Stephen Daisley

P.J. O’Rourke: the finest satirist of his generation

P.J. O’Rourke: the finest satirist of his generation
P.J. O’Rourke (photo: Getty)
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P.J. O’Rourke was the finest conservative satirist of his generation and therefore the finest of any political persuasion. Satire, an impertinent and mean-spirited attack on authority, is generally and perhaps even inherently a left-wing genre but O’Rourke came into his own in the wake of the 1960s, when the counterculture tried to overthrow authority but ended up replacing it instead. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan may have swept the ballot boxes but where real power lay — in the newsrooms and the entertainment industry, on the campuses and in the publishing houses — the radicals won in a landslide. This gave rise to a new culture in need of countering and O’Rourke, an ex-leftist, lampooned its neuroses and hypocrisies with an impish, outrageous heresy unmatched by writers more in political sympathy with the times.

O’Rourke, who has died aged 74, was unusual for an American conservative in that he believed in conserving things, and unusual for an American libertarian in that he had views on things other than weed. He was an inveterate sceptic — of big government, big plans, big ideas — and a proud disbeliever in the inherent goodness of human beings. His writing belonged to the gonzo school of journalism but a flintier, less idealistic gonzo than Hunter S. Thompson’s. Thompson once observed: ‘Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of “the rat race” is not yet final.’ O’Rourke would have told those mould-breaking weirdos to get a haircut, get a job and get off his lawn. In 2003, he told an interviewer that Thompson, with whom he was friendly, ‘brings a lunatic genius to ordinary events, and I bring an ordinary sensibility to lunatic events’.

An Ohio-born baby boomer, O’Rourke first came to prominence as editor of National Lampoon, a Seventies humour magazine called ‘irreverent’ because it sounds better than ‘filled with blow-job jokes’, and later was hired by Rolling Stone as its token Republican. The magazine sent him around the world — to 40 countries, he estimated — as an unconventional war correspondent, his reporting as comprehensive on his struggles to obtain a good stiff drink as it was on his view that the killing fields changed but human stupidity was universal. (A 2001 dispatch on the second Palestinian intifada, found in his book Peace Kills, is chiefly concerned with the difficulties involved in procuring malt whisky in Israel during Passover.) Among two dozen books, Republican Party Reptile, Holidays in Hell, Parliament of Whores and Give War a Chance are unmissable but none are bad or, more importantly, dull.

As a satirist of the liberal establishment, he was a craftsman of insightful invective. On the liberal temperament:

At the core of liberalism is the spoiled child — miserable, as all spoiled children are, unsatisfied, demanding, ill-disciplined, despotic and useless. Liberalism is a philosophy of snivelling brats.

On liberal self-righteousness:

Liberals have a quaint and touching faith that truth is on their side and an even quainter faith that journalists are on the side of truth.

On liberal ethics:

Consider how much you’d have to hate free will to come up with a political platform that advocates killing unborn babies but not convicted murderers. A callous pragmatist might favour abortion and capital punishment. A devout Christian would sanction neither. But it takes years of therapy to arrive at the liberal point of view.

He wasn’t bothered when liberals called him a Nazi, he said, because ‘no one has ever had a fantasy about being tied to a bed and sexually ravished by someone dressed as a liberal’.

Perhaps his most famous aperçu is his statement of libertarianism: ‘Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy, the whores are us.’ He once spent some time in Washington DC, to observe a newly elected administration. He concluded that ‘giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys’. Not a caustic bon mot about the Carter or Clinton White House but about George H. W. Bush’s kinder, gentler conservatism. As he summed up the GOP: ‘Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.’ He meant it as a kind of compliment. O’Rourke was an antidote to that other great stylist of the American right, Peggy Noonan. Noonan writes about politics like a poet; O’Rourke knew he was on the crime beat.

The 9/11 attacks and their fallout gave a new wind to his penchant for original takes, whether putting al-Qaeda into perspective (‘As frightening as terrorism is, it’s the weapon of losers… Winners don’t need to hijack airplanes. Winners have an air force’) or musing on the real lesson of Iraq’s non-existent WMDs (‘It turns out Saddam Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction. And how crazy does that make Saddam?’). Then there was this exquisite put-down of a European sniping about US foreign policy:

You say our country’s never been invaded? You’re right, little buddy. Because I’d like to see the needle-dicked foreigners who’d have the guts to try. We drink napalm to get our hearts started in the morning. A rape and a mugging is our way of saying 'Cheerio.' Hell can’t hold our sock-hops. We walk taller, talk louder, spit further, fuck longer and buy more things than you know the names of. I’d rather be a junkie in a New York City jail than king, queen, and jack of all Europeans. We eat little countries like this for breakfast and shit them out before lunch.

O’Rourke wasn’t driven mad by Donald Trump like some conservative intellectuals but he did vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, on the basis that ‘she’s wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters’. His passing is as good a time as any to reflect on the state of American conservatism (grim) and the Republican party (grimmer) but also to think about the position of journalism (grimmest). O’Rourke’s deliciously obnoxious prose, with its flight and its bite, would struggle to find a home today, and not just because of wokeness and cancel culture. There are many fewer major American magazines these days and those that remain mostly heave with miserabilist sermons that somehow manage to be leaden and hysterical at the same time. There is no wit, no rhythm, no joy in language or in much of anything else. P.J. O’Rourke was a great humourist and may be one of the last for some time.