The Conspirator of Truth
Farewell to P.J. O'Rourke
When P.J. O’Rourke was first diagnosed with cancer in 2008, he penned the op-ed, Give Me Liberty and Give Me Death. He opened with these thoughts:
I looked death in the face. All right, I didn’t. I glimpsed him in a crowd. I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, of a very treatable kind. I’m told I have a 95% chance of survival. Come to think of it -- as a drinking, smoking, saturated-fat hound -- my chance of survival has been improved by cancer.
He characterized that version of cancer, anal cancer, as “of all the inglorious things, a malignant hemorrhoid.” On Tuesday, O’Rourke died from the latest version of cancer, lung cancer. Given his penchant for self-deprecation, I have to think he’d appreciate giving the countless antismoking scolds in his life the benefit of the last word. It also gives those who knew him the dignity of not having to whisper “ass cancer” to explain his death1.
I’ll spare another accounting of his legendary career. Those who knew him and worked with him share personal reflections on his humanity. David Boaz of the Cato Institute, where O’Rourke served as the H.L. Mencken Research Fellow, wrote, “what people often miss when they talk about his humor is what a good reporter and what an insightful analyst he was.”
Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, where O’Rourke served as a frequent panelist, tweeted out an homage, saying,
Most well known people try to be nicer than they are in public than they are in private life. PJ was the only man I knew to be the opposite. He was a deeply kind and generous man who pretended to be a curmudgeon for public consumption.
Jonathan V. Last, the editor at The Bulwark, captures perfectly why writers loved P.J. O’Rourke. JVL, as he is known, reinforced what I learned first-hand about O’Rourke,
For many years he was as close to being a household name as magazine writers get. And yet he was never a big shot. No matter who you were, he’d talk to you.
When he was stopped on the street by admirers he was as gracious as you could hope for. If you were a staff assistant at a magazine and you approached him, he’d respond as freely and generously as if you were a longtime colleague.
Obligatory Personal Anecdote
On a rainy night in early 1997, I attended a book launch for David Boaz’s Libertarianism: A Primer at the Cato Institute. P.J. O’Rourke wrote the foreword and spoke at the event. After the speeches were said and a round of small talk, I stepped outside to smoke, a terrible habit brought on by life in politics.
From behind me, a familiar voice said, “Here we are at the freest place in Washington, DC, and we still have to smoke in the rain.”
I turned around, and there stood the guest of honor. Even after working on Capitol Hill meeting world leaders, I was awestruck. We chatted, first pleasantries, and then I started talking about working for Mark Sanford and our Social Security Reform. He listened and engaged like I was more than just a junior staffer working for a barely-known politician.
The conversation gravitated to other topics, more cigarettes, and before I knew it, we’d spent nearly a half-hour talking. He thanked me for the time, we exchanged cards and walked back inside. We’d cross paths a few more times, and without fail, we’d chat like we’d known each other for years.
It’s remarkable because Washington is a fairly transactional city for most people. Your value is measured in what you can do for the other person, and there was nothing in the world I could do for him. Yet, it didn’t matter. While our encounter was hardly remarkable for him, it meant the world to me. Anyone who says you should never meet your heroes has the wrong heroes; P.J. O’Rourke taught me that.
A Conspiracy of Truth
In his 1991 book, Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government, P.J. O’Rourke offers this simple assessment of the two political parties:
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.
Parliament of Whores was a post-Reagan era explanation of the dysfunctionality of Washington when no one was willing to show it. Even after a generation of wear and tear on the political process, his words ring mostly true today. Today, Washington’s dysfunctionality is not only on full display; politicians wear it as a badge of honor, complete with a fundraising pitch and your very own dysfunction badge for a $25 donation.
O’Rourke would write 19 more books covering the gamut of topics from war, foreign policy, economics, cars, and culture. He opined in countless publications over the years, touching virtually any issue one might imagine, and a few you never knew you needed opining on.
In a pre-social media world, O’Rourke noticed a trend that only became obvious to the rest of us much too late: arguing for the sake of arguing. He writes:
Arguing, in the sense of attempting to convince others, seems to have gone out of fashion with everyone. I'm reduced to arguing with the radio. The distaste for political argument certainly hasn't made politics friendlier—or quieter, given the amount of shouting being done by people who think one thing at people who think the same thing.
Times Change, P.J. Never Did
He was an unapologetic believer in free markets and liberty. O’Rourke delivered a speech, The Liberty Manifesto, at The Cato Institute in 1993 expressing the woes of fighting for liberty in a Clinton world. Despite that, he endorsed Hillary Clinton for President in 2016 in typical P.J. O’Rourke fashion,
I am endorsing Hillary, and all her lies and all her empty promises. It’s the second-worst thing that can happen to this country, but she’s way behind in second place. She’s wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters.
Even an independent thinker raises the white flag in the face of the binary world of politics. Don’t blame me; I voted for Gary Johnson. If you’re curious, he never repented and doubled down against Trump in 2020. That speaks volumes for a man who dedicated most of his professional career skewering liberalism.
What Did We Learn?
When P.J. O’Rourke launched his journey through the madness of politics, the world was a different place. He challenged your notions of how the world works and asked you to think while making you laugh. We were in on the joke in those days, and the bad actor was them.
Fast forward, and politics are less funny. This is primarily because politicians, technology, and the media have formed a perfect storm of outrage, breaking the fourth wall on the “good v. evil” narrative. It’s no longer us against them, but us against us.
Reflecting on the Capitol riots, he said,
On January 6, I wanted to laugh at the bare-chested Viking that stood over the Senate floor. I thought to myself, ‘is that the most incapable person who has stood there?’ But I had to catch myself. It is too grim to be funny.
In the same talk, he offered some small glimmer of optimism, “The best part about January 6 is that it’s over.”
He had a way of putting things in perspective. Analyzing the 2016 election in The Weekly Standard, he offered this:
The election of 2016 was terrible because it wasn’t an election, it was a rebellion. The war is not between Republicans and Democrats or between conservatives and progressives. The war is between the frightened and what they fear. It is being fought by the people who perceive themselves as controlling nothing.
As people fret about the volatility of politics today, he remembers the 1960s,
Everybody praises the idealism of the 60s but they forget the violence. There were a number of things that caught my attention, not just the college kids blowing up things. There were the riots in Detroit, and elsewhere of course. But Detroit was close to home. We had some riots in Toledo but they were junior riots. All sorts of things. Drug use, heedless sexual promiscuity … it all led to tears before bedtime.
Pressed on the growing polarization of our country, he remembers the 1860s,
People say, ‘we are so polarized in this country.’ I say, ‘we are?’ How about 1861. That was polarized. I’m not seeing Fort Sumter take any incoming right now. These things flare up and they die down. It can be pretty unpleasant when they do flare up, but they don’t usually last too long.
That perspective offers a realistic sense of optimism. Stating what he sees, in all its ugliness, and saying, “It’s bad, but not that bad.” Though critics might disagree, there’s an ironic truth to his sardonic assessment of the world, “This sucks, and we’re capable of much better.”
In his last book, A Cry from the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land, O’Rourke makes a plea for the rise of the extreme moderate. In part because our political leaders are a reflection of us and,
Our nation faces a multitude of difficult, puzzling, complex, and abstruse problems. Most Americans aren’t sure what to do about them. But we lack politicians with the courage to say, ‘I’m not sure what to do about them either.’
There are no clicks for nuance, so it gave way for the more profitable rage. Right now, the extreme moderates skip the angry screeds, happy to remain silent while P.J. O’Rourke shouted into the abyss. P.J. O’Rourke’s passing will not slow or accelerate the hyperpartisanship we’re submerged in every day. In his death, he, hopefully, challenges you one last time to find the humor in it all and see what he saw, “This sucks, and we’re capable of much better.”
My condolences to P.J. O’Rourke’s wife, Tina, their three children, and all those who knew and loved him.
My humor will never rival P.J. O’Rourke, but it’s my best homage to his. Apologies in advance.