PJ O’Rourke: One of the Last of the Gonzo Journalists

A gonzo-style journalist par excellence, PJ O’Rourke will seldom fail to tackle serious societal issues with sarcastic humour and some well-placed digs at authority. Formerly managing-editor of National Lampoon, an avant-garde US satire magazine published from 1970 to 1998, Mr O’Rourke derives great pleasure from exposing the often petty considerations of high-minded public officials and others happily wielding power for the common good.

Taking a cue from – and following closely in the footsteps of – HL Mencken (1880-1956), aka the Sage of Baltimore and the inventor of journalistic satire, Mr O’Rourke does not shun controversy and cultivates a natural tendency to rub against the grain. Writing for Rolling Stone magazine (home to “All the News that Fits”), he lashed out equally hard at Bill Clinton as he did at George Bush the Elder.

A self-described libertarian and most definitely a contrarian, Mr O’Rourke possesses a quality not often seen in contemporary journalism: Scepticism coupled to irreverence. The mighty are not to be taken too seriously; their antics deserve exposure; and their lofty ideals merit close scrutiny for signs of hypocrisy.

PJ O’Rourke on Bill Clinton: “Bill Clinton is not a hypocrite. If a man believes that it is just and moral to redistribute wealth, there is nothing hypocritical in his attempts to redistribute some of that wealth to himself.”

“A self-described libertarian and most definitely a contrarian, Mr O’Rourke possesses a quality not often seen in contemporary journalism: Scepticism coupled to irreverence.”

On the Obama Administration: “The good news is that, according to the Obama Administration, the rich will pay for everything. The bad news is that, according to the Obama Administration, you’re rich.”

And finally, for good measure, on Attila the Hun: “Fifth-century Hunnish depredations on the Roman Empire were the work of an over-powerful executive pursuing a policy of economic redistribution in an atmosphere of permissive social mores.”

This is the stuff the Stephen Colberts and Jon Stewards of today grew up on. It is how they honed their skills. Alas, PJ O’Rourke’s pupils have yet to exceed their teacher in acerbic excellence. Mr O’Rourke belongs to the informal triad of Gonzo Greats with Tom Wolfe (The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby) and Hunter S Thompson, deceased in 2005 (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). These three journalists were the last of a great generation from a now largely bygone era when reporting still required literary skill, wit and powers of observation stretching to well beyond the obvious.

Over the course of his career, Mr O’Rourke also published sixteen books of which two topped The New York Times’ bestseller list for weeks on end. His most famous work is A Parliament of Whores which carries the inimitable subtitle “A Lone Humourist Attempts to Explain the Entire US Government.”

More recently, ever watchful American conservatives have claimed Mr O’Rourke as one of their own for his unrelenting criticism of President Obama. They sorely miss the point of PJ’s writing. Mr O’Rourke and the few true journalists left will always criticise those in power as a matter of professional duty and courtesy. In that sense he is no different from, say, the Argentine rebel Che Guevara: “Is there a government here? If so, I’m against.” Rebellion in stylish writing is now becoming a lost art. It is being kept alive by Mr O’Rourke and a select few others.

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