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Opinion

Farewell, PJ O’Rourke, one of the most original free thinkers of our time

The American political satirist predicted Obama and Trump, and understood the state of Western politics better than anyone, writes Big Issue editor Paul McNamee.

I got to interview PJ O’Rourke twice. Both times were a thrill. Like many young journalists I’d read a lot of PJ O’Rourke and wanted to write like him. Not because of the overstated gonzo element. Anybody could stick themselves into a story and claim they were writing it as they lived it. And many pale imitators did.

But because of how he wrote. He was, first, funny. It’s hard to write funny, as regular readers of this column will attest. It’s also almost impossible to write funny with genuine insight, and honesty, and still be able to file several thousand words that don’t feel like one dead-end punchline after another. He was able to articulate the state of America and its politics, and the strangulation of its politics, that then became the strangulation of politics in the West, better than just about anybody.

He did it with chiselled sentences that were so good you first wanted to stand up and applaud, and then write them down to see if you could get even close. He was waspish in the way great American commentators, from Mencken on, were. But there was a heart to it all. He wasn’t hammering on about a desire for low taxes and small government because he was ideologically pinched. He believed the man at the bottom deserved more. And that those at the top were high on the hog and didn’t care for anybody trampled below.

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The first time I spoke to him was months ahead of the 2008 US Presidential election. Barack Obama hadn’t even won the Democratic nomination. When I asked who he believed the next president would be, he said Obama. He then explained why this person I had barely heard of would do it. The next time we spoke was around 2015 and he warned that Trump could take it. Trump was still a joke candidate and an outlier, but O’Rourke realised he was tapping into a growing disaffection. He really didn’t like Trump.

Part of the reason for O’Rourke’s longevity was genuine enquiry. He didn’t regurgitate the views of others and present them as the wisdom of the ancients. He spoke to people, he researched, he came to conclusions. There are a number of commentators around now who perch on their high horses and make rich pickings punching down while claiming they speak for the silenced. They could do with an afternoon buried deep in one of O’Rourke’s books. 

Minds like O’Rourke’s are rare. We’re all guilty, to an extent, of being in a race to easy analysis and a fast run from hard thinking.

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In his brilliant book analysing Adam Smith’s The Wealth Of Nations (read it – it’s really funny and you’ll also feel very, very smart afterwards) PJ O’Rourke said “Adam Smith had the Enlightenment’s knack for posing deep thoughts without making us cringe.” So did O’Rourke (right).

He died on February 15 aged 74, and that is a shame. Perhaps we’ll see a renewed focus on his writing and it will inspire a return to the sort of elegant, free-thinking, informed skewering he did so well. 

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here.

paul.mcnamee@bigissue.com

@PauldMcNamee

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