DATE June 10, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Thomas Frank discusses his book "What's the Matter with
Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Today we're going to hear from satirist P.J. O'Rourke, who has described
himself as a Republican turned Communist turned Republican, and from Thomas
Frank, who was conservative as a teen-ager and now places himself on the left.
We'll start with Frank. He's the author of the new book "What's the Matter
with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America." The book tries
to answer this questions: Why has the conservative movement won over so many
working American when, Frank says, the movement's policies are just making the
rich even richer? Frank uses his home state of Kansas as the case study. He
says 100 years ago Kansas was a reliable hotbed of leftist reform movements,
but now it's turned to the right. Frank is the founding editor of The
Baffler, a journal of cultural criticism. His previous books include "One
Market Under God" and "The Conquest of Cool." In his new book, he examines
what's often described as the culture wars. He says it's instructive to
consider how the meaning of the word `elite' has changed.
Mr. THOMAS FRANK (Author, "What's the Matter with Kansas?"): I live in
Washington now, and here in Washington, you're constantly hearing people say
that it's--you know, whenever, say, for example, Democrats start talking about
the CEO wages or something like that, the Republicans will respond by saying
that's class warfare and class warfare is not OK. But if you listen to these
same Republicans for very long, you'll start hearing them use the term
`liberal elite,' and they bash the liberal elite very effectively; they do a
really good job at this. In fact, this is sort of the centerpiece of their
approach to Middle American voters for a very long time now--is to position
themselves as an enemy of the elite as class warriors, if you will, as allies
of the common man in his battle to, you know, overthrow these haughty,
overeducated Ivy League types.
GROSS: Now in trying to puzzle through in your book why this idea of the
elite liberal media has become such an appealing target to so many people, you
suggest that maybe it means that people are being told that they are the salt
of the earth, they're the beating heart of America; you know, that the elite
liberal media, they're disconnected, they're elite. And it makes other people
feel more authentic. And you say that combines...
Mr. FRANK: Yeah.
GROSS: ...with the narcissism of victimhood. So anybody could be a victim,
and everybody becomes authentic who isn't part of that elite liberal media.
Mr. FRANK: Right. And--yes, and you've summarized it very well. And let me
just point out that these are terms, `authenticity' and `victimhood,' that are
generally applied to people on the left and to, like, academic theory and
stuff like that. And what's fascinating to me is that the conservative
movement culture feels that the people who do have authenticity are your
average salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar Americans who live in the heartland,
this kind of thing, the grassroots people, what Nixon called Middle America,
the silent majority. Now if these people actually went out and voted
Democratic, you understand, if these people were liberals, they would
instantly lose this authenticity.
Let me just skip ahead a little bit and say that the most--that the
contemporary iteration of this theme is the red-state, blue-state literature
that you see all over the place, especially here in Washington, where this is
real sociology to divide America up into these two profiles, the red-state
people on the one hand, who have authenticity and who aren't, you know,
ashamed of themselves and what they do and who work with their hands and who
have all the sort of Boy Scout virtues. You know, they're humble, they're
God-fearing, they're patriotic and they're hard-working. And then on the
other hand, you have the blue-state people who are--this is the word they
always use--`effete,' who are deracinated, who, you know, are driven from fad
to fad, who tend to have very pretentious college degrees, you know, who have
funny little affected pets, who drink lattes and French wine and this sort of
thing. And so that's the authenticity divide. And this is a very common
Now what's fascinating to me about all this is that it redefines a social
class. Instead of being a matter of your economic position, who you work for,
the conditions of your employment, class is about authenticity. It's about
what you wear, what you eat, what kind of car you drive, you know, a Crown
Victoria or, on the other hand, a Volvo, you know. And so it makes--class is
no longer an economic phenomenon; it's a cultural phenomenon.
GROSS: Well, your new book is called "What's the Matter with Kansas?" And
Kansas is the state that you grew up in. You've looked into your home state.
What do you think Kansas symbolizes now politically?
Mr. FRANK: Well, there's sort of a journalistic convention that Kansas is a
microcosm for the country as a whole. And back, you know, some years ago,
whenever they needed--whenever, you know, a journalist needed somebody to
symbolize the average American, the regular guy, they would go to Kansas.
And it's true the state is, to this day, demographically very, very average.
It's right in the middle of the pack in a number of ways. And it's also right
in the middle of the country, right? It is the heart of America.
Now what fascinates me about the state is that its politics in the last 15
years have swung radically to the right. Now it's always been a pretty
Republican state, but it was a kind of moderate to progressive Republicanism.
And what happened in the last 15 years is that the Republican Party there has
had this kind of a populist uprising on the right. It's a state that's
growing more conservative and more Republican, I suppose, by the day, but it's
a place where it's being driven to the right by angry, you know,
working-class, blue-collar voters.
GROSS: What are some of the turning points, do you think, that led the
Republican Party of Kansas in that direction?
Mr. FRANK: It always comes back to the values issues, and in Kansas the big
one was abortion. And you remember Operation Rescue in the 1980s; this was
a militant pro-life group that would go to various cities around the country
and do these dramatic--you know, they would surround abortion clinics and
chain themselves to fences and this sort of thing. And in 1991, they decided
to descend on Wichita, the biggest city in Kansas. And they did this, and
they were there for quite a while; they call it the Summer of Mercy. And
ironically, this happened because in Wichita there was an abortion clinic that
performed late-term abortions, and I believe it was one of the only ones in
the entire Midwest that did that. And that was also sort of a relic of
another side of the Kansas personality, which was that Kansas in the old days
was always in the forefront on women's issues; it was one of the first states
to have women's suffrage, this sort of thing.
So anyhow, Operation Rescue came to Wichita, and the moderate leaders of the
state, the moderate Republicans who sort of dominated the state, were
horrified by what these guys were doing in Wichita. And this was a nightmare
for them. They're, you know, pro-choice and all this sort of thing. Anyhow,
the conservative rebels in the state--and there had been conservatives before;
they were right-wingers, just not very many of them--they saw their
opportunity and they began signing people up at the Operation Rescue rallies,
signing people up to run for precinct positions in the Republican Party. And
they really took the party over from the ground up. Regardless of what you
think about their politics, it was grassroots democracy in action and, in some
ways, very inspiring. They were going against the established opinion. They
were constantly being denounced by the newspapers. And yet, you know, they
persevered in what they believed to be the right, and they won.
And Wichita, which is a blue-collar city with a lot of labor unions in it and
always had a Democratic congressman at the time, they got rid of him in 1994
and replaced him with a conservative Republican congressman, and it remains a
very conservative place to this day.
Then, you know, there are other issues, but it's always about cultural issues.
And the most spectacular one was in the late 1990s. The conservatives were
looking for a new issue to rally their followers, and they settled on
evolution, you know, the teaching of evolution in the schools, and they staged
a big battle over this. And they lost that time.
GROSS: My guest is Thomas Frank. His new book is called "What's the Matter
with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Thomas Frank. He's the author
of the new book "What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the
Heart of America."
Now you describe yourself as a former Reagan Youth. What drew you to
President Reagan and to the conservative movement when you were in your teens?
Mr. FRANK: Well, it's funny because there's been all these obituaries and
stuff, and so I've been thinking a lot about the man and what I liked about
him when I was a kid. And it's often hard to put yourself back in those--you
know, to remember what it was like in the 1970s. But for me, at least, and
for the kind of adults that I spent my time around, it was this period of
national decline, and everything was going wrong. And you remember Jimmy
Carter; he basically was just, like, this very pessimistic figure, very
morose, very sad. There was nothing we could do about anything. Things were
out of our hands.
And here was Ronald Reagan, this guy who believed in--and I mean really
believed, with almost religious conviction--believed in the kind of the myths,
believed in the mythic America of sort of, you know, Hollywood during the
code, you know, this sort of 1950s America where everything was in its
place and everything worked right. And he was also so wonderfully optimistic
about everything. And somehow my idealism was sort of captured by Reagan's
idealism, and I became a young conservative. And you know, his idea that
government intervention in the economy and taxation and all the sort of things
that had, you know, happened since the New Deal were, in fact, leading us down
the road to statism. That really rang true for me as a kid.
Now then when you get older, you know, this idealistic perception of the world
of business, you know, and his attitudes about how things worked, they just
shatter on your first contact with the real world. But you know, his
evocation of Middle America and business optimism, these two things combined,
it just rang true for the teen-ager in me.
GROSS: When you became a young conservative, what about the values that came
along with that? Did you believe in the kind of personal values, the
religious values, the moral values?
Mr. FRANK: Well, you know, it's never been precisely clear that Reagan
himself believed in those things. This is one of the sticking points
that--well, I mean, it doesn't really bother members of the conservative
movement, but it should--that Reagan always claimed to be anti-abortion and
never did anything about it. On a lot of the cultural issues, he never did
anything. And this is one of the earmarks of the conservative populism that
I try to emphasize in the book, that their leaders never deliver. They
constantly rally the troops using these social issues, these, you know, issues
like abortion or evolution or guns or whatever, or school prayer or the Ten
Commandments or--I don't know what the next one is going to be--gay marriage
or something like that. And they never deliver on these things. Once they're
in office, all they ever do, you know, is deliver on the economic front.
Merrill Lynch gets what they want, right? But these poor--these guys down in
Wichita do not. You know, school prayer never comes back. Abortion is never
halted. You never get to put up a Ten Commandments monument in the
courthouse. The idea is ridiculous. And yet somehow, the faith of the true
believers--this doesn't--it isn't shattered; it doesn't break. They don't
say, `Well, you know, maybe our leaders are giving us a line here. Maybe they
really don't care about this stuff.' That never happens.
And Reagan is the perfect example of that. He never delivered on this front,
and yet, you know, he's still lionized by that kind of conservative. If you
think about it for very long, it's amazing to me that the conservatives have
been able to capture the values question for themselves. The fact is that
all this culture that surrounds us and that disgusts them, whether it's
Hollywood movies or the products of the record industry or MTV or advertising
or the sitcoms on TV. These things are not made by the ACLU. These things
aren't made by the Supreme Court. These things aren't made by liberals.
These things are made by business. These things are an expression of the
needs and cultural requirements of business in the same way that a McDonald's
hamburger is, or in the same way that a Boeing 737 is. These things are the
products of this capitalist system that the Republicans, you know, even
although they--the Republicans, the conservatives, even though they rail
against these things, and not just rail against them; this is the bread and
butter of the conservative revolution is saying no to the culture that
surrounds us--even though they do that, on the other hand, all they want to
do is give these--you know, deregulate, lower taxes, make these people richer
and richer and richer. It's a contradiction that at the very heart of the
GROSS: So would it be fair to say that while conservatives condemn elite
liberal media, you have your own problems with the media, but your criticisms
aren't that the reporters are liberal or that the networks are liberal; your
criticism is that business decisions tend to control--tend to influence, at
least, editorial divisions...
Mr. FRANK: Yeah. Well, they win out.
GROSS: ...tend to influence what the product is.
Mr. FRANK: Yeah, they win out, of course. And this is true. I mean, of
course there's liberals in the media; there's liberals everywhere. I'm a
liberal. But here's the thing; the whole theory about liberals in the
media--and this gets us back to a question that you asked earlier--you've got
this contradiction at the heart of conservatism, that on the one hand they are
the pro-business part of the American political spectrum; they are militantly
pro-business; they want to let the free market be free to do its thing. And
we all know about this; this is what the new economy was all about. This is
the whole idea of globalization. Let the free market do its thing.
Laissez-faire, right? On the other hand, they keep getting re-elected by
railing against the culture, by the culture wars, by deploring the culture
that surrounds us.
Well, there's only one way to resolve this contradiction, and the
contradiction being that business creates this culture that they despise. How
do you get out of this contradiction? You get out of it by again draining the
economics out of your worldview. You don't talk about the economics. You
don't talk about the fact that it's business culture. Instead of talking
about the, you know, elite that actually runs things in America, you invent
this phantom elite, this liberal elite. And so instead of culture and
newspapers and, you know, TV shows and the record industry and what have you,
being expressions of capitalism, of business, they're expressions of
liberalism. And so liberalism is this kind of shadowy force that is
everywhere and is motivating things all the time, but it can never really be
pinned down and it certainly can't ever be removed from office. It's this
ruling class that is in power always, no matter what we do and no matter how
we revolt against it. And this is sort of the heart of conservative movement
culture is that you can win all the elections you want, but the liberals, they
hang on and they're always, you know, skulking about influencing things, this
GROSS: We've been talking about, you know, the right vs. the left and, you
know, the red states and the blue states. I'm wondering if one of the things
that troubles you isn't just division between liberals and conservatives or
the right and the left, but rather, the sense that--and sometimes it seems in
America people have become much more ideologically driven and almost less
willing to think through every event independently, but would rather prefer to
see it through...
Mr. FRANK: Through an ideological prism.
GROSS: ...an ideological framework and...
Mr. FRANK: Yeah.
GROSS: ...kind of make up your mind beforehand whether this is a good thing
or a bad thing as opposed to examining it on its own merits.
Mr. FRANK: Yeah. I know what you're talking about mainly through my
experience with the conservatives, and they do have a very elaborate, very
well-constructed and pretty much airtight vision of the way that the world
works. This is--if you're part of the movement culture there, you've got an
explanation for everything. And this is very powerful, and it would sometimes
start to draw me in. You know, I'd be reading their--doing nothing but
reading conservative ListServs for a month or, you know, reading their
magazines or talking only to conservatives--by that, I mean, you know,
hard-right movement conservatives--and their vision of the way the world
works, in which the liberals are always pulling the strings and everything is
happening because liberals have made it happen and, you know, they're always
manipulating us and this kind of thing. And you're constantly the victim; all
you can do in life is protest and get angry about things. And everything in
the world is evidence of the liberal elite's power over you and power over the
For example, there's a book that came out in the '90s called "Unlimited
Access" by a guy who worked at the Clinton White House. He was an FBI guy and
he worked at the Clinton White House, and he really disliked Bill Clinton. It
was one of the first big Clinton-bashing books. But what fascinates me about
it is that the things that he objects to about the Clinton administration, it
was every little damn thing. It was like he saw a guy wolfing yogurt in the
cafeteria line before paying for it. He saw one of the Clinton staffers had a
messy office. One of the Clinton staffers didn't, you know, return his phone
call. You know, another Clinton staffer, you know, I don't know, had a funny
way of talking or something like that. And he even says one of his fellow
officers passes this along, that Hillary Clinton looked at him wrong. And so
even, I mean, on the most quotidian level--Right?--on the most everyday level,
they have an explanation for things. And if you get involved in this movement
culture, it's like, `You know, my neighbor mows his lawn funny. I think it's
'cause he's a liberal.'
Another example; this one's kind of funny. We got a letter at The Baffler one
time from a guy who was crossing the street somewhere, and a guy in a car
rolled down his window and said, `Get out of the way, you damn liberal.' And
he was--`How did the guy know I was a liberal? And has liberal just become
this curse word?' And I think clearly for a big part of America, it has. It
has, and it is just this--you know, it explains things on everywhere from the
highest level to the most minute, everyday level.
GROSS: Well, Thomas Frank, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. FRANK: Hey, it's my pleasure. Anytime.
GROSS: Thomas Frank is the author of the new book "What's the Matter with
Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America." He's also the founding
editor of The Baffler, a journal of cultural criticism.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, satirist P.J. O'Rourke. He's described himself as a
Republican turned Communist turned Republican. His new book is called "Peace
Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism." And critic at large John Powers
reviews a new documentary about Al-Jazeera, the Arab news network, and
reflects on America's network news.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: P.J. O'Rourke discusses his new book, "Peace Kills:
America's Fun New Imperialism"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Satirist and journalist P.J. O'Rourke used to describe himself as `the token
Republican' at Rolling Stone magazine. O'Rourke has been a lifelong
Republican, with the exception of a few years when he was a young man and he
considered himself a Communist. He started his career at the National
Lampoon, where he became editor in chief. In the 1980s he became a roving
reporter, covering crises and conflicts around the world. Now he writes for
The Atlantic magazine. His new book is called "Peace Kills: America's Fun
New Imperialism." It includes pieces he's written on Kosovo, Israel, Egypt,
Kuwait and Iraq.
Let's start with a reading from his piece "Thoughts on the Eve of War," which
he wrote last year in Kuwait just before the invasion of Iraq.
Mr. P.J. O'ROURKE (The Atlantic Magazine; Author, "Peace Kills: America's
Fun New Imperialism"): (Reading) Not that I disagreed with everything said by
the people who opposed the war with Iraq. As a causus belli, weapons of mass
destruction did seem like a pair of pants cut to the size of North Korea and
into which Iraq was being stuffed. And claims that Saddam Hussein was
cooperating with Osama bin Laden smelled of something found on the Internet
late at night, along with proof that Jews in the Rotary Club control the World
Bank. What President Bush should have said was, `Here's a man who has been
murdering everyone he could get his hands on for 25 years. We don't need a
reason. We're going to do to Iraq's dictator what Hollywood does to its
has-beens at the Academy Awards ceremony; we're giving Saddam Hussein a
lifetime achievement award.' And I don't blame most nations for not supporting
the United States. The world is full of loathsome governments run by
criminals, thugs and beasts. When President Bush mentioned regime change,
hairy little ears pricked up all over the Earth; beads of sweat broke out on
low-sloping browns; bloodstained, grasping hands began to tremble. Poor Colin
Powell had to get on the phone to various hyenas in high office and explain to
them that America itself was in need of regime change from 1992 to 2000, and
we didn't precision-bomb the fellow who was responsible, and we only impeached
him a little. Kim Jong Il, Robert Mugabe, Jacques Chirac should quit
worrying. They should look upon Bill Clinton and know the fate that awaits
them is a lucrative lecture tour, a big book contract and many willing, plump
GROSS: That's P.J. O'Rourke reading from his new book, "Peace Kills:
America's Fun New Imperialism."
P.J. O'Rourke, welcome to FRESH AIR. As a satirist, why would you want to
cover a war? You wrote that piece that we just heard in Kuwait on the eve of
war. Why would you want to cover war? It's not very funny.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Well, actually, it is funny. The funniness, as far as I'm
concerned, proceeds from human folly. An earthquake is not funny, a mudslide
is not funny, but an extremely dishonest and botched relief attempt after the
earthquake, all sorts of people from the caring industries on the take, they
could be quite funny. My feeling about humor is that it proceeds from human
folly, folly being persistence in error, not just making a mistake; everybody
makes a mistake. But if you're persistent in a mistake, you then become a
fool. And war has got plenty of that.
GROSS: So what did you find during the invasion of Iraq that struck you as
the kind of folly that you're referring to?
Mr. O'ROURKE: It's not so much directly during combat that was amusing;
there's nothing amusing about combat. But the reaction of the Kuwaitis and of
the guest workers in Kuwait to the whole war was pretty interesting. The
reaction of the Iraqis and their complete sense that they had nothing to do
with any of the events, good or bad, that were happening around them, their
wonderful abnegation of all responsibility, that was pretty funny. Not
everything was exactly funny, I mean, certainly not funny to see the
archaeological museum destroyed.
But it was fairly funny to see the Museum of Modern Art destroyed because
their modern art is even worse than our modern art. And I was with a group of
civil engineers, reserve troops, from Chicago. I helped save all the modern
art of Iraq from a--it had been locked in a basement at the museum to save it
from looters. Sewage levels were rising in the basement. The Iraqi Museum
directors were very angry about this. They came to the Americans--the
fighting is still going on at this point. They came to the Americans saying,
you know, `It is your responsibility to save this art. It's your duty to save
it.' They almost but not quite said, `It's your fault, you know, that the
sewer level is rising.' I don't think among the targets that we had in
Baghdad, that the sewer outlets into the Tigris were high on the list. But
So these civil engineers actually, quite above and beyond the call of duty or
beyond their orders, scrounged up a huge truck, went to the Museum of Modern
Art and began hauling all this very large, very heavy modern art out of the
basement. And it was just appalling. I mean, and not only was a lot of it
appalling, but it was things like an innocent Iraqi peasant being smothered by
an American flag while a bald eagle pecked on his head.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. O'ROURKE: And the soldiers just laughed. You know, they laughed. They
loaded it all in the truck and carried it away to a secure place.
GROSS: I can think of a scene that was pretty funny, and that's you
bargaining with an Iraqi over a case of beer.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Ah, the thing that gives me hope for Iraq because I had said
earlier in the book that Kuwait was basically Houston without Enron or beer.
And so I get to Baghdad. As I say, the fighting's still going on. You can
hear gunfire off in the distance. Things are very chaotic. I'm with a group
of soldiers that I won't name because this was a punishable offense, what we
were up to. We were driving down the street in a troop carrier, and we see a
guy on the sidewalk selling beer, which the American troops had none of, were
allowed to have none of. And the sergeant driving the truck goes, `I'd better
stop and check my windshield wiper fluid level,' or something, you know? And
so we stop in front of the guy selling beer, and I jump out of the truck and I
tell the soldiers--I say, `Look, I've been covering the Middle East 20 years.
I know how to haggle. Leave this to me. Leave this to me.'
I jump down. The guy wants a buck a can for this beer, which is just a
fortune at that moment in Baghdad. And so I go into sort of broken Arabic and
charades and pantomime and say to him, you know, `How much for a whole case?'
And he goes, `24 bucks.' His English was perfect. So we start going around.
And first thing was I didn't have 24 bucks; I wasn't carrying much money. The
soldiers weren't carrying any money. I had a bunch of Kuwaiti dinars on me,
which the Baghdad guy was not interested in at all. And so we go around and
around and around about this price, and we finally come up with a price partly
in dollars and partly in Kuwaiti dinars and with some worthless Iraqi dinars
and change. And it was all the rates of exchange decided democratically by
the crowd that had gathered around to watch us dicker--it goes on for about 20
So, finally, I get the case of beer. I jump back into the truck, I start
doing the math and I realize that I had bargained him from $24 to a price of
about $36 and that not only that, it was non-alcoholic. And that's the moment
I decided, you know, `There is hope for this country. There's hope for this
country. You come back to this country in a while, after it all settles down,
and you're going to find Houston with Enron.
GROSS: (Laughs) Now there are funny moments in your book, and there were many
moments that aren't funny. And the book, in fact, is dedicated to Michael
Kelly, a journalist who died covering the war in Iraq.
Mr. O'ROURKE: My boss.
GROSS: Yeah. During the last few years of his life, he was the editor of The
Atlantic magazine, and he brought you to the magazine. So you lost an editor,
you lost a friend when he died. What impact did his death have on you as a
writer and satirist? Here you are as a satirist going into a war to see what
you could see, but someone who you're very close to dies.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, no, it had no impact that way. I have never pursued the
attempt to be funny because I was a happy person or the world is a happy
place. It's my way of being angry. It's my way of lashing out. Humor is
what people like me, who were very small in high school and got those nose
broken a couple times because they had a big mouth--we learned to commit it to
paper, you know, rather than making wisecracks from the back of the class.
No, it's all aggression. And, I mean, Mike had hired me for my aggression.
Mike had a lot of little funny-guy aggression himself, you know. It didn't
slow me down. It made me feel awful--I mean, just awful. I mean, he had kids
same age as my kids. And my wife is a very stoic woman, and I had to call her
and tell her that Mike had died, and she just came to pieces.
And then I had to tell her that because Mike had died, I had to go to Baghdad
because, first place, there was no one there now for the magazine, and, in the
second place, James Kitfield from The National Journal, our sister
publication, and I were going to try and interview all the people Mike had
been with in an attempt to salvage the story that Mike was working, something
that we didn't end up being able to do. But even so, I was able to give all
these interviews that I did--the people just loved Mike, and I was able to
give all these interviews to his wife, Max(ph). So, you know, it wasn't
But as for human, no, I mean, I guess it was the night after Mike died, I had
to go to Bahrain because you could only have a Kuwaiti visa for--I forget what
it was. Mine was up, and I had to renew my visa, so I had to go spend a night
in Bahrain but where there's beer. And I got very, very drunk, as one can
imagine. And I remember in the throes of that drunkenness, about 2 in the
morning, I'm sitting in my hotel room having Hoovered the minibar--and I
remember it was almost like Mike was talking to me. It was almost
like--because you know what happened. He drowned in a canal. He was in a
Humvee that came under fire, and the driver was trying to get the Humvee, you
know, under cover. And it slipped and it went into a canal, and it flipped on
its side, and Mike and a sergeant major that was in the Humvee with him
drowned. And it was almost like I could see Mike standing there saying, `Just
like me to drown in a desert war.'
GROSS: My guest is satirist and journalist P.J. O'Rourke. His new book is
called "Peace Kills." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is P.J. O'Rourke, and his new book is called "Peace Kills:
America's Fun New Imperialism."
You've been in an interesting position during parts of your career. You've
been, more or less, a lifelong Republican, but you've worked for at least two
youth-oriented, anti-establishment publications: the National Lampoon and
Rolling Stone magazine. Have you felt out of place in those places?
Mr. O'ROURKE: Sure. And now I work for an age-oriented counterculture
institution--in fact, a couple of them. And not only do I write for The
Atlantic, which has historically been a bit to the left of me, at any rate,
and I'm on--Wait; don't tell me--NPR. We all know about NPR.
GROSS: All those radicals. Yes, I've heard about them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. O'ROURKE: That's part of the ...(unintelligible).
GROSS: I've heard about those wild radicals, all to the left.
Mr. O'ROURKE: That Peter Segal(ph), if he goes on one more time about...
GROSS: I'm not sure you can really characterize The Atlantic as--maybe to the
left of you, but I'm not sure...
Mr. O'ROURKE: Everything's to the left of me, you know. I mean, you know,
James Fallows was a Carter speechwriter; that's pretty well to the left of me.
So my fate has always been to be the token Republican, I think, you know, and
that's OK actually. I've had fun doing that, you know. At least you're
making a little noise. There's a whole aspect to modern media that--in fact,
I just wrote about it in the newest issue of The Atlantic called "I Agree With
Me." It's this business of preaching to the choir, of converting the
I was listening to Rush Limbaugh one day, which I don't usually do. I much
prefer NPR because I like to argue with the radio. You know, I was listening
to Limbaugh, with whom I usually agree. And he's shouting about something;
he's shouting about Wes Clark actually. It was pretty funny. You know, Wes
Clark at that time had just gotten in the primary race, and he was going,
`Well, you know, is he a spoiler for Dean? You know, is he a stalking horse
for Clinton?' He goes, `Wes Clark--he's somebody's sock puppet.' And I
thought that was pretty funny. But then I started to think, `Who is Rush
yelling at?' He's not yelling at Wes. He's not yelling at--I mean, you know,
saying that Wes Clark is Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop is not going to get people
into the Bush camp, you know. He's yelling at me. Rush Limbaugh's yelling at
me. And I'm a little to the right of Rush Limbaugh in certain ways.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. O'ROURKE: And then I started to look at the left-wing stuff, at Michael
Moore's latest book and at Al Franken's book and so on, and I discovered the
same phenomenon. They're yelling at the people on their own side. And, you
know, when was the last time any of this changed anybody's mind? At least
when I'm working, you know, against the grain in someplace like Rolling Stone
or National Lampoon or even, I may go so far as to say, The Atlantic, you
know, maybe I'm making somebody think a little bit about some of the ideas
that are important to me.
GROSS: Now I just interviewed Thomas Frank. I don't know if you know him or
Mr. O'ROURKE: I don't, no.
GROSS: OK. He edits a magazine of cultural criticism called The Baffler.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, I know about The Baffler, yes.
GROSS: OK. And he has a new book in which he--it's called "What's the Matter
with Kansas?" And the book basically tries to investigate the answer to this
question: Why do working people vote Republican when the Republican Party
represents the interests of the rich and of big corporations, particularly
through tax breaks?
Mr. O'ROURKE: I can answer that.
GROSS: Yeah. I was going to say how would you answer him?
Mr. O'ROURKE: I can answer that very simply. Many working people who do vote
Republican are aware that there is a fair amount of influence from
capitalistic endeavors. They are less frightened of the businessmen and the
businesses and the special interests than they are of the government. And the
reason that they are less frightened of Wal-Mart than they are of the federal
government is because Wal-Mart, while it may sell guns, it doesn't have guns.
A lot of ordinary Americans have a kind of commonsensical understanding that
seems to elude a lot of much more sophisticated, supposedly, or much more
elaborately educated people, which is the thing that differentiates politics
from the rest of the competitions in life, is that the people who control the
government have a legal monopoly on force. When you have control of the
government, you can make people do what you want.
Now it's probably morally we should all help support Grandma and pay for her
Medicaid and her Social Security* and so on. But only the government has the
capacity to put a gun to your head saying, `You pay those taxes for that, or
you get indicted. You subject yourself to the indictment, or you go jail.
You try to escape from jail and we shoot you.' Ordinary people have an
understanding that there is a power underlying politics, that there is a power
in government. And they understand that even when they think the government
is good and the corporations are bad. A person who has enormous power over
you is somebody that you give a wide berth to. Even if you think that's a
very good person, you may find yourself a little closer to somebody who's not
so powerful, even if they're not so good.
GROSS: But the current Republican Bush administration is the government, if
you're talking about guns, that has led us into a war and is now telling
soldiers that they have to extend their tour of duty. So even soldiers who
want to go home, even people in the National Guard whose families want them to
come home, they're being literally forced to carry a gun in a place where they
don't necessarily want to be.
Mr. O'ROURKE: Yeah. Well, that's...
GROSS: So if you're talking about the power of the government, I mean, you're
talking about a Republican government now using that power...
Mr. O'ROURKE: Oh, I'm talking about all government. The reason that people
will tend to vote Republican, well, on this question is not because they think
that the Republicans are going to behave better when they have the power of
government than they think that the Democrats will. As a matter of fact, the
Democrats will probably give them more in the way of small benefits and so on.
But they will vote for Republicans because they have a feeling, especially at
a local and state level, that the average Republican is less in favor of the
expansion of government power than the average Democrat is. And I think
that's probably true.
They also feel that Republicans are more patriotic than Democrats, more
inclined to celebrate America. And, actually, Americans love America. And
you can say, `Well, liberals love America, too, but that they love it the way
they love their children. It's not a good thing to love your children and
simply be blind to all their faults,' to which the average person says, `I'm
not your kid. You know, the country's not your kid. That's a patronizing
attitude to take towards your country.' And when you take a specific
instance, such as the Bush administration right now and the extension of
soldiers' duty beyond what they had contracted to do, that resonates with
people as an abuse of government power, and it is an abuse of government
power. And Republicans are just as likely to abuse government power as
Democrats are, except that there's more power to abuse if Democrats have their
way. I think the logic is something like that.
GROSS: P.J., would you ever go back to a war zone?
Mr. O'ROURKE: It would have to be pretty important. I've got three little
kids, four months to six years. And I was very reluctant to go to the Iraq
War, except that I felt that this was such an important event, an event that
would, for good or for ill--and the jury's still out on that one--shape events
for dozens, maybe 100 years into the future and that I couldn't call myself
much of a reporter if I didn't report on it. But I think they're going to
have to have the next one without me.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. O'ROURKE: You're very welcome.
GROSS: P.J. O'Rourke has a new book called "Peace Kills: America's Fun New
Coming up, critic at large John Powers reviews the new documentary "The
Control Room" about the Arab news network Al-Jazeera and considers how we
watch American TV news. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Analysis: How "Control Room" fits into the changing ways Americans
now view TV news
TERRY GROSS, host:
The documentary "Control Room" broke house records after it opened at the Film
Forum in New York on May 21st. On Friday, the film goes wider and will open
in over 100 theaters throughout the summer. "Control Room" is a
behind-the-scenes look at the independent Arab news network Al-Jazeera at the
beginning of the war in Iraq. Our critic at large John Powers wanted to see
how "Control Room" fits into the changing ways Americans now view TV news.
JOHN POWERS reporting:
When I was growing up, television news sought to create a feeling of
consensus. Not only were the big three networks avowedly apolitical, but
their coverage stuck to what they perceived to be the values of an imaginary
civilized center, the people Chet Huntley and David Brinkley could imagine
having dinner with. Such was the definition of `objective.' The anchormen who
spent all those evening hours in your living room were seen as being above
mere politics. They were Rockefeller Center Olympians who showed Americans,
it was assumed, what they needed to see.
Today that illusion of neutral news has been shattered. You can hardly watch
a newscast without somebody complaining that it's biased. Bernard Goldberg
savages CBS for its liberal slant, while Al Franken bashes FOX News for being
unfair and unbalanced. And these are both American channels, whose newscasts
look almost identical once you compare them to the ones on Al-Jazeera, the
Arab news network which outraged the US government during the Iraq War.
Al-Jazeera is the subject of "Control Room," a breezy, rather shallow, new
documentary by Jehane Noujaim, that lets us glimpse a way of viewing the world
quite different to our own. Filing in the network's home country of Qatar,
Noujaim takes us behind the scenes at Al-Jazeera as it covers the Iraq War.
While the American reporters always make a great show of their objectivity and
are very careful in what they say to Noujaim, Al-Jazeera's are more open and
more openly conflicted. Even as they say they're trying to be honest about
the war, they acknowledge that, as Arabs or Muslims, they identify with the
Iraqis and have a love-hate relationship with America. This clearly shapes
the network's coverage, whether it's wrongly claiming that American troops
aren't really in Baghdad or laying on unbearable photos of dead soldiers and
blood-drenched civilian casualties.
All this drove the American government crazy. Yet one of "Control Room's"
most striking characters is Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a fresh-faced US press
officer who becomes our surrogate. He's taken aback by Al-Jazeera's coverage,
but he comes to realize that what strikes people as meaningful about a war
depends on where they're standing.
(Soundbite of "Control Room")
Lieutenant JOSH RUSHING: We now watch Al-Jazeera. And I can tell what
they're showing, and then I can tell what they're not showing by choice; same
thing when I watch Fox on the other end of the spectrum. I know which of the
stories that'll be put out that they're picking up on and which ones are not
giving much balance. It benefits Al-Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism
because that's their audience, just like Fox plays to American patriotism for
the exact same reason, American nationalism, because that's their demographic
audience and that's what they want to see. The part that disappoints me is
the Arab nationalism has to include the anti-Americanism.
POWERS: It is, of course, a truism that everybody has a point of view, which
is not the same as saying there are no facts. Either the bombs hit the
civilians or they didn't, but that's the easy part. What makes "Control Room"
compelling is the way it makes us start asking questions about which facts we
see, which we don't see and which ones are deliberately kept off our screens.
If you've watched Al-Jazeera or visited its Web site during the Iraq War, you
know that its coverage was tirelessly, even shamelessly grisly. It never
stopped showing dead bodies and wailing kids. Personally, I'm glad our own
networks don't engage in such wall-to-wall gruesome. But at watching "Control
Room," I was struck that Al-Jazeera showed images of suffering that never
appeared on our networks, CBS or Fox, and that these images were as much part
of the war's larger meaning as the steel wave of tanks racing across the
desert. Our broadcasters had simply chosen not to show them, less for overtly
political reasons, I suspect, than cultural and commercial ones.
Americans feel bad when they see dead children and wounded soldiers, and this
makes a bad advertising environment. Be that as it may, we're a long way from
the era when Uncle Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America.
Nightly newscasts showed battlefield footage from Vietnam, and it was taken
for granted that all our networks strove to be fair and balanced. It's easy
to be nostalgic for such a time. Yet one blessing of our present situation is
that it compels us to stop being passive consumers, who simply assume we'll be
shown what we need to be shown. Like Lieutenant Rushing, we have to realize
that every newscast we see is the product of individual choices made in
pursuit of a particular audience. We're all media critics now.
GROSS: John Powers writes the On column for LA Weekly and is the author of
the forthcoming book "Sore Winners."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.