R.I P.J. O’Rourke

Beloved conservative humorist and author is dead at age 74

Just when you thought politics couldn’t get any more dour and starved for humor, P.J. O’Rourke shuffles off this mortal coil. The sad news broke on Tuesday that satirist, journalist, and author P.J. O’Rourke, who brought wit and style to a stuffed-shirt conservatism that had all but despaired of making inroads among the youthful members of our polity, died at his home in New Hampshire at age 74.

Commentators and columnists no doubt will struggle for weeks and months to try to work out an appropriate way to pay homage to a brash, funny, iconoclastic writer who championed wholly different and diametrically opposing strands of our politics at different stages of his career.

O'Rourke
One of the many titles by P.J. O’Rourke, the conservative humorist who died this week at age 74.

Contrary to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous observation, there are second acts in American lives, and it’s often in the second act that the players come to appreciate the unintentional humor of the first. O’Rourke’s reflections on the 1960s are an odd blend of nostalgia, whimsy, anger, and regret, informed by the critical perspective of a more mature observer with a broader experience of the world.

O’Rourke grew up in 1950s America, came of age in the 1960s, and took part in the counterculture as a member of the staff of an underground Baltimore rag titled, of all things, Harry. O’Rourke relates in his essay in the collection Second Thoughts: Former Radicals Look Back at the Sixties that he and his friends couldn’t think of a name for their paper, so they asked the two-year-old son of a young woman they knew, and the baby repeated the name of an uncle or somebody it had just learned to pronounce. So they christened the paper Harry. “It was the spirit of the times,” O’Rourke writes.

Far more than just his experiences in Baltimore at the end of the 1960s and the dawn of the 1970s went into making O’Rourke the conservative we came to know so well. But he learned much about the far left of the time and derived a few lessons from his escapades. Harry was a self-deprecating lefty rag whose idea of humor was to run identical photos of the paper’s offices, with captions indicating one was from before, and the other after, a police raid. (The cops were looking for pot.)

The easygoing leftism of Harry did not please local Maoists who called themselves the Balto Cong. O’Rourke recalls a harrowing evening when the Balto Cong showed up in force at the paper’s offices and subjected every member of the staff to a consciousness-raising session, in which a dozen or so Maoists sat in a circle around the poor hippie and screamed at him or her about imperialism and collusion with fascist pigs. O’Rourke’s fear of this Maoist cult led him to keep a .22 pistol in the Harry offices, but when the Balto Cong showed up again, he got his hand stuck in a drawer while trying to grab it.

The remainder of O’Rourke’s essay in Second Thoughts offers reflections on how, as a foreign correspondent, he came to see ever more clearly the devastation that collectivist and anti-Western dogmas have wreaked around the world. The irony is that, just as some hippies said they hated their bourgeois conformist parents, much of the anti-American venom O’Rourke encountered came from people who also admitted to harboring dreams of studying and working in America someday.

They talked tough, but knew all too well that their collectivist economies were in ruins and their denunciations of America were a kind of Nietzschean rationalization of their own failure. The rhetorical sleight of hand that O’Rourke detected in Marxism was, as he put it, the doctrine’s positing that something could be worth more than people are willing to pay for it.

O’Rourke reminisced nostalgically well into middle age about his hippie days even as he embraced conservative and, more specifically, libertarian values. He was often at his most merciless when writing and talking about the figureheads of the progressive movement of that day or later periods in our history.

He referred to Jimmy Carter as “That most ex of America’s ex-presidents.” After the passing of homeless activist Mitch Snyder, P.J. quipped that Mitch was now in a place where it’s always warm. And in reference to Sinead O’Connor, he had this to say. “The world faces difficult and horrendous problems—war, famine, disease, poverty and injustice. We could ask scientists and scholars what to do, or pray to God, or study them ourselves and try to discern solutions, but fortunately we don’t have to do any of that because there’s a bald girl in Dublin who has all the answers.”

Writing mainly for Rolling Stone in the 1980s and 1990s, O’Rourke the foreign correspondent crafted some of the most memorable accounts of places like Vietnam, Panama, and Nicaragua. On the ground in Panama after the invasion, he observed that the city was full of devastated housing and human suffering, “and the parts of the city that had been fought in looked pretty bad, too.” He called an official building in Managua one of the only ones there that won’t fall down if you urinate on the side of it.

O’Rourke wrote about a trip to Vietnam in a lengthy piece appearing in Rolling Stone’s edition of July 9-23, 1992. Exploring the socialist paradise, O’Rourke entered a restaurant with a really weird menu reflective of collectivist ineptitude and mismanagement. “But you’ve got to like a place that has ice cream, cigarettes, and beer on its breakfast menu,” O’Rourke wrote.

Yes, O’Rourke, whom John Podhoretz in his New York Post obit called maybe the nicest person he had ever met, could be scathing. The late radical journalist Alexander Cockburn demonized O’Rourke and once referred to him as a “Nazi jokester,” apparently having learned nothing from the Anti-Defamation League’s warnings about being exceedingly careful with any charges of racism or fascism.

It is hard not to detect, in the venom of Cockburn and other progressives for O’Rourke, the resentment that failure tends to feel for success. As O’Rourke’s books hit the bestseller lists over and over again, and as he cracked up audiences of all ages with his devastating takes on the follies and foibles of contemporary progressivism and woke leftism and made conservatism and libertarianism chic at high-society functions, certain thoughts must have occurred to his enemies from time to time.

Cockburn and left-wing allies around the world must have wondered: couldn’t we once, just once, have someone on our side who is even half as hilarious and disarming as P.J. O’Rourke?

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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