There will never be another P.J. O'Rourke
Generations of conservative writers have come and gone trying to match his impossible standard
For baseball fans, watching Ted Williams swing a bat was akin to throwing a birthday party for your eyes. His long, looping swing, seasoned with just the right uppercut and completed with two hands over his right shoulder, had all the precision and sophistication of a supercomputer housed in one tall, wiry body.
In his book “The Science of Hitting” (written with John Underwood), Williams tried to explain the mechanics of his swing to mere mortals. He offered hints on how to guess what pitch was coming and at which ones you should swing. He unlocked the secret to bat speed - lead with your hips, keep the bat back as long as possible as your hands move through the zone, then WHACK! Snap your wrists forward, creating as much torque as possible as the bat swings around your spine.
In high school, I carried this book in my backpack wherever I went. I tried to master the Williams swing. During team film study my junior year, my coach looked at my swing and announced “that’s a Ted Williams-style approach right there.” I was never prouder. I was cut the next year.
The thing Ted Williams doesn’t tell you is that in order to have Ted Williams’ swing, you have to be fucking Ted Williams. You have to possess a preternatural strength, a wiry frame, and exemplary eyesight. You have to make the pursuit of hitting a round ball with a round bat your life.
Several of the P.J. O’Rourke tributes that have cropped up since his death on Tuesday have mentioned the seeming ease with which he wrote. He penned books and columns about things we cared about, and if we didn’t, his witticisms would draw us to the page anyway. His talents seemed to be that of the everyman.
But for writers my age, he set an impossible goal - to be politically conservative (or libertarian, or whatever), and yet be respected by cultural institutions dominated by progressives. Even as he savaged their elitism and cluelessness, his talent was simply too spectacular to resist.
And that’s why there will never be another of him. Because, like the Splendid Splinter, in order to write like P.J. O’Rouke, you had to be P.J. O’Rourke.
For over a decade, I have kept a spreadsheet of O’Rourke quotes, sometimes writing a whole column on a specific topic so I could sound smart by using one. Who else in modern times could write Twainian aphorisms like:
“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”
“Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work, and then they get elected and prove it.”
“In the American political system, you're only allowed to have real ideas if it's absolutely guaranteed you can't win an election.”
“A little government and a little luck are necessary in life, but only a fool trusts either of them.”
It was this combination of humor and insight that led him to places like National Lampoon - at the time the funniest satirical magazine in America - and Rolling Stone, at one time the coolest magazine in America.
In effect, O’Rourke was the Tyler Durden of the media - gutting the corpulent political elites and selling their fat back to them as re-energizing soap. He wrote with the electricity of one of his heroes, H.L. Mencken, but never succumbed to Mencken-style dyspepsia. If one can be “delightfully cranky,” O’Rourke was it.
But in an era of polarization, a conservative nestling comfortably at the highest levels of progressive culture is a feat that will never again be accomplished. Conservative humor in 2022 begins with the premise that the “libs must be owned,” and works backward from there. It is combat-by-one-liner.
O’Rourke, on the other hand, started with the novel idea that “this should be funny first,” and worked out from that base. His work was infused with self-deprecation and a willingness to poke his own political tribe - a freedom no longer afforded to funny people on the right by the MAGA true-believers.
(If you’re looking for the funniest writers on the right, start with Jonah Goldberg, Matt Labash, and Andrew Ferguson, all of which have artfully stayed away from Red Hat fever.)
Sadly, most modern right-wing humor ignores O’Rourke’s valuable lesson: while conservatives are good at writing for other conservatives, they are often less successful at writing for broader audiences. Yet if a conservative can write something funny, it smuggles concepts and ideas into places where these ideas are never seen. Wit is a force that is undeniable - instead of using it to push others away, it can be a valuable tool to bring people closer.
The catch, of course, is that it has to be legitimately funny. And generations of writers on the political right have withered away trying to meet O’Rourke’s high humor standard. (That is why you are reading this column in my dopey little newsletter and not in the pages of The Washington Post.)
But I felt like I knew him. And I feel like he lives on, not just in his pristine work of the past half-century, but in the work of those of us who tried unsuccessfully to reach a peak where he sat alone.
ALSO: This week, I wrote a lengthy article for The Dispatch about how the “Stop the Steal” effort is now a part of the 2022 race for Wisconsin governor. With the entrance of election denier Tim Ramthun, Republicans will be stuck peddling deranged theories about how the 2020 race was stolen from Donald Trump - and it could hurt them badly in the general election.
On Tuesday, I attended a Stop the Steal rally at the Wisconsin State Capitol and this this happened:
At the “Election Integrity” rally on Tuesday, a woman from Northern Wisconsin who identified herself only as “Victoria” told The Dispatch Trump won the election and drop boxes set up to collect early-voting ballots allowed Biden to steal the election.
“Why would you think that ballot boxes would be acceptable when that fact is, they were placed there for criminal activity?” she asked me. “You have to think like a criminal—us Republicans are so nice, we don’t think like criminals, right? We are polite, the Democrats are more ‘punch you in the face’—but you’ve gotta have that criminal mind.”
Prior to the event, Victoria and her friend, who identified herself only as LeeAnn, held hands and took part in a lengthy prayer asking God to help them overturn the election. “We need God to step in here,” she told me.
LeeAnn told me she hated Trump until the Lord told her to stop criticizing him. “Quit trying to make [Trump] into who you are,” she says she remembers God telling her.
Victoria then told me Madison is the home of an international child sex ring run by “Hillary Clinton and many people like her.” Such claims are the hallmark of the QAnon conspiracy theory, whose adherents believe that the country is ruled by a cabal of Democratic pedophiles and that only Donald Trump could save the country.
Read the whole thing here.
ALSO: While I had promised myself I would sit down and watch all of the Oscar Best Picture nominees, I wandered over to the Found Footage Festival collection of YouTube videos and burned hours watching old clips of ephemera from the 1980s and 90s.
Enjoy classics like “Basic Singing Skills for Barbershoppers:”
And this incredible video dating clip from 1987:
See them all here.