Catching up with PJ O'Rourke

Maestro of mirth, chronicler of cant, reporter of revolutions and the merely revolting, Patrick Jake O’Rourke is still alive and well and offending cheerfully right now in the South Pacific. But for a brief moment last spring it was touch and go.

The conservative American humourist was forced to abruptly cancel his last planned visit to New Zealand after getting diagnosed with anal cancer. As the ebullient PJ O’Rourke might have put it, the situation proved to be a royal pain in the butt, although fortunately of the treatable variety.

“All seems to be good at the moment,” he told us last week, speaking from Sydney where he gave the Centre for Independent Studies' annual lecture last week ahead of a planned address in Auckland this Thursday.

In part, O’Rourke admitted, the experience of being an intermittent war correspondent for nearly 20 years, filing pock-marked dispatches for Rolling Stone from a number of the high-profile conflict zones until 2001, helped him through his recent health scare. “But sure, there were moments when I was plenty frightened too.”

O’Rourke, who is 61, last made it to New Zealand nearly 20 years ago, when he was still a relatively obscure Ohio-born journalist and author in these parts, his brand of gonzo reportage as unknown here as his skill at gift-wrapping right-wing views in unorthodoxly hip ribbons.

Not too many starchy conservatives, after all, would think to title a journalism anthology Republican Party Reptile, much less its best chapter How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed And Not Spill Your Drink.

Then again, not too many intellectuals would count among their formative ideological experiences, as O’Rourke does, that of having been abducted by group of student Maoists at the radical counterculture magazine where he once worked and subjected with knives and clubs to a series of consciousness-raising exercises.

Thus began a lifelong disillusionment with most left wing causes. Becoming a parent and suddenly realising the amount of tax he was paying pretty much completed the process; discovering the work of Evelyn Waugh helped nudge along the writing style.

The New Hampshire-based author’s 14th book, On The Wealth of Nations, from which he will be drawing for the Auckland address, offers a traditional defence of free market economics as seen from the vantage of an older establishment type whose major journalism gigs these days are with the Atlantic Monthly and America’s National Public Radio. He is also a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington DC.

“I’m conservative in that I lead a conservative life and go to church and place value on tradition and, most of all, because I don’t regard human beings as blank slates with whom you can create a new man if only the right social structures in place,” he explained. “But I’m also a libertarian because, to me, libertarianism is a measure of one’s interest in human dignity, human liberty and human responsibility, although most people don’t like that last one.

“Although, actually, I’m not sure either concept can be fully applied to politics, where I guess I’m a minimalist. I’m against big government.”

Does he have a similar distrust of big companies? “Oh yeah, absolutely. You can blame a lot of the current financial crisis on the classic business school agency problem — you know, people running corporations that are doing what’s best for them personally rather than what’s best for the owners.”

O’Rourke was starting to sound like chattering-class New Zealand’s favourite American economist, former Enron advisor Paul Krugman.

“I suppose I do,” he laughed. “Look, I don’t mind Paul as an economist; it’s as a social commentator that he’s a perfect idiot.”

In terms of his own social commentary, O’Rourke said the economic crisis was proving to be a fabulous time.  “I’ve been having a ball with the Obama administration,” he said cheerfully, “although in fairness to Obama, any new administration is by its nature terribly awkward. But if one happens to be in ideological opposition to an administration, then one is going to have a field day.”

But Obama had already proved to be “a smarter man” than many of his predecessors, left or right, including the one who recently vacated 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Bush had some people around him who one wouldn’t care to have to dinner, but then again, so does Obama. But one thing I would add here in Obama’s favour is that it is the responsibility of the leader of a democratic nation to speak to the people by whom he was hired and to whom he is responsible. You have to explain yourself. Obama does seem perfectly willing to do that, but Bush was perfectly unwilling to do that.”

He said he applauded New Zealand’s decision to boycott this month's “anti-racism conference in Geneva, the mention of which did seem to raise the question of how a humour writer can possibly better what passes for serious life. It also seemed to raise the question of how a professional funny guy tackles deadly serious issues such as radical Islam.

“It all depends on where and how encounters them,” O’Rourke said. “Obviously humour writers are going to be out of place when something like 9/11 happens, just as I declined to go cover Rwanda, because I figured there wasn’t anything in my particular skill-set that I could bring to that coverage.

“On the other hand, radical Islam manifests itself in absurdities as much as horrors. I mean, some of these people have been over-thinking the Koran.  I remember there was a big debate among the Taliban when they ran Afghanistan over what colour you could paint your windows and doors — you know, bright red or blue. Priceless!”

Does the world at large still offer equally appealing targets? “Oh yeah, when it comes to human folly it’s a target-rich environment right now for sure.”

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