P. J. O’Rourke, 1947-2022
[guest post by JVW]
One of the few advantages to be a lazy procrastinator is that sometimes by the time you get around to the job, someone else has done it for you. This turned out to be the case for me as I attempted to draft a remembrance for the great American humor writer Patrick Jake O’Rourke, known professionally by his first two initials, who died yesterday according to news at age 74. By the time I roused myself to give it a go, I found Jim Geraghty’s splendid obituary of P. J., which said far better everything I might have said and included some of the best-known quips and bon mots from the funniest humorist of the past half-century. Please do take a moment to read the link over at National Review Online, especially if you were not familiar with O’Rourke’s nearly 50 years of output.
P. J. O’Rourke’s writings spanned from his college dalliance with trendy Baby Boomer left-wing radicalism in the early 1970s to humor pieces mocking the uptight America of the Nixon Era in National Lampoon to a more curmudgeonly aging-Boomer libertarianism. If you don’t care for his politics, perhaps you enjoyed his writing on cars, whiskey, books, family, or bachelorhood. If you don’t like his lax and indulgent personal lifestyle, you may have gravitated to his views on foreign policy, economics, bureaucracy, taxes, and elected officials. Long-time readers may recall that I have cited P. J. O’Rourke on this blog probably dozens of times (Dana has brought him into her posts from time to time as well), and I haven’t been shy about stealing ideas of his to use in posts of my own. Accordingly, let me share with you some of my favorite bits of his writing:
“Ship of Fools” from Harper’s, 1982
P. J. signs up for a cruise through the Soviet Union down the Volga River sponsored by The Nation magazine. Of his shipmates, 160 American fellow-travelers (literally and figuratively) who insist upon referring to themselves as “progressives” (the more things change. . . ), he tells us this:
I had never met any Old Leftists. I expected them to be admirable and nasty, like Lillian Hellman, or brilliant, mysterious, denying everything, like Alger Hiss, or — best of all — hard-bitten and cynical but still willing to battle oppression, like Rick in Casablanca. I did not expect them to be the pack of thirty fussing geriatrics I met at Kennedy Airport, misplacing their hand luggage, losing their way to the ladies’ room, barking at the airline personnel, and asking two hundred times which gate we’d have to be at in three and a half hours.
Later on during the cruise, after suffering through both the privations of pre-Glastnost Soviet travel and the starry-eyed delusions and child-like credulity of the lefty true believers on the cruise, he has a memorable exchange with two of the tour’s Soviet guides:
“How are you liking the Soviet Union?” asked Sonya.
“I’m not,” I said.
She was worried. “No? What is the matter?”
“Too many Americans.”
Sonya kept a look of strict neutrality.
[. . .]
“Perhaps they are just old a bit,” said Sonya with the air of someone making an obvious fallacious argument. “But,” she brightened, “they are for peace.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “They are progressive. They are highly progressive. They are such great progressives I think I have almost all of them talked into defecting.”
“No, no, no, no, no,” said Nikolai.
“Christmas in El Salvador,” Rolling Stone, 1985
P. J. visits the Central American country during the middle of the fight between an authoritarian corrupt government and bloodthirsty communist rebels:
I thought El Salvador was a jungle. It isn’t. El Salvador has the scenery of Northern California and the climate of Southern California plus — and this was a relief — no Californians.
[. . .]
The wealthiest 20 percent of the population gobbles up 66.4 percent of El Salvador’s personal income. Maybe this is unfair, but it still didn’t look like any oligarch had enough worldly goods to scare Barry Manilow’s accountant. Rapacious as they may be, there’s only so much to squeeze from a primitive agrarian country smaller than Vermont. Down at the shore, I was shown a beach house being built by some fabulously corrupt general. It wouldn’t have passed muster as a garage in Mailbu Colony. It was interesting to think of all of the rich U.S. liberals, the Jane Fondas, the Norman Lears, the Shirley MacLaines, whining about exploitation in Central America while sitting in houses four times as large as any owned by the Fourteen Families.
“The Winners Go to Washington DC,” Parliament of Whores, 1990
In his most famous and best-selling book, P. J. clues us in to a major reason why our capital city is so dysfunctional.
Washington is a fine place for journalists to live as well as to brown-nose. It has plenty of the only kind of people who can stand journalists — other journalists — and plenty of the only kind of people journalists get any real information from — other journalists. It is, like most journalists themselves, not very big (Washington is smaller than Memphis, Tennessee) and not as sophisticated as it thinks. And it’s pretty. Washington has lots of those Greek- and Roman-style buildings that practically make you feel like a senator just walking up the steps of them. Senators, in particular, are fond of this feeling, and this is one reason official Washington escaped the worst effects of modern architecture. Also, steel and glass skyscrapers are relatively cheap to build, and cost effectiveness is not a concept here. As Article One, Section 9, paragraph 7 of the U.S. Constitution says, “No money shall drawn from the Treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law. . . ” So it’s obvious what the whole point of lawmaking is.
“Return of the Death of Communism,” American Spectator, 1990
P. J. travels to Nicaragua for the historic vote conducted under international auspices and supervised by the meddlesome Jimmy Carter, which removed Marxist commandante Daniel Ortega from power. P. J. admits that he was caught a bit by surprise, having been assured by all of the smart set that Sandinista socialism was popular:
The only Nicaraguan we heard complain was a guy who wasn’t allowed to vote because he was drunk. “He admits that he’s drunk,” the Sandinista policemen told us. “Everybody makes mistakes,” the drunk told us. And we told the policeman, “They let Teddy Kennedy vote in the Senate.”
[. . . ]
Of course people don’t stand in line for twelve hours in drizzly weather at the ass end of nowhere to vote for the status quo. So there were three hints that I’d been given that Ortega might lose. But there’s no getting through to the highly perceptive. It wasn’t until another journalist told me that the Sandinistas were in trouble that I believed it.
[. . .]
I awoke to the sound of lugubrious Spanish on the television. It was Danny Boy giving his concession speech, old Landslide Daniel. I understand Jimmy Carter had tracked Danny down in the middle of the night and told him — loser to loser — the jig was up.
“The Revolt Against the Elites,” How the Hell Did This Happen? 2016
Summing up the weirdest election cycle to that point, P. J. had this to say about the revolt against the establishment:
Trump is, and Sanders was, the giant inflated balloon face of the revolt. Sanders had a reasonable claim to having no status as an elite, indeed to having no status at all — last of the old New Left cranks, useless appendage in Congress, Vermonter. However, his watery stew of anti-elite Marxism held appeal. And, in fact, it held appeal thanks to elites.
[. . .]
Trump, on the other hand, seemed an odd avatar of disestablishmentarianism. But he was oddly right for the job. Donald may be a rich guy, a self-proclaimed member of the 1%, but there’s nothing “elite” about him. There’s nothing elite about the way he sounds. He sounds like the rest of us. Unfortunately, he sounds like the rest of us after we’ve had six drinks.
You can imagine playing a round of golf with Trump. (I have it on good authority that he cheats no more than I do.)
Now, imagine a round of golf with Hillary Clinton. She’s got twenty Harvard graduate caddies who’ve read all of the golf instruction manuals but who have never been on the links. They spend the whole match telling you — not her — what club to use. The Secret Service is there to make sure you take their suggestions to hit from the fairway with a sand wedge. After you finally make your chip shot the cup and the pin somehow get moved closer to Hillary’s lie. (“Lie” — just the word to use in any game involving Hillary.) And the scorecard mysteriously winds up on Hillary’s private email server.
Hillary, of course, is an elite. She’s an elite through educational and institutional sucking up, and elite by marriage, and elite via carpetbag stowaway trip to the Senate, and an elite courtesy of Presidential better-in-the-tent-pissing-out cabinet appointment.
Elites are self-righteous, self-regarding, self-serving, and smug. Hillary is their Queen. But the fact that she snatched the Democratic Presidential nomination from Bernie Sanders and garnered more of the popular vote than Donald Trump doesn’t mean that there isn’t a rebellion. It means this kind of internecine warfare brings forth the worst from both sides.
I could go on and on, quoting from some of his great observations from the Bill Clinton Era, George W. Bush and the War on Terror, Barack Obama and cult of personalities, and so many other trenchant observations emanating forth from the man’s Selectric typewriter (which he famously only used to write until about ten years ago when the elderly repairman no longer was willing to fix it; he reports that his first reaction to composing on a word processor was “Why didn’t I do this earlier?”). I am sure that as I go back and re-read the treasure chest of material he has left us, thoughts from him will creep into my blog posts and comments, both attributed and unattributed. But I will miss reading what he has to say about all of the crazy stuff that we’re bound to see in the weeks, months, and years to come.