Monday, June 29, 2009

Interview: P.J. O'Rourke

Taking a spin: Driving like Crazy is travel writing in the classic tradition of Robert Byron. 
090629_pjorourke_mainAt first glance, Driving like Crazy (Atlantic Monthly Press) might appear to be a compendium of P.J. O'Rourke's entertaining, first-person automotive journalism. But crack the spine and dig inside and you'll see that the book transcends the genre. Driving is travel writing in the classic tradition of Robert Byron, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and Redmond O'Hanlon. What does a self-styled, classic Middle Western guy like O'Rourke ? who just happens to have mastered the deceptive intricacies of the American idiom (as did Mark Twain) ? have in common with three English toffs? There are two answers to that question: a thirst for the unusual, and the intelligence to make it comprehensible.
You're a funny guy, but publishing a book about cars as Detroit implodes seems, well, dark.
Black humor is my forte. [Chuckling.]
Does the state of Detroit tell us anything about the state of the union?
It tells us a fair amount about the state of society. The automobile world continues to exist as a business, but it's lost all its fun, its cultural resilience. For 100 years now, since the Model T ? and it's been darn near exactly 100 years ? the automobile was what brought the romance of the horse to every person. You know, "chevalier," the word for knight, simply means a guy on a horse. To be on horseback, to be the man on the white horse, to be on your high horse, was the prerogative of the aristocracy until the Model T came along and gave horsepower to us all. But now the darn thing has turned into an appliance. What started with pleasure has ended in necessity.
Which is smarter: Detroit or Washington?
Detroit is smarter than Washington. Everything's smarter than Washington. Bringing government in to run the car companies is like saying, "Dad burned dinner, let's get the dog to cook."
What about the United Auto Workers?
I have a lot of trouble bashing the unions. I grew up deep in the Rust Belt, Toledo, Ohio, just five blocks from the Jeep plant. Every breath you took in Toledo was unionized. Even though my family was not a union family, the influence was pervasive. I'm not of it, but I'm from it.
Do autoworkers, compared with other workers, get paid too much?
Sure. But their paychecks don't always reflect the supposed realities. Every time a camel farts at an OPEC meeting, they get laid off. So, sure, they make $600 an hour. But they only work an hour a year. Even though I'm a Republican, I have trouble blaming the union guys. Because if you're a union leader, what are you going to do, go down to the UAW hall and stand on a chair and yell, "We're demanding less money from the bosses"? You can't do that. Pay scales, seniority, and various other problems did get out of hand, but it takes two. And you know the companies gave in to the union. The unions were perhaps over-demanding, but that's their jobs. The companies were over-compliant.
The government probably was no help here. The government put in a pay freeze at all the heavy-industry corporations in World War II. Which meant that the corporations, in order to attract the workers that we had to have to build our planes and tanks and Jeeps, had to provide benefit packages. That's where health care comes from. It didn't exist before World War II. So you wound up with these benefit packages. And then there are the demographic accidents to factor in. The guys that built the cars were all supposed to drop dead at 67, and their wives were supposed to live to be maybe 72. Now everyone lives to 110. [Laughter.] There's plenty of blame to go around.
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