No one did more to mainstream libertarian ideas about peace, love, and understanding over the past half-century than P.J. O’Rourke, who has died at the age of 74. And like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Sid Vicious, P.J. did it his way: by taking a blowtorch to the sacred cows of both the left and right.
“The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn,” he warned. “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.”
Writing in popular outlets such as National Lampoon, Rolling Stone, and The Atlantic, and appearing on NPR’s Wait…Wait Don’t Tell Me!, O’Rourke distilled the insights of Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Friedrich Hayek with far more oomph.
“Giving money and power to the government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys,” wrote O’Rourke. “When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.”
“Libertarianism isn’t political,” he insisted. “It’s anti-political, really. It wants to take things out of the political arena.”
Like his journalistic inspirations Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, O’Rourke was no armchair curmudgeon or Ivory Tower philosopher-king. At his very best—in books like All the Trouble in the World and Holidays in Hell—he engaged the world directly and often at serious personal risk, traveling to war zones and disaster areas in more than 40 countries, including urban and rural hellholes in the United States.
“I have always belonged to the pessimistic wing of the libertarian attitude,” he told Reason in 2020. “This is probably because I spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent, largely covering wars, insurrections, social upheavals, and disturbances of all sorts….We have a rational side, thank God….But it isn’t the only side in our multifaceted—and sometimes pretty ugly—little personalities.”
Even as he despaired over a presidential contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump—”I’m appalled by the choice that we’ve been delivered…I’m worried”—he was never dissuaded from his faith in individuals yearning to be free, whether they live in Chicago or China.
“At the core of libertarianism, as an attitude and as a way of thinking about politics,” he said, “is the idea that people are assets.”
His elegiac 2014 book, The Baby Boom: How it Got That Way and It Wasn’t My Fault and I’ll Never Do it Again, writes his epitaph. Far from being either a screed against his own generation (which is what he expected it to be when he started writing), or a take-no-prisoners attack on millennials, it was instead a funny and thoughtful meditation on how we’ve arrived at a kinder, gentler country that somehow manages to prize individualism and community, innovation and tradition.
When asked whether the fights between the Greatest Generation, boomers, and millennials had left the country weirder and better off, he told Reason: “I think so. Certainly more tolerant. In fact tolerance I think isn’t even a good word anymore because tolerance means, ‘Well, I’ll put up with you if I have to.’ It’s more enthusiastic about people’s differences of plotting them and embracing them as it were, and that’s good.'”
If that’s true, it’s in no small part due to the contribution O’Rourke offered up, first by making us laugh, then by making us think, and finally by making us want to go out into the world he engaged with such passion.
He was only 74—I think he always seemed more youthful than his years because he had kids late in life, and nothing keeps you young like running around after children.
He was, to various writers in my world, a godfather, a mentor, a big brother, a best man. I was never especially close to P.J.—many of my friends knew him much better than I did. But I read him for many years. I edited him a few times. We hung out.
And so, if you’re wondering why half of the journalists in America are in mourning today, I want to take a stab at explaining. Which is hard to do, because the answer is so simple:
It’s because P.J. was great.
I came into the world of writing in 1997. By that time, P.J. had been a star for a generation.
He started writing in the alt-weekly world. His big break came when he took over National Lampoon. From there he became one of the best magazine writers of the ’80s.
P.J. was most famous for being a funnyman, but early on he did all kinds of writing. He reported. He did longform. He wrote books. And this is a big part of why writers admired him so much: P.J. could hit to all fields with power. And while he became a star, with the kind of career that most of us only dream of, he came up the hard way. He did not emerge fully formed from William Shawn’s head like Athena. He worked for it.
Let me put it this way: If you’re a writer and you look at Joan Didion, you see an untouchable prodigy, someone who might as well be from another planet.
But when you looked at P.J. O’Rourke you saw a craftsman and you thought to yourself, “If I work hard enough and hit the ball cleanly, on every at bat, every day, for a few decades . . . well, then maybe I could be like P.J.”
So that’s one reason we loved him.
Another is that he was a professional’s professional.
Here’s a secret of the trade: The better a writer is, the easier he is to edit.
Bad writers will haggle with editors over every comma. The best writers (a) need very little editing and (b) are perfectly open to edits because they see and appreciate when a phrase or a thought has been improved.
P.J. was a joy to edit. Collegial, professional. The kind of writer who makes you a better writer once you get to look under the hood at his process. The kind of writer with whom it is a privilege to work.
I suspect that the biggest reason P.J. was beloved by his peers and colleagues was his openness and kindness.
For many years he was as close to being a household name as magazine writers get. And yet he was never a big shot. No matter who you were, he’d talk to you.
When he was stopped on the street by admirers he was as gracious as you could hope for. If you were a staff assistant at a magazine and you approached him, he’d respond as freely and generously as if you were a longtime colleague.
And not just to exchange pleasantries. He’d talk to you about writing, or an idea—anything, really—thoughtfully, openly. He was neither superior nor patronizing. There was no bs. He’d talk to you like you were a real writer—just another member the guild, like him.
There are few gifts an accomplished writer can give his juniors that are more treasured.
P.J. spent his life bestowing such respect on a constant stream of writers and editors and researchers and fact-checkers and all of the sundry tradespeople who populate the world of letters.
P.J. was unusually beloved in my world. I know only a handful of writers who do not revere him. I’ve never met anyone who was not fond of him.
There’s an Oscar Wilde line about how “anybody can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend” but it takes “a very fine nature to sympathize with a friend’s success.” Gore Vidal’s version: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” These are very real phenomena. And yet they never touched P.J.
No matter how much success he saw, P.J.’s peers were never jealous. There were never any knives out for him. Quite the opposite, actually. We cheered for him. We admired him.
Because P.J. was what every writer hoped we might someday be: The best version of ourselves. Talented and kind. A champion for others. A workhorse. A wit and a gentleman. A writer. A tremendous writer.
He is already missed.
P.J. O’Rourke, the political commentator, satirist, and bestselling author who we maintain did some of his best work for Car and Driver, died February 15 of complications arising from lung cancer at age 74. The world is a poorer place.
O’Rourke first made his name as a regular contributor and later editor-in-chief of The National Lampoon, the daringly irreverent 1970s humor magazine that helped shape American comedy for decades to come, spinning off movies, TV shows, stage plays, name-brand actors, comedians, and albums. Though O’Rourke’s byline would go on to appear in many serious publications and on the covers of the more than 20 books he’d author, he was pretty much never serious, and the iconoclastic bent that allowed him to make fun of everyone and everything, including himself, was with him till the end. While his official political affiliation would in middle age see him become a Republican with a pronounced libertarian bent, he was, by way of example, as sharp-tongued and cantankerous about his new party as he was about Democrats and his former fellow travelers from the peace-and-love Sixties from which he’d emerged, a full-blown American archetype, a cranky ex-hippie who loved cars and could write his pants off.
A native of Toledo, Ohio, and graduate of the state’s Miami University (he’d later grab a master’s degree in English from Johns Hopkins), O’Rourke wasn’t a tech freak. Rather, he spoke the language of the American road, which like many of his generation fascinated him, but with an extra acuity that followed perhaps from his father’s having been a car salesman. (His mother was a school administrator.) This enthusiasm for car travel spilled over into the pages of the Lampoon often, but perhaps most notably in the 1979 demi-classic “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink.”
Today’s younger, woker readers will perhaps not be familiar with a style of writing that routinely celebrated drunk driving and sexual congress behind the wheel—hey, people, he was kidding! (We hope.) But in this old O’Rourke standard, too, lies a passage that led many an aspiring car writer back in the day to put pen to paper.
“Even more important than being drunk, however, is having the right car. You have to get a car that handles really well. This is extremely important, and there’s a lot of debate on this subject—about what kind of car handles best. Some say a front-engined car; some say a rear-engined car. I say a rented car. Nothing handles better than a rented car. You can go faster, turn corners sharper, and put the transmission into reverse while going forward at a higher rate of speed in a rented car than in any other kind. You can also park without looking, and can use the trunk as an ice chest. Another thing about a rented car is that it’s an all-terrain vehicle. Mud, snow, water, woods—you can take a rented car anywhere. True, you can’t always get it back—but that’s not your problem, is it?”
While O’Rourke’s wide-ranging wit and biting humor would follow him, briefly, to Hollywood (screenwriting chores on Rodney Dangerfield’s 1983 picture Easy Money were apparently enough to scratch the itch), it would also land him assignments as a war correspondent for Rolling Stone and essayist for the Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal, and earn him regular spots on television (60 Minutes) and radio (most recently, NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me).
But we will always remember him for his car writing. A 1978 piece for Car and Driver, “Sgt. Dynaflow’s Last Patrol,” tells the story of a liquor-fueled journey O’Rourke took with an English chum, Humphrey, transporting a sickly 1956 Buick from Florida to California and breaking down each of their eleven days on the road.
“When the engine went out, we were in a desolate stretch of piney woods somewhere south of Tallahassee. There was no warning. All of a sudden it was just much too quiet and we weren’t going nearly as fast as we should have been. We figured it was probably the old set of points.
“There was this shack-like building about a hundred yards down the road with a couple of broken gas pumps out front and a sign that said ‘Beer.’ It was half overgrown with swamp and looked like the first panel in an old E.C. comic but it was the only building we’d seen for twenty miles so we pushed the car over there and I went inside to borrow some tools. There were about a dozen hard-visaged, definitely unfriendly and possibly cannibalistic Southern types in there, all eyeing me suspiciously. The bartender was a big, nasty-looking old guy with an enormous paunch, a flat-top haircut four inches high, and an unlit cigar turned backwards in his mouth. I got the idea that he didn’t much like my looks either, but he loaned me a screwdriver and an adjustable crescent wrench.
“Humphrey was all business under the hood, tinkering with this and tapping on that, I thought maybe he knew what he was doing until I realized that he couldn’t find the spark plugs. Buick used to put these lid things over them. God knows why. But, anyway, after we’d pried one off and given ourselves some electrical shocks, we figured maybe it wasn’t the old set of points after all. Maybe it was vapor lock. If you leave vapor lock alone it gets better. This is exactly the kind of mechanical problem that Humphrey and I are good at, and we decided it was vapor lock and went inside for a drink.”
Two years later, he was again in the pages of C/D, this time in a cross-country blast from New Jersey to L.A. in a Ferrari 308GTS.
“But best of all the looks we got were the looks we got from the ten-year-old boys. They’d be back there with their little faces pressed up against the glass in the RV back windows, and they’d see this red rocket sled coming up behind them in the $50 lane. It couldn’t help but touch your heart, how their eyes lit up and their mouths dropped down, as if Santa’d brought them an entire real railroad train. You could all but hear the pitter-patter of the sneakers on their feet as they ran up front and started jerking on their dads’ Banlon shirt collars, jumping up and down and yelling and pointing out the windshield, ‘Didja see it?! Didja see it, Dad?! Didja?! Didja?! Didja?! Didja?!’”
Gosh, we’ll miss you, man.