Never one to keep his mouth shut, PJ O’Rourke’s knack for seeing the funny side of things has made him one of the world’s most controversial and celebrated humorists. His latest book is an attack on big government – but no subject is really safe from his wit.
By Helen Brown
12:42PM GMT 30 Nov 2010
More than 50 years ago, the little boy who would become America’s most famous Right-wing humorist sat across from his grandmother in the cafeteria of Chicago’s Natural History Museum and asked her to explain the difference between Republicans and Democrats. She said: “Democrats rent.”
Little Patrick Jake O’Rourke didn’t want to rent when he grew up. He wanted to own. “But,” drawls the sexagenarian satirist in the laconic accent familiar from the British Airways adverts he made in the Nineties, “then there were girls.” His boyish, blue eyes glitter as he recalls how his determination to get on to the property ladder was overtaken temporarily by his desire to jump on to the opposite sex.
“My life would have gone along perfectly well, politically speaking,” he writes in his new book, Don’t Vote! It Just Encourages the Bastards, “if it hadn’t been for girls”.
He’s always been looking out for number one. So when he wanted to take illegal drugs, he championed libertarianism. These days, he has children, he says: “I think drugs are fun. Now I’m a conservative, I think fun is bad.”
When he thought he could get something out of the Left, he championed that, too. At college in the late Sixties, O’Rourke says he wasn’t handsome, monied, connected or athletic enough to win the preppy girls who shared his family’s strong Republican views. But the Lefties? Those girls “strummed guitars, smoked unfiltered cigarettes, and drank beer straight from the bottle. I thought: ‘I’ll bet those girls do it.’ They did. I went home at Christmas break with my hair grown long, wearing a blue-jean jacket with a big, red fist emblazoned on the back.
“My grandmother said: ‘Pat, I’m worried about you. Are you becoming a Democrat?’
“Grandma!” I said. “Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are both fascist pigs. Of course, I’m not a Democrat… I’m a communist!”
“ ’At least you’re not a Democrat,’ said Grandma.”
Leaning over a hearty plate of fish and chips in an upscale London restaurant, a pinstripe-suited O’Rourke slides a pair of horn-rimmed glasses down his nose to fix me with those relentlessly mischievous eyes. I can’t help but laugh. The self‑styled “Republican Party reptile” is nothing like as angry in person as he is when expounding his often extreme political conclusions in print. But he makes no bones about his selfish agenda.
He got more than sex out of his hippie decade. He gained a journalistic training with the underground press. Then he took a proper job and didn’t like the fact that $140 of his $300 pay cheque went in taxes: “I’d been struggling for years to achieve socialism in America,” he writes, “only to discover we had it already.” But, it wasn’t the taxes that turned him back into a true Republican. It was seeing his reflection in a shop window: “dirty jeans and a work shirt with mystic chick embroidery on it”. He dumped the Left because he didn’t like the threads. As a man suspicious of new ideas, it didn’t occur to him to separate the ideology from the outfits.
“I realised the bohemian life was not for me. I would look around at my friends, living like starving artists, and wonder, ‘Where’s the art?’ They weren’t doing anything. And there was so much interesting stuff to do, so much fun to be had… maybe I could even quit renting.”
O’Rourke famously had his fun: with both the women and narcotics available to him in the Seventies and Eighties, as well as with his writing for America’s answer to Private Eye, The National Lampoon. Working in the gonzo tradition of Hunter S Thompson, O’Rourke made his name with a 1978 piece called: “How to drive fast on drugs while getting your wing-wing squeezed and not spill your drink”. His was a kind of rock’n’roll journalism: swaggering, outrageous and propulsive. High on its own simplistic riffs. “Seriousness is stupidity sent to college,” he says. And “never wear anything that panics the cat.” He takes aim at both sides of the American political scene, quipping, “The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer… The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then gets elected and proves it.”
He has more lines in the Penguin Dictionary of Humorous Quotations than any other living writer. With the exception of the genocide in Rwanda, there is no subject safe from his flippancy.
He arrives at our lunch wearied by a BBC interview which had gone in quest of “the serious side of PJ O’Rourke”. Does he have one? He sighs and shakes his head. “The stuff in my books is really about as serious as I get. Being a humorist is not a voluntary thing. You can tell this because in a situation where saying a funny thing will cause a lot of trouble, a humorist will still say the funny thing. No matter how inappropriate. Years ago, I had a very nice girlfriend who was maybe getting serious about our future. She was talking about children, and I wasn’t ready for that. But I didn’t want to lose her. Then out of my mouth popped the phrase: ‘What if they have my looks and your brains?’ Away she went and never came back.”
O’Rourke really hit his stride when he became a foreign correspondent in the Eighties, first for Harpers and then for Rolling Stone. “I realised there were political causes for all the God-awful things I was seeing. My first trip was a river cruise in the Soviet Union in 1982. Just me and a bunch of unreconstructed Leftists who were still furious with each other about Trotsky. Even the Russians – especially the Russians – thought these guys were crazy.
They were oohing and aahing about a place that looked like it had been built by 10-year-olds with heavy machinery. There were nets at the tops of buildings to prevent pieces of masonry falling off and killing people. There was not a light on in Moscow,” he shivers, “It gave me the opportunity to write a funny piece.”
Only once did a magazine decide against publishing one of O’Rourke’s reports. “Vanity Fair spiked a piece I did on Lebanon during the civil war in the Eighties. Apparently, some extra horrible thing had happened there that month – I forget what – and my light-hearted piece, in which I had a hotel desk clerk asking, ‘Would you like mortar-bomb side, or car-bomb side?’, would have seemed inappropriate.” He also poked fun at the average American’s lack of interest in the world, famously describing the Bosnian conflict as a case of “the unspellables killing the unpronounceables”.
O’Rourke saw, too, how his country was regarded around the world. “People are always angry at America. They’re absolutely certain that America either caused their problems or is deliberately not fixing their problems. But the anger is always directed at America and never at Americans.”
At a checkpoint in Beirut, a teenage boy “went ballistic and began waving an AK47 at me when he saw my passport. He yelled at me for what felt like hours about how the great Satan America caused poverty and injustice. Then he lowered the gun, handed me my passport and said: ‘As soon as I get my green card, I am going to Dearborn, Michigan to study at dentist school.’”
O’Rourke went to so many dangerous places that, in 1990, he married his first wife, Amy Lumet (daughter of Sidney, the film director) because he thought it would be easier for her to be a widow than a grieving girlfriend. They divorced in 1993. He remarried in 1995 and now lives in rural New Hampshire with his second wife Tina and their three children, nicknamed Muffin, Poppet and Buster in his journalism. Having children, he says, turned him from an anarcho-Republican into a conservative: “Things that were once a matter of indifference became ominous threats, such as refrigerator magnets and homosexuality… I have lost all my First Amendment principles about rap songs.”
Although, when he was recently asked for his views on gay marriage, he replied: “Only God can make a marriage, and I don’t have his direct dial. I don’t even know it’s a he. Marriage as defined on earth is a civil contract. Why should not any two people of age and in their right mind have the same rights to form any civil contract as any other people do?”
In Don’t Vote!, he slams a culture of “gimme rights” and demands personal responsibility. When his 12-year-old daughter complains that life isn’t fair, he tells her: “Honey, you’re cute. That’s not fair. You’re smart. That’s not fair. You were born in the United States of America. That’s not fair. Darling, you had better get down on your knees and pray to God that things don’t start getting fair for you.”
I tell him that the way he has attacked the welfare state in his book is unlikely to play well in Europe, and he concedes that he may be wrong about some of that. “How big should the benefits be? Who should get them? How long should they get them? There’s really no right answer. That’s what democracy’s there for. I may have my opinions, but then who won’t. When social security was introduced in the US, it did seem to undermine family ties. At the same time, with a stroke of a pen, a whole category of poverty was eliminated. To relieve the suffering of so many old people was probably worth damaging family ties – which were going to hell anyway as it turned out. So I’m open to the idea that I may well be wrong in my opinion on benefits.
“But,” he cautions, in the most serious voice he has at his disposal, “history is there to prove I am not wrong about the underlying dangers of the overuse of political power. The 20th century is full of some really stink-bad examples. So if you take one thing away from this book it should be a scepticism about giving in to the temptations of big government. Once you’ve built the big machinery of political power, remember you won’t always be the one to run it. Labour built a big government, but the Tories took it over.” Then he pulls a face of pure, schoolboy naughtiness: “Whoopsie!”