Writer P.J. O’Rourke

The humorist and political commentator dissects his latest text, The Baby Boom.

P.J. O'Rourke is a leading political humorist and best-selling author of 16 books on such diverse subjects as politics, cars, etiquette and economics. A contributing editor at The Weekly Standard and H. L. Mencken fellow at the Cato Institute, he previously spent 20 years covering wars and rebellions as the world’s only trouble-spot humorist for Rolling Stone and The National Lampoon and has written freelance for various publications. He became a writer after college, starting his career on small newspapers in Manhattan and Baltimore. In his latest book, The Baby Boom, he muses on the way his post-war generation peers have made America what it is today.


Tavis: Best-selling author and political commentator P.J. O’Rourke takes on nothing less than the baby boom generation, with his new tome, titled – and stay with here – “The Baby Boom: How it Got that Way and it Wasn’t My Fault and I’ll Never Do it Again.” P.J., good to have you on this program, sir.

P.J. O’Rourke: And the last part of that is a promise. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. What is the value – let me jump right in here in the time I have with you – what is the value in comparing and contrasting the baby boom generation with the greatest generation?

O’Rourke: Well, because there’s this perception out there, a sort of Archie Bunker perception that the two generations fought like cats and dogs, and it isn’t really true.

Greatest generation came through some stuff that we can’t even imagine – the Depression, World War I – and all they wanted after that was a breather and a calm and a quiet life, and they get us. (Laughter)

But the thing with us is that we actually felt, our parents felt a lot of anger and disappointment in the establishment – the economic establishment, the political establishment – sent them off to war. Before that, they were broke.

We acted on those feelings. So there’s some tension there in the way – when somebody does something that you want to do but you don’t quite have it together or you’re a little afraid to do, and they’re actually doing it; makes you mad.

Tavis: Let me just ask you point blank whether or not the baby boom has lived up to its expectations, lived up to its promise. There’s no debate, as you said a moment ago, about the greatest generation. Has the baby boom lived up to its expectations?

O’Rourke: Oh, no, it has not, no. (Laughter) No, our parents gave us every opportunity. Biggest single fact I ran across researching the book is that we were $10,000 richer. Not average, median family income; half above, half below. Ten – we grew up in a world $10,000 richer than our parents did.

We had the stability; we had a wonderful world in America after World War II. Steady economic growth, much more prosperity, much more stability, and we turned out to be – well, you know what we turned out to be. (Laughter)

But we didn’t turn out to be bad. We didn’t turn out to be bad. We turned out to be fun. We didn’t maybe turn out to be the doctors and the lawyers that our parents wanted us to be, but we did turn out to be fun.

Tavis: How does – well, this is what the whole book is about – how does one explain the fact that this generation grows up with, comes into its own, matures, with greater resources, but doesn’t measure up in every way?

O’Rourke: We’re a nice generation, we’re a fun generation, we’re a give-the-world-a-hug-and-a-drug generation. (Laughter) Not filled with hatred, not filled with crazy totalitarian ideas. Well, there are the fringe exceptions, but you know what I mean, down the middle.

Tavis: Has the baby boom generation done its part to bequeath whatever it should have bequeathed to the generation coming behind it?

O’Rourke: Yes in the sense of attitude, in the sense of just acceptance and even enthusiastic embracing of all sorts of people from all sorts of the world. Yes, we gave them that.

We, on the other hand, are going to bust their wallet so bad. We’re turning 50 now, the oldest ones of us are like, we’re in our sixties. We’re on Medicare, we’re on Social Security, and all those generations coming after us, such as you, are going to be broke. (Laughter) Be so broke.

Tavis: I’m glad you take such joy in that. (Laughter)

O’Rourke: Yeah. Well, you know, it wasn’t our fault. It wasn’t our fault, that’s our mantra. (Laughter) It wasn’t our fault. We didn’t pass Social Security, we didn’t pass Medicare.

Tavis: But it raises a very serious question, though, about how history will regard what the baby boom generation did do. Every generation obviously is going to be regarded one way or the other by history.

Again, there’s no debate about the greatest generation. I don’t know what they’ll say about my generation. But you have to feel for these kids who are coming up today, because these are the ones that aren’t going to have jobs, or good-paying jobs.

You go to school, you get an education, you work at an Apple store or something. That’s the –

O’Rourke: Yeah, exactly, if you’re lucky.

Tavis: If you’re lucky.

O’Rourke: Yeah.

Tavis: So I don’t know what history will say about this generation to come, but the baby boom generation, though –

O’Rourke: Unfortunately, at least for a long time, we’re going to be analyzed mainly in a demographic sense, that we’re so darn many of us. We’re going to be analyzed by what we did to the python as we went down the python.

So I think people aren’t going to be able to see us very well because of the – because after the baby boom there comes the baby bust. So we just, we have this imbalance.

It’s not just America. Most developed countries have a wild imbalance. Who’s got too many old people? I’m not volunteering to get out of the way, but we have (laughter) too many old people.

So that’s going to be the – I think it’s going to take decades before the real understanding of the electronic revolution that we caused, much as it took us decades and decades to understand just what a wonderful thing the industrial revolution was back in the early 19th century. We didn’t get that for a long time.

Tavis: To what extent then – you’ve raised this a couple times now, and before I go a little deeper inside the text – to what extent, P.J., does the sheer size and scope of this generation impact all the other tentacles and issues?

O’Rourke: Oh yeah, just completely, in every way.

Tavis: Just the sheer size of it, yeah, yeah.

O’Rourke: Everything. Everything from voting to control in Congress. We’ll just take the example of control. Congress, and indeed the presidency, is in the control of the baby boom. Politics is an over-50 job. They don’t age down there in Washington.

Tavis: For better or worse.

O’Rourke: For better or mostly for worse, they don’t age out. So one of the things, very typical baby boom that you get, is this deadlock. Why? Because we love to yell at each other.

It’s not because we’re really mad or anything, and I’m not even sure how much it is we disagree, but we love to argue about stuff. So it’s natural you get this kind of political deadlock in Washington. You can blame that right on the baby boom.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that, I was going to go there. Because that would seem to me to be the polars here, the polar opposites, to be more exact. If this generation’s greatest contribution is the technological advances, the flip side, I would think, or the other end of that spectrum would have to be that everything else is gridlocked.

O’Rourke: Yes, yes.

Tavis: So that the Internet and all the technological advances have given us a new freedom, but the deadlocking on everything else has abridged our freedoms.

O’Rourke: Well, something like gridlock, you’ve got to be careful what you wish for. I always use the example of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that basically gave LBJ freedom to do whatever he wanted in Vietnam, and we all know how that worked out.

Two votes against it in the Senate; no votes against it in the House. Now see, that’s lack of gridlock. So when you say, “Oh, I don’t want politics to be gridlocked,” be careful what you wish for.

Tavis: But the pushback on that would be simply this: That while that is the case with Vietnam, and that’s a huge – stain isn’t a good enough word; it’s the atrocity of the Johnson yeas.

Yet what Lyndon Johnson did give us was the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and a number of social programs.

O’Rourke: He did it in a bipartisan way. He couldn’t have done it without help from the Republicans, yeah.

Tavis: Absolutely. So I think that when you look at the full scope of what Johnson was able to do, the Vietnam – I can’t say “Vietnam notwithstanding.” But he got a lot done.

O’Rourke: He got a lot done.

Tavis: In this generation it’s hard to see.

O’Rourke: Not so much. Then but of course some of these issues that we’re facing here are really, really perplexing issues that actually do have the American public split right down the middle, and they’re not moral issues. Lyndon Johnson faced some clear moral issues.

Tavis: Sure, sure.

O’Rourke: But we’ve got kind of a situation here where half the people in America want more social services to be paid for by the other half, and the other half of the American people are the people who are paying for this.

Sometimes, I can’t remember which half I’m in, because I’m 66. Half the time I’m a Medicare plan D prescription drug beneficiary, and the other half of the time, it’s April 15th.

So I myself, (laughter) I myself get all, like, confused by this. But you’re right; the baby boom has not shown a genius for being able to work these things out.

Tavis: The result of that is that these issues appear to be intractable, and I don’t think they have to be.

O’Rourke: No, and they won’t be forever. No condition permanent. We’re going to get a Ronald Reagan and a Tip O’Neill. They’ll be very different looking; maybe they’ll have a soul patch, maybe they’ll have a nose ring, (laughter) maybe they’ll have some tattoos.

But they will get together. They probably won’t get together and drink, but they’ll probably get together and take some hits off the bong and like, this will work out.

Tavis: And figure it out.

O’Rourke: No, this will work out.

Tavis: I love the way you describe the baby boom generation – freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors.

O’Rourke: That was fun to do because I had to figure out, I had 75 million people and I said, they’re not all the same, how do you define them? You can’t define them by, like, gender or race or ethnic background or even where they live, because that’s just not the baby boom. That’s just not the way we feel or think.

So I said here’s a generation never grew up. Let’s just define them as a high school class. So you got the seniors like me, who are like, we’re right at the cutting edge. We’re right on the bow wave of the voyage of discovery.

But we’re also tethered very closely to the greatest generation, and so we end up getting keel-hauled. We end up getting dragged under the boat. All I can say about the senior generation is that Hillary Clinton belongs, and so does Cheech from Cheech and Chong. So you can see. (Laughter)

Then you get the juniors. Those are actually the tech brains, but not at first. At first they were even crazier than the seniors. For them, drugs weren’t an experiment, drugs were proven.

They’re the John Belushi – John actually was born in ’49, but I knew John. I’m sure he was held back a couple years, so he’s basically the junior class. (Laughter) They were the ones wandering around barefoot in Haight-Ashbury.

Now they found some shoes when they got down to Silicon Valley. Never did find their neckties, did they?

Tavis: No. (Laughter)

O’Rourke: Then you have the sophomores. The sophomores are a little more cautious about this. This is the “Preppie Handbook” generation. They’re into the sex, drugs, and rock and roll and the deep philosophical underpinnings thereof, but they also realize that what works in principle doesn’t always work when the bong sets fire to the beanbag chair. (Laughter)

Then you have the freshmen, who are born in the early ’60s, and they’re different, because the things that really formed the baby boom, the sort of aftermath of World War II, the civil rights struggle, the war in Vietnam, these things, they know about these things, but these things are sort of monuments to them. They’re not realities.

So they’re a little distanced from the rest of the baby boom, and I sometimes think that that’s one of the things that make – sometimes when our president has trouble communicating to America at large, it’s a little bit of his age group.

Tavis: On the cusp, yeah.

O’Rourke: They’re on the cusp; they’re a little distance from the things that formed the people who are older than they are.

Tavis: Well, that answer gives you a sense of how the book is broken down and how you can very easily, as I did – if I can do it, anybody can – navigate your way through the text.

The book is called “The Baby Boom: How it Got that Way and it Wasn’t My Fault and I’ll Never Do it Again,” and P.J. says the latter refrain is a promise. The author of the text, of course, is P.J. O’Rourke.

On my way out, speaking of our next guest, I just thought of another thing on that list that your generation gave us that I think may very well be – my assessment – may very well be – there may not be another generation that comes close to the contribution your generation made: Music.

O’Rourke: Our music was good.

Tavis: I don’t have time to get into it, but the music –

O’Rourke: Our music –

Tavis: – of that generation –

O’Rourke: Our music was good.

Tavis: Woo, we could do a whole show on that.

O’Rourke: Yeah, and it’d be fun and have a good soundtrack, too.

Tavis: Exactly. Soundtrack of our lives for many people.

O’Rourke: Yeah, exactly.

Tavis: Speaking of music – first of all, P.J., good to have you here.

O’Rourke: Oh, thanks.

Tavis: Thanks to you.

O’Rourke: Good to see you.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: February 18, 2014 at 11:53 pm