Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Parliament of Whores

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, April 22, 2014

“Being in the White House Press Corps is essentially ceremonial. It entails—as all ceremonial roles do—ceaseless repetition, stultifying dullness and swollen self-regard.”

Parliament of Whores is perhaps the best introduction to Washington, DC politics that I’ve seen. And it’s funny as hell to boot.

RecommendationPurchase Now!
Year1992
Length249 pages
Book Rating8

This P. J. O’Rourke book is subtitled “A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government” and it includes many things I’ve heard about and had no idea how to look up.

To begin with, there is the concept of parity—the deep thought behind all of the USDA’s price- and income-support measures. Parity is the idea that the price farm goods bring ought to be the same, now and forever, in inflation-adjusted dollars, as the price farm goods brought in the years 1910 through 1914.…

If we applied the logic of parity to automobiles instead of feed and grain, a typical economy car would cost forty grand. $43,987.,50 is what a 1910 Nash Rambler cost in 1990 dollars. And for that you got a car with thirty-four horsepower, no heat, no A/C, no tape deck or radio and no windows around the front seat. If farm parity were a guiding principle of human existence, we’d not only have lousy, high-priced economy cars, we’d have a total lack of civilization. Cheap, plentiful food is the precondition for human advancement. When there isn’t enough food, everybody has to spend all his time getting fed and nobody has a minute to invent law, architecture or big clubs to hit cave bears on the head with.

If you follow this blog, you might remember parity from the Li’l Abner musical number, The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands. Now I have a better idea of what “no one understands”. Despite the complexities of reform in DC, which, he writes, are very real, reforming the USDA and parity is the only “straightforward” issue he has seen: “a simple problem with a simple solution. Drag the omnibus farm bill behind the barn, and kill it with an ax.”

And while the USDA is spending $10 billion a year to increase farm income [by destroying food, not growing food, and otherwise increasing the cost of food], the same government agency is spending $20 billion to make food available to poor people through the Food Stamp program. A moron, an imbecile, an American high-school student can see there’s something wrong with this equation. Just give the $10 billion to the poor people, and let them buy their own damn food from the farmers.

He starts the book by saying,

I thought I’d observe the 1988 presidential race and then go to Washington for the first six months of the new administration, learn everything there is to know about government and write a book. But the six months turned into two years. I’m not sure I learned anything except that giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.

Then he adds that, basically, the teenage boys are journalists:

All of Washington conspires to make reporters feel important… The U.S. government, more than any other organization on earth, takes pains to provide journalists with “access”… If you can get accreditation to the Congressional Press Galleries—which, when you’re employed by a “major news outlet,” is about as difficult as falling asleep in a congressional hearing—you receive a photo ID tag to wear on a chain around your neck… I wore mine everywhere until one day in the shower the chain caught on the soap dish and I was nearly strangled by my own identity. This happens a lot to members of the Washington press corps.

Which is not to say that Representatives don’t work hard. This is DC, after all, and every issue except the farm bill is complex. He went along with a lawmaker whose day started with a meeting at 8 AM in the Cannon Building, another meeting at 8:30 AM in the Rayburn Building, then a 9:30 meeting with the Housing and Community Development Subcommittee, a 10 AM meeting of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee (this one in the Longfellow Building) to go over six bills. Then the House of Representatives met at noon, at 1:00 PM he had a meeting back in his office with volunteer firemen from his district, and at 1:15 he left to be briefed on the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, back in his office at 2 working with his staff cramming for twenty-five of that week’s bills; then a 4 PM meeting of congressmen in his “class”, at 5 PM another political get-together for “important members of his party”, then 5:30 to 9 the National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner and from 6 to 8 at a dinner with the governor of his state across town.

“But a good politician can be two places at once when it comes to public appearances, just as a good politician can be no place at several different times when it comes to public issues… I read a week of the congressman’s mail, more than seven hundred letters. There were exactly two thank-you notes in the pile.” The congressman’s staff called this a light day.

Parliament of Whores is funny as hell, and you should buy it. Twenty years doesn’t appear to have changed much in Washington.

The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.

I thought I’d observe the 1988 presidential race and then go to Washington for the first six months of the new administration, learn everything there is to know about government and write a book. But the six months turned into two years. I’m not sure I learned anything except that giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.

A little government and a little luck are necessary in life, but only a fool trusts either of them.

The mystery of government is not how Washington works but how to make it stop.

It is a popular delusion that the government wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency and sloth. Enormous effort and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money.

…being specific is the essence of lawmaking and the whole difference between having a Congress and having a mom.

Whatever it is that the government does, sensible Americans would prefer that the government do it to somebody else. This is the idea behind foreign policy.

When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.

The whole idea of government is this: If enough people get together and act in concert, they can take something and not pay for it.

Parliament of Whores

Recommendation: Purchase Now!