Douglas Andrews / February 16, 2022

RIP to the Great P.J. O’Rourke

When it came to making us laugh with letters, no one did it better.

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what the Kennedys ever did for your country.” So said P.J. O'Rourke, the sui generis libertarian-conservative satirist who died yesterday at age 74 at his home in New Hampshire, due to complications from lung cancer.

O'Rourke, whom columnist John Podhoretz called “our greatest satirist and coolest conservative,” was spot on. So sharp was his wit, so smooth and clever and delicious was his prose, and so thoroughly a likable person was O'Rourke that he worked for years at publications like The Atlantic and Rolling Stone and National Lampoon. Unlike the rest of us, he was simply too good for the Left to ignore. Said O'Rourke of Matty Simmons, the publisher who first took a flyer on the then-unknown Miami of Ohio grad: “He gave me a shot at the Lampoon when everybody else was being Harvarder-than-thou.”

Until yesterday, O'Rourke had more citations in The Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations than any other living writer. He wasn’t just a one-liner churner-outer, though. Far from it. He especially loved the dismal science of economics, even going so far as to read Adam Smith’s torturously long and dry and important The Wealth of Nations and write a book about it. O'Rourke called Smith an “unmotivational speaker” and “America’s founding Dutch uncle,” and he did us the favor of digesting his classic work into delightfully readable prose. Chapter 7, for example, is titled “Of the different Progress of Opulence in different Nations and how we have the stupidity of the powerful to thank for it.” Not impressed? Try reading Wealth sometime. Better P.J. than any of us.

Politics was the stuff of O'Rourke’s most famous work, A Parliament of Whores, which was published in 1991, three years after he’d moved to Washington in an attempt to answer the question that continues to plague us: “What the hell do these guys do all day, and why does it cost so g**d*** much money?”

What did he learn while writing Parliament? Mostly this: “The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work, and then they get elected and prove it.” And this:

“Authority has always attracted the lowest elements in the human race. All through history, mankind has been bullied by scum. Those who lord it over their fellows and toss commands in every direction and would boss the grass in the meadow about which way to bend in the wind are the most depraved kind of prostitutes. They will submit to any indignity, perform any vile act, do anything to achieve power. … Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy the whores are us.”

As P.J. puts it, “The mystery of government is not how Washington works, but how to make it stop.”

O'Rourke loved the finer things in American life, which of course included big cigars and fast cars. It was the gearhead in him, in fact, that inspired his 2009 book Driving Like Crazy, which in turn gave birth to the best subtitle in all of bookdom: “Thirty Years of Vehicular Hell Bending, Celebrating America the Way It’s Supposed to Be — With an Oil Well in Every Backyard, a Cadillac Escalade in Every Carport, and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board Mowing Our Lawn.”

O'Rourke also had a soft touch for the idealism of Millennials — soft like a sledgehammer. In a 2020 column on young people’s ongoing love affair with socialism, he pointed to a Pew Research survey that found even more Millennials favor cannabis legalization than favor socialism. “Somebody’s going to be sorry when they get the munchies,” he said.

“The Soviet Union and Maoist China,” he continued, “are two more reasons that millennials love socialism. This is not because young people learned left-wing lessons from the Soviets and the Red Guards. It’s because they didn’t. … The end of the Cold War and the beginning of China’s economic boom are, respectively, as distant in time from [my daughters] as the Great Depression and the Coolidge administration are from me.” This is a great lesson, especially for those of us who assume, during a debate about politics, that merely mentioning words like “socialism” and “communism” will automatically strike up the same sense of revulsion in young people that it does in us.

Or Marxism, for that matter, whose most famous maxim was once deftly derided by O'Rourke:

Marxism puts inarticulate notions of a sharing-caring nicer world into vivid propaganda slogans. Slogans such as: ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’ Which may be the most ridiculous political-economic idea that anybody has ever had.

My need is for Beluga caviar, a case of Chateau Haut-Brion 1961, a duplex on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park, a bespoke suit from Gieves & Hawkes in Savile Row, a matched pair of Purdey 12-bore sidelock shotguns, and a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO that recently sold at Sotheby’s Monterey auction for $48.4 million.

My ability is … Um … I have an excellent memory for limericks. There once was a man from Nantucket…

Rest in peace, Mr. O'Rourke. And thank you.

UPDATED with a sentence about P.J.‘s place in The Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations.

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