P.J. O’Rourke, the conservative satirist and political commentator who was unafraid to skewer Democrats and Republicans alike in bestselling books like “Parliament of Whores,” in articles for a wide range of magazines and newspapers, and on television and radio talk shows, died on Tuesday at his home in Sharon, New Hampshire. He was 74.
The cause was complications of lung cancer, said Deb Seager, the director of publicity at Grove/Atlantic, O’Rourke’s publisher.
O’Rourke’s political writing was in the caustic tradition of H.L. Mencken. As writers and commentators go, he was something of a celebrity, welcome on talk shows of almost any political bent and known for appearances on NPR’s comedy quiz show “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me.”
He was a proud conservative Republican — one of his books was called “Republican Party Reptile: The Confessions, Adventures, Essays and (Other) Outrages of P.J. O’Rourke” — but he was widely admired by readers of many stripes, because of his fearless style and his willingness to mock just about anyone who deserved it, including himself. In “Republican Party Reptile” he recalled his youthful flirtation with Mao Zedong.
“But I couldn’t stay a Maoist forever,” he wrote. “I got too fat to wear bell-bottoms. And I realized that communism meant giving my golf clubs to a family in Zaire.”
In 2010, The New York Times invited him and assorted other prominent people to define “Republican” and “Democrat.” He offered this:
“The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer and remove the crab grass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then get elected and prove it.”
O’Rourke was prolific. In addition to some 20 books, he wrote a column for The Daily Beast for a time and appeared regularly in The Atlantic, The American Spectator, Rolling Stone and The Weekly Standard, where he was a contributing editor. He was the conservative side of a point-counterpoint segment on “60 Minutes” in the mid-1990s opposite Molly Ivins and a guest on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” “The Daily Show,” “Charlie Rose” and other talk shows.
O’Rourke was most often identified as a political satirist, but his subjects ranged well beyond the political. His first book, published in 1983 (and reissued in 1989), was called “Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People.”
“Good manners can replace intellect by providing a set of memorized responses to almost every situation in life,” he wrote. “Memorized responses eliminate the need for thought. Thought is not a very worthwhile pastime anyway. Thinking allows the brain, an inert and mushy organ, to exert unfair domination over more sturdy and active body parts.”
The book was full of practical advice, including this for gentlemen: “A hat should be taken off when you greet a lady and left off for the rest of your life. Nothing looks more stupid than a hat.”
For many fans, his signature book was “Parliament of Whores,” subtitled “A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government” and first published in 1991.
“Although this is a conservative book,” O’Rourke explained in the opening pages, “it is not informed by any very elaborate political theory. I have only one firm belief about the American political system, and that is this: God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat.”
Signe Wilkinson, reviewing that book in the Times, wrote: “A spin with P. J. O’Rourke is like a ride in the back of an old pickup over unpaved roads. You get where you’re going fast, with exhilarating views but not without a few bruises.”
His recent books included “How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016,” a collection of his writings during that presidential campaign.“The American public wasn’t holding either political party in much esteem,” he explained in an author’s note setting the stage for the election. “What the American public was holding was its nose.
“Therefore I was prepared for some surprises during the 2016 campaign, which leaves me with no excuse for how surprised I was by what the surprises were.”
During the campaign, O’Rourke announced that he was going to vote for Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump. Clinton, he told The New Statesman in 2020, was “the devil I knew,” whereas no one he knew, he said, liked Trump.
“I just thought he was unstable,” he said, and dangerous. “I still do.”
As time went on, he continued in that vein, describing himself as a member of the “unorganized resistance” against Trump.
Patrick Jake O’Rourke was born on Nov. 14, 1947, in Toledo, Ohio. His father, Clifford, was a car salesman, and his mother, Delphine (Loy) O’Rourke, was a school administrator.
In a 2011 article for Newsweek, O’Rourke called his hometown “one of those junkyards of American capitalism,” reciting a history of good economic times that gave way to bad.
“America’s exceptionalism lies not in its successes but its failures,” he wrote at the end of that piece. “The people of failed Toledo can say to the people of the rest of the world, ‘Our junkyards are more splendid than your palaces.’”
He received his undergraduate degree in 1969 from Miami University (“the one in Ohio, not the one where you can major in water skiing,” he noted in an online autobiography) and earned a master’s degree in English at Johns Hopkins University in 1970. His early work experience included a stint at a liberal underground Baltimore newspaper called Harry. But the last of his liberal leanings died when Maoists occupied the newspaper’s offices.
“They thought we weren’t radical enough,” he told People magazine in 1989.
Becoming more libertarian than liberal, he went to New York in 1972 and there started writing for National Lampoon, which was founded in 1970. Among his more infamous articles for the magazine was one in 1979 titled “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink.”
He was a co-writer of Lampoon newspaper and yearbook parodies and helped promote the careers of John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Christopher Guest. From 1978 to 1980 he was the magazine’s editor-in-chief.
“As the boss, I had the people skills of Luca Brasi in ‘The Godfather’ and the business acumen of the fellows who were managing New York’s finances in the 1970s,” he wrote in The Hollywood Reporter in 2015, in an article that carried the headline “How I Killed ‘National Lampoon.’”
The headline was a slight exaggeration, but in the 1980s O’Rourke discovered he was more comfortable as a freelance writer. He made a brief attempt at screenwriting in Hollywood — he is one of several credited writers of “Easy Money,” a 1983 Rodney Dangerfield comedy — before returning East and becoming a sought-after magazine writer.
He did a lot of work for Rolling Stone, where for a time he held the title of “foreign affairs desk chief” and reported from distant lands.
“He’s become the rock magazine’s reactionary,” “60 Minutes” explained in a 1994 feature on him, “combining the literary flair of Hunter Thompson with the ideology and haberdashery of George Will.”
A 1989 book, “Holidays in Hell,” is a collection of pieces he wrote as a war correspondent, many of them for Rolling Stone. “The author owes an immense debt of gratitude (and quite a bit of money advanced for expenses) to Editor and Publisher Jann Wenner,” O’Rourke wrote in the acknowledgments.
His other books included “All the Trouble in the World” (1994), which looked at various topical issues, including climate change and famine, and “Eat the Rich: A Treatise on Economics” (1999).
O’Rourke’s marriage to Amy Lumet ended in divorce. His survivors include his wife, Tina (Mallon) O’Rourke, whom he married in 1995, and three children, Clifford, Olivia and Elizabeth.
O’Rourke’s prose may have been barbed, but some who knew and worked with him said that in person he was less so.
“He can be vicious and nasty, and he strikes the pose of a reactionary, but some of that is just shtick,” journalist Michael Kinsley told People in 1989. “He’s an anarchist with a heart of gold.”