Two Men Who Represent Different Generations and Different Branches of Conservative Thought Find They Have a Lot in Common

By Walter, Scott | The American Enterprise, May-June 1997 | Go to article overview

Two Men Who Represent Different Generations and Different Branches of Conservative Thought Find They Have a Lot in Common


Walter, Scott, The American Enterprise


If you'd asked P.J. O'Rourke in 1967 where he'd be three decades later, he probably wouldn't have guessed the truth: wearing a wedding ring and a gray suit, and chatting with a fierce right-wing hero. Once a hippie journalist, O'Rourke has in recent years become a famous right-wing humorist, with his work appearing in Rolling Stone and elsewhere before selling briskly between hard covers.

Robert Bork has changed less since the '60s, when he was a Yale Law School professor, though his life too has seen tumult: He served as solicitor general under Richard Nixon, was elevated to the Federal Court of Appeals, and then underwent a bruising, unsuccessful nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, opposed by many who earned their spurs as '60s activists. These difficult battles have, however, engendered two best-selling books.

In the minds of many, these two men are champions of clashing conservative camps - O'Rourke the incarnation of free-wheeling libertarianism and Bork the grumpy old moralist, Yet P.J., a former "long-haired peace creep," and Bork, a former Marine, discovered they share an appreciation of armed self-defense, free markets, and the judges latest jeremiad, Slouching Towards Gomorrah. They were interviewed by TAE editor Scott Walter with the aid of Scotch that was, as O'Rourke said fondly, "older than the White House staff." The conversation - and the Scotch - flowed long after the tape ran out.

TAE: What were you doing in the '60s?

BORK: I was teaching law at Yale, and I was mostly terrified. There were three episodes of arson in the law school, and you didn't go back to your office at night, because you didn't feel safe. But then the '60s slowly disappeared, and we thought it was gone. We didn't realize it was coming back in the late '80s and '90s.

O'ROURKE: I was over there trying to set fire to the law school. I certainly would have been, if I'd been able to get the Zippo to work.

BORK: Who was it who said that if you can remember the '60s, you weren't part of it?

O'ROURKE: I can't remember.... I was more typical than your students at Yale. I was at a state school, Miami of Ohio, and was a completely middle-class kid. On both East and West Coasts, there was an element of elitist rebellion. In the Midwest, rebellion was more stylistic. Most of us were doing this largely to get laid. The girls would be terribly impressed by how we almost threatened the police and maybe broke a window. Then we'd all get tear-gassed, run back to the crash pad, and say to the girls, "We must preserve resources, Sunshine. We're going to have to double up in the shower." Of course, no Panthers visited Miami of Ohio.

BORK: Kent State was also middle class, but the disturbances there were more serious than what you're describing at Miami.

O'ROURKE: The whole thing just got out of hand. The kids shot themselves, in a sense. Kent State was a lower-middle-class school, pretty far down the food chain. My high school girlfriend went there. A lot of the boys were there just to stay out of the draft. This is exactly what the guys in the National Guard were doing. They were the same kids, from the same background, same sort of family. The National Guard wasn't trained. The students at Kent weren't really serious about rioting.

BORK: They were rioting pretty bad before the National Guard showed up.

O'ROURKE: They set the ROTC building on fire. I do not blame the National Guard for shooting them. I do think the State Police rather than the National Guard should have been brought in because they had riot training, and they would have whacked the kids over the head, which is precisely what was needed in that situation. You can't put people in military gear, with military training, in a situation like that, where they feel their life is threatened, and not have military results.

TAE: How have you changed your thinking since the 1960s?

BORK: I was a libertarian in those days. …

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