P.J. O'Rourke Tribute: Dry Wit Lit Up Reagan-Era Rolling Stone - Rolling Stone
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Goodbye P.J. O’Rourke, the Dry Conservative Wit Behind Rolling Stone’s Foreign Affairs Desk

A former RS editor remembers our Reagan-era counterpart to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo antics

Portrait of American political satirist and journalist P. J. O'Rourke leaning on a table, 1980s. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)Portrait of American political satirist and journalist P. J. O'Rourke leaning on a table, 1980s. (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)

Portrait of American political satirist and journalist P. J. O'Rourke leaning on a table, 1980s

Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Almost fresh out of college and still fairly newly arrived to New York City, I spent the early 1990s working at what I called — when I puffed my chest out a bit — “an assistant editor on the national affairs and foreign affairs desks at Rolling Stone.” 

Here’s what I actually did: I answered phones for a couple of the other editors who did the actual editing and assigning. I plotted out, with legal pads and pencils, complicated travel itineraries for our writers and reporters, put through their expenses, made sure they got paid, and — wait, it gets fun soon — spent a lot of time on the phone with them discussing details of these travels and payments.

Probably the most famous of these writers and reporters were Hunter S. Thompson, the magazine’s legendary national-affairs editor, and P.J. O’Rourke, its foreign-affairs desk chief from the 1980s to 2001. If Hunter was the gun-toting, bomb-throwing, deadline-busting pyromaniac, P.J., who died yesterday at his home in New Hampshire from complications of lung cancer at the age of 74, was his shadow self: unfailingly polite and unnervingly calm under pressure — a steady, reassuring smile instead of a snarl through gritted teeth. 

Of course, the two also had much in common: Both used sidesplitting humor as a Trojan horse to smuggle complicated and important ideas into print. They had an oddly symbiotic sartorial sense that leaned heavily toward Brooks Brothers and were, I think it’s fair to say, not immune to the charms of Bolivian marching powder or the soul-steadying power of iced spirits — though Hunter preferred brown and P.J. clear. Both of them spent their careers tilting at windmills: Hunter had an almost existential hatred of Nixon and rained fury upon George W. Bush, while P.J. ridiculed Carter, Clinton(s), and Obama. 

Here’s where the reader of a tender age — if you haven’t received that first terrifying envelope in the mail yet from AARP, or if you wondered what all the old guys were going on about during the Super Bowl halftime show, I’m talking to you — might wisely ask: Why in the hell did Rolling Stone hire a Republican to cover politics and foreign affairs? And since when are conservatives funny? 

The answer to this question and, you’ll find, to almost any similarly inscrutable question lobbed your way as you make your way through life is, simply: Because it was the 1980s.

If George McGovern was Hunter’s Rosebud, Ronald Reagan was P.J.’s, and — for far longer than his eight years in office — the country’s. While Reagan’s wife Nancy’s name recently bubbled up on Twitter when her supposed former reputation as a renowned fellatrix was rediscovered, virtually the entire American population went down on the Gipper and his “morning in America” schtick. If there was ever a time to hear from a Republican — albeit one with a C.V. that included a youthful spell as an antiwar hippie and a stint editing the National Lampoon — this was it. 

Editing P.J.’s stories for Rolling Stone was mostly quite simple: In my experience of several decades, his copy came in cleaner than any single writer I’ve ever worked with. There was generally only one thing for an editor to do, and it was an important one: Weed out the joke that went too far. 

If some writers trade on their skill in rendering the lyrical line or their ability to stealthily construct a subtle scaffolding of convincing rhetoric, P.J.’s brilliance lies in making you laugh so hard so quickly that matters of ethics, morality, and rightness or wrongness are, at least for a moment, forgotten about. (To bastardize something that P.J. himself wrote about another writer: If people laugh like hell and then say “That’s not funny,” you can be pretty sure they’re reading him.) Who else could describe a Porsche 930 Turbo as an “ass-engined Nazi slot car”? Or — getting around to politics — “Wherever there’s injustice, oppression, and suffering, America will show up six months late and bomb the country next to where it’s happening.” His ability to turn a line or two of slapstick aphorism into cut-crystal wisdom is up there with anyone’s. My own favorite — words that, to my discredit, I used as some sort of life guidance in my youth: “It’s better to spend money like there’s no tomorrow than to spend tonight like there’s no money.”

As for that joke-too-far business: It’s fair to say that P.J.’s writing — or at least the style of biting satire that made him famous — simply wouldn’t fly today. Sometimes, it didn’t even fly then: A year or two before I showed up at Rolling Stone, P.J. flew to Seoul, South Korea, for a story that ended up infuriating large numbers of the Asian community with its broad stereotypes and occasionally derisive depictions of the country and its citizens. That community mobilized quickly and vehemently: Very soon after the story was published, one of my best friends, Wook Kim, was then manning the main switchboard of Rolling Stone and received a torrent of calls from people who simply shouted “Rolling Stone fuck you!!!!” before hanging up. Rolling Stone executive editor Bob Wallace flew to Los Angeles to address a large gathering of the Asian community to apologize and make amends, and a kind of detente meeting in RS offices between P.J. and Wook was arranged — which was, frankly, awkward, as Wook was a fan of P.J.’s and P.J. would soon come to appreciate Wook’s genius ability to fact-check his pieces. But today? The same incident would likely have ended P.J.’s career in mainstream media (as it was, he ended up writing some 20 books, a number of them bestsellers, while also appearing everywhere from NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! to 60 Minutes) and made Rolling Stone a pariah publication.

Which, for those of us lucky enough to have known P.J., is almost hilarious — simply because the P.J. that we all knew was among the most kind, fair, easygoing, respectful and, yes, plain fun people we ever knew or worked with. Hunter, of course, was his own kind of fun — but Hunter also occasionally threw hatchets at me when I opened the door to his hotel room (“just to keep you on your toes,” natch) and was prone to volatile mood swings and wildly erratic deadline-itis. P.J. filed his copy like clockwork, over-thanked me in his books (for my work “phoning military juntas to see if they take the Visa card and making sure my war-zone hotel rooms had color TV and a heated pool”), and was a master of that odd tightrope-walk of patting people on the back without looking like he was simply kissing ass. 

I saw his temper flare only once: An intern at the office was going through a pile of incoming correspondence, most of which consisted of unsolicited manuscripts from writers we’d never worked with. The intern came across one of these submissions, read the piece, didn’t care for it, and sent the story back to the writer with our form-rejection letter. (“While we appreciate your interest, this piece doesn’t fit our current editorial needs,” etc. etc.) The writer: A Mr. P.J. O’Rourke of Sharon, New Hampshire. The piece? His next column, which we’d all been anxiously awaiting. Let’s just say that P.J. wasn’t pleased when he received this letter. 

Reading the outpouring of grief and affection (from Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, political agnostics, and political junkies) in the wake of P.J.’s death reminded me both of what a unicorn P.J. was, and what “political discourse” — everything from the way our country’s political leaders speak to each other to the interactions we all have with one another’s issues, from the trivial to the profound — was like in an era before the Tea Party, before Twitter, before MAGA and cancel culture and the supremacy of the hot take. P.J.’s conservatism still yearned for certain standards and ideals, and his concept of being a Republican had no place for the patent idiocy of Donald Trump — to wit, his inimitable 2016 endorsement of Hillary Clinton: “She’s wrong about absolutely everything,” he wrote, “but she’s wrong within normal parameters.” 

Maybe, in the end, it’s all down to humor: Funny is funny, after all, regardless of ideology, and if you can’t find a way to laugh at at least some of what’s going on around you — or, crucially, at yourself, a concept seemingly lost among our emergent generation — you’re losing more than just laughter. P.J. dedicated his 1992 book Give War a Chance to the guy who, in 1970, took the place of P.J. — then still in his peacenik phase — in the draft for Vietnam, with P.J. having “chickened out” by persuading a doctor to write a long letter to the draft board about his supposed drug abuse. “I hope you got back in one piece, fellow,” P.J. wrote. “I hope you were more use to your platoon mates than I would have been. I hope you’re rich and happy now. And in 1971, when somebody punched me in the face for being a long-haired peace creep, I hope that was you.”

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