Coming from extremes: frets of Thompson and O'Rourke

October 02, 1994|By Tim Warren

We need people like P. J. O'Rourke and Hunter S. Thompson, even if we don't like them (which is often) and if they are wrong (even more often). They are skeptical and surly. In a society that encourages conformity, they willfully do not fit in, as these books of their latest journalism attest.

Each came out of the countercultural journalism of the late 1960s. Mr. Thompson was one of Rolling Stone's most influential and imitated writers; his "gonzo journalism," in which the writer became a crazed, highly involved participant in the story, was copied by every third-rate college reporter in the country. His best books are his earliest: "Hell's Angels," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72" are still wickedly funny.

Mr. Thompson's politics have remained the same: basically libertarian, though probably he'd be chairman of the Paranoid Party if one existed. Mr. O'Rourke, on the other hand, has drifted considerably to the right. Baltimoreans recall him as the editor of a radical newspaper called Harry; now he's wearing pinstripes and suspenders in the daytime and his Republican Party underwear to bed at night.

He's a gleeful reactionary at times, a smart-aleck conservative the rest of the time, as only one who was lost (i.e., a leftist) and is now found can be. He's your basic family-values man now, lashing out at the bad things: liberals, environmentalists, feminists, misguided government spending. And in his best books, notably his best-selling "Parliament of Whores," a scathing look at Washington excess and pretense, Mr. O'Rourke can be devastating.

Thus, though Mr. O'Rourke has admitted to a long history of substance abuse (he got out of the draft in 1970 by showing a letter from his doctor documenting his drug use) and was a hard-core leftist, he's now embracing All That's Good in America. He writes in "All the Trouble in the World": "Right now, at the end of the second millennium, is the best moment of all time, and right here, in the United States, is the best place to be at that moment."

But, he frets, those darned liberals won't let us enjoy our hard-earned fruits of democracy. "I hear America whining, crybaby to the world. I behold my country in a pet -- beefing, carping, crabbing . . . sniveling, mewling, fretting, yawping, bellyaching, and being pickle-pussed." America, he concludes, is now "a nation of calamity howlers, crepe hangers, sour guts, and mopes, a land with the grumbles."

In "All the Trouble in the World" Mr. O'Rourke sets out to investigate the sources of this malaise. He finds them, not surprisingly, in the liberal agenda. As he writes in his acknowledgments:

"I'd like to thank Vice President Al Gore for being the perfect straw man on such subjects as the environment, ecology, and population. Sorry, Al, for repeatedly calling you a fascist twinkie and intellectual dolt. It's nothing personal. I just think you have repulsive totalitarian inclinations and the brains of a King Charles spaniel." If Mr. O'Rourke has a patron saint, it's Our Lady of the Perpetual Smirk.

In this book -- much of which appeared earlier in Rolling Stone -- Mr. O'Rourke takes a global view. He disputes concerns about overpopulation ("a perfectly guilt-free -- indeed, sanctimonious -- way for 'progressives' to be racists") and the environment ("people with a mission to save the earth want the earth to seem worse than it is so their mission will look more important"). He looks at war in former Yugoslavia, at impoverished Haiti, and at rebuilding Vietnam.

Somehow, he can be funny, even charming, while examining Serious Issues, mostly because, above all, he loathes pretense. Some passages on journalists covering wars are hysterical.

But overall, the feeling nags that when Mr. O'Rourke can't make fun of a situation, he's at a loss. This was evident in "Give War a Chance," his last book, about the Persian Gulf War. His persona can carry him but so far.

That is also the case with Mr. Thompson in "Better Than Sex," his acerbic portrait of the 1992 presidential campaign and the first year of Bill Clinton's presidency. In 1972, Mr. Thompson had immersed himself in the campaign as an unabashed supporter of George McGovern. His crazed, drug-stoked dispatches for Rolling Stone were included in his "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail 1972," which forever changed how campaigns were covered.

Mr. Thompson has followed politics erratically ever since -- though, he writes in "Better Than Sex," "It's a rush that a lot of people will tell you is higher than any drug they've ever tried or even heard about, and maybe better than sex . . . which is a weird theory and often raises unsettling personal questions, but it is a theory nonetheless, and on some days I've even believed it myself."

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