Missing the Joke

Parliament of Whores.
by P.J. O’Rourke.
Atlantic Monthly Press. 320 pp. $19.95.

P.J. O’Rourke’s bestseller, Parliament of Whores, carries the ambitious subtitle, “A Lone Humorist’s Attempt to Explain the Entire U.S. Government.” The book is disappointing on several counts, including these: it is not terribly funny, at least by O’Rourke standards, and it does not explicate anything new about the ways of Washington.

According to the dust jacket, O’Rourke is America’s “hottest, hippest satirist, humorist and political sage.” This was certainly a fitting appellation a few years back, when O’Rourke trained his eye on the inanities of the loony Left, from Massachusetts to Managua. In one of his classic pieces, “Ship of Fools,” collected in Republican Party Reptile (1988), O’Rourke rendered the uproarious and reprehensible absurdity of the Volga Peace Cruise, a 16-day trip to the Soviet Union by a group of American peaceniks. More recently, his “New Enemies List,” a provocative play on McCarthyism that appeared in the American Spectator and was roundly criticized in the liberal media for its “insensitivity,” was an ingenious melding of common sense, an instinct for the jugular, and an easy jocularity.

But it is difficult to defend the dust-jacket boast on the evidence of this book, the product of O’Rourke’s two-year stint in the nation’s capital. The narrative, which occasionally snaps and crackles, but rarely pops, runs the gamut from an interpretation of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, to a tour of Congress and the Supreme Court, to descriptions of the failings of federal policies on agriculture, defense, drugs, poverty, and social security. Whether he is visiting a drug-infested Washington ghetto, or discussing the evils of federal subsidies to the middle class, O’Rourke’s message is unitary, and nothing if not consistent. Everything the government does is either banditry or foolishness. “Giving money and power to the government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

The sentiment itself is hardly surprising. For some time, O’Rourke’s notoriety and, indeed, his proven popularity with young audiences have depended significantly on his reputation as an un-apologetic, common-sense conservative. Unlike his prior endeavors, however, this book is an attempt to come to grips with serious questions of public policy; as such, it supplies those of O’Rourke’s fans who read him carefully with a more sustained view of what his brand of conservatism entails. Except for the most vulgar “leave-me-alone” libertarians—of whom there may admittedly be legions—such readers are likely to find the results unsatisfying.

Parliament of Whores has drawn appreciative reviews from the ponderous neoliberals at the Washington Post and the Washington Monthly, just the kind of people O’Rourke’s punch has bruised in previous incarnations. There are two likely explanations for the enthusiasm. The first is merely stylistic. Washington is a decidedly unhip city, but in this book America’s “hottest, hippest satirist” seems to have settled right into the colorless Beltway maw. His panache comes across as prosaic, his celebrated irreverence has turned mawkish. He actually appears to have enjoyed chatting up the gum-soled bureaucrats at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and he clearly empathizes with the supposedly overworked, underpaid, and understaffed Congressman whose day he chronicles.

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The second, and probably more important, reason is that O’Rourke’s politics place him on a decent-sized patch of common ground with today’s twisted liberalism, especially on issues of foreign policy—where he reveals himself to harbor deep-seated doubts about the projection of American power abroad—and individual privacy—where he argues against legal limitations on taking drugs and burning the flag. Then, too, O’Rourke freely engages in that favorite Beltway bloodsport, Reagan-bashing (as in, for example, “We had eight years of talk about patriotism and family values from a man who saw less combat in the service than I saw as a hippie. . .”).

To explain Reagan, and everything else that is amiss in Washington, O’Rourke falls back on the uncomplicated (and unoffending) view that we have no one to blame but ourselves. The “whores” in the title are the public, not the capital’s officialdom. “No,” is his Pogo-like conclusion, “the guilty are to be found a bit closer to home, right in our own lap pools and open-plan gourmet kitchens.”

What has happened to P.J. O’Rourke? The author himself once aptly explained the fix he has now fallen into: “Radicals and liberals and such want all jokes to have a ‘meaning,’ to ‘make a point.’ But laughter is involuntary and points are not.” Although there are moments of antic laughter to be had in Parliament of Whores, in the end the points win, and for the most part they are sadly neither new nor persuasive.

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