Remembering P.J. O’Rourke

The great P.J. O’Rourke vacated the premises last week. 

He should’ve whizzed through the pearly gates at the wheel of a red Italian sports car in excess of whatever Heaven’s speed limit is. (Is it really Heaven if it has speed limits?) 

But the glorious, glamorous exit was not to be. It was just a run-of-the-mill, regular guy way to go. Cancer.  

Lung cancer’s death rate has fallen by nearly half since 1992. But that wasn’t fast enough. And, sadly, you can’t outrun cancer in a Ferrari 308GTS, though P.J. tried. 

Writing funny is hard. That’s why the humor section of the local bookstore could fit on the first shelf of the first case in the philosophy section. You really think Americans want to buy 10 times more philosophy books than joke books? Have you ever met an American? 

Americans love humor. But there aren’t enough good humorists to satisfy the demand. P.J. was the best of the best, and he made it look easy, the way Stephen Curry makes hitting threes look easy. 

His obituaries in mainstream publications called him conservative or libertarian, as if that were what made him stand out. Funny how they never label left-wing humorists or comics left-wing. 

What made P.J.’s work stand out is that it could be placed with honesty, rather than irony, in both the humor and philosophy (or at least current events) sections of the bookstore.

Gandalf wasn’t a conjurer of cheap tricks, and P.J. wasn’t a teller of cheap jokes. He was a serious ponderer of big ideas who happened to be consistently, genuinely ROFL funny. Unlike some who wrote about big ideas in earnest, he actually understood them. 

“Parliament of Whores” and “All The Trouble In The World” and so many others are classics not just because they’re funny, but because they’re true. P.J. did his homework. He didn’t crack jokes from the comfy chair in his beloved old farmhouse. He actually went places and talked to people and reported facts and read important books.

When he distilled the essence of American libertarianism with the witticism that “giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys,” it wasn’t a cheap laugh. It carried the punch of a well-placed shot from the U.S.S. Louisiana. 

Thumbing the pages of some of his books last week, I realized that it wasn’t through college textbooks that I was introduced to a lot of the great economic and political thinking of the last three centuries. It was through P.J.

Reason magazine dubbed him history’s greatest popularizer of libertarian ideas, and that’s probably right. 

He believed in the dignity of the human individual, even the ones that are fat, drunk and stupid. (Especially the ones that are drunk.) He believed that government always and forever must work for the people. He once said his ideal government would function like jury duty. It would be run by regular folks who didn’t really want to be there and couldn’t wait to get back to their lives. 

That affection for the little guy is why his writing resonated with so many people, even those who didn’t share his distaste for government and the political class. At the core of O’Rourkeism was an enduring allegiance to the sovereign individual, along with a burning disdain for anyone who would presume to rule people rather than represent them.

He lived those beliefs, too. Though he was the coolest, most popular right-of-center writer of his era, a genuine star, he interacted with everyone as though he were just a middle-class barfly from Toledo. 

Being a good, free-market-loving Granite Stater, P.J. got involved with the Josiah Bartlett Center, for which we were always deeply grateful. He spoke at two of our events and lent his name to our fund-raising efforts. He didn’t have to do that. We’re not sure how he even had time to do that. But he thought it was important, so he lent a hand. That’s the kind of guy he was.

The world would be a better place were all humorists as funny, all citizens as public-spirited, and all voters as wise as P.J. O’Rourke. Human nature won’t allow for such a world. But thanks to P.J., the world we have is a little more fun, a little kinder, a little smarter, and a little more tolerant. And really not very much drunker. 

P.J.’s columns at The Atlantic

Car & Driver’s obituary

Matt Labash’s tribute

John Podhoretz’s tribute

Kyle Smith’s tribute

Matthew Continetti’s tribute