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O'Rourkian rage, and the family Band-Aids couldn't help


TC GIVE WAR A CHANCE. By P.J. O'Rourke. Vintage. 233 pages $12 paperback. P.J. O'Rourke is at it again, bashing everything in sight in a collection of his fairly recent (circa 1988-91) magazine pieces. Fresh from his best-selling "Parliament of Whores," a diatribe on our government, the author has turned his satirical prose largely to foreign affairs: Paraguay, Northern Ireland, Russia, the Persian Gulf war.

On his many journeys, P.J. takes along his Raggedy Ann Liberal Doll to thrash unmercifully when the mood strikes. Indeed, he spends his introduction denigrating and loathing lefties for their "idealistic evil" and returns to this theme periodically throughout the book. P.J.'s forte is humor, but these sections are not funny. At times they verge on a pathological frenzy.

Had a venomous essay titled "Modred Had a Point -- Camelot Revisited" come to Oliver Stone's attention in time, Mr. O'Rourke might have found himself in "JFK" -- suspected of being the second gunman on the grassy knoll. In Arthurian legend, Modred rebels against and kills King Arthur.

Here is a taste of O'Rourkian rage against the Kennedys: "They )) expanded executive power to do things like make war without congressional permission or even public knowledge." This charge -- leveled against John and Robert Kennedy -- could be directed, of course, at any number of administrations, including those of Eisenhower (whom the author singles out for praise), Nixon and Reagan.

Here's another stretcher: "[The Kennedys] changed the nature of electioneering forever with thespian talents and piles of cash." It isn't clear whether Caroline and John-John were in on this dastardly plot.

Mr. O'Rourke does better when he refrains from doing his ultra-right Saint Vitus' dance. For example, he sums up the fall of communism as well as anyone: "A huge totalitarian system with all its tanks and guns, gulag camps and secret police has been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian shoes." P.J.'s wit and near-wisdom, however, are interspersed with travelogues which sometimes drag. Skip Paraguay and you won't miss a thing.

The Persian Gulf dispatches are testimony to military control of the press. (They come from a man who avoided the draft in 1970 by taking to his physical a 4 1/2 -page doctor's letter detailing a history of drug abuse.) Mr. O'Rourke's most telling commentary is on Arab driving habits. The high point of the war coverage comes when the author arrives in Kuwait City. He fiddles with an abandoned box of Iraqi hand grenades that he insists could have blown him up. Later he weeps as Kuwaitis express their joy and gratitude at being liberated.

Mr. O'Rourke, a former Baltimorean now living in New Hampshire, is at his best when exposing people and things that take themselves too seriously, and there are signs in this book, his sixth, that the author may be guilty of the same misdemeanor.

Like a reformed smoker discoursing on addiction, Mr. O'Rourke, a self-described "long-haired peace creep" 20 years ago, doesn't know when to stop pontificating. And using verbal artillery like "solipsism" and "eleemosynary" -- words whose meanings are not clear even after consulting an 80-pound dictionary -- is not an encouraging literary development.


UNDUE INFLUENCE: The Epic Battle for the Johnson & Johnson Fortune. By David Margolick. William Morrow & Co. 624 pages. $23.

If nothing else, David Margolick's first book could be prescribed as a cure for greed. Its 600-plus pages are replete with the miseries and foibles of the super-rich. There isn't a deserving character in the extended John Seward Johnson clan, multi-millionaires all who battle like piranhas for chunks of the $400-million Johnson & Johnson Band-Aid fortune.

The patriarch of this unloved, unloving and unlovely crew is the aforementioned J. Seward Johnson, who made his money the old-fashioned way: He inherited it. His contributions to Johnson & Johnson, which his father founded and his older brother ran so effectively, were minimal. He was essentially a title.

With all that time and money at his disposal, Seward Johnson, as he was known, might have made an attentive parent to his six children by his first two marriages. Instead, he busied himself with his boats, scuba diving, other women and a prize-winning herd of Holstein-Friesian dairy cattle. The beloved quadrupeds were provided for in his will; his children were not. Mr. Margolick ,, sums up Johnson as "an undemonstrative, unreflective, unsentimental and uncommunicative man." A Ward Cleaver he wasn't.

His children, however, made him seem appealing. Perhaps the worst thing that happened to the kids was that in 1944 their father established trusts for them, a largess that would have amounted to $600 million by 1983, the year Seward died, had it been left untouched. It wasn't, and it didn't buy love or happiness. It bought indolence and self-indulgence.

Mary Lea, the eldest, was the most spectacularly dysfunctional. She grew up to become the mother of all mothers who, when not ignoring her children, was introducing them to cigarettes, booze and illegal drugs. How many parents give their kids cocaine for Christmas? Five of her six offspring wound up suing her for the way she squandered the family fortune.

The Johnson & Johnson plot thickens and becomes a public display of haute unseemliness after Seward's death. In 1971, at 77, he had married for the third time to the family's 35-year-old Polish-immigrant maid, the voluptuous Barbara Piasecka. When he died 12 years later, leaving virtually all of his $400 million to Barbara, known as "Basia," massive legal retaliation was inevitable.

The children felt slighted by the will, although it was the last in a string of dozens Seward had drafted over the years. Most pre-dated his final marriage and all left his six children out in the cold.

If the Johnsons are unappealing, the lawyers fighting their battles aren't an improvement. Before settling in 1986 for what she could have had three years earlier, Basia runs up legal bills totaling $25 million. And then she sues her lawyers.

This is a problem for Mr. Margolick, who writes a legal affairs column for the New York Times: All of the main characters, even the judges, are unredeemably unsympathetic. There's no one to root for. The battle is not "epic," as billed, but squalid. Granted, the author is stuck with his cast, but 624 pages, plus 32 more of photographs, seems excessive.

Even in these times of prurient tabloidism, this cat fight can't sustain a book of this length. At one point, the author describes a tear running down Basia's cheek: "Basia let the tear run and run and run. Only when it passed her nostrils did she remove a purple handkerchief from her pocketbook and brush the remnants away."

Like Basia's tear, this book runs too far.

David Holahan is a writer in East Haddam, Conn.

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