P. J. O’Rourke Was Our National B. S. Detector

P. J. O’Rourke, the conservative writer and wit who passed away this week, earned the respect and admiration of the political class he poked, prodded, and punctured for over 40 years. 

It’s a neat trick. But it was no sleight of hand. Few were better at chronicling politicians’ stupidity and arrogance, at home and abroad. If the emperor had no clothes, O’Rourke was our national tailor. 

As a satirist, P. J. always put the funny first (are you listening, Stephen Colbert?). He was editor-in-chief of National Lampoon, working with a murderer’s row of humorists including Doug Kenney, Michael O’Donoghue, and John Hughes. “P. J. was one of those people that really worked hard,” recounted former Lampoon and “Saturday Night Live” writer Anne Beatts. “It was not an endearing quality.” 

The Lampoon’s bawdy influence on American popular culture was profound. In the 1970s and ’80s a curious kid could grab a copy at any 7-Eleven or newsstand. I certainly did. 

P.J. made quick work of hippie shibboleths. Peace and free love? They were no match for gas lines, inflation, violent crime, and malaise. Americans stopped turning to Washington for answers. The elites had none. O’Rourke took notes.

As the Reagan Revolution advanced, young people like me followed. We were uncomfortable being taught by Boomer professors who, in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous phrase, blamed America first. Our generation’s “climate change” was called “nuclear winter.” We didn’t dive under desks because adults told us there’d be no one left alive, anyway. 

O’Rourke became our B.S. detector. “Liberals have invented whole college majors—psychology, sociology, women’s studies—to prove that nothing is anybody’s fault,” he wrote. 

He was at his best overseas. O’Rourke reported the world as it truly existed, not as ideologues predicted. East Germans are “short and thick with sallow, lardy fat, and they have Khrushchev warts,” he wrote in Give War a Chance. “There’s something about Marxism that brings out warts—the only kind of growth this economic system encourages.” 

Politically incorrect? O’Rourke might have inspired the term. “The French are a smallish, monkey-looking bunch and not dressed any better, on average, than the citizens of Baltimore,” he wrote in Holidays in Hell

But that misses the point. P. J. was a champion of human nature, which was often crushed by inhumane and cruel governments. “The planet I’ve got a chance to visit is Earth, and Earth’s principal features are chaos and war,” he observed. 

As a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, O’Rourke certainly knew how to survive behind enemy lines. He was simply too funny to be dismissed as a partisan hack. I remember seeing Republican Party Reptile on a GOP campaign manager’s desk as I interviewed for a job. It found its way to a lot of Democrats’ desks as well. 

O’Rourke’s magnum opus was 1991’s Parliament of Whores, a New York Times number-one best-seller. It contained the famous analogy: “I have only one firm belief about the American political system, and that is this: God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat.” Speaking of the Gray Lady, the Times cited O’Rourke’s quote in his obituary, but predictably left off the punchline. “Santa Claus is preferable to God in every way but one,” he wrote. “There is no such thing as Santa Claus.” 

O’Rourke was a worthy heir to America’s greatest political satirists: Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and H. L. Mencken. Personally, I find echoes of Finley Peter Dunne, the Chicago newspaper publisher whose astute “Mr. Dooley” character was a favorite of turn-of-the-century readers. “A man that’d expect to train lobsters to fly in a year is called a lunatic,” Dooley quipped, “but a man that thinks men can be turned into angels by an election is called a reformer and remains at large.” 

One election put O’Rourke in a bind. In 2016, the longtime libertarian came out for Hillary Clinton, who stood for so many viewpoints and policies he had ridiculed. 

Of course, he was neither the first nor the last conservative to become a NeverTrumper. As an advocate of “free” trade and pliable borders, O’Rourke could certainly find something to oppose in the America First position. Perhaps he felt the correction of some aspects of Reaganism overshadowed its overall reinforcement. 

But I bet P. J. was happy that nationalism was beginning to replace other more dangerous “isms” across the world. People are fed up with being told what to do, when to do it, and what to pay for the privilege. Ask not for whom the Ottawa horns blow. 

I had the pleasure of meeting O’Rourke in 1995 at a David Horowitz-hosted event in Los Angeles. We mingled in the bright sunshine, loafers on the grass and drinks in hand, and largely avoided talk of politics.

Come to think of it, if America had more P. J. O’Rourkes, politics might avoid us.

About John Herr

John K. Herr is a writer who served in the White House under President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush. He has written speeches and jokes for numerous governors and cabinet secretaries, including two appointed by President Trump. He lives in Pennsylvania.

Photo: Express Newspapers/Getty Images

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