I saw P.J. O’Rourke speak about twelve years ago. His best work was already behind him and his reading felt overpracticed, like a rookie pastor. Still he was one of my favorite writers and I was thrilled a few days later when he emailed to suggest that I “have a real Budweiser” for him.
Throughout his career, O’Rourke’s pose was as the hedonistic former hippie who could skewer the left for the libertarian right. His best work, much of it reported from war zones, was intrepid, literate, empathetic and intellectually curious. Even more unusual, for a proud partisan he almost never found a politician worth his endorsement. Though O’Rourke always had a weakness for ad hominem attacks, his were usually funny. Take this excerpt of a rant on transatlantic differences:
We’re the baddest-assed sons of bitches that ever jogged in Reeboks. We’re three-quarters grizzly bear and two-thirds car wreck and descended from a stock-market crash on our mother’s side. You take your Germany, France, Spain, roll them all together and it wouldn’t give us room to park our cars.
We’re the big boys, Jack, the original, giant, economy-sized, new and improved butt kickers of all time. When we snort coke in Houston, people lose their hats in the Cap d’Antibes. And we’ve got an American Express card credit limit higher than your piss-ant metric numbers go. (Quoted off the Internet.)
Compare that effortless tribute to Mark Twain, to this heavy lifting from the latest _National Review_ column by Mark Steyn, O’Rourke’s heir as the American right’s favorite funnyman, as he strains to amuse and impress with his erudition:
As for many great “thinkers,” for Barack Obama and his coterie words seem to exist mostly in the realm of metaphor rather than as descriptors of actual action actually occurring in anything so humdrum as reality. And so it is that, even as his bungling administration flounders in the turbulent waters of the Gulf, on the speaker’s podium the president still confidently sails forth deftly steering the ship through the narrow ribbon of sludge between the Scylla of sonorous banality and the Charybdis of gaseous uplift.
To his credit, I suppose, Steyn is a man who knows who butters his bread. Every week _National Review_ lets him out of his cage and he goes to work on the Democrats like a rabid badger. P.J. O’Rourke was so good he didn’t have to shill for anybody. He could spend thousands of words ridiculing his fellow travelers on a tour of Russia sponsored by _The Nation_ and prove equally adept dumping on Jim Bakker’s theme park, Heritage USA.
Lately, O’Rourke has become a far more conventional member of the right-wing media, his writing invigorated, or something, only by lazy bragging about his alcoholism. I’m certainly not the first person to point out just how badly his work has suffered, but this new article from _The Weekly Standard_ is perhaps the Platonic ideal of his warmed-over bile.
O’Rourke suggests that newspapers start printing “pre-obituaries” to trash people he doesn’t like before they’re dead. That’s a good idea because there is nowhere in the media where it’s possible to speak ill of the living.
But according to O’Rourke the situation is almost urgent. Pre-obituary writers have missed their chance for, among others, Ted Kennedy and Paul Newman—“he deserved to be damned to his face for lending charm to the smirk of liberalism.”
There’s probably no better way to illustrate the lameness of O’Rourke’s late period than to just list his suggestions for pre-obits:
Jimmy Carter, Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, Norman Lear, Ed Asner, Ben Bradlee, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader, Paul Ehrlich, Ted Turner, Jane Fonda, Barney Frank, Harry Reid, Bernie Sanders, Christopher Dodd, Bernadine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Donald Trump, Paul Krugman, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, any of the Kardashian sisters, Sean Penn, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, the living members of the Who, Janet Jackson, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, and Tiger Woods.
O’Rourke should go back to reporting, or retire. With articles like this he’s just writing his own pre-obituary.
Bio: Alex Halperin is an editor at Guernica. Read his latest Guernica article “Charged Environment” here .