Um, whatever happened to PJ O'Rourke? Once upon a time he was funny, even deliciously so. Of course it's harder for a humourist to shine when his side is in power and O'Rourke's jaded sardonicism is a style especially ill-suited to team-play. Perhaps that explains his sadly drab, unconvincing piece in the latest issue of The Weekly Standard. It's all a long way from Republican Party Reptile and Parliament of Whores.
Ostensibly an account of a day O'Rourke recently spent aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, O'Rourke makes the mistake of trying, rather too hard - and none too successfully - to use his trip as the foundation for a Mass in praise of John McCain.
But it's the, hmmm, flaccid writing that saddens. The rot sets in early. Landing on an aircraft carrier "was the most fun I'd ever had with my trousers on". Oh dear.
A US aircraft carrier is indeed, in a literal sense , an awesome piece of engineering. But does recognising that require this sort of Wayne's World appropriation of awesomeness in the modern, colloquial use of the word?
"The Theodore Roosevelt and its accompanying cruisers, destroyers, and submarines can blow up most of the military of most of the countries on earth. God has given America a special mission. Russia can barely blow up Chechnya. China can blow up Tibet, maybe, and possibly Taiwan. And the EU can't blow up Liechtenstein. But the USA can blow up . . . gosh, where to start?"
Ah yes, Chechnya and Liechtenstein. I have no objection to jokes at their expense - or to poking Moscow, Beijing and Brussels for that matter - but it would be preferable if these jokes were, like, funny. Dude.
Some say John McCain's character was formed in a North Vietnamese prison. I say those people should take a gander at what John chose to do--voluntarily. Being a carrier pilot requires aptitude, intelligence, skill, knowledge, discernment, and courage of a kind rarely found anywhere but in a poem of Homer's or a half gallon of Dewar's. I look from John McCain to what the opposition has to offer. There's Ms. Smarty-Pantsuit, the Bosnia-Under-Sniper-Fire poster gal, former prominent Washington hostess, and now the JV senator from the state that brought you Eliot Spitzer and Bear Stearns. And there's the happy-talk boy wonder, the plaster Balthazar in the Cook County political crèche, whose policy pronouncements sound like a walk through Greenwich Village in 1968: "Change, man? Got any spare change? Change?"
I guess you have to write "in a poem of Homer's" rather than "in Homer" to prevent readers from assuming you're referring to The Simpsons, but the rest of this is simultaneously over-written and under-observed. It suggests the spark has gone, leaving only the kind of flat insult-by-numbers favoured by the most tediously bellicose type of saloon-bar bore who, in increasingly rare moments of self-awareness, wonders why there seem to be fewer people listening than once there were in younger, happier days.
Then there's this:
Supposedly the "youth vote" is all for Obama. But it's John McCain who actually has put his life in the hands of adolescents on a carrier deck. Supposedly the "women's vote" is . . . well, let's not go too far with this. I can speak to John's honor, duty, valor, patriotism, etc., but I'm not sure how well his self-discipline would have fared if he'd been on an aircraft carrier with more than 500 beautiful women sailors the way I was. At least John likes women, which is more than we can say about Hillary's attitude toward, for instance, the women in Bill's life, who at this point may constitute nearly the majority of the "women's vote."
Add a juvenile boorishness to the charge sheet, then. This isn't
sharp, just bitter, a feeble attempt to squeeze another joke from a pen
that seems to have run dry some time ago.
But at least that's better than O'Rourke's political analysis:
A one-day visit to an aircraft carrier is a lifelong lesson in conservatism. The ship is immense, going seven decks down from the flight deck and ten levels up in the tower. But it's full, with some 5,500 people aboard. Living space is as cramped as steerage on the way to Ellis Island. Even the pilots live in three-bunk cabins as small and windowless as hall closets. A warship is a sort of giant Sherman tank upon the water. Once below deck you're sealed inside. There are no cheery portholes to wave from.
McCain could hardly escape understanding the limits of something huge but hermetic, like a government is, and packed with a madding crowd. It requires organization, needs hierarchies, demands meritocracy, insists upon delegation of authority. An intricate, time-tested system replete with checks and balances is not a plaything to be moved around in a doll house of ideology. It is not a toy bunny serving imaginary sweets at a make-believe political tea party.
The idea of the "ship of state" has been around since Plato and alas
O'Rourke's losses in originality are not compensated for by any gains
in insight. Nor does he seem to appreciate the contradictions in his
own argument. In one paragraph he gushes over the the Roosevelt's
power, marveling that it could, if it chose, destroy anything it chose
to, then he's stressing the restraints upon that authority and indeed
the impossibility of actually doing anything dramatic. If the latter
then what's the point of the former? Or is O'Rourke suggesting that
government could achieve great things if it felt so inclined but that, prudently, it chooses not to? That, in other words, power is best held in reserve, only to be used in emergencies? You tell me.
More to the point, how does this jibe with anything related to John McCain's political philosophy? McCain's
brand of conservatism suggests he thinks everyone should be aboard an
aircraft carrier, playing their part is some grand national mission to
further the cause of some sort of "heroic conservatism". That's an ideology too. A captain may order "all hands to the pump", it's rather different matter when a President makes such a demand. Once upon a time, O'Rourke seemed a member of Grover Norquist's "Leave Me Alone" coalition. Times change, I guess. For a man who professes to be sceptical about idealism he sure has plenty of time for John McCain's strident idealism.
(Nor should it need saying, obviously, that neither an aircraft carrier, nor a government is actually a meritocracy.)
I'll grant O'Rourke this however: government is indeed like an
aircraft carrier to the extent that at any given moment the vast
majority of people under its command have no idea where they are or,
indeed, where they're going.
Alas, he's not quite done yet. O'Rourke's conclusion is the sort of sweeping guff one likes to think he'd once have punctured for the piffle it is. Leaving the ship, he reflects:
A strange flight it is--from the hard and fast reality of a floating island to the fantasy world of American solid ground. In this never-never land a couple of tinhorn Second City shysters--who, put together, don't have the life experience of the lowest ranking gob-with-a-swab cleaning a head on the Big Stick--presume to run for president of the United States. They're not just running against the hero John McCain, they're running against heroism itself and against almost everything about America that ought to be conserved.
And so it goes, a once sharp blade is dulled. There is no mirth
here, nor any wit either. Merely the bullying braggadocio of a shock
jock relegated from the drive-time slot.
One must assume O'Rourke considers it shameful that Clinton and Obama
have even the temerity to presume they've earned a place on the ballot,
let alone the presumption that they might be qualified to be President.
Equally, are we to suppose that only military veterans -though not, of
course, John Kerry - have the proper sort of gutsy corpuscles to be
President?And, who knows, perhaps government, like an aircraft carrier, shouldn't be a democracy either?
If this is satire its waters are too deep for me.
In fairness to PJ, there's a line in which you can see something of the old boy's former finery but even this, alas, only highlights the overall decline:
Some people say John McCain isn't conservative enough. But there's more to conservatism than low taxes, Jesus, and waterboarding at Gitmo.
Then again, that line might puzzle many of this shabby article's intended audience who, one fears, may pause and ask, "Is there really?"