P.J. O'Rourke's new book ponders his life and that of his fellow Baby Boomers

  • ORourke-illustration

    Blade Illustration/ Wes Booher

  • Aged 50 to 58, U.S. Baby Boomers number more than the populations of France or Italy, Canada or South Korea.

    Almost one in four Americans -- more than 75 million boomers -- are in the driver’s seat when it comes to politics, economics, and culture.

    P.J. O’Rourke, whose new book is a light-hearted take on those born between 1946 and 1964, adds a caveat:

    “They may not be producing popular culture but they're signing the checks and deciding on who does produce it,” says O’Rourke, in an interview from his home. With his wife, Tina, and children ages 16, 13, and 10, he lives on 280 acres in New Hampshire, 75 miles northwest of Boston.

    Toledo’s favorite fun-poking, politics-satirizing native son has published a 263-page ramble, The Baby Boom, subtitled, How It Got That Way And It Wasn’t My Fault And I’ll Never Do It Again.

    “We’re the generation who was never going to get old and here were are, we're 50, at a minimum.” It’s a bunch that’s always had a healthy appetite for fun, he notes, not surprising, given that boomers arrived during an era of optimism.

    “There was a feeling that children born into this age of high purpose, wide prosperity, and handsome prospects could be or do anything. It wasn’t a fact. But facts are faint things next to feelings. Facts are acknowledged, feelings are felt,” he writes.

    It’s the 17th book for O’Rourke, 66, a 1965 DeVilbiss High School grad who edited National Lampoon and has written for Rolling Stone and Atlantic Monthly magazines. His books Parliament of Whores and Give War a Chance were bestsellers.

    In the vigorous years after World War II, the government gave veterans low-cost loans to attend college and buy homes. People married younger, fertility rates and family size rose. It was a time when manufacturing increased and the middle class swelled.

    A surprise to O’Rourke, who grew up in West Toledo in a middle-income family, was learning that wealth increased for typical American families by about $10,000 (adjusted for inflation) during those post-war years.

    “Which is a lot [and shows] how stable our environment was compared to what our parents went through, economically stable but also politically and socially stable. You wouldn’t have known that by how we acted in the 1960s. But our childhood was one of peace, stability, economic growth -- all the things politicians are always calling for.”

    He divides the 18-year Boomer span into four groups, each about four to five years, and each having different experiences. The “freshmen” were born in the early 1960s. “All that the Baby Boom had wrought was, for them, a given.” They did not witness the civil or women’s rights movements, the Vietnam War, the Kennedy and King assassinations, or the introductions of recreational drugs and the pill.

    P.J. O’Rourke on Baby Boomers

    "The 1960s was an era of big thoughts. And yet, amazingly, each of these thoughts could fit on a T-shirt."

    "We speak from the heart and that’s not the half of it. We speak from the gut, from the spleen, from the liver’s bile ducts, out our butts, through our hats, even our T-shirts cannot shut up with the things we have to say, never mind social media and talk-radio talk-show call-in calls. We talk until the cows come home and who keeps cows anymore? We talk of cabbages and kings, as well we might, because who among us can tell the kind of Saudi Arabia from a cabbage, burnoose aside."

    "History is full of generations that had too many problems. We are the first generation to have too many answers."

    "We [as teenagers] would have detested the 21st century’s remote-control connectivity -- cell phones, texting, twitter. Parents everywhere, like God? … The horror is unimaginable to the mid-1960s teenage mind. Parents with a Facebook page. … Then we, the Baby Boom, invented electronic personal communication devices. We, of all people. TV that watches you. It’s as if we read 1984 and said, ‘Good idea!’ "

    "I was slightly disappointed about missing Woodstock until the nightly news reported that it had turned into a catastrophic, drug-addled, rain-drenched disaster area lacking food, shelter, drinking water, and Port-A-Potties. Then I was furious about missing Woodstock.”

    At the other end of the Boom are “seniors,” cultural pioneers born in the late 1940s. “The author is of that ilk,” he writes. “This book is necessarily written from the ilk’s point of view.”

    O'Rourke is quick to note that he cannot -- being a white, middle-class, heterosexual man who enjoyed his share of sex, drugs, and rock and roll -- speak for the 75-million plus.

    “There was certainly a period there starting in college (Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and grad school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore) and probably ending in my late 20s or so where I did plenty [of drugs], far too much. But I was always blessed with a bad constitution. There were people like John Belushi who could do this days in a row. If I had a really wild night I’d be sick for a couple of days. A blessing in disguise.”

    He drew the drug line, like most of his peers, at anything involving needles.

    O’Rourke, who walks every morning to a guest house on his property, became impressed with the Boomers.

    “I started out rather skeptical about my own generation, whether that reflects my opinion of myself or what I'm not sure. But the more I began to look at the way the world has changed since the Baby Boom has come into power and influence, beginning in the 1970s, the more I realized how much better of a world the late 20th and early 21st century is than say the first half of the 20th century. You don’t see these mass movements of insanity. Perhaps you do see them in the wilds of Afghanistan but you don’t see them in prosperous countries and you did see them in the 1920s and '30s: Germany and Russia and France. For that matter you saw facism, Nazisim, communism, violent types of socialsm, civil war in Spain.”

    O’Rourke makes his living from words. His publisher is nudging him to cull through decades of his writing, selecting his best for an O’Rourke reader. He taps out columns for the conservative Weekly Standard, the leftish Daily Beast, and is among the jocular folk who appear regularly on NPR’s live Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! He also speaks to businesses, turning to the libertarian Cato Institute, of which he’s an honorary member, for updates on public policy.

    O’Rourke has cousins in the Toledo area but his twin sisters no longer live here. He enjoys bird hunting, his dogs, “and I work around the place. I get in all the wood for the fireplaces and fool around in my carpentry shop making shelves for the garage, things like that.”

    And, he likes a good read. Among his favorite writers are “Dave Barry as always. Chris Buckley, who I'm completely fond of. I just read the latest Roddy Doyle novel, he is absolutely terrific. Tom Perrotta from New Jersey. There are two mystery-thriller writers from England, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, who also writes under the name Barbara Vine. And there's a terrific Irish novelist, Paul Murray; a couple of years ago he had a wonderful book called Skippy Dies.”

    Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.