150 Years of The Atlantic October 2006

Politics

This is the ninth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by James Bennet, the editor of The Atlantic.
No Apparent Motive
November 2002
By P. J. O'Rourke

“It is no bad thing,” suggested the humorist and Atlantic correspondent P. J. O’Rourke in 2002, “that our politicians are fools.”

After thirty years of making fun of politicians, I have decided, contrary to all rules of good humor, that I don’t like them. Not that politicians are dislikable. It is their job to be liked. They are very busy at this job and at many other jobs. A politician’s day is long. He gets into the office early, reads newspaper clippings with his name highlighted, submits to a radio interview with Howard Stern, goes to a prayer breakfast and an ACLU lunch, checks opinion polls, meets with an NRA delegation, makes a friendly call to Al Sharpton, sits in the Inland Waterways Committee hearing room drawing pictures of sailboats and seagulls on a notepad, proposes National Dried Plum Week, votes “yea” (or is it “nay”?) on something or other (consult staff), exercises with the President, recovers from a faked charley horse after being lapped on the White House jogging track, watches the signature machine sign letters to constituents, returns a corporate campaign contribution to WorldCom, speaks at a dinner supporting campaign- finance reform, goes home, gets on the phone, and fund-raises until all hours …

What is obnoxious about the motives of politicians—whatever those motives may be—is that politicians must announce their motives as visionary and grand. Try this with the ordinary activities of your day:

My dear wife and beloved children, I say to you this—I will mow the lawn. Lawns are a symbol of America’s spacious freedoms and green prosperity. Such noble tokens of well-being and independence must not go untended, lest we show the world that liberty is mere license and see the very ground upon which we stand, as Americans, grow tangled with the weeds of irresponsibility and be fruitful only in the tares of greed. I will give the grass clippings to the poor.

Politicians are not, as a class, outstandingly evil or insane. For the most part they’re just ridiculous people …

It is no bad thing that our politicians are fools. We mortals all famously are. And the theory of democracy is that we can rule ourselves. If exceptionally wise and able men were required to run our democratic system, we’d have a lot of explaining to do to the other fools around the world, from Zimbabwe to North Korea, upon whom we are always urging democratic institutions. Anyway, the history of kingdoms, oligarchies, and dictatorships indicates that ordinary fools do a pretty good job in politics, comparatively.

Volume 290, No. 4, pp. 34–35

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