Renowned for his cranky conservative humor, P. J. O’Rourke runs hilariously amok in this book, tackling the death of communism; his frustration with sanctimonious liberals; and Saddam Hussein in a series of classic dispatches from his coverage of the 1991 Gulf War.
On Kuwait City after the war, he comments, “It looked like all the worst rock bands in the world had stayed there at the same time.” On Saddam Hussein, O’Rourke muses: “He’s got chemical weapons filled with . . . with . . . chemicals. Maybe he’s got The Bomb. And missiles that can reach Riyadh, Tel Aviv, Spokane. Stock up on nonperishable foodstuffs. Grab those Diet Coke cans you were supposed to take to the recycling center and fill them with home heating oil. Bury the Hummel figurines in the yard. We’re all going to die. Details at eleven.” And on the plague of celebrity culture, he notes: “You can’t shame or humiliate modern celebrities. What used to be called shame and humiliation is now called publicity.”
Mordant and utterly irreverent, this is a modern classic from one of our great political satirists, described by Christopher Buckley as being “like S. J. Perelman on acid.”
“Mocking on the surface but serious beneath . . . When it comes to scouting the world for world-class absurdities, O’Rourke is the right man for the job.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
“The funniest writer in America.” —The Wall Street Journal
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THE DEATH OF COMMUNISM
Berlin, November 1989
A week after the surprise-party opening of East Germany's borders people were still gathering at the Berlin Wall, smiling at each other, drinking champagne and singing bits of old songs. There was no sign of the letdown which every sublime experience is supposed to inspire. People kept coming back just to walk along the freshly useless ram-parts. They came at all sorts of hours, at lunch, dawn, three in the morning. Every possible kind of person was on promenade in the narrow gutter beside the concrete eyesore: wide hausfraus, kids with lavender hair, New Age goofs, drunk war vets in wheelchairs, video-burdened tourists, Deadheads, extravagant gays, toughs become all well-behaved, art students forgetting to look cool and bored, business tycoons gone loose and weepy, people so ordinary they defied description and, of course, members of the East German proletariat staring in surprise — as they stared in surprise at everything — at this previously central fact of their existence.
Even West Berlin's radicals joined the swarms. West Berlin had the most dogmatic agitators this side of Peru's Shining Path, but that was before November 9th. Near the restored Reichstag building I overheard a group of lefties amicably discussing nuclear strategy with a half dozen off-duty U.S. GI's.
"Ja, you see, tactical capability mit der cruise missiles after all vas not der Soviet primary concern ..."
"Sure, man, but what about second-strike capability? Wow, if we hadn't had that ..."
All in the past tense. A British yob, who certainly should have been off throttling Belgians at a football match, came up to me apropos of nothing and said, "I fucking 'ad to see this, right? I 'itched 'ere from London and got these chunks off the wall. You think I can't pay for the fucking ferry ride back with these? Right!"
At the Brandenburg gate the East German border guards had shooed the weekend's noisy celebrators off the Wall. But the guards weren't carrying guns anymore and were beginning to acknowledge their audience and even ham it up a bit. Somebody offered a champagne bottle to a guard and he took a lively swig. Somebody else offered another bottle with a candle in it, and the guard set the candle on the wall and used a plastic cup to make a shield around the flame.
The people in the crowd weren't yelling or demanding anything. They weren't waiting for anything to happen. They were present from sheer glee at being alive in this place at this time. They were there to experience the opposite of the existential anguish which has been the twentieth century's designer mood. And they were happy with the big, important happiness that — the Declaration of Independence reminds us — is everybody's, even a Communist's, unalienable right to pursue.
The world's most infamous symbol of oppression had been rendered a tourist attraction overnight. Poland's political prisoners were now running its government. Bulgaria's leadership had been given the Order of the Boot. The Hungarian Communist Party wouldn't answer to its name. Three hundred thousand Czechs were tying a tin can to the Prague Politburo's tail. And the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was looking disunified, unsoviet and not as socialist as it used to. What did it mean? The Commies didn't seem to know. The Bush administration didn't either. And you can be certain that members of the news media did not have a clue. Ideology, politics and journalism, which luxuriate in failure, are impotent in the face of hope and joy.
* * *
I booked a hotel room in East Berlin. When I arrived at the West Berlin airport a taxi dispatcher said the border crossings were so busy that I'd better take the subway to the other side. The train was filled with both kinds of Berliners, and stepping through the car doors was like walking into a natural history museum diorama of Dawn Man and his modern relations. The Easterners look like Pleistocene proto-Germans, as yet untouched by the edifying effects of Darwinian selection. West Germans are tall, pink, pert and orthodontically corrected, with hands, teeth and hair as clean as their clothes and clothes as sharp as their looks. Except for the fact that they all speak English pretty well, they're indistinguishable from Americans. East Germans seem to have been hunching over cave fires a lot. They're short and thick with sallow, lardy fat, and they have Khrushchev warts. There's something about Marxism that brings out warts — the only kind of growth this economic system encourages.
As the train ran eastward, West Berliners kept getting off and East Berliners kept getting on until, passing under the Wall itself, I was completely surrounded by the poor buggers and all the strange purchases they'd made in the west. It was mostly common, trivial stuff, things the poorest people would have already in any free country — notebook paper, pliers and screwdrivers, corn flakes and, especially, bananas. For all the meddling the Communist bloc countries have done in banana republics, they still never seem to be able to get their hands on any actual bananas.
The East Berliners had that glad but dazed look which you see on Special Olympics participants when they're congratulated by congressmen. The man sitting next to me held a West German tabloid open to a photo of a healthy fraulein without her clothes. He had that picture fixed with a gaze to make stout Cortez on a peak in Darien into a blinking, purblind myope.
At the Friedrichstrasse station in East Berlin, passport examination was perfunctory and the customs inspection, a wave of the hand. I walked outside into a scene of shocking, festive bustle. Though, to the uninitiated, I don't suppose it would look like much — just squat, gray crowds on featureless streets. But there are never crowds in East Berlin. And the crowds had shopping bags. There's nothing to shop for in East Berlin and no bags in which to put the stuff you can't buy. Taxi drivers saw my luggage and began shouting, "You want taxi?!" "Taxi, ja?!" Imagine shouting that your services are for hire in East Berlin. Imagine shouting. Imagine services. I heard laughter, chatting, even giggles. I saw a cop directing traffic with bold and dramatic flourishes. I saw border guards smile. It was a regular Carnival in Rio by East Berlin standards. And, the most amazing thing of all, there was jaywalking.
I had been in East Berlin three years before. And I had been standing on a corner of a perfectly empty Karl-Marx-Allee waiting for the light to change. All Germans are good about obeying traffic signals but pre-1989 East Germans were religious. If a bulb burned out they'd wait there until the state withered away and true communism arrived. So I was standing among about a dozen East Germans, meaning to follow the custom of the country, but my mind wandered and without thinking I stepped out into the street against the light. They all followed me. Then I realized I'd walked into the path of a speeding army truck. I froze in confusion. They froze in confusion. Finally I jumped back on the curb. And they did too, but not until I'd jumped first.
In 1986 I'd come through the border at Checkpoint Charlie, and getting in was a dreary and humiliating experience similar to visiting a brother-inlaw in prison. There was much going through pairs of electrically locked doors and standing before counters fronted with bulletproof glass while young dolts in uniforms gave you the fish-eye. There were an inordinate number of "NO EXIT!" signs, and I remember thinking the exclamation points were a nice touch.
You had to exchange twenty-five perfectly good West German marks, worth about fifty cents apiece, for twenty-five perfectly useless East German marks, worth nothing. I thought I'd see how fast I could blow my stack of East marks on the theory that the test of any society's strength and vigor is how quickly it Handi-Vacs your wallet.
I walked to Unter den Linden, old Berlin's Champs Elysees. The city was empty feeling, no construction noise, no music, no billboards or flashing lights. There were plenty of people around but they all seemed to be avoiding one another like patrons at a pornographic movie theater and, although it was a beautiful spring day, the East Berliners were moving with their shoulders hunched and heads turned down as though they were walking in the rain. The women were frumps but the men bore an odd resemblance to trendy New Yorkers. They had the same pallor and mixing-bowl haircuts. They wore the same funny, tight high-water pants with black clown shoes as big as rowboats and the same ugly 1950s geometric-patterned shirts buttoned to the neck. Except the East Berlin guys weren't kidding. This wasn't a style. These were their clothes.
Unter den Linden's six lanes served only a few deformed East German Wartburg sedans and some midget Trabant cars. The Trabants had two-cycle engines and made a sound like a coffee can full of steel washers and bees. They looked like they were made of plastic because they were. Other than that the traffic was mostly blimp-sized double-length articulated buses progressing down the vacant avenue at the speed of Dutch Elm disease.
The store windows were full of goods, however: a fifty-bottle pyramid of Rumanian berry liqueur, a hundred Russian nesting dolls, a whole enormous display devoted entirely to blue plastic tooth-brushes with the bristles already falling out. The huge Centrum department store smelled as though the clothes were made from wet dogs. The knit dresses were already unraveling on their hangers. The sweaters were pilling on the shelves. The raincoats were made out of what looked like vinyl wallpaper. And there were thirty or forty people in line to buy anything, anything at all, that was for sale.
I went to a bar in the showplace Palace of the Republic. It took me thirty minutes to be waited on although there were two bartenders and only five other people in the place. The two bartenders were pretty busy washing out the bar's highball glass. I was amazed to see "Manhattan" listed on the drink menu and ordered it and should have known better. There was some kind of alcohol, but definitely not whiskey, in the thing and the sweet vermouth had been replaced with ersatz sloe gin.
Next, I stood in line for half an hour to see what Marxism could do to street-vendor pizza. It did not disappoint. The word cottony is sometimes used to describe bad pizza dough, but there was every reason to believe this pizza was really made of the stuff, or maybe a polyester blend. The slice — more accurately, lump — had no tomato whatsoever and was covered in a semiviscous imitation mozzarella, remarkably uncheeselike even for a coal-tar by-product. Then there was the sausage topping. One bite brought a flood of nostalgia. Nobody who's been through a fraternity initiation will ever forget this taste, this smell. It was dog food.
I went back to Checkpoint Charlie. You weren't allowed to take East German money out of the country. I don't know why. It's not like there was anything you could do with it in the west. The bills are too small for house-training puppies. But East Germany was so total in its totalitarianism that everything was banned which wasn't compulsory. Anyway, when I went through customs a dour official in his early twenties said, "Have you any currency of the German Democratic Republic?"
"Nope," I said. "I spent it all."
He looked skeptical, as well he might have. "Empty pockets, bitte," he ordered. I had twenty-one marks left over.
"Well, I'm coming back tomorrow," I said.
His expression changed for a moment to boyish amazement. "You are?" He resumed his governmental frown. "This once I will allow you to retain these currencies because you are coming back tomorrow," he said and rolled his eyes.
I did come back and this time couldn't find anything at all to spend money on. The only excitement available in East Berlin seemed to be opening the subway car doors and getting off the train before it came to a complete halt. But I couldn't figure out how to pay the subway fare so I couldn't even spend my money on this. I walked back toward Checkpoint Charlie with forty-six marks in my pocket. Then I did something my capitalist soul had never allowed me to do before in my life. I crumpled up money and threw it in a garbage can.
There was no question of throwing money away on my 1989 visit to East Berlin. The glimmering new Grand Hotel, standing on that very corner where the garbage can had been, accepted only hard currency. In return you got food you could swallow and Johnnie Walker Scotch at the bar (although something described as "cod liver in oil" still lurked on the restaurant menu).
There had been changes for the regular citizens of East Berlin as well There were three or four times as many shops on the streets, some with pseudo-boutique names like "Medallion," "Panda" and "Joker." The stuff for sale was awful enough, but there was more of it. Thus at least half the law of supply and demand was being obeyed — if something's lousy, it's always available. The first lineup of shoppers I saw turned out to be waiting for an antique shop to open. The new Wartburg 353 models even had styling — not much styling and that borrowed from 1960s Saabs, but styling nonetheless.
However, the real change was the lack of fear, a palpable physical absence like letting go of your end of a piano. My note-taking — which in 1986 would have sent passers-by scuttling like roaches surprised in a kitchen — now went unremarked. American reporters were all over the place, of course. And in every hotel lobby and cafe you could hear East Germans griping loudly to the reporters while the reporters loudly explained how all this was feeling to the people of East Germany.
There were pictures everywhere of the new East German leader, Egon Krenz, just as there'd been pictures everywhere of the old East German leader, Erich Honecker. But these weren't the lifted chin, stalwart forward-looker vanguarding the masses photos. Egon — who resembles a demented nephew of Danny Thomas's — was shown spreading hugs around, tousling toddler mop-tops and doing the grip-and-grin at various humble functions. He was politicking, plain and simple. The Commies didn't quite have it right yet: they take office and then they run for it. But they're trying.
Personally I missed the old East Berlin. The only thing East Germany ever had going for it was a dramatic and sinister film noir atmosphere. When you passed through Checkpoint Charlie the movie footage seemed to switch to black and white. Steam rose from man-hole covers. Newspapers blew down wet, empty streets. You'd turn your trench coat collar up, hum a few bars of "Lili Marleen" and say to yourself, "This is me in East Berlin."
That's gone now and the place is revealed for what it's really been all along, just a screwed-up poor country with a dictatorship. The dictatorship part is understandable, but how the Commies managed to make a poor country out of a nation full of Germans is a mystery. The huge demonstrations that had shaken East Germany for the past several months had one characteristic which distinguished them from all other huge demonstrations in history — they never began until after work. I went to one of these at Humboldt University. The students were demanding economics courses. It was hard to reconcile this with my own memories of student protest. We were demanding free dope for life.
The students were also protesting the opening of the Wall. Not that they were against it. But they were furious that the East German government might think this was all it had to do. One picket sign showed a caricature of East Berlin's party boss, Gunther Schabowski, naked with a banana stuck in every orifice and a balloon reading, "Free at last!" No one made any attempt to break up the rally. Soldiers and police were there, but they were applauding the speakers.
Even though the guard dogs and the machine-gun nests were gone, the east side of the Berlin Wall was still pristine, smooth whitewashed precast reinforced-concrete slabs a foot thick and ten feet high and separated from the rest of the city by thirty yards of police. On the west side, the Wall was in your face and covered with graffiti paint as thick as ravioli.
I went out Checkpoint Charlie — with nobody worrying over what I might do with my East German marks — and turned right on Zimmer Strasse, what Berliners call "Wall Street" because the Wall runs along the old curbstone, leaving only a sidewalk in front of the West Berlin buildings. There was a steely, rhythmic noise that, for a moment, I thought might be some new Kraftwerk-style Euro synthesizer music (Berliners are horribly up-to-date with that sort of thing). But it was the sound of hundreds of people going at the Wall with hammers, chisels, picks, sledges, screwdrivers and even pocket knives. The chipping and flaking had progressed in a week until long, mouse-gnawed-looking ellipses were appearing between the slabs with daylight and occasional glimpses of East German border guards visible on the other side. I saw thirty schoolchildren on a class excursion with their teacher, all beating the Wall in unison with rocks, sticks and anything that came to hand.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Give War A Chance"
Copyright © 1992 P. J. O'Rourke.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction Hunting the Virtuous — and How to Clean and Skin Them,
THE BIRTH, AND SOME OF THE AFTERBIRTH, OF FREEDOM,
The Death of Communism Berlin, November 1989,
Springtime for Gorbachev Moscow, May 1988,
The Piece of Ireland That Passeth All Understanding Ulster, May 1988,
Democracy in Its Diapers Paraguay, April 1989,
Return of the Death of Communism Nicaragua,February 1990,
Return of the Death of Communism, Part III: The Saga Continues Kiev and Tibilisi, September 1991,
A Serious Problem,
Second Thoughts About the 1960s,
Fiddling While Africa Starves,
The Two-Thousand-Year-Old U.S. Middle East Policy Expert,
Studying for Our Drug Test,
An Argument in Favor of Automobiles vs. Pedestrians,
A CALL FOR A NEW McCARTHYISM,
Notes Toward a Blacklist for the 1990s,
Sex with Dr. Ruth,
The Deep Thoughts of Lee lacocca,
The Very Deep Thoughts of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter,
Mordred Had a Point — Camelot Revisited,
GIVE WAR A CHANCE,
Dispatches from the Gulf War,
Jordan August 1990,
United Arab Emirates September 1990,
"Somewhere in Eastern Saudi Arabia" January 1991,
Gulf Diary January 28 through February 8, 1991,
At the Front Early February 1991,
Gulf Diary February 11 through February 25, 1991,
Riyadh and the Desert Late February 1991,
Missile Attack on Dhahran February 25, 1991,
Kuwait City March 1991,