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P J O’Rourke – 1947 – 2022

The deaths of those whom you have met and influenced you for the better is a kick in the gut, a punch on the nose and reminder that cancer really, really sucks. And that is the sort of sentence that the late P J O’ Rourke, literary jester, mocker of fashionable nostrums, lover of fast cars and travel to dangerous places, could have written.

I met Mr O’Rourke about a decade ago, in what was the aftermath of the 2008 financial smash. He was charming company (my wife was bowled over by him – you have to watch these silver-tongued Irishmen) and retained the fizz that I recall from his coruscating book, Republican Party Reptile. I read that, I think, in around 1989, and then got my hands on anything he wrote. When he became a traveling correspondent for RollingStone magazine (a fact that today strikes one as impossible, such is the tribalism of our culture), I followed his columns closely. Parliament of Whores, written in the early 1990s and on the cusp of the Bill Clinton decade, stands the test of time as a brilliantly funny takedown of Big Government. Then came classics such as Eat The Rich and All The Trouble In The World.

I don’t quite think he kept the standard of searing wit + commentary at that level into the later 90s and into the current century. He did “serious stuff” with an amusing turn, such as a fine book about Adam Smith (he discusses it here) and could turn on the brilliance, but I think some of the energy had fallen off. He was a Dad with all the responsibilities that brings, and younger and less funny and more aggressive voices began to dominate the noise level in the public square. (Or maybe that is a sign that I am getting old, ahem.) O’Rourke, to the anger of some, wasn’t a Trump fan, and said so. He moved quite more explicitly libertarian, having a gig at the CATO Institute think tank. By his early 70s, I did not read or hear much of his doings, and that was a shame in the age of Greta, Cancel Culture, “Save the NHS”, Great Resets, Chinese nastiness and the Keto Diet. (I am kidding slightly about the last point.)

P J O’Rourke’s death saddens me as much as did that of two other fine men whom I met over the years and who died from cancer over the past couple of years: Brian Micklethwait and Sir Roger Scruton. They were all very different men, but they shared a common love of liberty, a mischievous wit and a hatred of cant. (See an essay here by Brian about O’Rourke’s essay on the wonders of fast cars and how Brian saw some of the same lessons from the innovations around music tech.)

I will miss P J O’Rourke and his chuckling, optimistic and sane voice. And I will miss the chance to share another whisky and cigar with him too.

25 comments to P J O’Rourke – 1947 – 2022

  • staghounds

    Like Adam Smith and Ben Franklin, he always seemed to have a true belief that people will generally do right by their neighbours, and that the freer society was the more that would matter. Despite whatever piece of evil or exploitation to which he was calling attention, you felt that it was somehow an aberration.

  • Albion's Blue Front Door

    PJ O’Rouke was awesome: his spark will be missed. Of all the books I have read, I can still recall passages from his work–which is more than can be said for a lot of modern published drivel.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    Yes, he was funny. He will be missed. Are there any other writers of comparable wit that we should look out for?

  • Sam Duncan

    There were two moments in my life that affirmed my convictions and helped me realise that I wasn’t alone in thinking about politics and government the way I do, and that it’s not crazy or stupid to do so. One was finding Samizdata, not long after it started. The other was picking up Parliament of Whores. It was like one of those moments when, after you’ve timidly expressed concern over some matter or other that everyone else seems to support, one of the crowd pipes up, “You’re absolutely right!” and sets off on an enthusiastic and eloquent demolition of both the matter itself and half of those present in a way you could only have dreamed of.

    Today, with the internet, that silence has been broken. Another PJ would be nice to have, but back then he was a necessity, a glass of irreverent water in a desert of right-on, politically-correct cant.

    Anyway, although this isn’t one of those rants, it’s very PJ:

    Death is so important that God visited death upon his own son, thereby helping us learn right from wrong well enough that we may escape death forever and live eternally in God’s grace. Thus, the next time I glimpse death … well, I’m not going over and introducing myself. I’m not giving the grim reaper fist daps. But I’ll remind myself to try, at least, to thank God for death. And then I’ll thank God, with all my heart, for whiskey.

    Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death, 2008.

  • Alan Peakall

    Of all P J O’Rourke’s wisecracks the one that stuck most firmly in my memory was his reposte to the claim that The Democratic Party is like an airplane: it needs both its left wing and its right wing to get it off the ground, namely: Anything with a left wing that extends to Jesse Jackson and a right wing that extends to Lloyd Bentsen is a pretty big bird and I, for one, don’t want to be caught out in the open while it’s flying around overhead.

  • Raymond

    He was a very funny man. The discovery of his writing in my late 20s helped me make the gradual transition from being an ostensibly ‘leftish’ liberal (but one beginning to think that the received wisdom of my tribe was, frankly, not wise at all) to my status today as a full-blown alt. right Nazi misogynist racist transphobe agent of the patriarchy (according to a recent exchange on Facebook). One of my favourite PJ lines: “Distracting a politician from politics is like distracting a bear from eating a baby.”

  • bobby b

    “I have often been called a Nazi, and, although it is unfair, I don’t let it bother me. I don’t let it bother me for one simple reason. No one has ever had a fantasy about being tied to a bed and ravished by someone dressed as a liberal.”

    PJ will never really die.

  • Martin

    Back when I was at university and the year or two afterwards I read almost everything I could bet by him, and one thing I am quite in debt to O’Rourke is I discovered HL Mencken through him.

    After reading O’Rourke’s book on Adam Smith in 2007 though I’d read everything by him I’d wanted to, and curiously haven’t felt any desire to reread any of it either. When I heard he was a never Trumper and voted for Hillary Clinton, well that ended the respect I had for him.

    One of the greatest things Trump did was, as the Joker might say, show the world a lot of people’s true colours. Supposedly staunch ‘conservatives’ who had advocated voting for losers like Romney, McCain, the Bushes etc suddenly discovered they were long lost democrats once the Republicans got a candidate/president who actually genuinely (in his imperfect but sincere form of course) despised liberalism and called out the elite.

  • ragingnick

    One of the great things about Trump is the way he showed up so many fake ‘conservatives’.
    In their reaction to Trump people like O’rourke and Roger Scruton showed themselves to be very much part of the liberal establishment that they had ostensibly opposed.

  • Paul Marks

    May the Gentleman Rest in Peace.

    In the words of my ancestors “May his memory be a blessing”.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Martin, O’Rourke was no lackey of any establishment. Trump fans perhaps should remember that their hero was once a registered Democrat. I’d take O’Rourke over Trump any day.

  • bobby b

    In the end, although I disagreed with PJO’R on some things that were important, he did far more in spreading my own chosen political and philosophical POV than I ever have, and he was great fun in the process.

  • Martin

    I didn’t say O’Rourke was an establishment lackey, but I don’t think its particularly controversial to say he didn’t show much interest in standing up to the establishment. I’ve voted enough times (in fact practically every time I’ve voted) for what I consider the least bad option rather than in an enthusiastic manner for a candidate so won’t lecture anyone about doctrinal purity. However, had Donald Trump been a Brit running for the office of PM rather than an American running for president I would wholeheartedly have voted for him over and over again. For anyone to claim to be on the right yet support Clinton over Trump in 2016 (or Biden in 2020) is idiotic. O’Rourke must have written god knows how many articles in the 90s how bad the Clintons were. Well they were. But by 2016, they were much, much worse.

    As I said above, Trump had flaws. But he had far more balls than any of his foes and was the greatest president since at least Eisenhower, maybe even further back.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    “The greatest President since Eisenhower.”

    Okaaaay. I’d prefer Reagan in that regard.

    Well plainly Mr OR didn’t agree that Trump had greatness. He saw the choice on offer in 2016 as horrible, and said so. It wasn’t about any desire to support an establishment. Anyway, I’ve no interest in arguing this point further.

  • […] Samizdata, Johnathan Pearce also regrets O’Rourke’s […]

  • Paul Marks

    I found the humour against Donald John Trump a bit lazy – for example the article in 2020 where President Trump is teased for his thinning hair (true – it is thin and grown long to try and cover that) AND for wearing a “fright wig” (which he did not). That was a contradiction.

    If he was wearing a wig (“fright” or other) then you would not be able to see that the hair is thin on a windy day. So the humour contradicted itself – but then humour is not meant to be a tract on logic. Certainly Donald Trump (who was no shrinking violet when it came to answering back stuff that did offend him) never cared that P.J. O’Rourke teased him.

    The attacks on other people getting “felony indictments” are a different matter – people, just for being associated with President Trump – even vaguely associated him, were being unjustly treated, horribly persecuted by a corrupt legal system – but, as far as I know, Mr O’Rourke never came to their defence (I would be very happy to be corrected on that). On the contrary – he joined in the kicking these people were, unjustly, getting from the left.

    Teasing Donald Trump could be said to be “punching up” in terms of comedy – lazy (lazy because all the comics were doing it – and also because of contradictions in the humour), but attacking people who were being unjustly persecuted (being bankrupted, or even being sent to prison on absurd charges) by the corrupt Federal “Justice” system, was not so good. In terms of comedy it was very much “punching down”.

    HOWEVER P.J. O’Rourke was largely cut off from events – for years he was a very sick man, and he got most of his information on the world from the “mainstream media”, so it is quite possible that he had no idea at all that the people he was mocking were being unjustly persecuted – savagely persecuted by an unjust system.

    I am reminded of the case of Tolkien’s character “Hurin”.

    Hurin is a enemy of Morgoth (Morgoth being, essentially, Satan) – but is captured by his forces, and chained. And Morgoth curses him – giving him a view of all the bad things that are happening (especially to his wife and children) in the world.

    But it is a TWISTED vision – Morgoth does not tell the truth, any more than ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post and-so-on do. In the vision of Morgoth (that he feeds to Hurin – straight into his mind) anything bad his friends (out in the world) do is exaggerated (or even just made up) and the good deeds they do are not shown to Hurin.

    After YEARS of “seeing everything crooked” (of being subjected to the lies of Morgoth – including false or twisted visions, the television of Hell) Hurin is RELEASED.

    Morgoth does not release him out of pity – certainly not.

    Morgoth releases Hurin because he knows that Hurin is now filled with anger at his own FRIENDS – because of the lies that Morgoth has fed his mind (fed it for years).

    Hurin is also an old man, his mind sick with age and pain – as well as the endless lies.

    In the end the truth is revealed to Hurin – he understands that everything he was shown was a distortion (twisted round 180 degrees), and that he himself has done terrible harm (serving Morgoth – without meaning to).

    In his despair he goes to a cliff and throws himself into the sea.

    Do NOT blame Hurin – blame Morgoth (in this case the media) – who fed him endless lies and distortions, for years.

    Hurin said terrible things to his friends on his release (and did them great harm) – but, in his mind everything he said and did was justified – because of the twisted lies and images he has been fed (for year after year) as his body and mind were in torment in his old age and sickness.

  • Paul Marks

    Do not remember Hurin at the end – remember him as he was (and remained in his soul).

    At the Battle of Unnumbered Tears he was the last man of the rear guard (the rear guard covering the retreat) to remain standing – and Morgoth gave orders to take him alive.

    That was no easy task – for Hurin killed those who tried to take him, each time calling out “Day Will Come Again”.

    70 times he uttered that cry, before he was overwhelmed.

  • Snorri Godhi

    In their reaction to Trump people like O’rourke and Roger Scruton showed themselves to be very much part of the liberal establishment that they had ostensibly opposed.

    If you had said “the Bushes, McCain, Romney, and Ryan”, I would have agreed.

    But in the case of O’Rourke (whom i know very superficially … saw him once on British TV, and read maybe 1 or 2 of his articles) I suspect dementia rather than bad faith. Same reason why he became less funny.

    Didn’t know about Scruton’s opinion of Trump. In his case, it might be class prejudice. I suspect that WF Buckley would also have disliked Trump.

  • Paul Marks

    I am told that Mr Buckley repented of that horrible book review of Atlas Shrugged that appeared in National Review – he did not write it, but everything in NR was approved for publication by him.

    Mr Buckley lived long enough to be betrayed by his own son – in 2008, it was horrible (full on upper class leftist snobbery leading to support for Barack Obama), the son also attacked his own parents (on a personal level) including his dead mother.

    Donald John Trump has been spared this horror – in spite of being married several times and having lots of children, they all seem to get on reasonably well.

    The family tragedy was his elder brother – who drank himself to death, over YEARS.

    I have seen Donald John being interviewed about his brother – a very different side of him emerged, none of the New York bluster of the master salesman. It was clear that he (like the rest of the family) was baffled about what was happening to his brother and had no idea what to do.

    Even decades after his brother’s death he was still having to fight back tears – the feeling of helplessness (of total failure) was still overwhelming.

  • Paul Marks

    “Sorry Dad, I am voting for Obama” – written publicly (not said privately to William F. Buckley).

    And “I forgive you mother” – not “please forgive me mother” (and even that should be said privately) – and again the clearly FALSE “forgiveness” was written publicly.

    No father or mother deserves a son like that – that is not a man, that is a rabid dog.

  • A great humorist, yes, one of the best ever. But it gradually became clear that he was controlled opposition. I don’t suppose anyone here ever read the magazine American Consequences, which he edited and wrote for in the last few years. Appalling crud, and he was just out-and-out establishment by then, not even controlled opposition any more, but more often than not an outright enemy.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    A few days ago FOX News interviewed Mr Trump about whether Putin would have invaded Ukraine had he, Mr Trump, still been in power. Apart from a couple of half-cogent points about fracking and the shambles in Afghanistan, there was no clear answer from Mr Trump. Just a lot of hot air about how he was a “strong” leader who could understand Mr Putin, terrific guy, very clear, etc, etc. The usual stuff.

    As I have said, I simply don’t get the full extent of the Trump adulation among supposed conservatives, given the highly uneven nature of his time in the White House. (Saying he was the best since Eisenhower – for goodness sake). The late P J O’Rourke had Trump’s measure.

    But it gradually became clear that he was controlled opposition. Ah, the fella was “controlled”. It’s a conspiracy! “An outright enemy”. Whatever.

  • … Trump about Putin … there was no clear answer from Mr Trump. (Johnathan Pearce (February 28, 2022 at 8:03 am)

    Johnathan, there’s a blog called Samizdata which you may have heard of. It has a contributor called Natalie Solent, who is both witty and insightful. Her second most recent post Come to think of it, Comrades, I do want Jones back quotes both Trump and the Times’ misquote of him, providing a rational description of his meaning, and illustrating the dishonesty of the contrary spin put on it by the MSM.

    Further information about the fraudulent origin of this narrative can be obtained from the reports of John Durham. Or one can simply notice under which presidencies Putin does and does not launch invasions, since actions speak even louder than words – though Mr Trump’s words are not usually accused of not being loud enough. 🙂

    I simply don’t get the full extent of the Trump adulation among supposed conservatives

    My Trump Derangement Syndrome detox course is available at very reasonable rates. It will not leave you adulating him but it will leave you able to talk sanely about him.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Niall, Trump has praised Putin several times. Of course now that VP has launched his crazed invasion people are scrambling to forget.

    A few days prior to Putin ordering the invasion, Trump praised him on the Liz Harrington radio show as a “strong peacekeeper”.

    Oh and Niall, I know of this blog, thanks. I’ve contributed to it for 21 years.