William Atkinson is a history teacher.
Despite my immense respect for Charles Moore, I cannot ever imagine him ever entitling a piece “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink”. Not only because British conservatives naturally represent all that is sensible and respectable about politics and the press, but because putting your name to an article like that requires a particular outlook. An irreverence, a silliness, a partiality for various questionable substances – whatever it is, the late P.J.O’Rourke had in spades.
O’Rourke passed away yesterday aged 74. The satirist’s work included time as Editor-in-Chief at National Lampoon (of Animal House fame), as the foreign correspondent (and token Republican) at Rolling Stone, articles for Playboy, and 19 books. Admittedly, most this side of the Atlantic probably know him for complaining about “cow juice” in a 90s’ British Airways ad. Nevertheless, his writing was so ubiquitous you may well have stumbled across him The Spectator or the Daily Mail and never realised he was that same Johnny Foreigner.
What made O’Rourke so notable? His air miles, for one thing. He estimated that Rolling Stone had sent him to over 40 countries. No war, intifada, or coup is seen better than through his habitual lens of the bottom of a glass. His reports were usually as complimentary about those he encountered as his notorious article on ‘Foreigners Around the World’, and his description of the Bosnian Genocide as the “unspellables killing the unpronouncables” naturally garnered criticism. But pieces such as ‘Ship of Fools’, an early 80s effort describing a cruise through the decaying and drunk late U.S.S.R amongst a party of American peaceniks, show him at his hilarious best, as damning of the iniquities of Communism as it is the delusions of his liberal fellow-travellers.
But it wasn’t just O’Rourke’s foreign reporting or driving advice that made him so enjoyable. Having been a student during the late 1960s, O’Rourke indulged in every fad of the Summer of Love: converting to Maoism, experimenting with LSD, and dodging the draft for Vietnam. He was excused thanks to a four-and-a-half-page doctor’s letter, “three and a half pages devoted to the drugs [he’d] abused.” The preface to his collection Give War a Chance is an apology to the poor schmuck who took his place.
Fortunately, O’Rourke grew up, became a registered Republican, and came to consider “socialism a violation of the American principle that you shouldn’t stick your nose in other people’s business except to make a buck.” He embodied the best elements of the American right – the libertarianism, the love of freedom, the ability to look good on television – whilst ditching that terrifying element which carries a Bible in one hand and an assault rifle in the other.
It was in castigating the Parliament of Whores – his name for the U.S. Government – that O’Rourke produced many of the lines that made him the living man with the most entries in The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations.
“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.”
“One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding somebody to blame your problems on. And when you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver’s license.”
Unfortunately for an icon of ‘Gonzo’ journalism, over the last decade, America has become too crazy even for O’Rourke. Despite having once described Hillary Clinton as ‘America’s ex-wife’, “the particular woman who taught the 4th grade class that every man in America wished he were dead in”, O’Rourke endorsed her in 2016. He told listeners on National Public Radio, where he was the resident grouchy right-winger, that Clinton was “wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters.” His last books How the Hell Did This Happen? and A Cry from the Far Middle were attempts to explain Trump’s America to a sceptical world.
In a sense, modern America suffers from the success of humourists like O’Rourke. The world of William F. Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal was over-taken by Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert – satirists became the new sages. And when all politics seems a joke, when “giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys”, it’s unsurprising if your politicians end up being a joke too. Such is the price O’Rourke paid for five decades’ sterling work at trying to get conservatives to not take themselves too seriously.
Nevertheless, despite his wit, O’Rourke’s finest moment came when describing the fall of the Berlin wall. His description of the moment he saw an East German border guard asking for a piece of that crumbling edifice of totalitarianism deserves quoting in full.
“I looked at that and I began to cry.
I really didn’t understand before that moment, I didn’t realize until just then – we won. The Free World won the Cold War. The fight against life-hating, soul-denying, slavish communism – which had shaped the world’s politics this whole wretched century – was over.
And the best thing about our victory was the way we did it – not just with ICBMs and Green Berets and aid to the contras. Those things were important, but in the end we beat them with Levi 501 jeans. Seventy-two years of communist indoctrination and propaganda was drowned out by a three-ounce Sony Walkman. A huge totalitarian system with all its tanks and guns, gulag camps and secret police had been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian shoes.”
We sometimes forget, thirty years on, that the Cold War wasn’t just a dispute between two economic systems, but a fight between freedom and tyranny, liberation and repression, good and evil – and good ultimately triumphed. In his writing, P. J. O’Rourke showed why it deserved to.