Social critic, satirist and once the most-quoted man in the world, PJ O’Rourke chats with Michael Adams about his latest book, The Baby Boom, while offering parenting tips.
It’s a bitterly cold Wednesday afternoon in Chicago and P.J. O’Rourke is holed up in his hotel room, wrestling with his first-ever laptop. “It hates me,” says the man who, until recently, used an IBM Selectric typewriter to forge his career, first as a gonzo journalist for National Lampoon and Rolling Stone and then as a political and cultural satirist for publications like The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. O’Rourke published his first book, Modern Manners, in 1983 and since has followed up with over a dozen laugh-out-loud bestsellers, including Republican Party Reptile, Holidays In Hell, Eat The Rich and Give War A Chance. His latest, The Baby Boom, both skewers and celebrates his generation.
What should Gen X, Y and Millennials take from The Baby Boom?
Not advice. Not examples… except perhaps in a negative sense. I feel like we’re the roadblock. We’re the generation that’s standing in the way of all of the rest of you. Besides that, we used up all the weird, and that’s left you guys with terrible options like nose-piercings and painful tattoos. Funnily enough, one benefit you did get from us was all the electronic stuff that we invented that we don’t really understand or know how to use. It baffles and angers us – and it’s baffling and angering me as we speak.
With global warming threatening to wipe us out, should Baby Boomer excesses make us regard you guys like the comet that killed the dinosaurs?
[Laughs] I don’t think so. I think the comet was The Industrial Revolution. I know we seem old but we’re not quite that old. Actually, it was the Baby Boomers who tried to get the world’s attention about global warming. Typical of us, we raised the problem and had lots of fun with the problem and felt very good about ourselves without presenting any solution.
Your book has a lot of affectionate memoir material. Was the world better then?
No! I think the world’s a lot better now. But I do look back fondly. We did have a happy childhood. It was secure and stable. The troops came home and everybody got married and had kids. It was fun. It was a nice period. But the book’s not really a memoir because memoirs are about how one is different from other people. This is about how other people are the same as me.
You did a lot of drugs back in the day. How’s your memory of your youth?
It doesn’t seem to be my childhood memories that were affected – they’re quite clear. But there are a few years in the 1960s where I may be missing a couple of candles on the cake.
You’ve got three kids – have they read about your drug experiences?
Not a word of it. Kids don’t regard their parents as interesting in any way. Maybe they would if I’d written Harry Potter. But I have a feeling that J.K. Rowling’s kid’s gonna feel the same way about her.
So, have you had the “drug conversation” with your kids?
My 13-year-old daughter doesn’t show any signs of interest so we haven’t had that talk. I have had the talk with the 16-year-old, who, as far as I know, hasn’t taken drugs. I didn’t use any of that ‘It’s a gateway drug’ crap. I just said, ‘I don’t think marijuana’s very harmful or dangerous but there seems to be some research that it affects adolescent brains while they’re still in formation so I’d much rather you wait until you’re in your 20s.’ I tried to put it on an objective basis. Of my three kids, she’s the most mathematical, the most coldly rational.
So if she comes home and says, ‘I’ve done a lot of reading about LSD, it sounds pretty amazing and I’d like to drop some tonight’, would you be cool with that?
[Laughs] No, I most certainly wouldn’t. I’d ask her to think again. But I’d try to use rationalism. With her younger sister, I might resort to, ‘Cool kids don’t do drugs any more’. With my nine-year-old boy I’d probably say, ‘I’ll beat your butt’. You have to use different approaches with different children – that’s my parenting advice.
Let’s hope they don’t read your books and start saying, ‘Well, dad, I refer you to page…’
Yeah! But I’ll bet you anything they never read a thing I wrote until they’re middle aged. Then they’ll be like, ‘You won’t believe this but millions of years ago, my dad wrote a book.’
If 26-year-old P.J. could’ve flashed forward to see the 66-year-old version, what would he think?
I would’ve thought I was immensely old and immensely out of it. And you know something, I am!
In The Baby Boom, you equate mid-century cruising in cars with 21st-Century Facebook. Do you do social media?
I have a little bit because my publisher makes me. It’s fun enough to do but I don’t follow anyone else on Twitter or look at their Facebook and I can’t imagine why anyone would look at mine. Social media doesn’t do it for me. That’s crotchety old me talking. There’s probably something terribly interesting happening on Pinterest.
Think social media will go the way of fads like ham radio?
Sure it will. The novelty will wear off and it’ll become a useful tool – a tool that’s used when it’s useful and not all the time just because you can.
What’re the prospects for journalists and authors in the digital age?
It’s going to be tough. Journalism is going to be fully electronic. But I don’t think any harm’s going to be done because it’s not like daily print journalism was ever a fine art in the first place. Nonfiction will benefit because why print a book about Iran’s nuclear arsenal when it’ll be out of date by the time it hits shelves? But the physical book’s not going to go away. People have a fondness for objects and they like owning things. Also, when you get to a certain age, reading on a screen bugs the hell out of your eyes.
What’s your take on short-attention-span media and its celebrity obsession?
I pick up People or Hello magazine and I don’t know who any of those people are. So how celebrated can they be? Now I’m even getting confused about the royal family – there are too many of them. It’s one of these self-limiting things. As we get more and more celebrities, the idea of celebrity becomes so diluted that famous people aren’t actually famous.
Do you feel a lot of pressure to maintain your status as the most-quoted living person in the Oxford Dictionary Of Modern Quotations?
I think that’s an old statistic. It was true at one point. It may no longer be true. The editorship of these things changes and there used to be an editor there who was a fan of mine. But, at any rate as soon as I pass on I’ll go waaaay down the list.