Features Australia

Last laugh

Vale PJ

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

P.J. O’Rourke was a conservative. Everybody says so. Virtually all of the obituaries I’ve been reading about the immensely likeable American author, make much of the fact, although the Guardian did go on to generously note that O’Rourke was also ‘that rarest of things, a funny conservative’. Just fancy that.

Still, it would have been nice if somebody had taken the time to explain how conservative one has to be in order to produce a rather brilliant little essay titled ‘How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed, and Not Spill Your Drink’. Or at what point conservatism spurs one to endorse Hillary Clinton for president, or indeed to declare as your main recreational pursuit the bedding of as many women as a hectic work-schedule will allow?

Patrick Jake O’Rourke is no longer with us to answer these questions. But it’s not as if he didn’t try during his seventy-four talkative years. I know this because we circled around the subject on the two occasions I interviewed the guy with the pale-blue eyes and even paler blue politics — once when he was still employed by that well-known conservative periodical Rolling Stone, and then more recently when he was touring Down Under touting the virtues of an equally well-known conservative president, Barack Obama.

We first met on a grey-lidded July morning in Wellington at a hotel that had clearly seen better times — which is to say, the night before O’Rourke checked in. Overflowing ashtrays and empty wine bottles were in evidence, as was a woman who emerged from the bedroom halfway through, fixed herself a coffee and vanished again.

Even though it was still early in the day, O’Rourke was chain-smoking intimidating little Dutch cigars. So far, so typical, one supposed, for a then forty-two-year-old fellow who at that point was still describing his main passions in life, in no particular order, to be drinking, fast cars and faster ladies.

As settings went, it probably wasn’t all that different to the student media scene he started out in at the University of Miami. At the time he was an anti-war, anti-police, anti-capitalist. He was a Marxist, too, albeit of the rock and roll variety, for whom dialectical materialism was of less immediate interest than annoying his parents and scoring big on the third of his life passions. ‘Ridiculous, idealistic systems seem logical to students,’ he growled, ‘because they live in a ridiculous, idealistic world.’

One night while O’Rourke was beavering away on a radical student magazine, a group of young Maoists burst in and took him hostage. He endured a rather rough consciousness-raising session. As ‘irritating’ as that experience was, though, what ultimately caused him to break ranks with his former comrades was the ‘incredible’ amount of tax that came out of his early earnings.

‘And those are the two things, really, I can point to that changed my life,’ he said, fishing in his pocket for another cigar. ‘But I think it was a gradual shift… I guess exposure to the real world is an antidote to collectivist, leftish thought’.

Breaking ranks with the extreme Left doesn’t make someone a conservative, though, still less becoming editor — as he subsequently did — of the old National Lampoon, for which he wrote the rather brilliant ‘A Complete History of the World’. That exegesis clocked in at eight-hundred words, give or take. It was one of the gems that showed up in Republican Party Reptile, the book that helped make O’Rourke a familiar name with many Australians and New Zealanders.

His next anthology, Holidays in Hell, rolled together his international Rolling Stone dispatches, filed from ‘the centres of human folly’, including Nicaragua, Poland, the Palestinian territories and apartheid-era South Africa. Perhaps New Zealand could have made the cut: ‘Even by modern standards, which are pretty low, you’ve got some grotesque architecture.’

This didn’t stop him returning to our neck of the global woods in April 2009, however, speaking before appreciative audiences in Auckland, Perth and Sydney, and also, as it happened, with the same Kiwi who interviewed him the first time around.

O’Rourke was well and truly an international star by this point, an aphoristic fixture on the media circuit, which was perhaps just as well given that the journalism anthologies that used to constitute a big part of his activity are no longer the publishing style. And he had lots to hold court about. Obama, whom he sort of liked, was the person of the hour, as would soon be Mrs Clinton, whose presidential bid he later supported.

‘Bush had some people around him who one wouldn’t care to have to dinner, but then again, so does Obama,’ he said of the act the new leader followed. ‘But one thing I would add here in Obama’s favour is that it is the responsibility of the leader of a democratic nation to speak to the people by whom he was hired and to whom he is responsible. You have to explain yourself. Obama does seem perfectly willing to do that, but Bush was perfectly unwilling to do that.’

Elsewhere, he assailed conservatives for having royally screwed up over the global financial crisis, thereby deepening my own suspicion — vouchsafed this past week — that if O’Rourke was such a conservative himself then I am possibly also a banana. A libertarian he might have been perhaps, but also something else.

Sifting through his otherwise touching obits, what came to mind was not the books O’Rourke wrote but the authors he once told me he particularly enjoyed: George Orwell, Saki and the frighteningly prolific Hilaire Belloc. Yet none of these men were conservative in the commonly understood sense. They were antimoderns who thought the culture as it was shaping up was going to blazes. As did the man who adored them.

As an online friend says, the only measure by which this intriguing, forceful and highly talented man who drove fast while getting his wing-wang squeezed without spilling a drop of booze was conservative may have been that he didn’t happen to sit to the left of Stalin.

Which possibly says more about our obituarists than the dearly departed.

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