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  Wise Guy

The master of the ironic anecdote and the snarky quick hit started out at Hopkins wanting to write the next 'Finnegan's Wake.' Then he discovered a knack for humor.

By Dale Keiger
Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

At 10 on a Tuesday morning, things are a bit complicated at the Washington, D.C., apartment of P. J. O'Rourke, A&S '70 (MA). The humorist's wife and kids are in the kitchen. So is the apartment's only working telephone. A reporter is on the line, and O'Rourke suggests calling back. But ... hold on a second ... "Tina? What's my cell phone number?"

Tina — Mrs. O'Rourke — supplies the number, and her husband takes the callback in a quiet corner better suited for a chat. He's in town (he lives mainly in New Hampshire) because Atlantic Monthly Press has just collected his recent magazine pieces in a book titled Peace Kills: America's Fun New Imperialism. Later in the day, he will greet some of his reading public at a bookstore in Arlington, Virginia. This may not be the best time to be in Greater Washington promoting a new book of conservative political commentary, for this is the day Bill Clinton's My Life hits the shelves with a 900-page thud. But O'Rourke, cognizant of demographics, isn't worried. "I know that audience in suburban D.C.," he says of the patrons he'll meet that evening. "That bookstore's a stronghold of military people and CIA people and various government this-and-that's who are not of a particularly Clintonian point-of-view."

When Patrick Jake O'Rourke left Ohio and came due east for graduate study at Hopkins, he intended to write novels that would make their own 900-page thuds. But not long after graduating, he discovered that making people laugh was more fun, and surely more lucrative. Now the author of 11 books of journalism and political commentary, O'Rourke is the unofficial Smartass Laureate of the United States, aptly described by the Chicago Tribune as "a trophy hunter let loose in an unguarded zoo."

The trophy hunter, a Republican of the skeptical, libertarian persuasion, describes himself as to the right of Attila — after all, he notes, the Hun was "an overpowerful executive pushing a policy of economic redistribution in an atmosphere of permissive social mores" — but that doesn't spare the American right wing from his barbs. He's a journalist, but that doesn't afford reporters a free pass, either. Nor does he let himself off the hook. In Parliament of Whores, his examination of the U.S. government circa 1991, he wrote that the main problem with the government's war on drugs was that Americans refused to be serious about drug addiction, or about anything else. Then he conceded, "The only time I've ever been serious about drugs was back in college, when I seriously took a whole bunch of them. And I still take drugs now and then. Like most Americans, I'm perfectly willing to tell the government where to go and then stand out in the road to keep it from getting there." In Peace Kills, he reports that when he was in Kuwait last year to cover the first weeks of the Iraq war, he learned that the Anglo-American invasion had begun when the phone woke him up. On the line was Tina, calling from the States to tell him what she'd just seen on the news. "That was embarrassing for a professional journalist in a combat zone," he wrote.

If O'Rourke supports an -ism, it's leave-us-alone-ism, leavened by ironic self-assessment: Deep down, most people, himself included, are amiable goofs more serious about the prospects of buying a flat-screen television than about politics. As a social critic and political thinker, O'Rourke does not propound much in the way of new big ideas. If he supports an �ism, it's leave-us-alone-ism, leavened by ironic self-assessment: Deep down, most people, himself included, are amiable goofs more serious about the prospects of buying a flat-screen television than about politics. As for politics, we're best off when government leaves us alone, but we mostly get the government we deserve because we're amiable goofs. As a reporter, his m�tier is to pierce pretension and hypocrisy by recording the little absurdities and contradictions of everyday human behavior, whether that behavior is in the chambers of Congress, in a war zone, or on the sofa. As a writer, he's the master of the ironic anecdote and the snarky quick hit. This is true as well in conversation.

For example, ask him about one of his favorite targets, Bill Clinton, and he says, "I interviewed him when he was running for president in 1992 and I didn't care for him at all. My family was in the car sales business, and I just know the type too well. I always thought if he hadn't been doing what he was doing, he'd be selling lots in Whitewater that were under water. A smart guy, but a mind like a hamster wheel, you know? It didn't connect with anything."

Or ask him about "the Arab Street," that Islamic Everyman-in-a-kaffiyeh who is supposed to be a major concern of U.S. foreign policy, and he replies, "I'll give you an anecdote. When I was in Beirut, 1984, I got stopped at a checkpoint by this kid, very much a progenitor of what's running around the Middle East today. He belonged to Hezbollah, which was the radical Shiite militia. He's holding me at gunpoint and screaming and yelling at me, doing a 20-minute rant about America Great Satan Devil and how we created Zionism and all the problems in the world, all that 'Arab Street' stuff that you hear today. At the end of which he says to me, 'And as soon as I get my green card I'm going to Dearborn, Michigan, to go to dental school.' I'm sure now the kid's all grown up and a prosperous orthodontist in Dearborn with a house and a lawn. America is hated the world over, except millions and millions of people are lined up at embassies trying to get visas, or sealing themselves in shipping containers and undergoing all sorts of hell in order to become Americans."

When O'Rourke arrived at Hopkins in 1969, it was for the Writing Seminars, then still part of the English department. Elliot Coleman tried to teach him poetry, Mich'l Lynch prose. "I graduated with a highly theoretical, not to say semi-imaginary, MA in English," O'Rourke recalls. "It was an interesting life lesson. I mean, I was 21 going on 22 and all of a sudden I was given a year off to do anything I wanted and a stipend that was adequate. I didn't have to work, and I was way too young for that to have been a good thing. It wasn't as bad as having all the money or women or drugs I could have wanted at that age, but in terms of its effect on my writing it was probably in that same department." He recalls jaunts to Baltimore's Fell's Point neighborhood, to a place called Pete's Hotel that served 15-cent draft beers and 37-cent shots. "I would go down to Pete's, get blind drunk, then ride my motorcycle back up to 29th Street where I lived."

When not blind drunk and risking his neck on a motorbike, he tried to work on The Big Novel. "I had made a conscious decision to be a writer, without any evident talent, and I beavered away. The kind of writing I wanted to do was the kind that was then academically respected. You know — big, sweeping, dense, incomprehensible stuff. I wanted to be James Joyce. I wanted to write something that would make Finnegan's Wake look brief and transparent. But I just didn't have the talent to do this, thank God."

O'Rourke resists handicapping the November presidential election. "We're going to have to see what went on in Iraq that morning, that Tuesday morning, and what's going on in the economy. You cannot convince people that the president does not somehow control the economy. It's startling." After graduating from Hopkins, he needed what every writer of dense, incomprehensible stuff needs: a job. Friends in Baltimore ran an underground newspaper called Harry and invited him to join the staff. That's where he realized he had a knack for humor. It's also where he first laid eyes on an issue of the satirical magazine National Lampoon. "It was a revelation," he remembers. "I thought, That looks like a lot of fun to do." He pitched a story to its editors, which they liked. One thing led to another, and soon he had a staff job there. Over the next 30 years, he worked his way up to tonier editorial neighborhoods, from Lampoon to Rolling Stone, where he was the token Republican (his term), to the venerable pages of The Atlantic, where he's now a correspondent.

Much of his best work has come from his forays abroad, usually to places where people either are expressing their level of satisfaction with government by throwing rocks and bottles at the cops, or taking cover from explosions and automatic-rifle fire. Over the years he has reported from 40 countries, including Haiti, Lebanon, the Philippines, South Korea, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Gaza, Kuwait, and Iraq. But he says he has assured his wife that the latest Persian Gulf conflict was his final stint as a war correspondent.

"Iraq was my last gasp," he says. "I didn't go to Afghanistan and I wouldn't have gone to Iraq if I hadn't thought it was the most important story I'll ever cover. My wife and I had two kids then and we had a long talk about this, and I said I'm not going just because it's fun or I miss the adventure or the camaraderie or any of that crap. I really think this story is going to shape history, for maybe a very long time. She agreed, she understood."

O'Rourke, who turns 57 this autumn, has just had a third child. "You know, you'd have thought I'd have learned something about birth control," he says. "All I can say is I met my wife late." Peace Kills bears a dedication to another father of young children, The Atlantic's former editor-at-large, Michael Kelly, who was killed early in the war: He could have advocated the war in Iraq without going to cover it. He could have covered it without putting himself in harm's way. But liberty is an expensive feast. And Mike was a man who always picked up the check.

"He was a good friend," O'Rourke says. "He was an absolutely terrific reporter, just the best: smart, observant, one of those guys who noticed the important stuff and passed over the unimportant stuff. He also did something I have a lot of respect for, which is, he didn't spend a lot of time interviewing allegedly important and influential people. That's good because important and influential people didn't get to be important and influential by being dumb enough to tell reporters the truth. It's a piece of arrogance in reporters, most common in television, to think you're going to sit down with Vladimir Putin and have him lean over and say, 'Just between you and me, Barbara, we're going to nuke Chechnya tomorrow.'"

So after a few public appearances to promote the new book ("Writers are in this awful position. I mean, the guy who makes cars doesn't then have to put on an ugly sport coat and sell them. But writers do.") he plans to repair to their farmhouse in New Hampshire and figure out what to write next. He resists handicapping the November presidential election. "We're going to have to see what went on in Iraq that morning, that Tuesday morning, and what's going on in the economy," he says. "It's startling. You cannot convince people that the president does not somehow control the economy. They have this principal-of-the-school, CEO-of-the-corporation, father-of-the-family idea of the president, that he can decide what we get to wear in the halls, bolster corporate profits, and decide where we go on vacation. None of that is true."

At the moment, he doesn't seem roused by politics. He has a little fun when asked about Democrat John Kerry's selection of John Edwards as a running mate: "I don't think it's a big improvement. Edwards is basically the guy on the back cover of every telephone book who says, 'If you've ever been injured in an accident, call me.'" But looking at the bigger picture, he says, "It is a kind of dictatorship of boredom. This is best seen not so much in political campaigning but in policy, the huge bills that go through Congress, and all the strange stuff in those bills that no one can summon the patience to discover in the first place, or publicize. And nobody on Earth can summon the skill to make the public care. That would be genius."

Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

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