“Of course, it’s a shame to waste young lives behaving this way – speeding around all tanked up with your feet hooked in the steering wheel while your date crawls around on the floor mats opening zippers with her teeth and pounding on the accelerator with an empty liquor bottle.”P. J. O’Rourke, Republican Party Reptile, first published 1978, pp. 128-137
A certain segment of the American public might’ve known him mainly for the cerebral wit he showed during the highlight of the week for nerds, NPR’s Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me. And that’s cool. I won’t disparage the NPR crowd, or even P.J. for taking what must’ve been the easiest gig of his life. Just show up one day a week and be yourself.
And of course I don’t have any special right to dictate which version of P.J. O’Rourke people keep in their minds. I’m just saying, if all you know about the man is that he was funny in a socially acceptable way on the weekly NPR quiz show, you don’t know the half of it.
P.J. O’Rourke was a typical leftest hippie in college (U of Miami, English, 1965), but his views shifted as he got out into the real, turbulent world of the late sixties and seventies, and he ultimately settled into a fiscally conservative, liberatrian outlook. He might’ve been a practitioner of Gonzo journalism (see his essay How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed And Not Spill Your Drink, quoted above), but the man decided for himself what he thought about the world . . . and he wasn’t gonna let all the leftists he hung around with at Rolling Stone change that (he was at the magazine with Hunter Thompson, and rubbed shoulders with folks like Tom Wolfe–the high-minded–or maybe just high–leftest writer set).
Ultimately the thing that I admired most about P.J. O’Rourke was his independence. He had conviction. He had balls. He thought what he thought, and far from apologizing from it, he leaned on his classical education and his voracious reading to tell it like it is. Or was.
I’m not gonna sit here and tell you I read everything P.J. O’Rourke wrote. I didn’t. All the Trouble in the World; Age and Guile; Eat the Rich (I think). That’s pretty much it. Well, aside from his piece in Rolling Stone on Bill Clinton in 1992. Remember that? When Hunter Thompson, P.J., and Jann Weiner sat down at that little cafe with Clinton? I think they ran the footage on MTV or something. I was barely 17 at the time (I hit legal voting age the day before the election), so I don’t remember much . . . except for the feeling that, of the three reporters sitting at the table, P.J. was really the only one who could hold his own in a sweeping conversation on the state of politics and culture in America with Clinton, the Rhodes scholar.
Coming from a let’s call it modest educational environment, I always had a powerful attraction to guys like P.J. The man was so well read . . . so well spoken. And so goddamn witty. I was intimidated and in awe. While the rest of us seemed to be drifting along in the culture like leaves on the wind, guys like P.J. weren’t just along for the ride, they understood the thermodynamics at play. Economics. History. Politics. Art and Literature. P.J. O’Rourke was a classy dude cut from a classic cloth.
For me, he was a link to those early, infinitely cooler decades in American history that the art and music I cut my teeth on in the 90s were rooted. He was an elder statesman and a gentleman – without any of the bullshit that comes with those labels.
I don’t know . . . I’m struggling to find the right words to describe what P.J. O’rourke meant to me. So let me just leave at this: he was a true American original. In the same company as Whitman or Wolfe. He understood the world, the slow turning of history rooted in the mistakes and achievements of the past, and that deep understanding of how things really are liberated him – made him free to have a damn good time while the wheels turned. P.J. O’rourke knew the score. And when you know the score, playing the game is a lot more fun.