The news of P.J. O’Rourke’s death this week was like a gut-punch. I learned about it on Wednesday morning, courtesy of American Spectator executive editor Wlady Pleszczynski’s touching tribute. Thoughts of P.J. took me back, as it should all of us longtime readers of The American Spectator.
For those not old enough to remember, P.J. was a very popular writer and humorist. His writing at TAS in the late ’80s and early ‘90s was classic, truly laugh-out-loud funny. He was perfect for The American Spectator, arriving from National Lampoon and Rolling Stone and fitting in flawlessly with the style, the panache, the appeal to youth, the feel of the ’80s Reagan era, and above all with the wit and humor of Bob Tyrrell and his magazine’s cabal of cheerful conservative warriors. Tyrrell had pioneered hilarious features in the magazine since its founding in 1967, such as the immortal “Current Wisdom” section, which was made up of dubious contributions from various “Assorted Jackasses,” and the magazine’s likewise entertaining opening fusillade, “The Continuing Crisis.” Adding P.J. O’Rourke was the perfect complement.
I cannot here give due justice to P.J.’s background and breadth of writing for this magazine, but one example will always stand out to me personally, and probably to many of those reading right now.
In the July 1989 edition — an epic volume of The American Spectator, which carried on the cover an artist’s rendering of “Reagan on the Rock,” i.e., Ronald Reagan chiseled onto Mt. Rushmore — P.J. issued a hilarious call for a new McCarthyism in America. He would follow up with several updated “Red lists” to chase down communists. What made the list especially funny was that it incorporated both commies and non-commies alike, as P.J. openly turned it into his own personal enemies list, and hence started including a humorous assortment of public figures that were plainly annoying and that he didn’t like.
Carrying the subtitle, “Why should the likes of Alexander Cockburn be allowed to remain in America?” P.J. averred:
Our era is supposed to be the 1950s all over again. Indeed, we are experiencing anew many of the pleasures and benefits of that excellent decade: a salubrious prudery, a sensible avariciousness, a healthy dose of social conformity, a much-needed narrowing of minds, and a return to common-sense American political troglodytism. But there’s one delightful and entertaining feature of the Eisenhower years which is wholly absent from the contemporary scene — old-fashioned redbaiting. Where’s our McCarthyism? Who’s our Tailgunner Joe? Why don’t we get to look for Communists under our beds or — considering the social changes of the past thirty-five years — in them? (“Good night, Honey, and are you now or have you ever been a member of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador?”)
P.J. conceded that “God knows the problem is not a lack of Commies.” He observed: “There are more fuzzy-minded one-worlders, pasty-faced peace creeps, and bleeding-heart bed-wetters in America now than there ever were in 1954. The redskis have infiltrated the all-important exercise video industry, not to mention movies and TV. Academia, too, is a veritable compost heap of Bolshie brain-mulch.”
The universities, of course, were indeed a pile of Bolshie bilge, evolving into the utter and complete insane asylums they are today: “Beardo the Weirdo may have been laughed out of real life during the 1970s,” lamented P.J., “but he found a home in our nation’s colleges where he whiles away the wait for Woodstock Nation II by pestering undergraduates with collectivist twaddle when they should be thinking about better car stereos.” And thus, asked a bewildered P.J., “So how come the HUAC staff isn’t returning my phone calls?”
P.J. O’Rourke did concede a measure of concern: “If we hope to wreck careers, destroy reputations, and drive holistic Ortega fans into exile in Sausalito and Amherst, we’re going to need tactics very different from those used by Roy Cohn, Bobby Kennedy, and the distinguished senator from the great state famous for its La Follette and cheese.” And so, vowed P.J., “I’m sure we’ll find some way to chastise these buggers of sense, to bully, torment, harry them, and generally make a workers’ paradise of their lives. In the meantime, the fun part of McCarthyism is, as it always was, writing out the enemies list. Heh-heh.”
And from there, P.J. was off to the races with a long list that took up three column lines, with names like Gore Vidal, the Institute for Policy Studies, Tom Hayden, Angela Davis, William Sloane Coffin, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Anthony Lewis, and on and on. He also included on his list the most unlikely person to become president of the United States one day: Donald Trump. Yes, Donald J. Trump. But wait: Donald Trump, a commie? Well, no. As P.J. explained, however: “Okay, so he’s not a real pinko, but I don’t like him. And if McCarthyism isn’t good for settling grudges, what is it good for?”
And this was just a beginning, promised P.J. He noted that TAS readers were invited to submit their own suggestions — “and lots of them.” In fact, it was their patriotic duty to do so. He provided a handy address: The New Enemies List, c/o TAS, P.O. Box 10448, Arlington, VA 22210. He hoped that “Red Scare — The Sequel” would rile lefties and get them out demonstrating again so policemen could hit them on the head. Besides, “The police have been having a rough time lately, what with crack and Miranda rights. They need some fun.”
Spectator readers eagerly responded by sending in lists of names.
It was a raucous proposal from P.J. and The American Spectator. I recall my own reaction as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. I was the editorial page editor for our campus newspaper, The Pitt News, which published daily on weekdays. I took what P.J. proffered and ran with it, pushing for a reinvigorated McCarthyism on campus to hunt down the Marxist professors. Our liberals on campus had a collective hissy-fit, once again fabulously displaying their lack of humor and inability to understand sarcasm. One bed-wetter (P.J.’s poignant description) progressive wrote a scathing letter to the editor, which we published. The campus radical rag, titled the Free University Press — which billed itself the “F-U” — denounced me as a “political dinosaur.” “Is Kengor living in the Dark Ages?” asked the humorless progressive. “It is unfortunate that attitudes that incite hatred and fear appear as the views of the perspectives page columnists in the Pitt News.”
Ah, yes — hate. It would be among the first of thousands of accusations of “hatred” cast at yours truly and all of us dear conservatives, including surely poor P.J. as well.
Undaunted, the intrepid P.J. would follow up in the October 1989 issue — ironically, which hit mailboxes about the time the Berlin Wall was falling — with a piece titled, “A New McCarthyism: The List Continues.” There, he shared lists of readers from around the country, covering everyone and everything from the likes of the insufferable congresswoman from Colorado, Patsie Schroeder, to the Catholic bishops and entire faculties of colleges.
P.J. O’Rourke continued the list over the years, transitioning it into an annual updated list released each fall in conjunction with Tailgunner Joe’s birthday.
But alas, the fun ended when the Evil Empire ended. P.J.’s list ran its course once the Gulag ran its course. By 1992-93, P.J. turned the tailguns on a more appropriate target: Bill and Hillary Clinton. Here, too, he was hilarious. The man was a riot.
May P.J. O’Rourke now laugh with the angels, and hopefully with ol’ Tailgunner Joe as well.