Interview: P.J. O'Rourke

While his politics have moved toward the right over the years, P.J. O'Rourke has consistently remained one of the funniest writers in America.

While his politics have moved toward the right over the years, P.J. O'Rourke has consistently remained one of the funniest writers in America.

The former Maoist hippie got his start at an underground paper and gradually rose through the ranks of the media, serving time at Playboy, Rolling Stone, and others.

His politics became less liberal all along, but his wry sense of humor has served him well in a career spent reporting from some notorious hellholes. He also has written a dozen books (the latest being Peace Kills) and, in his spare time, serves as the H.L. Mencken Research Fellow at the Cato Institute.

PRWeek: How did you get into journalism? Was it well planned?

P.J. O'Rourke: Oh, not at all. I was an English major in college, cause I was looking through the college courses and I saw English and I thought, "I speak that language." It was a no-brainer. I didn't know what to do with myself as an English major. There was nothing in the want ads. So somewhere in there, I decided I was going to be a writer, but a big, romantic kind of writer, you know, incomprehensible poetry and novels longer than Finnegan's Wake, that kind of stuff. So I went to graduate school at the writing seminar at Johns Hopkins to learn to do that, and discovered that there were even fewer ways to make a living with that crap than there was [as an English major]. So to tide me over before my big publishing coup with Finnegan's Wake Part Two, I decided, "Well I'm a writer, I can handle journalism, anybody can do that." That's how it happened.

PRWeek: What was it that made you switch your politics from liberal to conservative?

O'Rourke: You know, I was just a standard-issue sixties lefty. I didn't want to get drafted, and definitely the hippie girls were, shall we say, more compliant than the Tri-Delts. It wasn't anything I thought about all that deeply. Towards the end of the'60s, early '70s, it started to get ugly. There was this kind of dark side. There was kind of a Manson-ish, Weatherman [thing]. And I thought, "Whoa, you're acting like Nixon. Or really, worse." I think that was the beginning. But again, I didn't really think about it much until the Carter administration. I knew some people that worked for Carter, and I thought "Geez, I'm not sure these people are making too much sense." So it was a long, slow process.

PRWeek: Do you consider yourself more of a libertarian today, or a Republican?

O'Rourke: Both. I always think of libertarian as a way to measure things, a way to measure how a policy or philosophy, what its effect is on individuals. Individual freedom, individual dignity, responsibility, that crap. So I belong to the Republican Party, but I definitely belong to the libertarian wing.

PRWeek: Why do you think, generally speaking, there are so few funny Republicans these days?

O'Rourke: There are a lot of funny Republicans, it's just, are we talking intentional? I don't know, I think because there's something about show business. Being funny has a lot to do with-- it's a kind of show business. There's a lot to do with show business, a lot of easy audience pleasing, if you're going to be successful at it. And that works better with liberal philosophy, because you just sound so sympathetic. Whereas a conservative is always standing back saying, "Wait a minute, I want to cure AIDS too, but I'm not sure that dropping condoms from an airplane over the Congo is gonna do that." So you're always backing away and saying "Well, but, I'm not sure, past history would tell us..." It just doesn't have the warm and fuzzies. They have a term for it in England, great phrase that we could use: "Lovies for Labor." They call certain kinds of celebrities "lovies." And it's a perfect word.

PRWeek: What do you think about the changing media and the way technology is affecting journalism?

O'Rourke: If you would have told me 30 years ago that journalism could get worse, I would have called you a liar. But it looks like it's headed that way. As bad as daily journalism can be, and TV journalism, all the kinds of journalism-- and they can be pretty bad-- [they're] not nearly as bad as Arianna Huffington's blog. Even the worst kinds of journalism, like the National Enquirer, it always has to go through a number of hands before it arrives at the public. It has to go through a number of filtering processes. Now, there's nothing necessarily noble about those filtering processes, but just the fact that they exist does something. For one thing, it slows you down. It gives you time enough to think "Wait, wait, stop the presses, I don't want to say that." We had an underground newspaper in Baltimore right after I got out of graduate school, and we had to drive up to Philadelphia just to get it printed. I mean, talk about filtering processes. The printing plants in Baltimore would not print it. And this was a printing plant in the slums of Philadelphia that did grocery store inserts, nothing noble. This was not some art house. But every now and then, the old guy who owned it would call us in and say "Wait a minute, what's this thing here about making Molotov cocktails? If my union guys down on the press see this, they're gonna blow their top." I'm sure that this prevented some noble thoughts and some brilliant art and quite a lot of porn from getting out to the public, but it also prevented a lot of stupid stuff from happening. So you take the filtering away and what you get is unfiltered. Try it with coffee.

PRWeek: The credibility of reporters is down around that of used car salesmen right now. Do you think that's mostly a perception problem?

O'Rourke: No, I think that's probably pretty accurate. What I think surprises us in the business is that we're used to the Watergate phenomenon, where there was a brief period in American history where reporters were held in high esteem. I don't know why. It wasn't exactly like Nixon would still be in office if it wasn't for Woodward and Bernstein. So we're coming off this blip. I think there were like two blips in the 20th century-- Ernie Pyle in World War II, and Watergate-- that gave journalists a reputation that they in no way deserved, and don't usually have.

PRWeek: So this is just back to the average now?

O'Rourke: Back to the hack.

PRWeek: Have you, over the course of your career, formed an impression of the PR industry?

O'Rourke: Yes, and a glowing one. My wife was a PR executive. So I have nothing but the highest esteem for them.

PRWeek: Is that the main reason you have high esteem for them?

O'Rourke: No, they're also instrumental in promoting my books. I got a product to sell here, you know. The thing is, being in PR is like being a lawyer, except you don't have any of the tricks and legal stratagems or force of the law. It's like having all the duties and responsibilities of a lawyer without any of the power, without being an officer of the court.

PRWeek: How well do you think the US government is doing its own PR worldwide right now, winning the hearts and minds?

O'Rourke: Terrible, just terrible. It's just like the polar opposite of the Clinton administration. When I grew up, we had a family Buick dealership. My granddad and my uncle owned it, my father was a sales manager and all my uncles worked there, I had my first job there. All through the Clinton administration I said, "If we could have hired that son of a bitch, I would be so rich today." I would not be doing this; I'd be on my yacht. There'd be Buicks coming out of people's ears, if I could have hired Clinton. And George W's just the dead opposite. He's an awful salesman. But bless his soul, he ran up against a worse one in Kerry.

PRWeek: What's the worst place in the world you've ever been?

O'Rourke: Hands down, it was Somalia. Somalia really took the cookie. I flew across the country coming back from some relief mission, and they'd stolen the roofs off all the buildings! All the roofs in the country had been stolen, it was amazing.

PRWeek: Do you feel like, now that Hunter Thompson is gone, you're the heir apparent?

O'Rourke: God, I hope not. Certainly not to the lifestyle. I knew Hunter pretty well, and he was a lovely guy, but he was a poet. If you look at most of his [writing], it was cast as journalism, but point of fact, very little happened in his stories. It was really all about feelings. Some feelings, nobody ever had before. Somebody said [in an obituary] that Hunter invented a style so baroque, so difficult, so elaborate and intense that even he couldn't do it. And there's something to be said about that. He was just an amazing wordsmith, the way he could pile word upon word. He was a huge fan of the old Beat poets, he definitely saw himself as an old beatnik.

PRWeek: Do you still feel the '60s era informs your style today, or have you totally renounced it?

O'Rourke: No. Well not renounced it exactly, I just think it sort of recedes beyond the horizon of memory. Not that I could remember much of it even at the time. It's funny, in the end, the great influence of the modernists-not just the '60s, but from Ezra Pound on-is simply in the startling combinations of words that they were able to put together, and interesting rhythms that they could create. When you say it that way, it sort of sounds like a critique of the Beatles. That's probably about as elevated as it gets for the '60s.

PRWeek: When's your next book coming out?

O'Rourke: I'm working on two things right now. I'm working on a short book about Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. It's a series my publisher in England is doing, books that changed the world. Which if he's got any guts, he's going to subtitle, "And you're never going to read." So it's my job to slog through The Wealth of Nations. And I want to do a book on the European Union. It's pretty hilarious and strange.

PRWeek: Are you out of the war zone business?

O'Rourke: I'm out of the war zones. I've got three little kids. I got a kitchen pass to go to the Iraq war, but then my boss and real good friend [former Atlantic Monthly editor] Mike Kelly got killed over there, and I had to tell my wife. She knew him, our kids are the same age. And I had to tell her that I was going to Baghdad to take Mike's place, 'cause I was in Kuwait, which was pretty safe. I had to tell her in the same phone call that not only was Mike dead, but that I was going up to Baghdad. So people said, "Well, you ought to go back and see what's happened." And I said, "Well I don't know if I got the courage to go back, but I know I don't have the courage to ask my wife."

Name: P.J. O'Rourke

Publications: The Atlantic; The Weekly Standard

Title: Correspondent; Contributing Editor

Preferred contact method: tinaOR@aol.com (assistant)

Website: www.theatlantic.com, www.weeklystandard.com.

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