful place and everything, but maybe you should consider doing what I did and move'," he said.

But the primary focus of O'Rourke's talk was politics.

The 1996 election was "a hard trip to the polls for me," he noted, but "we had to vote because otherwise the person our spouse was for would win." O'Rourke paused. "And he did."

Last fall's U.S. presidential race was a lot like Russia's, characterized, he said, by "worn-out, left-wing ideology vs. sleazy special interests. Of course, that was just the fight between Hillary and Bill."

Amazing geopolitical coincidence
The Russian election also resembled the Clinton-Dole race, especially during the Russian runoffs, when Yeltsin disappeared and no one knew where or how he was. It was, O'Rourke said, an amazing geopolitical coincidence between the two most powerful countries in the world. "And what is the main issue? Is one of the candidates dead....It turns out Yeltsin wasn't."

O'Rourke said he has trouble accepting the quality of public figures, especially when he considers what he called the four most prominent politicians in the U.S. over the past year: Al Gore, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton.

"Would you hire any of those people to mow your lawn?" he asked.

"Dole would be down on his hands and knees trying to make a deal with the grass not to grow. Gore would be asking the cat if the dandelions were an endangered species. Gingrich would steal the Toro. And Bill wouldn't be able to make up his mind-you know, do the front or the back, power mower or push, rake and then mow or the other way he'd give up, and he'd be inside raiding the refrigerator and flirting with the babysitter."

O'Rourke explained the difference between the two dominant political parties in the United States.

And the difference is.... The Republicans, he said, operate on "the goofy-old-dad-giving-you-a-man-to-man-talk-in-the-den platform. They corner the voters and they kind of ramble on."

Democrats, on the other hand, run on the "whining-spoiled-brat platform. 'You said we were going to have a drug-free America and I want my free drugs now'....

"The Democrats say, 'We know what is wrong with America and we can fix it.' The Republicans say, 'There's nothing wrong with America and we can fix that.' What we have in this country is a choice between the Democrats, who can't remember the past, and the Republicans, who can't stop living in it; between the Democrats, who want to tax us to death, and the Republicans, who'd prefer we get shot to death by a member of the Michigan militia."

Too much whining
When you look at Republican politicians, what you see is the scum on the top of the business world, O'Rourke said. But when you look at Democrats, what you see is the scum on the top of politics. "A dishonest businessman will steal from you directly rather than getting the IRS to do it for him," he said.

What's wrong with politics? "There's too much whining going on," O'Rourke said.

"Whining is the single most important force in the American political process....If we're going to understand the process, we're going to have to understand the politics of whining."

The United States is in the midst of "an optimistic moment in history. If you think about it, things are pretty good right now." O'Rourke said we are no longer in the grave danger of the atomic war. The former Soviet Union has dissolved into a space on the map filled with "countries with too many Ks and Cs in their names." And China has decided to conquer the "world shower flip-flop market," he said.

"The ordinary men and women of the world have greater liberty, more material benefits than they ever have had at any time since the beginning of civilization. Things are better than they were a few years ago. Things are better than they were at 9:30 this morning, thanks to Tylenol and two bloody Marys...but that's personal."

Life is better than it ever has been, and O'Rourke has one suggestion for those who don't think so: "I want you to go to King Arthur's dentist."

The one thing everyone forgets about the old times is "how the old timers smelled," he added.

"Even the bad things are better than they used to be. Bad music has gotten much briefer."

Being unhappy makes us important
We should be enjoying ourselves, and we're not, O'Rourke said. "I hear American whining. 'There's a hole in my ozone...there's terrible poverty because the rich people used up all of my money in the '80s.' Why are we so unhappy?"

And we whine because it works, O'Rourke said. "Whining works because being unhappy makes us important," he said. And, more importantly, whining is less work than figuring out what to do to solve the problem.

"Everyone wants to save the earth. No one wants to help Mom with the dishes," he said.

Politicians make their livings off our worries, which may not be to our best advantage, O'Rourke said, because our political leaders have no vested interest in our being optimistic. Politicians want bad things to happen to us, because they want to be able to rush in and save the day.

"When bad things happen, should politics be our first resort? Do we want politics to control the whole world? Do we want our life to be one endless visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles? Do we want our heart-bypass operation performed by the post office? Do we want our children raised by Donna Shalala, do we want to marry Dick Morris?"


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