“She’s wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters.”
– P.J. O’Rourke on reluctantly backing Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump
During my first semester of college, I took a course called History of Journalism with a wonderful professor named William McKeen. It was an inspiring and entertaining tour through Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, I.F. Stone, Seymour Hersh, Studs Terkel, Woodward and Bernstein, Hunter S. Thompson, and many more.
The class was so good that I almost became a journalist until Professor McKeen pointed out that the future would be all USA Today infotainment, a prescient notion in 1991.
Like most recently post-adolescent young men, Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo aghast-witness-to-society’s-collapse schtick appealed to me strongly. I could imagine writing riotous features about myself witnessing the inanity of our culture: “It’s Will…at a gun show!” “It’s Will…at the Cabbage Patch Doll headquarters!” “It’s Will…at the ruins of the Manson family’s ranch!”
The trouble was that I wasn’t cool enough to be Hunter S. Thompson. I didn’t drink or do drugs, I was nervous approaching people, and I couldn’t often summon the energy to be manic like he was.
What I needed was a nerdier, more introspective yet still hilarious journalistic idol, so Professor McKeen suggested I might dig P.J. O’Rourke.
I started with his book Holidays in Hell (excellent) and went on to Republican Party Reptile (meh) and then Parliament of Whores (probably his best), and I’ve followed him on and off ever since. In recent years, he was sometimes as stylistically conservative as he was philosophically, and some of his humor could feel a bit tepid, like an affable but exasperated dad.
But at his best, he wielded his satiric scalpel with precision and eloquence. He’s one of the main reasons I was a conservative in college: he made it feel dignified and reasonable to believe that applying government to our fleeting problems was like swatting a fly with a sheet of plywood.
(These days, I’m inclined to think that as clumsy as that sheet of plywood can be, some of our societal flies are big enough to need it.)
P.J. could cover a Communist revolution in some banana republic mostly from the bar, downing some scotch and smoking cigars and asking real people what they thought about the absurd situation. Maybe that’s as posed as Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo journalism, but it’s certainly more my temperament.
I’ve disagreed with much of what he’s written, especially later on, but he was always wrong within normal parameters…and usually entertaining and never hostile about it. To him, the culture war was less an all-out battle and more a slightly embarrassing brawl in a bar between the loudest blowhards.
I eventually drifted more toward fiction (partly because it seemed to have a clearer path of entry and partly because I can’t resist exaggerating and distilling the truth), but O’Rourke’s wry observational style still influences my work.
I’m grateful for that influence and I’ll miss him in the world.