Death of a humorist

The world is poorer this week with the loss of American political satirist Patrick Jake (always “P.J.”) O’Rourke, who died from from lung cancer on Tuesday at the age of 74.

I wrote about O’Rourke back in 2016 when he visited Australia, shortly before the election of Donald Trump. Noting that he was hostile to Trump, I said this:

But Trump did not come out of nowhere. He may be a bridge too far for O’Rourke and others, but they cannot avoid the blame for helping to make the Republican Party the sort of outfit that would be comfortable with a Trump.

O’Rourke criticised, as he always has, the moral authoritarianism of the party, saying that conserv­atives need to concede defeat on issues like gay marriage and drugs. But how could it have escaped him that for most Republicans, it was the tribal or cultural issues that really mattered?

The tragedy of the last three decades is that so many decent and intelligent people who should have known better – indeed, who at some level did know better – stayed with the Republican Party and even encouraged its worst elements when they should have been helping to build a broad-based resistance. O’Rourke was not the only one, but he was certainly one of the most talented.

Of course, O’Rourke was first of all a humorist, and it’s for that that he will be most fondly remembered. Some of his jokes have not aged well, and some were in dubious taste even at the time, but his large body of work includes a huge amount of comic writing and reporting that is still a delight to read. If you’ve never dipped into it, make this the occasion to do so – it’s a cut above anything you’ll read here.

He was a master of the devastating throwaway line. A trip through the mountains of Jordan is “a kind of Grayline Tour of failed foreign policy initiatives.” Lee Iacocca is “a hero for our time – a conceited big-mouth glad-handing huckster who talked the government into loaning his company piles of money.” Advice on dating includes the warning that “A lot of people are better imagined in your bed than found there in the morning.”

But O’Rourke’s real brilliance emerges in his on-the-ground reporting, sometimes called gonzo journalism, where, despite his barbed lines and his conservative themes, his sympathy for the less fortunate usually wins through. In 1986, for example, he visits apartheid South Africa and manages to drive through Soweto, whose residents seem pleased to see him. O’Rourke concludes in wonder:

I mean, personally, if I’d lived my forty years in Soweto and I saw some unprotected honky cruising down my street on a Saturday afternoon, I would have opened that car like an oyster and deep-fat fried me on the spot.

There is much more in this vein, such as his cruise on the Volga in the old Soviet Union with a party of American leftists, where he lovingly recounts how first the Russian crew and then some of the peaceniks are drawn into rowdy drunken singing of patriotic songs. Even in America he seems to enjoy upsetting his own preconceptions, as when (in 1991’s Parliament of Whores) he spends a day with an ordinary member of Congress and is impressed by how hard he works for so little reward:

Myself, I was completely exhausted by 7:00 and went home, leaving the congressman, twenty years my senior, looking as animated and energetic as a full school bus …

And he does this for … less than what a shortstop hitting .197 makes.

As American conservatism has slipped its moorings and sailed out into dark and dangerous waters, O’Rourke serves as a reminder of some of the things it has left behind. Most obviously, its universalism – the sense that people’s moral claims are independent of race or country. When he was in Australia, the most obvious tension between him and his right-wing hosts was over his forthright condemnation of Australia’s refugee policies.

Back in 1988, in the introduction to Holidays in Hell, one of his best books, he put it like this:

Finally, people are all exactly alike. There’s no such thing as a race and barely such a thing as an ethnic group. If we were dogs, we’d be the same breed. George Bush and an Australian aborigine [sic] have fewer differences than a lhasa apso and a toy fox terrier. A Japanese raised in Riyadh would be an Arab. A Zulu raised in New Rochelle would be an orthodontist.

Rest in peace.

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