What’s So Funny about Corona, Politics, the Media, and the Culture? A Conversation with Andrew Ferguson and P. J. O’Rourke

Friday, May 1, 2020

To watch the video, click here.


Peter Robinson: PJ O'Rourke, the legendary bad boy of Gonzo journalism, and Andrew Ferguson, the finest pro stylist and wittiest observer in Washington today or for several decades, joining us to discuss their wasted youth and the present predicament, a special playtime edition of Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson. PJ and Andy, thank you for making the time. PJ, you're at home.

P.J. O'Rourke: I am.

Peter Robinson: Could you be in New Hampshire?

P.J. O'Rourke: Exactly, right.

Peter Robinson: And Andy, you are in Arlington, Virginia?

Andrew Ferguson: That's exactly right.

Peter Robinson: All right, boys, to the introduction. Patrick Jake O'Rourke grew up in Toledo, Ohio, he became one of the inventors of Gonzo journalism during his decades of writing for National Lampoon at Rolling Stone and at least a dozen other publications. He's the author of again well over a dozen books, including the best book ever written on the way Washington works, "Parliament of Whores." Everybody's entitled to an opinion, that ladies and gentlemen is a fact, it's the best. And his book in the election of 2016, "How the Hell Did This Happen?" PJ O'Rourke now serves as Editor in Chief of American Consequences. Andrew Ferguson grew up in Illinois and has been writing about politics and culture in Washington since the Reagan years. Now with the Atlantic, Andy has written a number of books, including most recently "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in "Getting His Kid Into College." New York Times columnist, David Brooks has called Andy quote, the greatest political writer of my generation. And for once, David Brooks was correct. Gentlemen, my middle son just the other day, hey dad, do you know what we call the coronavirus? We kids, we call it the boomer remover.

Andrew Ferguson: [Laughs]

P.J. O'Rourke [Laughs]

Peter Robinson: On one side of us, the greatest generation, on the other side, our kids, Millennials or Gen Xers, or whatever they are. You've got three, PJ, Andy you've got two, but of course it's about us. We consider ourselves at the very peak of our performance full of years and wisdom, the kids think we're about to shuffle toward the exits, but how do you grade our generation? How has the baby boom generation of Americans comported itself? PJ?

P.J. O'Rourke: I hate to say worst ever because I've got kids and they've got to prove themselves completely worthless. But I think the baby boom has just been an absolute horror show. We grew up with way too much prosperity, parents who are far too kindly and decent unlike their parents had been. We faced one major challenge in our youth, the war in Vietnam and we ran from it as best we could. I feel sorry for the guys who got caught, weren't quite as quick on their feet as I was. We faced one great challenge, we completely flunked that we've elected a fair number of idiots and we really just topped out recently, and yeah, I would say we're awful.

Peter Robinson: Andy?

Andrew Ferguson: I can't argue with that. I'm a self-loathing baby boomer myself. One thing you can't say about baby boomers, I think you can, which is that there is a higher number of self loathers among baby boomers probably than any other generation. So we may be venal and meretricious and stupid, but at least we know it.

Peter Robinson: So, is that self-loathing simply the current expression as we get older of a self-absorption that has always been--

Andrew Ferguson: Oh, I've had it for years.

Peter Robinson: All right, one really--

P.J. O'Rourke: One unpleasant thing about self-absorption as you get older is who and what you're absorbed in. When one was young and trim and fit and so on, it was one thing to be self-absorbed and to be self-absorbed in an old and flabby, not very well and somewhat forgetful person is really, and that's hence the pandemic. Every generation gets the, this is our crisis here, this is our depression, this is our World War II. Every generation gets a crisis that it deserves, but the one thing crisis is supposed to do is bring people together, we got a crisis that keeps people six feet apart.

Andrew Ferguson: It's interesting, it says that usually people when they're facing a crisis, they say, this is my own personal Vietnam, but baby boomers can't say this is the baby boomer's Vietnam because Vietnam Vietnam.

Peter Robinson: Gentlemen, alright, PJ's raised the topic, COVID-19 and all but a few thinly populated states. I think the number of states is seven out of the 50. So that means 43 other states, we've all been told to walk away from our jobs and stay at home and wear face masks and wash our hands. And for weeks now, tens of millions of Americans have done just that. Does the sheer willingness to obey of Americans in this crisis surprise you, concern you? Or does it strike you as entirely appropriate? We should be scared out of our wits and obedience is a simple corollary of that. Andy, what do you think?

Andrew Ferguson: Well, I remember the great scene in the Revisionist Western with Dustin Hoffman, "Little Big Man" where he meets up with Wild Bill Hickok and Hickok consistent sitting with his back to the wall so he can see the door. And Little Big Man says, "Why are you doing that, Bill? "Why you always sitting there?" And he said, "'Cause I'm afraid of getting shot." And that's kind of I'm not too surprised, people are all endorsed because they're afraid of catching this deadly illness that we're all, especially if you're my age or over or even if you're Peter's age, Peter's much younger than I am, you're likely to buy the farm.

Peter Robinson: All right, so the Conservative Andy Ferguson, PJ just told us it's entirely appropriate for us to obey meekly. You have gone through life as a Libertarian, which is a different stripe of creature. Do I get anything from you? Any urge to rebel? Any wish that we put up more of a kick over this?

P.J. O'Rourke: I'm absolutely opposed to all of this closing down society and the economy and I am obeying every injunction to do so to the records. Because when it comes to weighing courage versus principle, the cowardice won out I am and quite reasonably, I think I'm frightened of getting this. Also, I think there is something that's not, I worry of course that the government is having so much fun bossing everybody around and it won't wanna quit having that sign after this is over. In fact, the government will be reluctant to declare that it's over, or parts of the government will. I mean, who could possibly imagine the scenario where Andrew Cuomo is likable? I've never heard a single kind word about him and all the time that I have been covering politics, which would be his entire political career. But just, it is going to be tough for them to let go, but I think there's something else going on here. So I really do think that people do want to help, people are, and they don't know how they can help. You can solve a few face-masks at home or one can, I can't. And so I really think that there are being not so much out of a deference to government or even fear of the disease, but out of some sort of desire for better social good, which is sweet. I think in a way, I'm touched a lot of people are putting themselves through huge inconvenience and deprivation.

Peter Robinson: Andy, you wrote recently, the new quarantine regime has relieved considerable pressure on the introvert community. The world has caught up with us at last. You're enjoying yourself.

Andrew Ferguson: I wrote that a few weeks ago. Even the introvert in me has started to get a little extroverted. This is going on about as long as I can take it, I'll probably take it for a few more weeks but I like what PJ said. I've actually strangely seen this in myself, which is very unusual to see this kind of fellow feeling in myself. But I hate wearing this mask, I have a little homemade mask that I keep in my cars for when I go out to the store or whatever. And I would not wear the mask, except that it makes people feel better, it doesn't make me feel better, but it makes everybody else feel better. And so when I go into

Peter Robinson: You're not surly about it, you do it, I confess I only put on the mask when either it's required and there are certain stores here in Northern California where you're not permitted in unless you're wearing a mask, or I receive the evil eye from three people in a row, that's my rule.

Andrew Ferguson: Yeah, I just--

Peter Robinson: I hate it. No?

Andrew Ferguson: Yeah I hate it too, but I want people to feel better and feel more comfortable. It's better enough for everybody as it is, so

Peter Robinson: This interview ends right now, I've already established the two of you have gone soft.

P.J. O'Rourke: We have.

Peter Robinson: Sweethearts. PJ O'Rourke and Andy Ferguson, what's happening?

P.J. O'Rourke: It started with the Trump election and it just went down downhill from there and the next thing, I'm going to be feeling the ban. I don't know what's happening to me. But I actually haven't tried the mask yet, I have not been off--

Peter Robinson: You live in Peterborough, New Hampshire, it's the prominent--

P.J. O'Rourke: I have been off the property.

Peter Robinson: Really?

P.J. O'Rourke: I have been off the property for six weeks, which I have discovered is just fine with me. I mean, I'm in a very lucky position. I'm in a beautiful place up on top of the hill, we've got a bunch of land, and I've just discovered I really didn't like to go out anyway and that other people are, well wasn't it that said that hell and yeah, I really don't mind. I got two of my kids home, and they're going nuts of course, but I'm enjoying having them around. I've got a wife who's masking up and doing the shopping errands like the lone ranger and I honestly, it's weird, but I don't really mind it.

Peter Robinson: Okay, back to the baby boomers and what we have wrought, products of our generation anyway. This is mandatory. For the three of us who got to know each other during the 1980s, how did this happen? How did the United States of America go from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump? Andy?

Andrew Ferguson: PJ?

Peter Robinson: No, but what I have to hear is what kinds of contingency, what I'm after here is it's history, just one damn thing after another and sometimes they're happy bounces and sometimes there are bad bounces, what does it say something about the trajectory of the nation, morals, morale, wellbeing that we go from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump?

P.J. O'Rourke: Power of stupid. Libertarianism and Conservatism are actually extremely complex philosophies. I can give you a couple of examples for this, try reading Michael Oakeshott. It's just nearly impossible to do. And then there's, I'm trying to remember who, I think it was Chesterfield that pointed out that being Conservative is actually the hardest work in the world. And so it's an activist proposition. If you have got a red, white and green post and you want to conserve that post exactly as it was, a post out in a field of a pillar or something and you want that to be red, white and green and crisp and clean, exactly the way it's always been, you have to go out there and scrub it and paint it and shoo the birds off the top and keep people from ramming their car and do it and so on. It actually takes a lot of work to conserve things. And another problem with Conservatism, besides it being hard to grasp, I mean leftism is very easy to grasp. You don't have anything because somebody took it away from you, we're going to take it back and give it to you for free. Gotcha.

Peter Robinson: Got it.

P.J. O'Rourke: Yeah, got it, no problem. But Conservative is very balancing individual liberty with individual responsibility, is a terribly difficult thing to do and Conservatism easily drifts off into things that are easier to understand, like the sort of populous bigotry that Donald Trump represents. And the left can't drift off into stupidity 'cause it's already there. But we made the mistake of winning. We're a fabulous opposition party, it's great to have Bill Buckley standing amidst the tide of history, yelling stop. But then that tide of history actually did stop and we were in charge and it quickly degenerated.

Peter Robinson: Andy, here's Norman Podhoretz. Norman Podhoretz now 90 years old, former editor of Commentary, father of Neoconservatism, maybe the grandfather of Conservative journalism. Here's Norman Podhoretz on Donald Trump. "The fact that Trump was elected is a kind of miracle "to save us from the evil on the left. "His virtues are the virtues of street kids. "You don't back away from a fight and you fight to win." Close quote. Andy, can you find anything in there to agree with?

Andrew Ferguson: No, he's not a fighter, he's a name caller and he's

P.J. O'Rourke: He's a spoiled rich kid.

Andrew Ferguson: Yeah, he's a spoiled rich kid who generally speaking, got his way and always has, but he's from Queen, so I guess that makes me think that he's tough. But if you push him, he's like every other bully, he just backs off and doesn't really fight for things. There are people who are always saying that he's a fighter. He's not really that, he hates the people that he hates and he's contemptuous of them just as they're contemptuous of him. But that's quite different from being a fighter.

Peter Robinson: PJ on Joe Biden, "Joe Biden is a zombie from the policy cemetery of "the Carter era with a stump performance, "like the living dead." Close quote. We've talked about Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, how do we go from the Democratic Party of John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey and LBJ and your old friend, Andy, Eugene McCarthy to Joe Biden? PJ?

P.J. O'Rourke: Well, the power of stupidity works in both parties. The traditional Democratic Party had a pretty delicate balancing act to do itself. They had the left of, they've always had that sort of left-wing for us where we're going to take everything from the rich people and distribute it to the poor, we're a Robin Hood. But up until a lot in, not up until, I don't know. Up until Hillary Clinton may be, they always thought they had to balance that with some kind of pragmatism, you know what I mean? Like the head of the UAW had to balance his anger at the bosses at GM with keeping his members employed. He couldn't destroy the corporation off of which he lived. So Democrats have always had to do the delicate. They're a parasitical party and any parasite always has to be careful not to kill its host, reminder of coronavirus, thank you. But somewhere, they just lost sight of that and decided that they would go with the H.L. Mencken definition of practical politics is the auction of goods about to be stolen.

Peter Robinson: Andy, what would your friend, you befriended him in his final years, what would your friend, Jean McCarthy have made him Joe, what would he have made of the Democratic Party today?

Andrew Ferguson: It's hard to know what his politics were. By the end of his life, he was suey generous. He quite admired Reagan, loved Jack Kennedy, hated Bobby Kennedy, it was all very complicated set of opinions that he had. But he was basically in economic, so he was basically a socialist. So I don't think that he would be too alarmed by all this. I think what he would, one thing that he would really dislike is the balkanization, is the word we used to use of the party, and the obsession with different kinds of Americans. I remember he was amazingly disgusted when in the '68 campaign, he discovered that his rival, Robert Kennedy had developed a campaign organization that had committees for 26 different kinds of Americans. And that really was quite good.

Peter Robinson: Cuban Democrats, Italian Democrats, so on.

Andrew Ferguson: Yeah, people didn't, or rich Italian Democrats, middle-class Italian Democrats, McCarthy said, "I know Baskin Robbins has 32 varieties of ice cream," but I didn't know there were 32 varieties of Americans, so I think that would quite alarm him that this business of identity politics is so essential to the party.

Peter Robinson: Back to the 1980s, if I may, back to the 1980s, which is when the three of us first got to know each other. PJ was already a famous journalist, I was a White House speechwriter, Andy became a White House speechwriter. Maybe the two of you had a more nuanced view of things than I did, but I felt we were getting to someplace and it wasn't just youthful high spirits that the United States stands up to the Soviet Union and it demonstrates the power for good of democracy and we cut taxes and roll back regulations and demonstrate the power for good of capitalism that we were establishing permanently valuable lessons, we were reaching conclusions. And today China is on the rise, Communist China and young Americans who were once the strongest supporters, disproportionately, Ronald Reagan was most popular among the youngest age cohort. They're now the disproportionate supporters of Bernie Sanders. Young Americans are socialists, they're the supporters of Bernie and Elizabeth Warren. So did the 19, was I simply diluted, was it really nothing other than youthful high spirits? Did the 1980s accomplish nothing? How do we... You guys handle the humor, I'll try to give a few, I'll be Abbott, you'd be Castillo if you wish, but what I'm asking for here is does any of this mean anything? Did we get anything done with all those efforts of ours that we were pouring out in the 1980s? Andy?

Andrew Ferguson: Well, it sounds like you fell for the progressive fallacy which is that history had some kind of direction, and Reagan's rhetoric had a lot of that in it and I blame him for that actually, which ended also partly, it's the, we were wrong about a lot of things. We all thought that, okay, you bring China into the family of nations, let them open up their markets, free-market capitalism will compel this kind of democratization and in 25 years, we're gonna have a liberalized China and of course, we were wrong about that. We thought that the collapse of the American family would yield all kinds of hellish social results and crime, so it collapsed, and actually things like abortion rates and teenage pregnancy are down. So life was much more complicated than we thought when we were young, I guess that's sort of an old man's lament, isn't it?

Peter Robinson: If that old man were making this old man feel better, but you're not, PJ.

P.J. O'Rourke: Well, I was, I am older than you guys and I was not a kid in the 1980s and I've been through my 60s stage of youthful idealism. I turned 40 in the 1980s, turned 40 during the Reagan administration. I think Andy is right that we were wrong about certain things, are wrong or we were oversimplifying them. One thing that caught us by surprise, we assumed, given our belief in the self-organizing, the hierarchy, and self-organizing abilities of human society, we assumed that the newly freed countries behind the iron curtain would go out and self-organize themselves in an organized way. We did not realize how deeply damaged those societies had been by, not so much by the oppression of communism, although that too, but by the corruption of communism. We didn't realize what a corrupt structure had been left behind even when the people who built that structure were gone. So we should have been a little smarter about that. Then we had this idea and it's an idea that's true I think in the long run, but it can be the very long run, very long run, is that free markets result in freedom and they do eventually, and we must remember that Europe had free markets of various forms for hundreds and hundreds of years before those free markets resulted in the kind of freedoms that we were talking about. But then we got blindsided by something that we, so those two things we should have foreseen, but there was something that we couldn't have foreseen, no one could have foreseen, which was in a sea change in the economy equal to the industrial revolution, the electronic economy comes along. And it's still so new that we don't even yet know what this actually means. But we do know that any fundamental change in economic structure, even if it's a change for the better, is deeply disruptive. And so one of the reasons Millennials are such lefties is that the economy that they expected to enter as adults has disappeared. They're all making a living by driving each other around an Uber and who can blame them for being mad?

Peter Robinson: Actually, I took a trip to the airport about six months ago and found myself chatting with Uber driver who had graduated 18 months earlier from Princeton University.

P.J. O'Rourke: With a PhD in Philosophy.

Peter Robinson: Well, he had taken his degree in Hispanic studies. Let's put it this way, he was not a Computer Scientist. Journalism and speaking of disruption, you both made your entire careers as journalists, Andy conservative journalist, PJ libertarian journalist, they're cousins, slightly different, but cousins. Why does this profession overwhelmingly attract Liberals? PJ, do you wanna go

P.J. O'Rourke: I've spent a lot of time thinking about that and I think--

Peter Robinson: We've spent years trying to figure it out.

P.J. O'Rourke: Yeah, I really blame it entirely on the movie version of Watergate, not on Watergate itself, but there were all these well-meaning troops out there who were going to join the Peace Corps and then they saw Woodward and Bernstein played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, nevermind that any journalist is going to end up being played by Dustin Hoffman, not Robert Redford. But they didn't quite get that through their heads. And all these little world savers, pointless little world savers, well-meaning jerks, thought, "Oh no, not the Peace Corps, "I'm going to become a journalist." I really think there was, because up until the Woodward Bernstein era, up until "All the President's Men," generally I'm old enough to have still worked with these guys. The newsroom was blue with lucky strike smoke, and everybody had a pint of booze in the drawer and started hitting at about 10:00 a.m, and it was, maybe it tended a little bit to the left, but that was just because that was the little guy, it was all about supporting the little guy.

Peter Robinson: If he was on the left, It was more of a New Deal left.

P.J. O'Rourke: More of a new deal left or an old union solidarity left or something like that, a little Nelson Algren type of thing. But they weren't idealist. These guys, Mencken, I'll go back to Mencken, of course, it wasn't like that when Megan said, the reason that you become a journalist is a ringside seat at the circus. And of course, now they've taken the elephants out of the circus, all we've got left at the circus is the little clown car. Too many clowns out there, nevermind that's a side point, but I really do think the got a hold of it.

Peter Robinson: Do you remember, this is coming back the first time I remembered it for years, the informal motto of the New York Daily News used to be, tell it to the McSweeneys, the style of essence they already know. Did you ever hear that one?

P.J. O'Rourke: Yes.

Peter Robinson: It's a beautiful thing, but that's the little guy, we're sticking up for the little guy. That's totally commendable and understandable and conservative in its own way and sense. Andy, what--

Andrew Ferguson: I think most journalists still think they're doing that. The condition around them, I think that they're standing up for the little guy and that they have contempt for the well-to-do and the rich. The thing is the conditions around journalism have changed so that it attracts a particular kind of busy body and a reform-minded person rather than just the facts man, tell it like it is and all that kind of stuff. It's much more a profession, it's not a profession. It's much more of a trade for people with reform-minded who wanna make the world look better for themselves.

Peter Robinson: To pursue that a little bit, in the old days, and by the old days, I'm talking about the days in which we were all young men, that journalism, I can remember thinking in college it would be the coolest thing, actually it would be the coolest thing in the world to be a PJ O'Rourke. But there were magazines you wanted to write for, remember when Esquire was a written magnet, men's style, but there was already. So we all know that the business model for this has just collapsed. All the advertising has moved to Facebook and Google and you can't afford to publish a magazine anymore. And the weekly standard, a great publication, finally, the billionaire who was supporting it gets tired off, weekly standardize and the answer to that from my children, I don't know if yours have the temerity to try it out on you. The answer to that is no, no, don't worry about it. All the good journalism is in the computer somewhere, it's all migrated online. There are just as many great writers, you just have to look around for them a little bit. Do you buy that or has something been permanently lost?

P.J. O'Rourke: Something has been permanently lost and that simply isn't true. There's some good reporting that somewhere around the internet if you sort through enough of it. But it takes me forever to sort through it, there's some reasonable reporting, but there used to be a career walk to journalism that not everybody followed but that everybody knew about and that was there as a model. The first impulse had to do with the writing usually. Nobody set out to be a reporter, people set out to be writers. If you're reporting chops where only, some of the people who were the best writers and the worst reporters wound up as sportswriters because you can sit in a chair and do your reporting. But there were beautiful, beautiful writers and the idea was to be a great, was to write well, and then you'd be noticed by the slicks, by the magazines and your stuff would be picked up. And plus you had a novel and you draw along with that bottle of Jack Daniels, that was a novel you were working on. And I know three or four old newspaper guys from the generation before me who did indeed write decent novels. Maybe they only wrote one, maybe they never wrote broken to the big time, but they wrote, but there was a career character to be heard and that doesn't exist anymore. Journalism never paid really well, it pays pitifully now and so naturally, it attracts the people without enough to do, the busybodies and noisy parkers of the world and there's been a real loss and the quality of the writing is just not good, even in the New York Times. Even in New York Times, I see reporters who cannot tell the difference between whether there is, between quantity in number, whether there is less of something or whether there are fewer of those things.

Andrew Ferguson: I really disagree with that. I think--

Peter Robinson: You do?

Andrew Ferguson: Yeah, I really do, I think there are some wonderful, wonderful writers out there, and people younger than we are. Of course, everybody's younger than we are. There is a great line from the head of the FCC. Somebody said to me, he was defending television and they say, 95% of television is crap, and he said "95% of everything is crap." And I think we're romanticizing the greatness of those old newspaper writers. Some of them really do stand the test of time, others don't stand up all that well, but at the risk of sounding like a suck-up, I work with several writers that I would put in the category of--

Peter Robinson: Of the Atlantic now.

Andrew Ferguson: Yeah. Either Rye, CO, or one of the legendary greats from the old days. And a lot of the legendary greats, as I say, weren't all that great I'm sorry, his lying is an embodiment of that old-style that PJ is talking about, but he's terrible writer, and always was.

Peter Robinson: Does Jimmy Breslin stand up?

Andrew Ferguson: Well, not to me. I went back and read a bunch of him for something I was writing about two or three years ago and it was hastily done, factually suspect very self-conscious hackneyed stuff, I thought.

Peter Robinson: Okay, let me tell you two stories and just see what you do with them. And here's story number one, which was told to me by Tom Wolfe who followed that arc. And Tom Wolfe was at the Herald Tribune when John Kennedy was shot and they turned on the television in the newsroom at the Herald Tribune and they watched Walter Cronkite and Wolf said to himself, "This is the moment." Newspapers, and I suppose in those days there were still at least half a dozen newspapers in New York. Newspapers are done, people are getting their news from television, this is the moment when there's a decisive shift. And the next morning as he walked from his apartment back to the offices of the Herald Tribune, and of course nothing had been on television nonstop all night long. He walks through Manhattan and there are lines that every newsstand around the corner and he said, what he drew from that is no, it's not real until people read it. The written word has a power that nothing else quite touches. That's story number one. Story number two, three, or 4,000 years ago when I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, I got a great job working reunions. I had to sit in a dorm and alumnus would leave the dorm where they were staying for their three or four-day reunion, they'd give me the key and at 2:00 in the morning when they came stumbling back in, I'd give them the key back. Eight-hour shift, I was there all night and I read a book at night. 30 years later, I go back for a reunion of my own and it turns out the same job still exists, but all the kids who are working reunions are not reading. They're watching movies on their laptops. All right, Andrew, try to cheer us up about that.

Andrew Ferguson: Boy, I'm sorry, Peter, you were right and I was wrong. I think a lot of them are probably reading stuff on their laptops, I mean--

Peter Robinson: You're just not worried about this.

Andrew Ferguson: What are you gonna do? What good is worrying gonna do?

Peter Robinson: Okay, PJ, do you have records to Tony Soprano? What are you gonna do?

P.J. O'Rourke: I was listening to Andy talk about the wonderful writers that exist today and Andy's more deeply involved with the printed world any more than I am, but I am still editor of a web magazine, and I've got some great writers, there's no doubt about it. There's kind of no place for them to go with what they do, so I was sitting listening to Andy and I was thinking, gosh, Andy, I hope you're right, I hope you're right. And I do know that some of those all legendary types were at the best, very much of their moment and at their worst, were hacks. But the 95% of all things are shut, that does come. But the reading thing, there's absolutely no doubt about it. I got three kids and two of them really just don't read. And one of those two is the best student of the three and the most academically most serious of the, wants to be an archeologist, is studying all the tough stuff in college, taking the hard sciences where the girl that does read, her elder sister, is the one who's an Art History major and will soon be driving an Uber to take it to the airport. No, the kids really don't read, and we've got a house full of books. We must have 5,000 books in the house. And I've worked for years to build this library because I've looked around for decent hardback editions used, decent hardback when used bookstores still exist. Used decent hardback editions of all the books that I've loved all my life. And part of that was my own collecting thing, but part of it was for the kids and can I get them to crack one? Even now when everybody is sock drawer, is over-organized when we truly have run out of things to do, no.

Peter Robinson: All right. Gentlemen, a few couple last questions.

Andrew Robinson: I thought I was depressed when Peter finished his thing but now I'm really depressed.

Peter Robinson: Andy?

Andrew Ferguson: Yes.

Peter Robinson: I'm gonna paraphrase it, an email of yours. Actually I'm not gonna paraphrase it, I'm going to quote this and if it offends you, we'll cut it out, but I think I can get away with it. I care less and less about politics. All I ask from any writer nowadays is some evidence that he recognizes that all of this matters. The deep sense that we're all equally under some kind of care and judgment. When I encounter a writer like that, I'm astonished and very, very grateful, close quote. Is that... So all the stuff that we cared about in the 1980s doesn't matter?

Andrew Ferguson: Well--

Peter Robinson: Explain yourself to working journalists here.

Andrew Ferguson: Well, that's not a comment on writing or journalism, that's a comment on what people believe in now and what intelligent people are expected to believe. It wasn't that long ago when any intelligent person had some sort of sense of transcendence or the weight of the past and the accumulation of great tradition in religious traditions particularly, say the Catholic Church, that's all I was commenting on there, I think.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Andrew Ferguson: And the culture is so deeply secularized and it's so absorbed into the way, especially intelligent, well educated so to speak, young people think, that is disturbing to me, that's not good.

Peter Robinson: PJ--

P.J. O'Rourke: Let me add some more disturbance because not only am I--

Peter Robinson: This is the depressed Andy show.

P.J. O'Rourke: Not only am I depressed on the point that Andy made, and I really do find it harder and harder to see some system of belief, let alone spiritual belief there is some coherent moral system that underlies, I mean, people wanna be nice, they wanna be good but they don't seem to... Andy and I have had this discussion a number of times, is that you can be a moral person while being an atheist but it is a lot of work. It's really, you have to go around Robin Hood's barn to do it. I'm not saying it can't be not, but it's tough and I would prefer it if the kids believed in God, which they don't seem to do. But they also don't understand that it's meaningful, that it's important what they're covering in politics because underneath politics, under the layers and layers and layers of politics, many of it is really, much of it's silly, much of it frothy, is the power of the gun. Ultimately, politics is about one person's ability to force another person to do something. It all lies under, is all, the basement is violence, the foundation is violence. If you get a parking ticket, you don't pay that ticket, you get a fine. If you don't pay that fine, you go to court and you get a bigger fine, if you don't pay that fine, enough, throw you in jail, if you try and escape from jail, they'll shoot you. Basically, you can't park on a double yellow line because they'll shoot you. And not enough kids will remember that when they start talking about, oh the government should do this for me, the government should do that for other people, the government should be bigger or more involved with this, we should have free this, that and the other thing is that you are expanding that foundation of violence when you expand government. It's not just because like I'm an old fuddy-duddy and want my taxes to be lower, although I am and I do.

Peter Robinson: Andy on Abraham Lincoln and recently you said, "The ultimate concern for Lincoln was the survival of "the union to which he had an almost mystical attachment." Close quote. An almost mystical attachment to the union. If there is a theme that runs through all of your work, PJ and Andy from beginning to end, from young, rambunctious, boisterous, bad boys, to gentlemen full of wisdom, PJ now Lord of the Manor sitting on top of his hill, surveying acres and acres. If there's a theme that runs through all of your work, it is an abiding fondness for the United States of America, even if it's a fondness for the circus aspects of this. So imagine some socialist Bernie supporter, some one world kid, your own children perhaps, what do you say to that kid? Let's say, I'll start with you, Andy, to persuade him that the United States of America is distinctive and in some ways still worth it all?

Andrew Ferguson: I think Chesterton said about patriotism, "You love your country because it's your country." And you love your mother because she's your mother, it's not because she's the best mother or the kindest mother or the best cook or the best carpenter or whatever. You love your mother because she's your mother, and that's the foundation of what patriotism is. And I think that that's true, but there's also something more with the United States, which is that the United States actually is uniquely worth caring for and loving because it is the container of the great idea of the declaration of independence. And that's why people revere Lincoln still, is because he preserved that idea and a distillation grand culmination of a lot of wonderful things in the Western tradition. So you can have patriot--

Peter Robinson: And that idea is that all men are created equal, that's the central idea that you're referring to.

Andrew Ferguson: And that governments are instituted among them to preserve certain rights that are inalienable endowed by a creator. So you can love your country, the United States, simply because you're an American and you just, you love the country you were born in and raised in and you're grateful to it. But you can also love it, America is a intellectual proposition.

Peter Robinson: PJ?

P. J. O’Rourke: Yeah, what you said, there is no doubt. We didn't invent the idea of Liberty, but we invented the idea that Liberty could be organized so that a government served a free people. And at the time that Lincoln was fighting the Civil War, we were the only country in the world of which that could be remotely said. Although the British had a lot of liberties, or I shouldn't say the English, had a lot of liberties and some Welsh maybe or something, a few lowland Scots, although they had a lot of liberty, they were still subjects. In America, the government was subject to we the people. And we invented that idea where the original experiment for that idea, without our invention of that idea, it would not exist anywhere else. And so, yes, that gives us something that makes us a little more than just equal to any other country in the world. Something that gives us the sort of first among equals and when things go wrong here and they sometimes do, and they certainly did in Lincoln's time and they're not doing so great right now, the whole world watches and says, well, kind of says, well, this doesn't work, interesting little 200-year experiment, a mirror wink of the eye and Chinese sense of time. But obviously this idea of a government serving her people on ha

Peter Robinson: Okay. And this will be the last question. You've been generous with your time. But PJ raised the question of China. They outnumber us, they've got a government that seems to be able to handle a virus more efficiently than ours, there's some doubt about whether they're telling us the truth that they seem to have contained it. They've gotten rich, they've raised half a billion people out of poverty, not just during our lifetimes, but during the last quarter-century alone, half a billion people raised out of poverty. And they've got a model that all the rest of the world is looking at. Now, China seems to work, the United States, what's going, over the longterm? I'm not asking for a Chester Tonian answer, I love the United States because I love the United States. But over the long term, who would you put your money on? This 240-year-old constitution that we have or the rising power of China? PJ?

P. J. O’Rourke: All my money on the United States. And I've spent some time in China. The most time that I spent there was back before things got worse. With Xi Jinping, things have definitely gotten worse. But the Chinese, although they have, they've made tremendous strides, but of course when you begin with zero, all strides do look amazing. I mean, you don't have to go that far outside China's wealthy cities to be back in another millennia. There's one electric wire running into that village that makes it different from what it was in 1600. And the Chinese hate their system. And Chinese, when you get them really talking to you and they realize that you aren't going to report them for anything, would say, shhh. The government is sleeping, don't wake it up, don't wake it up, shhh. The mountains are high, the emperor is far away.

Peter Robinson: Far away.

P. J. O’Rourke: That's when things were going well in China. And now, I don't think the Chinese are very, we may think they did a good job of controlling the outbreak from the wet market in Wuhan. They've banned undercooked fat meat, and good for them, but I don't think the Chinese people are all that jerked about what a great job their government did on this.

Peter Robinson: Andy, who's your money on?

Andrew Ferguson: The USA, USA, USA!

Peter Robinson: Would you care to elaborate?

Andrew Ferguson: No, I think I just, in my experience and I think historically over the last couple of centuries, that's where all the safe bets are.

Peter Robinson: So we are still number one, three crotchety old guys can still agree on that much cynical discipline--

P. J. O’Rourke: Never bet against free people, especially when they've got guns.

Peter Robinson: PJ O'Rourke, man of long storied career, now editor for American Consequences, Andy Ferguson of the Atlantic, thank you.

P. J. O’Rourke: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: My pleasure. For Uncommon Knowledge, the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation, I'm Peter Robinson.

More from Uncommon Knowledge