Friday, February 18, 2022

P.J. O’Rourke, scribe of a franker time

     When I wrote this, it never occurred to me that the Sun-Times would refuse to print the offensive way that O'Rourke described a Korean political rally back in 1988. But we wouldn't. Respecting that decision, I won't share it here either. I realize that my bosses are just trying to protect me from being run out of town on a rail, a quivering ball of tar and feathers. Neither of us want that, and better safe than sorry. 
     Though you can be too safe, which is also a sorry situation. Nobody writes in to complain about that, so perhaps I should. This is an example of something we can think of as "N-Word Creep," where banning one word as being too disturbing to be mentioned in any context ever leads to other words receiving the same banishment, because it's the path of least resistance. I guess that's also why you can't guess "wench" or "slave" on Wordle. The danger is that you do it enough and it becomes, not a sign of enlightenment and consideration, but condescension and timidity. Maybe that day has already arrived. The bottom line is, I don't set newspaper policy, I follow it, sometimes grudgingly.

     Every time another 1960s musician dies, Facebook keens with grief. Tears spatter Twitter, as people clutch at their hearts, decrying this latest loss.
     And if the departed are in any way famous — say, Michael Nesmith of The Monkees — a process I call “The Full Diana” starts up, wheezing like a circus calliope, with the stacked teddy bears and cellophane-wrapped flowers.
     “Save it for somebody you love,” I mutter.
     Sitting at Denver Airport Tuesday, waiting for my flight home, I saw that P.J. O’Rourke had died. I felt ... well “sad” is overstating the case. “Sorry” is more accurate. I was thinking of him just last week, wondering what became of the arch, edgy humorist, so big in his day, and whether it might be worth tracking him down for a chat. Too late now.
     Even “sorry” is too strong. “Grateful” might be more to the point. Not grateful he is dead, of course. But that he lived, and wrote, amusing millions while inspiring an army of lesser talents such as myself. He was frank and fearless.
     When I got home, I went to the bookshelf and pulled down my O’Rourke books. “Parliament of Whores,” his keelhauling of the U.S. government, begins, “What is this oozing behemoth, this fibrous tumor, this monster of power and expense hatched from the simple human desire for civic order?”
     Did I mention he was a Republican? He was.
     My favorite of his 20 or so books is “Republican Party Animal,” containing the delightfully titled, “Ferrari Refutes the Decline of the West,” one of those delicious assignments freelancers once dreamt about:
     “Ferrari North America, which is based in Montvale, New Jersey, had a 308GTS that needed to be delivered to Los Angeles by January 2, to be featured in a movie. Ferrari called Car and Driver and asked if they’d like to assign someone to drive it across the country. Car and Driver was good enough to ask me, and of course I said yes.”
     Though a member of the media — he was “international correspondent” for Rolling Stone; the title initially something of a joke — O’Rourke could be critical of the press. With good reason. I just waded through two long obituaries, in The New York Times and the Washington Post. Neither mentioned his most relevant story, “Seoul Brothers,” a report on the South Korean presidential election in 1988.

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  1. Or save it for somebody you admired. O’Rourke made glibertarian liberal-baiting cool by making it funny, an achievement not worth celebrating.

    His passing inspired this cogent take, from elsewhere, regarding his famous quote that "Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer...": A terser summary of the societal benefits of the food stamp program would be hard to find.

    1. But finish the quote: "The Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work and then they get elected and prove it."
      Yes, he was a "glibertarian," but he was usually an equal opportunity observer.

  2. After a very unsatisfying trip down a rabbit hole, I've found no rabbit, alas. I remember seeing the photo atop the blog ("The American Man - Portrait of Watson Powell") at an Andy Warhol show at the Art Institute. In my recollection, it was near "Ethel Scull 36 Times" (below) a much more colorful and fun Warhol series from the year before. As I recall, it was meant as kind of a joke. The businessman's son wanted a portrait of his father, and had admired the Scull piece and wanted Warhol to do something similar. Since Powell was a businessman, Warhol did make it similar -- a series of 32 images honoring the man's 32 years at his business -- but used a single dry, boring image, instead of the many poses of the earlier work. Unfortunately, I can find no corroboration of this version of the piece's background online. It's just referred to as a commissioned portrait of the guy -- who did not like it, himself.

    Anyway, are these the rare accompanying artworks that have nothing to do with the day's post, or am I missing something?

  3. P. J. O'Rourke may have been a libertarian jerk, but at least he was a talented and funny one, which is more than I can say for most practitioners of what qualifies as right-wing humor. And, as mellowjohn notes, he was not shy about taking shots at his own "side."

    If a scandalous link may be allowed to appear down here in the weeds, this brief piece (from UPI in 1988) goes a little further into the characterizations that the NYT, WaPo and S-T are not inclined to print.

  4. What I remember most about O'Rourke is how much he despised himself for coming from a lower-middle-class background and how pathetically he sucked up to rich people. He really did believe that having a lot of money automatically made you a superior human being. He spent his autumn years grumping about how his beloved rich people's party had been hijacked by yahoos.

  5. My wife is a voracious reader, earned two degrees in English, and was a writer and editor for many years, so she loves words...and wordsmiths. She was very much into P.J. O'Rourke, and for quite a long time, and she tried hard to get me to feel the same way, but it never took. I just never cared for him, or about him, so I will say no more.

    A longtime friend, on another board, died unexpectedly the other day. Don't know the cause, but I strongly suspect Covid, as he was very right-wing. We disagreed about most things, but the one thing we did have in common was our deep love for cats. Which means that regardless of all our differences, I considered him to be a friend. So I am mourning his loss at the moment, far more than the demise of O'Rourke. At my age, the losses begin to add up faster and faster, and there's only so much sadness and grief to go around.


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