There was something old school about P.J. O’Rourke, who died on Tuesday, something that felt like a leftover echo of the American Revolution. Visiting him in his ancient, low-ceilinged, clapboard farm-house in Sharon, New Hampshire, one half-expected Paul Revere to burst breathlessly into the kitchen warning that the British were coming.
Though he was by birth an Ohio boy, New England felt like the tweedy satirist’s natural environment — a pioneer sensibility that combined American impatience with the Old World with a nostalgic yearning for the oak-panelled values and certainties of yesteryear.
Never quite a ‘gonzo’ journalist, his departure to the cigar bar in the sky nonetheless marks the end of a great satirical era that he shared with Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Of the three, O’Rourke was both the funniest and the gentlest.
Having met him only a few months before, he generously agreed during the 2020 presidential primaries to put me up in his writing room at March Hare farm and take me on a tour of the candidates’ stump speeches at local school halls. On his desk lay the first draft of a new column for the Washington Post. ‘What this country needs,’ it began, ‘is fewer people who know what this country needs. We’d be better off, in my opinion, without so many opinions. Especially without so many political opinions. Including my own.’
It neatly sums up his small ‘c’ conservative philosophy, less ideological, more a very American heartfelt plea to be left alone; a deeply held, world-weary scepticism that eschewed conviction politicians of all colours and embraced, unlike many other moderate Republicans, the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
The son of a Republican car salesman — echoes of Updike’s Rabbit — O’Rourke flirted with the radical left at college, joined the anti-war movement, smoked dope and wrote for ‘underground’ magazines. But eventually he found his fellow revolutionaries bullying and boring — ‘A bit like Bernie Sanders,’ he told me, as outside the Democrats’ self-proclaimed socialist candidate raged up and down the state.
At National Lampoon he echoed Wolfe and Thompson with, for example, an article entitled ‘How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink’. But his disillusion with the left led him to being hired by Jan Wenner as the in-house counter-intuitive conservative at Rolling Stone. Books followed, including the gloriously titled Give War a Chance and Parliament of Whores and Eat the Rich.
Contrarianism being his stock in trade, Republican O’Rourke reluctantly supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election on the grounds that, though intolerable, she represented ‘continuity Obama’ rather than the radical populism of Donald Trump. Populism was unconservative in his view, with its demand on government to ‘give me things I like or get rid of things I don’t like’.
Hillary, on the other hand, he observed in a typical O’Rourkeism, was ‘wrong about absolutely everything, but she is wrong within the usual parameters’.
Equally unfashionably, he was a big believer in globalisation, Adam Smith and David Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage. Hence he reluctantly also concluded that while the EU was meddlesome and annoying, Britain was in too deep to leave.
‘The vote to Remain was the conservative vote,’ he told me. ‘What happened to a free-trade zone where we could travel without being pestered by people asking if we were bringing in too much liquorice?’
P.J. O’Rourke’s tweeds and corduroys, flat cap and lick of a fringe projected a certain lightly disguised Anglophilia, despite his Irish name. But his ironic sense of the balloon-bursting absurd had a strong American flavour — echoes of Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken and even Dorothy Parker. He was fiercely well read, as the thousands of books in his writing room testified. ‘Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it,’ he said.
I have no idea where P.J. stood on the recent Covid drama, but I suspect his libertarian conservatism would have been consistent with one of his better-known aperçus: ‘There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.’