I can remember sitting in high school algebra class, not understanding a whit of it, and reading, using my textbook as a cover, the National Lampoon’s “Unwanted Foreigners” issue. It consisted of over the top hilarious slurs on every ethnicity imaginable. It was absurdist equal opportunity satire. It still ranks as one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. It was written by P.J. O’Rourke.
He died yesterday, Tuesday, from complications from lung cancer. For my whole generation of sarcastic conservative writers he was the inspiration, the top dog, the ne plus ultra. Me included. Like punk and new wave, like Ronald Reagan, like cocaine, he defined the merry libertarian youth of Generation X. Later, he chronicled our middle age with wit and poignancy. I could go on a lot more. But any writer wants their legacy to be their words. So be it. Here’s a smattering of them.
On his college years, “But I couldn’t stay a Maoist forever. I got too fat to wear bell-bottoms. And I realized that communism meant giving my golf clubs to a family in Zaire.”
On the political parties, “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 gets elected and proves it.”
On etiquette, “Good manners can replace intellect by providing a set of memorized responses to almost every situation in life. Memorized responses eliminate the need for thought. Thought is not a very worthwhile pastime anyway. Thinking allows the brain, an inert and mushy organ, to exert unfair domination over more sturdy and active body parts.”
“A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady and left off for the rest of your life. Nothing looks more stupid than a hat.” On inebriants, “No drug, not even alcohol, causes the fundamental ills of society. If we’re looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn’t test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity.” He was said to look like “Dan Quayle with a bad hangover.”
On his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, “one of those junkyards of American capitalism…America’s exceptionalism lies not in its successes but its failures. The people of failed Toledo can say to the people of the rest of the world, ‘Our junkyards are more splendid than your palaces.’”
On being editor of the brilliant National Lampoon, “As the boss, I had the people skills of Luca Brasi in ‘The Godfather’ and the business acumen of the fellows who were managing New York’s finances in the 1970s,”
On the 2016 election, “The American public wasn’t holding either political party in much esteem. What the American public was holding was its nose. Therefore I was prepared for some surprises during the 2016 campaign, which leaves me with no excuse for how surprised I was by what the surprises were.”
On economics, “Fiscal conservatism is just an easy way to express something that is a bit more difficult, which is that the size and scope of government, and really the size and scope of politics in our lives, has grown uncomfortable, unwieldy, intrusive and inefficient.”
60 Minutes said of him, “He’s become the rock magazine’s reactionary, combining the literary flair of Hunter Thompson with the ideology and haberdashery of George Will.”
“He can be vicious and nasty, and he strikes the pose of a reactionary, but some of that is just shtick,” the journalist Michael Kinsley told People magazine in 1989. “He’s an anarchist with a heart of gold.”
And yes, he was a reactionary in a sense. He opposed the shallow liberalism of 60 Minutes and Michael Kinsley. Thus he was reacting, as would any sane person, against their essentially authoritarian socialist notions of life and government.
An anarchist? Well, compared to the level of government intrusion in our lives, O’Rourke was one of the many of a certain time in America who wanted government to back off and back down. He just put that into amusing words better than anyone else did, or ever will. And he did it while having great fun. His words will live on and he will be sorely missed. We are a lesser culture without him.