the imaginative conservative logo

P.J. O'RourkeThere was a time a few decades ago when many people I knew did not merely want to be like P.J. O’Rourke, they actually wanted to be him. This largely included me, despite the fact that, even at my most young and stupid I recognized drug use for what it is: enslavement to the most base of physical sensations, masquerading as rebellious personal freedom and masked by the pose of “cool.” Still, a political essayist and humorist who waltzed straight into the belly of the liberal beast and lit it up with explosive mockery and satire for many years held a fascination for me, as for many thousands of others. In books like Holidays in Hell, in which Mr. O’Rourke travelled the globe to experience the effects of left-wing stupidity and mock those who either pretended to like it or, even funnier, actually did enjoy their time in the Soviet Union or Castro’s Cuba, gave the pretensions of the social-justice warriors of his day the treatment they deserved: namely, merciless ridicule.

That Mr. O’Rourke’s talents lay in finding and exposing hypocrisy and self-serving fantasy rather than making constructive arguments or proposals was no bar to enjoying his work. Nor was the fact that his was a libertarian rather than a conservative viewpoint. The drugs, the booze, and the womanizing pretty clearly indicated his cultural viewpoint and limitations. Still, for those like me who were young and stupid, he seemed a kind of swashbuckling privateer, taking down the enemy’s ships in a manner often fun to watch, if less than ennobling to anyone concerned. There was an immature “cool” to P.J. O’Rourke, the self-described “Republican Party Reptile,” which even his too often lazy approach to book-writing and his childish antics seemed not to erase.

Then some of us grew up. We began to recognize that Mr. O’Rourke’s ridicule was doing nothing to embarrass let alone stymie its targets, who lack any capacity for serious examination of conscience for the simple reason that they have assigned their consciences to the abstract principles of their ideology. In addition, we—especially those of us who were conservative from the start, but also those who simply grew into it—began to lead lives that left little room for childish antics. We found good women to marry, had children, and began raising them. Having begun the lives for which we are intended, we also soon recognized that the antics, entertainments, and even the politics of the college student are inappropriate for enjoyment or use in the home, even as they lack the power or even intent to protect that home.

Girls-TV-Series-HBO-2560X1600-Wide-WallpaperDespite getting married a couple of times and even, rather late in life, having children, Mr. O’Rourke chose not to grow up. He merely grew old. This is not to say that he has no concerns for his children. In a recent review of the vile HBO series Girls (the creature of rape-hoaxer Lena Dunham) he showed clear recognition of the depravity involved in its persistent portrayal of drug use and joyless, almost desperate sex acts. Funny as it was, however, Mr. O’Rourke’s repeated reaction (“they’re only a few years older than my daughters!”) utterly lacked coherence. Shock and horror have their place. They often are the beginnings of wisdom where contemporary culture is concerned. But they provide no constructive plan for dealing with cultural rot.

For all I know Mr. O’Rourke may have decided to absent himself from this cultural rot for perfectly good, adult reasons. He has moved to rural New Hampshire, always preferable to any large city, let alone New York, especially for raising children. That said, in his commentary he has shown not the slightest ability to grasp the nature of this rot, let alone formulate a coherent response to it. Indeed, in growing old, he has fallen into the tired, late-libertarian trap of simply not wanting to hear about the cultural preconditions of ordered liberty.

Not long ago Mr. O’Rourke gave one of his many interviews about politics, this time on “CNN Tonight.” In that interview he lambasted Senator Ted Cruz for “dragging in all these tired, sick, old social issues” to the presidential campaign.” Same-sex marriage, immigration, and the plethora of issues regarding the character of our people and society are unsettling to Mr. O’Rourke. He is willing to satirize Democrats for their attacks on that society, but wants to hear nothing about the virtues of what is being destroyed, let alone talk of defending or even renewing it. Rather, “Republican candidates are supposed to be boring. We’ve got several that’ll do just fine, there’s Jeb. Kasich is a perfect example, a good boring governor of a purple state.”

Mr. O’Rourke does not leave his call for political fecklessness out there to die on its own. He gives it a bit of a push with some libertarian posing by adding that “being a Republican is all about … low energy. We want a smaller government, a more efficient government, a government that doesn’t poke its nose into everybody’s business. We would like the government to go, not away, but to go back to the other end of the room, and sit down.”

Of course, as anyone who has actually lived under a government like Mr. Kasich’s (which is to say, like that of a Bush in the White House) their government does not go away. It continues to tax, spend, and regulate at an only slightly less destructive rate than its Democratic counterparts. The results may not extend to rural New Hampshire (at least until the EPA finds a wetland on Mr. O’Rourke’s land), but the rest of us are having our personal business poked into quite thoroughly.

The comment that sums up Mr. O’Rourke in old age is the following:

I thought there was a Republican Establishment who was supposed to keep things like Trump or, for that matter, Cruz from happening, and then I realized, no, they’re all dead. I’m the Republican Establishment now.


P.J. O’Rourke

Mr. O’Rourke may have been joking. But the joke is on him. He has done his drugs, booze, and women. He can pretend his social liberalism is not destroying the lives of regular people (after all, he merely visits society on occasion, and then within the bubble of the pundit’s intellectual tourism). Now he can stand pat. His libertarianism, never the political philosophy of the adult, has simply grown old and stale. It sits atop a crumbling culture, declaring the virtues of self-involvement and the joys of the cynical snicker. It grows old for most people, but then there always are more young, aspiring cynics to wow. And plenty of people in our post-Christian society are stuck, like Mr. O’Rourke, in the joyless habits of snark.

But snark always has been more a left- than a right-wing indulgence, particularly when it becomes a way of life. It denies the holy, denigrates the customary, and downplays the damage done to real people’s lives by selfishness and dereliction of duty. The population of snarky cynics on the right is thinning out for the simple reason that the society establishment republicans—in their country clubs, with their trust funds or dreams of setting up trust funds—helped create is destroying the lives of most Americans. Mr. O’Rourke says he needs immigrants to raise his kids. He may be joking. But outsourcing and the mass importation of people from other cultures who often do not want to, or even cannot assimilate are no joke to people whose jobs are gone, whose wages and benefits have plummeted, and whose communities have become atomized ideological battlegrounds.

Comfortably ensconced among the well-off, Mr. O’Rourke does not need a real community and may safely denigrate, for now, the religious beliefs, feelings, and associations in which most Americans continue to find truth as well as comfort. He can enjoy being the Republican Establishment and, fittingly, sounding indistinguishable from Paula Poundstone when he appears on National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” But the chaos most Americans are feeling, as the government forbids them from engaging in rituals dating back from time out of mind, even as it fails to stop riots and to even properly identify terrorism, will come to rural New Hampshire soon enough. That is, unless the people Mr. O’Rourke disparages do not gain the political influence necessary to renew the culture he so disdains.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
9 replies to this post
  1. As a huge PJ O’Rourke fan, I have to definitely disagree with this article. For one, there has always been a side of conservatism that was boring, stuffy, and which consisted of people who took themselves much too seriously. Take George Will or Pat Buchanan, for example. PJ, like Bill Buckley before him, was able to inject some wit, style, and irreverence into political discourse. Being entertaining in politics shouldn’t be a sin, nor does it need to be at the expense of taking things seriously when they need to be.

    And PJ *could* be serious amidst all his humor. One of the things that impressed me about O’Rourke was his willingness to get his hands dirty in doing his reporting, whether it was riding around with DC cops in drug infested neighborhoods or traveling many times to dangerous parts of the world to report on poverty, civil wars, and political oppression. For example, in the late 80’s he was reporting from Afghanistan just as the Soviets were pulling out, and he was already getting a sense that our Muslim allies of convenience were religious fanatics who were likely to cause us trouble in the future. The fact that he adopted a persona that seemed to borrow quite a bit from Hunter S Thomson did not detract at all from his combination of keen powers of observation and the ability to grasp complicated political issues and present them in a coherent (not to mention, entertaining) fashion.

  2. O’Rourke certainly has his faults.
    Insufficient faith in the Ted Cruz wing of the Republican Party and its supposed ability to “renew the culture” is not, I daresay, one of them.

  3. I found your article dead on.
    After watching the CNN interview, it was like seeing a crazy party buddy from years back and sadly realizing he hadn’t grown up and worse was doing the same old shtick.

  4. PJ has probably done more for conservatism, in the sense of being pro-freedom and anti-Marxist, than just about anybody since Bill Buckley. There are, unfortunately, a lot of sourpusses in the present “Conservative” regime that would rather curse the darkness than light a candle.

  5. Thanks for your article on P.J. O’Rourke. He used to be one of my favorites, too. But lately I’ve been uneasy about him and not really sure why. You hit the nail on the head. He never grew up, which is forgivable up to a certain age and he is way past that age now.

  6. Actually, O’Rourke *has* grown up, in the direct sense of having gotten married, settled down and now raising a family. And that’s probably where most of his energy is focused now instead of politics. Further, as a married man, he probably can’t get away with the sort of stunts he did while single, such as reporting from places like Lebanon in the early 80’s or Somalia in the early 90’s when both countries (if you could even call them that) were mired in violence and anarchy.

    If I seem a bit strident in my defense of O’Rourke, it’s possibly because I don’t like seeing “Conservatives eating their own”, which seems to be happening a lot lately. And it’s not just PJ, who has always been independent in a loose-cannon-on-deck sort of way and who never painted himself as “Doctrinaire” anything (in his hippie days, he briefly flirted with Maoism, though that probably had more to do with flirting with hippie girls more than anything else).

  7. There are really two P.J. O’Rourkes. The first is a funny and erudite libertarian, able to write about complicated issues in an enjoyable and accessible style. The second is character ,if not a caricature, of the hard drinking, womanizing journalist. O’Rourke probably does imbibe a bit, but his day to day existence is probably as bourgeois as that of Mr.Frohen. O’Rourke does not engage in the self destructive of antics of a Hunter Thompson or Charles Bukowski. Several years ago, O’Rourke was featured on 60 Minutes. The reporter concluded that his life consisted “more of backyard barbeques than barroom brawls”.

  8. Completely disagree with your Peej criticisms of immaturity, never grown up, and not caring about the cultural rot, but I understand how you could mistakenly characterize my hero (for making me laugh so hard) since he has referred to himself as “the eldest, semisolvent, unincarcerated, O’Rourke in his right mind,” plus a memeber of a “large, raucaus, conniving belligerent Irish clan”. He has been making up conversations and self deprecating humorous attacks on his own character for as long as he has been writing, because he has the gift of taking our troubles with a grain of salt, and with his artful, crafted healing cure of laughter, he makes this world seem right. True he does not get out there and directly defend virtue, or call himself virtuous, but he has been grown up his whole life. He jokes about not having been a good father in some places, but there is nothing joyless in PJ’s habits of snark. Way back when I read CEO of the Sofa, I immediately knew he was making up being an irresponsible Dad. He joked about conversations he had with Muffin and Poppet (alieses he made up for his daughters) but I would bet my life that he was a Dad any kid would worship and count their blessings for, and I bet they got the best lessons from him than any teacher they ever had. I have a lot of his books, and I love him because he is full of wisdom, and he knows how to have fun, too, and he always exaggerates his bad habits. I think every wrinkle he has is a badge of honor and he will never grow old in my mind. He has not got a lazy bone in his body about writing, and he makes fun of procrastinating writing but that just proves he is diligent and has always been a hard worker who can laugh at himself endlessly. To really love him read his eulogy on his Springer spaniel, Millie. My very best wishes to PJ and his family.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: