P. J. O’Rourke (1947–2022)

Maverick Author, Humorist and Cultural Critic for Liberty

We were greatly saddened by the news that our very dear friend Patrick Jake “P.J.” O’Rourke had passed away on February 15th, at the age of 74, of complications from lung cancer. P.J. was peerless as a maverick journalist, essayist, humorist, and New York Times bestselling author, who we were privileged to know and work with for decades, as he was a founding Member of the Board of Advisors for the Independent Institute.

Over the years, we held numerous events with him, including our 30th Anniversary: A Gala for the Future of Liberty, for which he served as master of ceremonies and at which we honored tech-entrepreneur Timothy C. Draper; Nobel Laureate economist Vernon L. Smith; and North Korean refugee, defector, and human-rights activist Yeonmi Park with the Alexis de Tocqueville Award.

Beloved and respected by people across the political and cultural spectra, P.J. brought refreshing and reassuring humorous relief by ridiculing the absurdities, hypocrisies, and corruptions of life in the modern world, especially including politics and the rampant evils of collectivism and statism. He brought truth, clarity and common sense through a mischievous but biting humor in ways that were actually quite comforting and uplifting. The foibles and vanities of humanity were his targets, especially when they were used to prop up and excuse the imposition of power over others. He joyfully and ecumenically lampooned elites of all sorts, left, right, and everyone in between, but always with a disarming and affectionate charm that endeared him even to his opponents.

Born in Toledo, Ohio, P.J. went on receive a B.A. in English from Miami University of Ohio (1969) and M.A. in English from Johns Hopkins University (1970). He later recounted how as a student, he was a naive Maoist and antiwar hippie who became disillusioned first with bullying and then political power to become a classical-liberal critic of Big Government. (“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”—Lord Acton)

His initial writing was in Baltimore for Harry, a liberal underground newspaper, and the Rip-Off Review of Western Culture, which led to his writing for National Lampoon (becoming editor-in-chief in 1978). His work on the Lampoon‘s newspaper and yearbook parodies as well as its stage show Lemmings inspired the 1978 hit film Animal House and helped launch the careers of John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest.

He then went freelance as one of the all-time best magazine writers for such publications as Vanity Fair, Playboy, Car and Driver, and Rolling Stone (where he was foreign-affairs desk chief); a columnist for The Daily Beast; a regular correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, The American Spectator, and The Weekly Standard; and a frequent panelist on NPR’s Wait, Wait... Don’t Tell Me game show. While working for ABC Radio, he also starred as himself in the 2004 British documentary directed by Esteban Uyarra, War Feels Like War, a compelling account of the brutalities of 21st Century war that documented the lives of reporters and photographers who subverted military media controls to get access to the real Iraq War. He was also the conservative opponent to liberal Molly Ivins on CBS TV’s 60 Minutes in the mid-1990s, and he was a guest on The Tonight Show, The Daily Show, Charlie Rose, Real Time With Bill Maher, Uncommon Knowledge with Peter Robinson, and other talk shows. And his final work was as editor-in-chief of the online magazine, American Consequences.

P.J. became rooted in the Judeo-Christian natural-law tradition, as he was a joyous champion of honesty, personal responsibility, civic virtue, individual liberty, free markets, property rights, strictly limited government, and the rule of law. As a young man, he had developed a taste for alcohol, tobacco, fast cars, and loud music, but unlike other, prominent, cultural critics and “Gonzo” journalists of the time, such as Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. never succumbed to the post-modern folly of nihilism. Subsequently, he became a devoted husband of Tina and father of their two daughters and a son at their March Hare Farm in New Hampshire. Throughout, he was mindful that God is good, mortality is real, prigs are insufferable, and utopias are a cruel delusion.

His work has sometimes been compared to the wit, brilliance, and insights of such writers and cultural critics as Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe, H. L. Mencken, but he never, for example, suffered from the elitism, self-righteousness, arrogance, narcissism, and atheism of Mencken, who after all was a devoted admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche. Indeed, P.J. cleverly mocked such traits, but he did so without being unpleasant, mean-spirited or hateful. Instead, he remained poignant, humble, generous, kind, and fun. Here for example is but a smidgen of his insightful quips:

“Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

“Politicians are always interested in people. Not that this is always a virtue. Fleas are interested in dogs.”

“Death is so important that God visited death upon his own son, thereby helping us learn right from wrong well enough that we may escape death forever and live eternally in God’s grace. (Although this option is not usually open to reporters.)”

“A politician who commends himself as ‘caring’ and ‘sensitive’ because he wants to expand the government’s charitable programs is merely saying that he’s willing to do good with other peoples’ money.”

“One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding somebody to blame your problems on. And when you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver’s license.”

“The collegiate idealists who fill the ranks of the environmental movement seem willing to do absolutely anything to save the biosphere, except take science courses and learn something about it.”

“Fretting about overpopulation, is a perfect guilt-free—indeed, sanctimonious—way for ‘progressives’ to be racists.”

“Many reporters, when they go to work in the nation’s capital, begin thinking of themselves as participants in the political process instead of glorified stenographers.”

“When a government controls both the economic power of individuals and the coercive power of the state ... this violates a fundamental rule of happy living: Never let the people with all the money and the people with all the guns be the same people.”

“Your money does not cause my poverty. Refusal to believe this is at the bottom of most bad economic thinking.”

“If we want the whole world to be rich, we need to start loving wealth. In the difference between poverty and plenty, the problem is the poverty, not the difference. Wealth is good.”

“The mystery of government is not how Washington works but how to make it stop.”

Among his over twenty books are the following:

And, his last book is A Cry from the Far Middle: Dispatches from a Divided Land, for which he was interviewed by Independent’s Senior Vice President Mary L.G. Theroux:

He was also a contributing author to our quarterly journal, The Independent Review, as well as our book, Future: Economic Peril or Prosperity? And, other Independent events with him have included the following:

P.J.’s Economics 101: Open House with P.J. O’Rourke (October 29, 1998)

P.J. O’Rourke “On the Wealth of Nations” (February 9, 2007)

P.J. O’Rourke “Talkin’ ’Bout His Generation” (February 13, 2014)

Reflecting the widespread admiration for P.J. and his work, and the indubitable mark he has left, here is just a sampling of the vast outpouring of tributes (in alpha order by source):

Requiem æternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat eis.

David J. Theroux (1949–2022) was Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Independent Institute.
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