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Literature

P.J. O’Rourke, Irreverent Author and Commentator, Dead at 74

February 16, 2022

NEW YORK — P.J. O’Rourke, the prolific author and satirist who re-fashioned the irreverence and “Gonzo” journalism of the 1960s counterculture into a distinctive brand of conservative and libertarian commentary, has died at age 74.

O’Rourke died Tuesday morning, according to Grove Atlantic Inc. Books publisher and president Morgan Entrekin. The cause was complications from lung cancer.

Patrick Jake O’Rourke was a Toledo, Ohio, native who evolved from long-haired student activist to wavy-haired scourge of his old liberal ideals, with some of his more widely read takedowns appearing in a founding counterculture publication, Rolling Stone. His career otherwise extended from serving as editor in chief of National Lampoon to a brief stint on “60 Minutes” in which he represented the conservative take on “Point/Counterpoint”; to frequent appearances on NPR’s game show “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”

“Most well-known people try to be nicer than they are in public than they are in private life. PJ was the only man I knew to be the opposite. He was a deeply kind and generous man who pretended to be a curmudgeon for public consumption,” tweeted Peter Sagal, the host of “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”

“He told the best stories. He had the most remarkable friends. And he devoted himself to them and his family in a way that would have totally ruined his shtick had anyone ever found out,” Sagal said.

His writing style suggested a cross between the hedonism of Hunter S. Thompson and the patrician mockery of Tom Wolfe: Self-importance was a reliable target. But his greatest disdain was often for the government — not just a specific administration, but government itself. As a young man, he opposed the government as a maker of war and laws against drugs. Later on, he went after what he called “the silken threads of entitlement spending.”

In a 2018 column for a venerable conservative publication, The Weekly Standard, he looked on with scorn at Washington’s gentrification.

“People are flocking to the seat of government power. One would say ‘dogs returning to their vomit’ except that’s too hard on dogs. Too hard on people, also. They come to Washington because they have no choice — diligent working breeds compelled to eat their regurgitated tax dollars,” he wrote.

O’Rourke’s other books included “Give War a Chance,” “Driving Like Crazy,” “None of My Business” and “A Cry from the Middle.” Entrekin told The Associated Press that he had been working on a one-volume look at the United States, as seen from his hometown: “A History of Toledo, Ohio: From the Beginning of Time Til the End of the Universe.”

His survivors include his second wife, Tina, and three children.

O’Rourke was an undergraduate at Miami University, and received a master’s degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 1970. He started out writing for such underground publications as the New York Ace and joined National Lampoon in 1973, where his colleagues included Douglas Kenney, who later co-wrote “Animal House” and “Caddyshack” and with O’Rourke edited the parody “National Lampoon’s 1964 High School Yearbook.”

Over the following decades, he became a familiar presence as a writer and on-air pundit. He covered war and unrest everywhere from El Salvador to the Philippines, while mocking “The Dictatorship of Boredom” back home.

“In July 1988, I covered the specious, entropic, criminally trivial, boring stupid Democratic National Convention, a numb suckhole stuffed with political bulk filler held in that place where bad malls go to die, Atlanta,” reads a dispatch from “Parliament of Whores,” a bestseller published in 1991. “Then … I flew to that other oleo-high colonic, the Republican convention, an event with the intellectual content of a Guns N’ Roses lyric.”

O’Rourke’s rise came a time when political opponents had an easier time agreeing to disagree. Liberal author and commentator Joe Conason tweeted Tuesday that O’Rourke was “always witty if almost always (politically) wrong” and called him a “most pleasant companion” when both covered political fraud in the Philippines in the 1980s.

Like other longtime conservatives, O’Rourke’s loyalties were tested by the rise of Donald Trump. O’Rourke had little use for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, but he found he could live with what he called her “lies and all her empty promises.

“It’s the second worst thing that can happen to this country. But she’s way behind in second place. I mean, she’s wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters,” he said on NPR.

“I mean, this man (Trump) just can’t be president,” he said. “They’ve got this button, you know, in the briefcase. He’s going to find it.”

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