So by now you’ve heard that P.J. O’Rourke, journalist, essayist, and, of course, humorist, has died at the age of 74. Those who knew him and those who read him have been pouring out encomia like so much best-for-last wine. John Podhoretz shared a lovely personal anecdote that stressed O’Rourke’s generosity of spirit. Joseph Bottum reminded us of, among the many subjects O’Rourke touched on in his writing career, the car stuff. And outlets like The Atlantic and Rolling Stone want you to poke around their respective sites to discover all the goodies the great man published there. Even here at Acton, we’re reminding readers of his 2013 Annual Dinner address, in which he explained what it was like to be NPR’s go-to gun-toting Republican. Whether it was as a foreign correspondent or a domestic expositor of crazy, the man was always, always, funny. And, apparently, kind, such that even those politically opposed to him could enjoy his work and send him off to the sweet hereafter with a tip of the hat. Not something to be sloughed off lightly in these horrifically polarized times.
While I never had the pleasure of meeting him, I sure as heck did read him. Parliament of Whores seems to be the book that many of the bereaved have been calling out, but I’d like to focus on his first collection of essays, Republican Party Reptile, and even more narrowly, the very introduction, which meant so much to me. If you were in college during the Reagan years, you knew, or at least you were told with the regularity of a flax-seed salesman, that Ronald Reagan was evil and that free market economics was intended to further fill the coffers of the lucky rich at the expense of the oppressed poor, multiple minorities, and PBS. And of course there was Reagan’s war mongering. Posters plastered around my NYU “campus,” really Washington Square Park, which wasn’t so much a park as it was a campground for skateboarders, chess players, and the under-domiciled, depicted “Ronny Ray-gun” (get it?) mongering war with the Russkies. You surely remember World War III? It was in all the papers. Or at least the papers carried by the Workers’ Bookshop on 13th Street, famously run by the Communist Party USA and involving very little work.
But I digress. Republican Party Reptile was published in the waning years of the Reagan administration and comprised a collection of essays culled from the pages of National Lampoon (for which O’Rourke was a staffer in its heyday), Car & Driver (although I would not have wanted to drive alongside the man; see page 128), Rolling Stone, Harper’s, and even, yes, House & Garden. Quite the résumé.
The introduction begins straightforwardly enough: “The twenty-one pieces collected in this book were all written from a conservative Republican point of view. There’s nothing unusual about that except that these pieces are—at least are intended to be—funny.” OK, stop right there. For a 20-something who had been regularly abused for his Reagan-Bush campaign buttons, not to mention his campus paper editorials that were half Buckley-ite scoldings, half R. Emmett Tyrrell bombast (which itself was half H.L. Mencken bombast), that single sentence was enough to reduce one to spasms of joy and relief. “I’m not alone! You can be an anti-communist and funny!” (For those too young to remember, Joseph McCarthy was not known as Wisconsin’s answer to Milton Berle, although rumor has it his knock-knock jokes drove Roy Cohn to distraction.)
O’Rourke goes on to give a very brief history of his intellectual evolution, from Maoist (“I couldn’t stay a Maoist forever. I got too fat to wear bell-bottoms”) to humorist who realized he had something essential in common with conservatives: neither believed man was innately good or merely the product of a rigged (and re-riggable) environment. (“Down that line of thinking lie all sorts of nastiness. Just ask the Cubans.”)
Not that O’Rourke was onboard with all things ’80s conservative. He was no Moral Majoritarian, as that was just a right-wing form of be-goodism to his mind. He had little patience, apparently, for the “reborn Jesus creeps,” although by 2008, when he began writing about cancer, he had become some sort of Jesus guy, creepy or not. “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. (Although this option is not usually open to reporters.)”
But he had long before made his peace with the limits of conservative nonconformity. “Even regular country-club-type Republicans can be stuffy about some things—dope smuggling, for example, and mixing Quaaludes in your scotch, and putting your stereo speakers on the roof of your house. … So what I’d really like is a new label. And I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way. We are the Republican Party Reptiles.” And so it began.
That was 1987. I bet there are more than a few Republican types, stuffed and unstuffed, who feel the need for a new label in 2022. New Right isn’t right. Paleo-, neo-, and other prefixed varieties of conservatism are either a little too retro or downright unpleasant, what with the smell of sulphur and all.
How about O’Rourke Conservatives? Anti-utopian, pro-liberty, anti-self-righteous, with just enough awareness of one’s own manifold failings to see the humor in just about everything and the need for grace in dealing with just about everyone. Neat trick if you can pull it off. P.J. O’Rourke apparently did. Which is why he will be especially missed.