book review

Parliament of Whores:
A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government
P. J. O'Rourke, Grove Press, 1991, 233 pages
Reviewed By

P .J. O'Rourke is not one of those libertarians who believe that government should stop interfering with our natural right to drive around in decrepit 1963 Volkswagen Beetles without wearing seat belts while inhaling bong fumes until smoke pours out of our ears. What he does believe is hard to pin down, except that he despises big government. But bashing government, like government itself, is boring, so P.J. O'Rourke summarizes it for us in this honest and surprisingly witty book. It's honest because O'Rourke admits he's no pundit, only a journalist who doesn't really understand government. I say 'surprisingly witty' because the book's title should win an award for the most unpromising title ever. You might think the book is one long, humorless rant by some gun-carrying crackpot. It's not. It's humorous.

O'Rourke's style is part Tom Wolfe without the long strings of adjectives, and part Dave Barry without all the boring stuff about his damn dog already. P.J. O'Rourke uses an effective combination of personal stories, humor, and emotional appeals (what liberals would call 'heart-rending detail'). It is a style designed to appeal to those who most need convincing--that is, liberals--that big government doesn't work. P.J. O'Rourke proves that you can make any political point of view palatable if you package it with the right combination of cynicism and wit. It worked on the left for M*A*S*H, and on the right for ... um ... Modern Age ... well, let me think about that last one.

Even though it's now 16 years old, a teenager already, and been reviewed to death by others, most of what O'Rourke says is still funny and still relevant. So I will confine this review to pointing out factual errors that others have missed:

  1. Cuttlefish have only two feeble tentacles, so saying that government is "a vast, rampant cuttlefish of dominion with its tentacles in every orifice" makes no sense.
  2. Confucius did talk about happiness, and paradoxically it was in the context of government: Zi (the nickname he goes by in the original book) said, "Good government obtains when those who are near are made happy, and those who are far off are attracted."

Both Republicans and Democrats get basted in this book. The Democratic and Republican conventions are where "the country's only two political parties with more than a hundred members not under psychiatric care" get together. As O'Rourke puts it: "The Democrats said, `We don't know what's wrong with America, but we can fix it.' and the Republicans said, `There's nothing wrong with America, and we can fix that.' " I could say no ox is left ungored, but that, too, would be an error: oxen gore people; they don't usually get gored themselves. (Inserting a joke here about some former vice-president would just be too easy.) By the end of the book, O'Rourke realizes that most things, including government and especially foreign policy, are more complicated than he thought.

Some things have changed since 1990. The two parties now have even more radically different views on the issues. The survival of Western civilization is once again in doubt. People may quibble about whether we really need O'Rourkean-style cynicism-gone-wild. In the end, O'Rourke may be just another English-major journalist with little particular knowledge of how to reorganize society---just a good ear, a heart, and a conviction that where government is concerned, less is more. Maybe the new style of no-prisoners, no-holds-barred, wittily expressed hatred that we have now in the the editorial pages of the Gray Lady and in popular books by skinny shotgun-toting blondes is better. But one thing is the same: both sides still believe that electing someone from the other side for President would be an unmitigated disaster; and as P.J. O'Rourke would probably say, both of them may be right.