Matthew Walther

P.J. O’Rourke interview: ‘Telling jokes and lying about politicians - what’s the difference?’

P.J. O'Rourke interview: 'Telling jokes and lying about politicians - what’s the difference?’
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P.J. O'Rourke’s chickens are giving him trouble. ‘Two of them aren’t laying eggs right now,' he explains. But he doesn’t know which ones. ‘I’m not sure who’s the guilty party.'

We’re driving to the field where his trees are harvested for timber and where he and his father-in-law have built a one-hole golf course. ‘How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink’ this isn’t. In his famous 1979 essay of that title the Daily Beast columnist and former editor of the National Lampoon made the case for being sozzled on the freeway: ‘It’s important to be drunk because being drunk keeps your body all loose, and that way, if you have an accident or anything, you’ll sort of roll with the punches and not get banged up so bad.' Today there are no beverages in the car, and though we are making our way up his private drive, we remain well within local speed limits.

At the top of the hill we get out of the car and join one of his three dogs, 12-year-old Millie. Or rather we try to join her. Millie isn’t cooperating. He calls to her, gently at first, then with increasing agitation. ‘Millie, come. Come on, pup. Millie? Millie! Come round! Bad dog. Okay, to heck with ya. She’s onto something’, he explains. 'There are turkeys up here.' In front of us forest and hills stretch out for miles into a blur of brown and dark green. It’s a lovely view from, as he puts it, ‘fourteen hundred feet and some change’.

He tells me that Sharon, New Hampshire, (population 352) where he and his family have lived full-time since 2002, is a wonderful place to raise children. ‘Gets a little tougher on teens, though. Not a lot to do.'

Every four years New Hampshire is home to the nation’s first presidential primary. Two years of President Obama’s second term remain, but for over a year Rand Paul, Chris Christie and other Republican hopefuls have been paying intermittent visits to the state, whose official motto is ‘Live Free or Die’.

I ask him whether all these would-be commanders-in-chief ever get on his nerves. ‘Politicians all want their photo ops in these cute little towns. It’s funny living in a state where every single adult has or claims to have met the president of the United States.' He tells me about his chance encounter a few years back with one of America’s only unabashedly socialist politicians. ‘One day I was going downtown for something and there was Dennis Kucinich standing on a park bench.' Was there a big crowd? ‘He was addressing an audience of none.'

When Millie finally ambles over to us huffing and puffing, we return to the vehicle and head back down the hill, stopping at the chicken coop. He tells me not to follow him inside. ‘Feeding time is somewhat unpleasant. Actually more than somewhat,' he adds. Is it the smell? He tells me that the coop hasn’t been cleaned all winter - for the chickens' benefit. ‘It helps keep them warm.' He’s hoping to sponge it up soon, something he expects will be a solo enterprise. ‘Somehow I never seem to get any volunteers.'

Millie is still panting beside me in the back seat. ‘She’s getting old. Of course, sitting with me all day breathing in my cigar smoke doesn't help.'

Wheezing hounds and barren hens notwithstanding, O’Rourke is a very tranquil 66. His most recent book, The Baby Boom, is his sixteenth, and easily his most heartfelt. Part memoir, part anatomy of the successes and shortcomings (mostly the latter) of his generation, it is a far cry from the gonzo escapades of Holidays in Hell or the grim satire of Parliament of Whores.

He considers his political and personal evolution, from campus radical and illegal drug enthusiast to libertarian conservative and family man, a common Boomer trajectory. He doesn’t begrudge his fellow 60-somethings their continued fondness for, among other things, the music of their teenage years. ‘These songs are fun to play for nostalgia’s sake,' he tells me. ‘Everyone likes the culture of their own youth. It all seems terribly poignant.'

Lunch is waiting for me at his office, a small outbuilding up the hill from his 18th-century home. Books - everything from Lord Acton’s complete works and biographies of Auden to the 27-volume Oxford English Dictionary - cover several walls of shelves. My eye lights on the cow skull sitting atop the fireplace, which he tells me he found under a tree while hunting in Mexico.

Over sandwiches, sliced carrots and cheese we discuss politics. The President? ‘There’s learning on the job, but come on. We’re six years in.' The NSA? ‘I was creeped out by this sort of dumbass - well, not sort off - the complete dumbass bureaucratic way they went about collecting far more information than they could ever possibly process. It can’t have been the most efficient way to go about spying on people.’ Edward Snowden? ‘The word “traitor” comes to mind.' The much-discussed split between interventionists and non-interventionists in the Republican party? ‘There’s definitely a libertarian wing and a country-club wing.' Climate change? ‘The latest excuse to expand government intervention into people's lives.'

While he is glad that the United States did not attack Syria last year, he is worried about Obama’s foreign policy. ‘He’s been hanging out at the UN, drinking the Kool-Aid over there. He really believes that people everywhere have some intrinsic sense of good will and a desire to get along.' He tells me that he thinks Britain is lucky to have kept its own currency and dismisses the Scottish independence movement as ‘atavistic’, contrasting it unfavourably with the Anglophilia of Adam Smith, a favourite about whom he once wrote a surprisingly learned book.

Even closer to his heart - and, as a political humourist, to his livelihood - is the freedom of expression. His name recently appeared on a brief given to the Supreme Court in support of the Susan B. Anthony List, a conservative group found guilty of violating a possibly unconstitutional Ohio law that criminalises ‘false’ speech about politicians.

When it comes to the First Amendment and its protection of political speech, his views are more or less absolutist. Here I think I see the views of yesterday’s soixante-huitard and today’s buttoned-down right-winger converging. ‘If we were held to the literal truth about politicians not only would it be very hard to write about them but it would also be exceedingly boring. A joke is by its nature some kind of exaggeration. Exaggeration is by its nature some kind of lie. Telling jokes and lying about politicians - what’s the difference?’

P.J. O'Rourke will be in conversation with Rod Liddle at the Emmanuel Centre, central London, next Tuesday, May 27, from 7 pm