I met A. J. Jacobs in a bagel store on the Upper West Side about fifteen years ago and we’ve been pals ever since. In all that time, I’ve wanted to know one of his writing secrets: how did he manage to write a book making fun of the Bible (The Year of Living Biblically) that religious people love? When we connected to talk about my latest book, Profiles in Ignorance, I finally got up the nerve to ask him. –Andy Borowitz
A. J. Jacobs: I know that you did your research in part by finding delightfully obscure books. Can you tell us about one of your favorites?
Andy Borowitz: Although the era I cover in the book—the past fifty years or so—is relatively recent, so many books about current events that were published during that period are already out-of-print and forgotten. (This fact is somewhat depressing for those of us who write books about current events, but let’s not dwell on that.) When I stumbled on a book that seemed particularly obscure it felt like buried treasure.
I think the one that excited me the most was called The Making of a Senator: Dan Quayle. A totally unironic and highly flattering account of Quayle’s career in the United States Senate, it portrays him as a politician who is destined for greatness.
There are a couple of poignant things about this book. First, in his native Indiana, Quayle did seem like a budding right-wing superstar, but that was largely because his grandfather was a regional media magnate who guaranteed Dan reliably glowing press coverage whenever he opened his mouth. When George H.W. Bush tapped Dan as Veep and he was suddenly exposed to media not controlled by his grandpa, it was a very traumatic experience for him.
Second, the book came out in January 1989, the month Quayle was sworn in as vice president, so the publisher must have thought that he had a commercial bonanza on his hands. Surely, Dan was on the brink of becoming a wildly popular and respected national figure who’d make the book fly off the shelves. Alas, it didn’t become a bestseller like PT 109, which proves once again that Dan Quayle was no Jack Kennedy. (Sorry, I had to.)
If all satire has done is help you sleep better at night, it’s actually reinforced the established order that it was meant to attack.
The joke, though, is ultimately on me, because I was so overstimulated by my discovery of this book that I accidentally ordered it twice. So now I am the owner of two copies of The Making of a Senator: Dan Quayle, a book for which there is virtually no resale market.
AJJ: What is your favorite Quaylism?
AB: So hard to choose! He spewed an embarrassment of embarrassments. His most famous quote might be his mangling of the United Negro College Fund’s slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”: “When you take the UNCF model that, what a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.” I’m also fond of a statement of his that seems to call into question the linear nature of time: “I’ve made good judgments in the past. I’ve made good judgments in the future.” But you really can’t do better than this one: “Republicans understand the importance of bondage between parent and child.”
AJJ: I once read an essay that argued that satire is counterproductive. It serves more as a safe way to vent frustration while we stick with the status quo, and that satire usually isn’t what changes society. Do you think there’s truth to that, or is the writer of that essay just a sour humorless dumbass?
AB: I think we should be open to the possibility that the essayist is a sour humorless dumbass but still has a point. Satire, unfortunately, can lead people to the false conclusion that things must be okay if we can laugh about them. Sometimes well-intentioned readers will say to me, “Thank you for keeping me sane.” That’s a super-nice thing to say, even though I have serious doubts about their choice of sanity provider, so I’ll thank them for saying it.
But then I’ll ask them, “So what are you going to do with your sanity?” I don’t say this just to be a prick. What I mean is, now that my jokes have cheered you up, are you motivated to engage in some form of activism? Because if all satire has done is help you sleep better at night, it’s actually reinforced the established order that it was meant to attack.
There is, however, something that satire can do really well: educate. I just spoke with a couple of college students who told me that they’ve learned about recent American history by watching old “Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live” clips on YouTube. I hear this kind of thing all the time. One of the reasons I wrote Profiles In Ignorance was to inform readers about historical events that they might not be aware of. Jokes can teach. That’s why they’re trying to ban them in Florida.
In The Year of Living Biblically, you satirize the idea of taking the Bible literally—and yet a lot of people who love the Bible also love your book. That’s an impressive achievement. How’d you do it?
AJJ: Well, the words of my book were dictated to me by the Lord Almighty himself, so that helped. I kid! I’m not sure how I did it, to be honest. I think one part may be that I tried to point out the wisdom in the Bible as well as the crazy parts. I tried to show that cherry-picking is okay, as long as you pick the right cherries. There are plenty of terrible cherries, like the Bible’s anti-gay passages. I say we leave those on the tree.
But there are also some good cherries about compassion and kindness and helping those on the fringes of society. So I was hoping to present a balanced satire.
AB: In Profiles in Ignorance, I target politicians of the last half-century or so, but in the book you’re working on now you go back further in time. Which of our Founding Fathers was the most ridiculous?
AJJ: I don’t think any of the Founding Fathers approached the modern level of political idiocy. They had huge moral flaws, but they weren’t dummies. Though I suppose they were ignorant of modern science and medicine. I’m thinking of Gouverneur Morris, who wrote the final draft of the Constitution. He died in 1816 because he tried to treat his urinary tract infection himself. He tried to clear the blockage by inserting a whalebone into his penis. I appreciate his can-do attitude, but it wasn’t a noble demise.
If you had to rank the dumbest moment in American history, what would it be? The dumbest politician?
AB: This is probably a symptom of our myopia as humans, but don’t we all tend to think the moment we’re living through is the dumbest? When you read Mark Twain venting about the politicians of his era, you get the sense that he didn’t think the bar could fall any lower. Same with H.L. Mencken writing about Warren G. Harding’s inaugural address—he declared that there had never been a bigger dolt in the annals of history. I’m like, just you wait, H.L.
The election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 was a real inflection point in what I call the Age of Ignorance.
The election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 was a real inflection point in what I call the Age of Ignorance. The Gipper is now routinely deified as a great leader and statesman—even by Democrats—a reputation that I think is totally unearned. This is a man who didn’t know that South America was composed of different countries, and who thought that trees were more lethal polluters than cars. When he made a campaign appearance at Claremont College in California, students tacked a sign to a tree that read, “Chop Me Down Before I Kill Again.”
Of course, Reagan has benefited greatly from comparisons with our most recent ex-president, who stared directly at an eclipse with no sunglasses on and told the country that you could cure COVID by ingesting bleach. Having said that, I don’t think Donald J. Trump is the dumbest politician of our current era. There are too many other formidable contenders.
For me, the honors would have to go to either Lauren Boebert or Marjorie Taylor Greene. They’re both incredible numbskulls, and here’s the twist…they can’t stand each other! They’ve been seen openly cussing each other out on the floor of the House. This is very much an “Alien vs. Predator” situation: hard to know who to root for.
But I guess I have a soft spot for Marge, owing to her famous comment about Jewish space lasers. I’m flattered that she thinks I could operate a space laser. I can barely mute myself on Zoom. And if ever there was a group of people who could have used space lasers throughout their history, it’s the Jews. Space lasers would have come in real handy when we were being chased by the Gazpacho.
Profiles in Ignorance: How America’s Politicians Got Dumb and Dumber by Andy Borowitz is available via Avid Reader Press.