P.J. O’Rourke, 1947-2022

The great conservative humorist is gone at 74.

New York Times (“P.J. O’Rourke, Conservative Political Satirist, Dies at 74“):

P.J. O’Rourke, the conservative satirist and political commentator who was unafraid to skewer Democrats and Republicans alike in best-selling books like “Parliament of Whores,” in articles for a wide range of magazines and newspapers, and on television and radio talk shows, died on Tuesday at his home in Sharon, N.H. He was 74.

The cause was complications of lung cancer, said Deb Seager, the director of publicity at Grove/Atlantic, Mr. O’Rourke’s publisher.

Mr. O’Rourke’s political writing was in the caustic tradition of H.L. Mencken. As writers and commentators go, he was something of a celebrity, welcome on talk shows of almost any political bent and known for appearances on NPR’s comedy quiz show “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me.”

He was a proud conservative Republican — one of his books was called “Republican Party Reptile: The Confessions, Adventures, Essays and (Other) Outrages of P.J. O’Rourke” — but he was widely admired by readers of many stripes because of his fearless style and his willingness to mock just about anyone who deserved it, including himself. In “Republican Party Reptile” he recalled his youthful flirtation with Mao Zedong.

“But I couldn’t stay a Maoist forever,” he wrote. “I got too fat to wear bell-bottoms. And I realized that communism meant giving my golf clubs to a family in Zaire.”

In 2010, The New York Times invited him and assorted other prominent people to define “Republican” and “Democrat.” He offered this:

“The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer and remove the crab grass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then get elected and prove it.”

NPR (“Satirist P.J. O’Rourke, panelist on NPR’s ‘Wait…Wait Don’t Tell Me,’ dies at 74“):

Author, journalist and political satirist P.J. O’Rourke has died. O’Rourke wrote more than twenty books about a range of topics, from politics to cars, and he was a longtime panelist on the NPR show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!.

[…]

O’Rourke began his career writing for the National Lampoon, and later led the foreign affairs desk at Rolling Stone, where he covered world politics from the Persian Gulf to the Philippines. His books Parliament of Whores and Give War a Chance both reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Later in life he contributed to more conservative outlets including The Weekly Standard and served as the H. L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute.

[…]

“P. J. was one of the major voices of his generation,” writes Morgan Entrekin, CEO and Publisher of Grove Atlantic, in a statement. “His insightful reporting, verbal acuity and gift at writing laugh-out-loud prose were unparalleled.”

“This is a heartbreaking loss for all of us at NPR, our Member Stations, and the millions of public radio listeners who enjoyed hearing from P.J. O’Rourke as a Wait…Wait panelist and counted on his irreverent take on the news every week,” Anya Grundmann, NPR’s senior vice president of programming, said in a statement.

The staff of the quiz show hosted by Peter Sagal wrote, “[O’Rourke] made his debut as a special guest on our first show after 9/11, when we needed someone to come on and be funny about terrible things, which, of course, was P.J.’s specialty.” Their statement continues, “as much fun as he was to have on the show, he was even more delightful in the bar afterwards. We all will miss him terribly, and extend our deepest condolences to his wife Tina and his children.”

Rolling Stone (“P.J. O’Rourke, Celebrated Journalist and Conservative Satirist, Dead at 74“):

P.J. O’Rourke, the political satirist and journalist who served as foreign-affairs desk chief at Rolling Stone until 2005 and wrote for numerous publications, has died. He was 74. His death was confirmed by NBC News.

[…]

Respected for his wit and storytelling by people across the political spectrum, O’Rourke’s early essays suggested a liberal leaning after he earned an M.A. in English at Johns Hopkins University in 1970. However, he soon changed his political stance and his work reflected libertarian conservatism.

He wrote for several indie publications before landing at National Lampoon in 1973, where he had a variety of positions, including editor-in-chief. He also wrote for 1973 stage spinoff National Lampoon’s Lemmings, which featured John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Christopher Guest, and he co-wrote National Lampoon’s 1964 High School Yearbook with Douglas Kenney.

In 1981, he turned to freelancing, contributing to Rolling Stone and other publications before becoming the foreign-affairs desk chief, a role he served in until 2005, when he became a contributing editor. In 1992, he interviewed Bill Clinton on the campaign trail alongside Rolling Stone‘s Jann Wenner, Hunter S. Thompson, and William Greider.

O’Rourke also served as a broadcast conservative commentator and guest, appearing on shows such as 60 Minutes and Real Time With Bill Maher, and was a regular panelist on NPR’s quiz show hosted by Peter Sagal and Bill Kurtis, Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!

In 2016, he famously endorsed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, announcing his begrudging decision during a Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! episode. “It’s the second-worst thing that can happen to this country. But she’s way behind in second place,” he said. “I mean, she’s wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters.”

“It is very rare in life to be a fan of someone and then become their friend, but it happened to me with PJ, and I discovered something remarkable: Most well known people try to be nicer than they are in public than they are in private life,” Sagal wrote on Twitter. “PJ was the only man I knew to be the opposite.

“He was a deeply kind and generous man who pretended to be a curmudgeon for public consumption. He told the best stories,” Sagal continued. “He had the most remarkable friends. And he devoted himself to them and his family in a way that would have totally ruined his shtick had anyone ever found out. Like some other people I am (sic), it took him two tries to get marriage right, so he leaves behind a wife, Tina, and three children who are far too young to lose their husband and father. His work was wonderful. His heart was even better. I will miss him terribly.”

I read several of his early books, including Parliament of Whores (1991), Give War a Chance (1992), and Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut (1995) and always enjoyed his television and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” appearances—although it has been some time since I was a regular listener.

It’s not everyone who can go from the editor-in-chief of National Lampoon to foreign affairs columnist for Rolling Stone to being a regular for National Review, The Atlantic, and NPR.

I wasn’t aware that he had grudgingly endorsed Clinton in 2016 but it doesn’t surprise me.

FILED UNDER: Humor, Obituaries, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jen says:

    I’ve long enjoyed his writing–if you haven’t picked up Holidays in Hell, I’d recommend giving it a read. “Weekend Getaway: Heritage USA” was a particular favorite. I might give it a re-read this weekend.

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  2. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Holidays in Hell is PJ at his best, before he started toning down for the GOP establishment – yes, there was such a thing once. And I suspect once the GOP establishment started fading, so did PJ’s reach, because he didn’t understand the forces that were churning beneath the surface. If he wrote anything during the Trump presidency I missed it and I suspect the times were impervious to mockery.

    Another thing: HIH also contains many of his reviews of cars and other vehicles, and in some ways they’re his straight-out funniest writing.

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  3. CSK says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:
    O’Rourke wrote four books between 2015 and 2020, including How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016 in 2017.

  4. Joe says:

    Big fan of his Wait . . . Wait work. RIP P.J.

    1
  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    A couple of things that I like about PJ’s writing is he carried an equal opportunity skewer and would stick it into the fattest target available. The other thing is that he gleefully punched up rather than mock the downtrodden. Despite his releases over the last 6 or so years, like, @Not the IT Dept.:, it seemed that he disappeared or at least adopted a lower profile. Health may have had something to do with it and the fact that a number of his favored conservative outlets went all Trump, becoming less welcoming to PJ’s iconoclasm.

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  6. Jen says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Health was definitely a factor. This bout of lung cancer was not his first go-around with the disease, he had battled rectal cancer in 2008.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    The last funny conservative.

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  8. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Andrew Ferguson has his moments.

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  9. Not the IT Dept. says:

    @CSK:

    All I can say is that I never saw it or any of the others, and he had done at least two reading/appearances at my go-to bookstore. I think he had one tone, and it increasingly didn’t apply to what was going on around him.

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  10. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    And I suspect once the GOP establishment started fading, so did PJ’s reach, because he didn’t understand the forces that were churning beneath the surface.

    I think it was less a lack of understanding of what was churning beneath the surface and more a deliberate choice that losing prominence was preferable to catering to that churn.

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  11. Modulo Myself says:

    RIP. I remember really enjoying Holidays in Hell when I read it. I think his stuff after that (aka what gave him book deals) tried to be more on-brand as the ONLY funny/intelligent/cultured conservative and that must have been a lucrative chore.

  12. Modulo Myself says:

    Just remembered part a funny moment from an article about Beirut and Lebanon in the 80s. He tags along with an actual reporter, and they’re with a well-armed militia leader who has taken hostages. The real reporter asks a point-blank question about the hostages, and PJ writes I nearly lit my nose instead of my cigarette.

  13. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I think you mean the last intentionally funny conservative.

    On the other hand, there’s a difference between being funny and laughable.

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  14. CSK says:

    @Kathy:
    Bigly.

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  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    He’s the only conservative that I’ve ever read who seemed to understand that the economic policies that conservatives prefer to not automatically redound to the benefit of the economically disadvantaged. He got that “I’ve got mine; fwk you/it must suck to be you” is not an exclusively Libertarian position.

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