These days, loving your car might as well fall under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Everyone’s proud of their strangely shaped light bulbs, compost piles, and hybrids humming like hairdryers—it’s good to go green, but the self-congratulatory backslapping can be unbearable.
Energy efficiency be damned; famous contrarian P.J. O’Rourke still has his foot firmly pressed on the pedal. The political satirist’s latest collection comprises decades of his auto-fixated contributions to Car And Driver, Automobile, Esquire, Forbes, and others. Its title is fairly self-explanatory: Driving Like Crazy: Thirty Years of Vehicular Hell-bending Celebrating America The Way It’s Supposed To Be—With An Oil Well in Every Backyard, A Cadillac Escalade In Every Carport, And The Chairman Of The Federal Reserve Mowing Our Lawn. Recently, the former Foreign Affairs Desk Chief for Rolling Stone visited with The A.V. Club to discuss Ann Coulter, Clint Eastwood, the idiocy of Prius owners, and why we’ll soon be begging the Bolivians for lithium.
The A.V. Club: How do you feel about Barack Obama becoming the de facto president of General Motors?
P.J. O’Rourke: I think it’s a really, really bad idea. It’s one of these situations where Dad burns dinner, so you say, “Oh, I know. Let’s have the dog cook!” The only people that could possibly be worse at running a car company than the current crop of car executives—who have proven themselves to be plenty bad—would be a politician. There are lots of levels of fear and complaint about the government getting involved in business. First and foremost, of course, is incompetence. We actually have experiential evidence about this. In England, all the English car companies were beginning to circle the drain in a series of well-deserved failures and bankruptcies, earned by making lousy products with very poor production at high prices. So, the government, back in the ’70s, nationalized all the British car companies. The result was British Leyland, a name that perhaps doesn’t resonate much with you. Many of your friends probably drive Humber Super Snipers, or perhaps not. [Laughs.] That’s certainly one thing that we’re headed for. The other thing is that there’s a very good reason that governments aren’t supposed to compete with private-enterprise companies. Governments have monopolies on certain things, like eminent domain and deadly force. What’s another example of an organization that gets into the same business that you’re in, except that their guys have got guns? That would be the Mob. Ford is like the last honest trash collector in the New York metropolitan area, the last one that’s not mobbed-up. How long is that gonna go on for?
AVC: In your book, you refer to the 2010 Obama-mobile. What will that car be like?
PJO: It’s gonna run on alternative energy, it’s gonna have a small carbon footprint, and it’s gonna be sustainable. When I was a kid, we called it a Schwinn.
AVC: And it will run over blind people, because they can’t hear it coming around the bend.
PJO: And then there’s that! [Laughs.] Electric cars are a little creepy in that respect. They make no noise.
AVC: How many cars do you own?
PJO: If I mowed the lawn, the total might differ. [Laughs.] But I think at the moment, we’ve got five cars and a tractor.
AVC: What’s your favorite?
PJO: My old 911. I’ve got a 1990 Porsche 911. It’s just a Carrera, a very simple, straightforward little thing that goes like stink. I love it. It’s been incredibly reliable for all these years.
AVC: Would you agree that the planet basically has lung cancer and needs to quit smoking? Is that a fair analogy?
PJO: No, I don’t think so. There are plenty of problems in the world, and doubtless climate change—or whatever the currently voguish phrase for it all is—certainly is one of them. But it’s low on my list. I spent almost 25 years as a foreign correspondent, and the world’s primary problem is poverty. And I don’t mean, like, “our kids are gonna have to go to public school and I’m gonna have to give up my spa membership” poverty. I’m talking about “not enough to eat” poverty. In the first place, it’s a moral imperative that we fix that. In the second place, we’re gonna be in a world of hurt if we don’t get it fixed, because there’s going to be billions of people out there—they’re hungry, they’re mad. One thing that they can get their hands on is guns. We’ve seen a little bit of it so far; we could see a lot more of it. First and foremost: Feed people. If it warms the planet slightly… I live in New Hampshire. We’re in favor of global warming. Eleven hundred more feet of sea-level rises? I’ve got beachfront property. You tell us up there, “By the end of the century, New York City could be underwater,” and we say, “Your point is?”
AVC: Do you worry that some people might dismiss your more serious points because they’ll just assume you’re joking?
PJO: No, I don’t worry about it. It’s much better to have your arguments dismissed because you might be joking than to have your arguments dismissed because you’re not telling the truth. I’ll pick “I’m kidding” anytime over “I’m lying.”
AVC: There’s a line in the first essay in this collection where you refer to “a general feeling of not giving two fucks about man and his universe.” That might be construed as the thesis for this book.
PJO: [Laughs.] Well, one has one’s moments, although I like to only have them after 7 or 8 in the evening. It’s not good to think like that before cocktail hour. Someone was asking me, “What do you think about Ann Coulter? How are her opinions different from yours?” I said, “You know, they’re not. There’s nothing that Ann Coulter has said that I haven’t said, it’s just that I say it at 3 in the morning dead drunk, and she says it at 3 in the afternoon, stone-cold sober.” It’s kind of a nuance thing. [Laughs.]
AVC: You love cars, but in the book, you chastise Los Angeles for having too much car love. It’s almost as if you’re writing about sex, and L.A. represents the porn industry.
PJO: Yeah, that’s a very good parallel. I wish I’d drawn it myself. I am a great admirer of women, but that doesn’t mean I like Hustler. Los Angeles is sort of the Hustler magazine [of car love]. And I’m as fond as the next person of a lively set of photographs.
AVC: Shouldn’t you be celebrating Los Angeles, considering that you can’t do anything in that city without a car?
PJO: Los Angeles is many places in one place. If you get outside the world of show business and its satellites, there’s a whole world of car nuts in the Los Angeles area. Southern California is a nice place, if you could cut out the show-business cancer. It just keeps spreading.
AVC: In your defense of SUVs, you introduce the theory that they’ll use up the oil faster and actually curb global warning.
PJO: Listen, everyone in the Middle East would be back to being sand French, you know? They’d be off the map. We can’t use this stuff up too fast. There’s no doubt about it. Then, of course, if you use it up, you’ve got to come up with something else to replace it. I’m not guaranteeing what we come up with will be better for the planet. There is ethanol, for instance, which actually nets out with more pollution at greater expense, and more harm to the environment than petroleum, but we’ll come up with something.
AVC: Are you fearful of a future of quiet, electric cars?
PJO: I’m certainly not fearful. I’m 61 years old. I’m not that fearful of the future, period. I’m not going to see that much of it. [Laughs.] But, no, that [Chevy] Volta sports car is supposedly hot property. There’s nothing inherently lame about electricity. I’ve got a basement full of power tools that all operate with electricity, and they’re manly items. And when you see a great big locomotive hauling a mile of freight cars, that’s a hybrid. A lot of people don’t understand that. Those big GM locomotives—that is a diesel engine running a generator that sends electric power to the actual motors that are in the wheel carriages.
AVC: So what’s taking GM so long to make cars like that?
PJO: It’s a clumsy, heavy, expensive technology. It works better in a locomotive. A lot of things work better in a locomotive. Cars would be safer on rails! The problem with making a hybrid that works is, it’s going to be a heavy vehicle, and it’s going to be expensive to build, and is it gonna net out to be more efficient? It kinda depends upon how you do the math on making the batteries, and how much battery power it carries, how you dispose of the batteries when they’re done. It’s tricky. Somebody pointed out to me the other day—and I haven’t checked this fact—but apparently Bolivia is the key source of lithium in the world. So we’re gonna trade the Saudis for the Bolivians.
AVC: They’ve been feeding us with a different kind of energy for years.
PJO: They have, and that hasn’t been good for the internal peace of Latin America, so you can only imagine what a lithium-and-cocaine dependant economy will be like. [Laughs.] That is a great idea.
AVC: Some people argue that Prius owners are dangerous because they don’t care about cars, and therefore are terrible drivers.
PJO: They’re bad drivers because they’re idiots. And we know they’re idiots because they bought a Prius.
AVC: What’s wrong with a Prius?
PJO: Slow, expensive, it’s got no room. I have three children and three dogs. You put them in a Prius, you know? People who have a Prius obviously have no life! No wife, no kids, no pets—there’s no room in there for anything! A recent issue of Car And Driver has a test of a Honda Insight, a Toyota Prius, and then they pulled out of mothballs an old GM Metro from the ’90s, this pathetic three-cylindered automobile that sold for about 1,800 bucks. It got better gas mileage than the Prius or the Insight.
AVC: But you have to agree, for a variety of reasons, that we should find a way to curb our dependence on oil.
PJO: No! I don’t at all. I mean, yes, pollution is a problem, and there’s the whole problem of the spoiling of the commons, but we’ve addressed the pollution problem on a variety of different levels in a variety of ways, and it’s worked pretty well. I’m old enough to remember when the air over American cities was a lot dirtier than it is now. You’ve probably never woken up early on a winter morning to the acid stink of coal smoke in the air, which was everywhere when I was a little kid. My grade school was heated with coal. Not only was coal used to generate electricity, it was without any scrubbers in the stacks. We can address this problem. Most of the people who have grabbed hold of climate change and greenhouse gases, pollution, oil dependency—they have another motive, and their motive is to attain the appearance of virtue without having actually done anything virtuous. Or if they’re in politics, the whole point of politics is to achieve prestige and power without merit. These are just nice opinions to have. They’re utterly meaningless. It’s just a way for people to be pious jerks. This going on and on about how terrible a carbon-based economy is, these people are full of crap. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Their motives are not necessarily good just because they say they are being good. It’s peace, love, and understanding. To which I can just say, “Shut up.” Human liberty, rule of law, and free markets fix this stuff. It isn’t necessary to go around being the Mia Farrow of the ecosphere. [Laughs.] I’m really tired of virtue.
AVC: With the future of cars and the journalism both in doubt, where does that leave you?
PJO: Clint Eastwood has done it all with that film Gran Torino. I’ve been channeling that character ever since I saw the movie. I’ve decided that my motto in life is “Get off my lawn.” It’s the right answer to everything.