P. J. O’Rourke, 1947-2022

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P. J. O'Rourke, 1947-2022

P. J. O'Rourke, 1947-2022

Brilliant writer, beautiful soul

This past Tuesday morning, the news broke hard and cruel that another of the good guys had left us. Though “good” guy is a sinful understatement in the case of P.J. O’Rourke. He was the best guy. Anyone who knew him would readily admit this, even if hating to do so while uttering that ugliest of past-tense verbs (“was”) through gritted teeth. Having been recently diagnosed with a fast-metastasizing cancer, P.J. was taken by a blood clot in his lungs. Or so I think I heard from the mutual friend who relayed the grim particulars. It’s difficult to keep your facts straight while the wind’s being knocked out of you.

“Why couldn’t it have been you?” said my old friend, Jack Shafer, once the bad tidings had settled. It’s Jack’s traditional irreverent refrain, whenever someone we like dies - a raspberry directed at the Reaper, who is no respecter of persons. We’re all going to end up feeling the whoosh of his scythe sooner or later. And so it’s the kind of line that P.J. himself would love: dark, defiant, a taunt that laughs in the face of it all going sideways, as most things get around to doing. And making sport of such things is how P.J. made his daily bread, inspiring God-knows-how-many-of-us to attempt the same along the way.

When I was a college punk, I made it about halfway through my hitch before realizing that I was a bad fit for my chosen business major. At the end of the go-go eighties and into the early nineties, many of us still labored under the sad aspiration of becoming Gordon Gekko, intending to be corporate raiders, or some such nonsense. But I finally realized that I was bad at math, couldn’t pull off yellow power ties, and didn’t really like to screw people. At least not financially. What I did like was the sound of pleasing words slapping together, so I decided journalism could be the life for me.

But I needed someone to show the way, to teach me things I wouldn’t learn in journalism classes, where deflated professors who’d retired from grubby Midwestern newsrooms would demonstrate how to write inverted-pyramid leads or how to cover dreary city council meetings - things I had no intention of doing. That wasn’t the business I was choosing. I wanted into the paint-technicolor-pictures business, the journalism equivalent of joining the circus. And so I needed to learn from the magazine writing masters. My real education came not in school, but at the public library.

So I’d make my way to the forlorn journalism shelves at the back of the library, near the table where the winos sat, coming in out of the cold to catch a nap and wet the carpet. (Even then, journalism was in decline.) I’d walk out with armloads of books from the New Journalists, most of whom had already turned into old journalists, devouring each one in a night or two. I read plenty of others, but Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, and Gay Talese became three of my four gospels, my Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And then there was John, aka Patrick Jake O’Rourke. Son of a Toledo car salesman. Former National Lampoon writer/editor. (“How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink” was a representative piece.)   He ended up a refugee from liberalism who became a swashbuckling conservative Rolling Stone writer, an incongruous mashup of H.L. Mencken and P.J.’s masthead-mate, Hunter Thompson, though P.J. was fueled more by scotch and libertarian instincts than by Hunter’s screaming liberalism, Bolivian marching powder, and self-destructive tendencies. Even if both wrote as though they were shot from a cannon. (“Hunter S. Thompson and I are old friends,” P.J. once said, “but what we do is so different. There are surface similarities that really have to do with us being frustrated poets.”)

Good writers make you want to read, but great writers make you want to write. To ride the whirlwind, pin it down, then to try and make some sense of it. They can make you want to do what they do, or to die trying and failing. (P.J. wasn’t a mere scribe, he was an artist.) When I first picked up his Parliament of Whores and Give War A Chance, I don’t remember if my hands shook while reading them, but my world sure did. Going on a journalism odyssey with P.J. was like being on a road trip with your wiser, worldlier friend – the guy drinking Beam straight from the bottle in the backseat, laughing all the while, giving running commentary on the passing carnival, everything he says ringing true. He made you see it all with more good sense and precision than if you just went at it by your lonesome. It also didn’t hurt that he was funny as hell.

It’s a sad fact of American letters that “humorists” – a word I’m almost positive P.J. detested – often get consigned to the children’s table.  As though laughing at life keeps one from extracting the marrow from it - a sentiment P.J.  regarded as ass-backwards.  After all, he was a God guy  - and God himself clearly has a bent sense of humor. As P.J. once wrote me: “We acknowledge the Bible as the word of God.  And -- the one attribute that we absolutely share with our Creator -- we have a sense of humor.  Right off the bat there's Genesis 1:27: ‘God created man in his own image.’ And then I look in the mirror.”

But how good a writer was P.J. O’Rourke? Well that’s a hard thing to quantify if you’ve never read him. And I could sit here and play you his greatest hits reel, which would be a daunting challenge, since there are so many  hits to choose from. He was a one-man Bartlett’s,if Bartlett’s did funny. P.J. tended to leave at least one chocolate on the pillow in every paragraph. So in showing you how good he is– sorry, was (he’s still so alive to me, I keep forgetting) -  I have decided to simplify, and conduct an experiment. As I write this, I have five of his 20 or so books stacked near my keyboard. I am now going to open each one randomly, and relay to you whatever passage I see first.

From 1983’s Modern Manners: 

This brings us to a more drastic method of getting an audience: be one. Listen patiently while other people tell you about themselves. Maybe they’ll return the favor. This is risky, however. By the time they get done talking about themselves and are ready to reciprocate, you may be dead from old age. Another danger is that that if you listen long enough you may start attending to what’s being said. You may start thinking about other people, even sympathizing with them. You may develop a true empathy for others, and this will turn you into such a human oddity that you will become a social outcast.

From 1989’s Holidays in Hell:

There were some odd ducks in the audience. They were all milkmaid types with too much hair spray. The men were dark and greasy with Cadillac-fin lapels on their suits and tie knots as big as their ears. “What kind of people go to nightclubs in Poland?” I asked Zofia. “Whores and Arabs,” she said. “What do Poles really do for fun?” “Drink,” said Zofia.

From 1991’s Parliament of Whores:

We had a choice between Democrats who couldn’t learn from the past and Republicans who couldn’t stop living in it, between Democrats who wanted to tax us to death and Republicans who preferred to have us die in a foreign war. The Democrats planned to fiddle while Rome burned. The Republicans were going to burn Rome, then fiddle.

From 1994’s All the Trouble In the World:

Politicians are always searching for some grave alarm which will cause individuals to abandon their separate concerns and prerogatives and act in concert so that politicians can wield the baton. Calls to mortal combat are forever being sounded (though only metaphorically – politicians don’t like real wars, too much merit is involved). The idea is that people will drop everything for a WWIII. Remember the War on Poverty? And how Jimmy Carter asked Americans to respond to a mere rise in the price of crude oil with “the moral equivalent of war”? (What were we supposed to do, shame the gas station attendant to death?)

From 1995’s Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut:

We were on the Big Island, Hawaii proper, the place where migrating Polynesians originally landed more than 1,500 years ago and where Captain Cook died in 1779. Cook was the first haole (a Hawaiian word meaning “person whose luggage is still at the Los Angeles airport”) to visit Hawaii. His crew spread venereal disease through the islands, the Hawaiians beat Captain Cook to death with clubs, and the tourist trade has continued with only minor alterations to the present day.

Again, these aren’t necessarily the Greatest Hits. These are just roll-of-the-dice random passages. Yet I embarked on this experiment fully confident that my eyes wouldn’t land on some weakly-written or boring graf. For one simple reason:  P.J. was incapable of writing those. Try the same with any other writer, and see how quickly the experiment fails.

Several years ago, Foo Fighters frontman and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl (roughly my age) took the dais at the funeral of the heavy metal band Motörhead’s lead singer, Lemmy (roughly P.J.’s age), who greatly inspired Grohl.  Lemmy passed just two days after being diagnosed with the brain and neck cancer that took him. I’m not a metal-head myself, but something Grohl said that day stuck with me:

The first time I met Lemmy was at fuckin’ Crazy Girls about twenty years ago, and I was walking back from the men’s room, and on the way back, I looked to my left and I saw Lemmy by himself in the corner on a video game. It blew my mind. I knew that I couldn’t just go say something because he was on his own in the corner. On the way out I thought, “I have to say something. He’s my hero. He’s the one true rock ’n ’roller that bridged my love of AC/DC and Sabbath and Zeppelin with my love of GBH and the Ramones and Black Flag.” So I walked up and said, “Excuse me, Lemmy, I don’t want to bother you, but you’ve influenced me so much, you’re my musical hero. I’m a musician. I play in the Foo Fighters, and I was in Nirvana.” He looked up from the video game, and the first thing he ever said to me was, “Sorry about your friend Kurt.” {Kurt Cobain, the Nirvana lead singer who blew his brains out, thus ending the band.} At that moment, he revealed this gun-slinging whiskey-drinking badass motherfucking rock star to be this gun-slinging whiskey-drinking badass motherfucking rock star with a heart. And I walked away thinking if I never see him again, that’s enough, for the rest of my life. Then we became friends. It’s one thing when you have a hero, but it’s another when your hero becomes your friend.

I can relate. P.J. and I weren’t best friends, or anywhere close. And while my magazine frontman never blew his brains out – we had that done for us by our corporate masters – P.J. and I moved in some of the same circles, and wrote for some of the same publications. Over time, he was no longer just a journalism hero, but he became a real friend. I always knew he was a brilliant writer. But I came to know that he had a beautiful soul that animated that writing, which explained a lot.

He was there with me in Kuwait in 2003, when the Iraq war kicked off, and we were stuck in Kuwaiti hotel rooms, running day stingers into Iraq as unembedded reporters. My roomie, Steve Hayes, and I were one of the few who had the foresight to smuggle bourbon and scotch into this dreary country in mouthwash bottles before the border shut down, which made Kuwait as dry as a Southern Baptist potluck. Our provisions naturally caused P.J. to spend more time at our hotel than his. As explosions went off over our heads while he and I and Christopher Hitchens were about to embark on a humanitarian drop into southern Iraq, he assured me it was nothing. He’d covered the former war against Saddam, the one I read about as a college kid in Give War a Chance, when Scuds were coming down like rain. “The worst part was, the Saudis didn't know how to respond,” he said. “They'd be driving like this [turning the wheel wildly] while looking out the window up into the sky. You stood a lot less chance of getting killed by a Scud than you did by an unguided Chevy Caprice."

After I broke the news to him that hisembedded Atlantic editor and good friend, Michael Kelly, perished on the charge to Baghdad when his Humvee was fired upon and crashed into a canal, I watched P.J. hunt-and-peck out an appreciation of Kelly on my borrowed laptop, tears in his eyes, scotch by his side, but never losing his cool. He peered in on the TV action – Iraqis looting their country like there was an all-you-can-steal fire sale – as he played the faux optimist, cracking, “This will eventually evolve into shopping.” 

He was there in an editorial meeting (he was a contributing editor at my home pub, The Weekly Standard) when the late, not-so-great Gerald Ford died. We were trying to remain reverential, struggling  to say something remarkable about a generally unremarkable president, until P.J. interrupted, speculating about Ford’s state funeral: “Does this mean a riderless horse with his golf shoes in the stirrups, backwards?"

He would leave me what I came to think of as PJGrams, notes or emails (once he finally figured email out – it took him about a decade-and-a-half) giving attaboys and ass-pats, laden with specifics. He’d tell you exactly what he liked about a story that moved or entertained him. It could be an elaborate explanation, or a very simple one. Once, when I’d dedicated much magazine real estate to roughing up Sarah Palin’s reality show, he wrote, “Now Sarah Palin has two assholes. And I don’t mean Bristol and Todd.” Another time, when I attended an adult California sleepaway camp, which ended with me escaping  my camp mates to go fly fishing in the Merced River in Yosemite,  he wrote, “Just a masterful fucking piece on adult bed-wetters having a sleep-over.  Took a turn from mockery to grand and gentle sadness at the end that caught me (speaking of which, hope you caught some trout) by surprise.” (As a fellow outdoorsman  – P.J. was a crack wingshooter, or as his wife put it, “a bird slaughterer”- he was always pleased by my fishing, and he’d either invite me to hit his rural New Hampshire streams, or send me old fishing books from his favorite used bookstore.)

P.J. at home in New Hampshire

One time, I’d written a throwaway column about reading bedtime stories to my then-young children. When I couldn’t hold their attention, I wrote, I’d turn to YouTube and the money question:

”Who wants to watch a fat kid fall off a bike?” “I do!” they’ll clamor in unison. I am not teaching them cruelty, I am merely teaching them hard truths. Fat kids have a more difficult time sticking the dismount when jumping dirt bikes. That’s not sizeism. That’s physics. If you object to this parenting method, your quarrel isn’t with me, but with the Laws of Science.

A few weeks later, P.J. happened by our office while I wasn’t there. (In keeping with P.J.’s free-roaming ethos, I was rarely there. I preferred the pirate’s life - learning from the best.) He left a message on personalized stationery on my wreck of a desk. I’m kicking myself that I can’t find it now. But it said something along the lines of: “Fat kid falling off a bike! Fantastic!” Praise from P.J., which he gave generously, was like catching a 30-knot wind in your sails, or having Michael Jordan stop by during your pick-up game to say, “Nice shot.” It could keep you going for a long time.

In case you don’t know, that is not normal. Not fat kids falling off bikes – that happens all the time. But legendary writers praising their inferiors without competitiveness or cattiness or trying to somehow remind you of their place in the status hierarchy. The writing game is full of cat people. P.J. was all dog.  He had to know he was a legend, but you would never be reminded of it by talking to him. As my old colleague Jonathan Last, detailed in his appreciation, P.J. wore his legend lightly – with fellow scribes and research assistants and interns - to the point of him not even being interested in it. His view seemed to be:  if you succeeded in print, he succeeded by getting to read it.

But he wasn’t just generous to people he knew. After my former colleague, John Podhoretz, wrote an obit of PJ a few days ago, a guy named Sam Pocker sent him a letter. Here’s what it said:

When I was 17, I went to a P.J. O'Rourke book signing in the dead of winter that was sparsely attended. I was the youngest person there by at least 15 years. He signed his book for me and wrote "Peace Kills" on the inscription. I must have looked miserable and he asked what was wrong. After being told for years what a great writer I was, my writing teacher had given me nothing but straight failing grades in my first year of college. I explained this along with the fact that the paper I'd written (which I still remember was a detailed four page review of dinner at KFC) had been handed to me with an F just before heading over to the venue. P.J. asked to see the paper. I took it out of my backpack and stood there as this well-regarded author carefully read all four pages. He looked up and said "she's just jealous.” I grew up and became a published author. 

When I’d come to New Hampshire on a reporting trip, P.J. would invite me to his stately rural abode –  all draftiness and dogs and roaring fireplaces (think John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire, without the incest and weird bear costumes). He’d insist I come by the house for “bourbon therapy.” One brutal winter, while in Manchester to do a story on a crazy libertarian (a type P.J. liked – he was, after all, the H.L. Mencken Research Scholar at the Cato Institute) I took him up on his offer. I drove out to the house, and he stood in the snowy driveway, making steaks for us on his grill, topping off my glass every time it became half-empty. After dinner, he stood  by his roaring fireplace, refusing to let me drive back to my hotel due to weather and my elevated BAC, while laying himself bare.

With Mike Kelly now dead, and P.J. long-departed from Rolling Stone,  his Atlantic contract hadn’t been renewed. Nursing a tumbler full of watered-down scotch, he stated it plainly, “I’ve been fired.”  His lovely wife, Tina, protested, trying to buck him up: “No you weren’t, they just didn’t renew your contract.”

“Yeah,” he said, ‘That’s called being fired.”

I tell you this not to embarrass P.J., posthumously. Nor to show how utterly bankrupt and bereft the journalism industry is that someone of his talent could be that underappreciated. (Though it is. I tossed and turned all that night in his guest room, figuring that if the legendary P.J. O’Rourke could be treated that way, we were all in trouble.)  He wrote plenty of books and magazine journalism afterwards, including for The Atlantic, who seemed to have second thoughts. But I tell you this to demonstrate how human he was. His humanity wasn’t an add-on. It was an essential part of his writing formula. How many disposable journalism pieces do we still read from the 1980s or 1990s or even from a year ago? And yet, you pick P.J. up from any period during which he wrote anything, and it still works. You’re still in on his joke. He didn’t just laugh at people, he laughed with them. Even when playing the put-down artist, he smiled it, instead of snarled it. This is what he taught me, even if he didn’t try to. He invited people along for the ride. As if he was saying, “Aren’t we all ridiculous?  Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.” And so even if you were the one getting filleted, you didn’t mind so much in P.J.’s skillful hands.  But being trenchant without being angry put him grossly out of step with what’s happening now, when even the funny people have grown deadly serious, as everyone chooses up culture-war sides.

P.J. didn’t like this, and that’s not dimestore psychoanalysis on my end. I know it, because he told me. A couple years back, we were mutually bemoaning all the rancor that has befallen our nation, and he wrote the following:

Hope you and your family are safe and well and holding up in the face of current events, which I sure as hell wish would quit currently eventing. Things have certainly gotten no better since you wrote me last September. To cheer myself up (besides drinking scotch), am reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. If you think Washington is fucked up, you should check out ancient Rome. And the really grim thing about their sucky empire was that its collapse took hundreds of years instead of just four. Oh well……
The fall of Rome we’re taught to rue
But it was us that Rome fell, too.

And yet, his well-founded cynicism never became bitterness. He held onto faith, and chose cheerfulness whenever he could find it. Several years back, one of our best mutual friends, Andy Ferguson ( a former colleague of mine, and a writer who P.J. respected nearly above all others, as anyone with good taste does) saw his wife, Denise, fall ill with cancer, which would take her in her mid-fifties several months later.

P.J., being one of the world’s funniest people, loved funny people, so he loved Andy and Denise. (The latter of whom once scandalized a young colleague. When he asked Denise what she and Andy planned to do now that their kids had left home and they were empty-nesters, she replied, “Oh, I don’t know. Have lots of sexxxxxxx!”)  When Denise first fell ill, I worried about her, and worried about Andy, one of my oldest friends. P.J. worried, too. He and Andy went back even further. Around Christmas of that year, P.J. assured me that Andy would be okay, and that they’d get through this, writing:

Denise has the power and glory. She’ll bruise the serpent’s head, if anyone can. Andy, too, is as strong in spirit as he is, ahem, in spirits. He has, these nearly 40 years I’ve known him, taken a little pinch of the Sin of Despair every day, homeopathically, like Mithridates, to keep Despair from ever poisoning him.

Five months later, Denise was at death’s door.  And P.J., who was no stranger to laughing in death’s face, changed his tune slightly.  Back in 2014, he’d had a prostate cancer scare, but approached it with his usual dark cheer. As he wrote me at the time:

I flunked the up-the-butt entrance exam. I get to the hospital, wait around forever, am stripped and dressed in the public embarrassment gown, have my talk with the anesthesiolgist (“I am a veteran of the 1960s. My tolerances are high. Do not stint.”) and am just about to be put under when my urologist rushes in saying, “There are white blood cells and bacteria in your urine!” WTF? Turns out I may have an “asymptomatic urinary tract infection.” (I swear the doctor did not use the word “clap.”) And I can’t get a biopsy  or it might cause prostate problems even though prostate problems are the reason I was getting the biopsy. Got my clothes on and went home. Now I have a piss culture of my very own being tended to in a petri dish. Would love to see the hospital/Medicare billing back-and-forth on this one. (What I had in my urine was half a bottle of single malt – probably all sorts of white blood cells and bacteria in that shit.”)

I told P.J. at the time that I’d be praying for him. “Thanks!” he responded. “Pope hasn’t gotten back to me about who’s the patron saint of assholes.”  And then, a month later, right around Christmas, he was cleared, to his relief, writing: “Finally got my prostate biopsy done and NO cancer. Once again, God has covered my ass, and sure hope He doesn’t get tired of doing it! And tidings of comfort and joy….”

But when the grim Denise news came in, we were both despondent. “I know all about that ‘why bad things happen to good people’ crap,” he wrote. “Nonetheless I find myself near the sin of despair.”  As encouragement to me, and maybe himself, he offered up his favorite prayer, from Ryszard Kapuściński’s preface in his book, Another Day of Life (to this intrepid humorist who had covered a lot of wars, Kapuściński was P.J.s’ favorite war correspondent).  Kapuściński called it “the prayer of Koq, leader of the Griquas tribe, before a battle with Afrikaners in 1876.” It went like this:

O, Lord!

Despite a great many prayers to You we are continually losing our wars. Tomorrow we shall again be fighting a battle that is truly great. With all our might we need Your help and that is why I must tell You something: This battle tomorrow is going to be a serious affair. There will be no place in it for children. Therefore I must ask You not to send Your Son to help us. Come Yourself.

Even in deepest despair, P.J. never gave up on laughter.  When all medicine fails to work, it might  be the only medicine left – the  last line of defense. Neither the Father, nor the Son, saw fit to intervene. They called Denise home.  We tried to comfort our friend Andy, with words that rang hollow. Words can be the most powerful tool in our toolkits. But sometimes, they just can’t cover the loss.  So P.J. and I sat silent, both serving as pallbearers.

In the fellowship hall, after the funeral, I reached for the silver flask in my suit pocket, flashing it at P.J. His eye twinkled – he is Irish, after all – and he gave a head nod toward the exit, the universal sign for “let’s go drain that thing.”  We went outside into the rainy spring cold – or maybe it wasn’t rainy or cold – but memory sure makes it feel that way.  I unscrewed the top of my flask, and handed it to P.J. for first sip honors, hoping a little Kentucky sunshine might take the edge off our emotional weather. I expected him to say something darkly funny, like he usually did. The funeral equivalent of “this will eventually evolve into shopping.”

But he didn’t say anything. He just gratefully grabbed the whiskey, held it up in tribute to our dear friend’s dearly departed, and took a long belt, as his eyes watered. P.J. took his scripture seriously. He once tried to convince me and Andy to join him in writingary on the Bible. “We could be the SparkNotes for everyone who believes: ‘Faith conquers all, after a few drinks.’”  And now he was showing me the scripture in action. Specifically, Romans 12:15. “Rejoice with those who rejoice. Mourn with those who mourn.” One of our greatest wordsmiths didn’t need any words to say everything.

I read him while he was here, and I will still read him now that he’s not. Because someone who was that alive will remain here to me, even if he’s now clocked out. While his death feels premature – a life force like P.J. was 74 going on 47 -  it’s hard to fault God for calling him home. Maybe God’s part human. And if he is, who could blame him for wanting  P.J.’s company?  It’s the very best company they make.

Bonus Track: A Dave Grohl tune for P.J.  


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