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Button-Down Gonzo : Journalist P. J. O’Rourke Would Rather Be Fun Than Right; Is He Either?

Times Staff Writer

Don’t laugh--you’ll just encourage him.

And if there’s one thing concerned citizens have no business encouraging, it’s a self-described “investigative humorist” with so little respect for the deep seriousness of our troubled world.

Read any piece in journalist P. J. O’Rourke’s latest collection, “Holidays in Hell,” and you’ll encounter things you shouldn’t find funny. Regardless of your moral or political leanings, you’re bound to come across something ideologically incorrect.

Which makes it all the more mysterious why, in June, chic Vogue magazine named O’Rourke one of five “Men You’d Want to Sit Next to at a Dinner Party,” or why the businesslike Wall Street Journal recently called him “The Funniest Writer in America.”

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“P.J. is completely irresponsible,” said Michael Kinsley, editor of the New Republic magazine, offering a clue, perhaps. “I guess that’s what I admire about him.”

A ‘Trouble Tourist’

Bankrolled by such diverse national publications as Rolling Stone, Harper’s, the American Spectator and Automobile, Patrick Jake O’Rourke has spent the last few years as a “trouble tourist,” traipsing through such crisis spots as Manila, Beirut, San Salvador and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Heritage USA. All along the way, he casually sidesteps conventional journalistic approaches, prefabricated wisdom and good taste.

O’Rourke--a former editor of the National Lampoon and script writer on Rodney Dangerfield’s “Easy Money"--has little tolerance for most of the run-of-the-mill tourists he encounters on his travels:

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“The larger the German body the smaller the German bathing suit and the louder the German voice issuing German demands and German orders to everybody who doesn’t speak German,” he writes. “For this, and several other reasons, Germany is known as ‘the land where Israelis learned their manners.’ ”

Japanese tourists, on the other hand, are “extraordinary shoplifters. . . . They eschew the usual clothes and trinkets, but automobile plants, steel mills and electronics factories seem to be missing from everywhere they go.”

Even more annoying to O’Rourke than the people who visit other countries, however, are the people who live in those countries. Take, for instance, the “lumpen, gray-faced” Poles. In Warsaw, he observes that “Commies love concrete, but they don’t know how to make it. Concrete is a mixture of cement, gravel and straw? No? Gravel, water and wood pulp? No? Water, potatoes and lard?”

O’Rourke himself is a different kind of tourist--the kind who dutifully notes of Beruit: “Ruins of historical interest abound, in fact, block most streets.”

A Different View

He’s also a different kind of journalist.

In one of the pieces in “Holidays,” O’Rourke’s friend, musician Jimmy Buffet, sums up the writer’s career as a “phony baloney job making fun of everything.”

O’Rourke sees himself as part of the Hunter S. Thompson-Tom Wolfe strain of reportage dubbed New Journalism. The simple difference, as he sees it, is that in the so-called new stuff, “the omniscient, omnipresent, all-seeing, all-knowing journalistic voice is abandoned, and the writer admits that he or she has human prejudices and human shortcomings, thereby letting the reader know what kind of lens they’re seeing the story through.”

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“Obviously there’s not room for that in a fast-breaking story about a downtown hotel fire,” he said. “You know: ‘I was feeling pretty lousy this morning and a little off my speed when the phone call came saying 30 were dead.’ ”

Beyond the Lies

On the other hand, he believes that the strait-laced portentousness of most foreign reporting gives readers and viewers a distorted picture of world events. Besides overt lies and lies of omission, there are lies “where you pretend you know what you’re talking about,” he said.

O’Rourke prefers to throw up his hands before his readers.

Commenting on the young checkpoint guards he encounters in Lebanon, for instance, he catalogues the Christian Phalange, the “blustering Druse,” the “angry Shiites,” “grumpy Syrians,” and the “Scarsdale-looking Israelis,” adding: “And who knows what the rest of them belong to? Everybody with a gun has a checkpoint in Lebanon. And in Lebanon you’d be crazy not to have a gun. Though I assure you, all the crazy people have guns, too.”

For the most part he eschews interviews with world leaders.

“They just don’t tell you the truth,” he said. Instead, O’Rourke talks to real folk, with whom he discusses matters such as “What’s for dinner?” and “Please don’t kill me.”

The Look of Yup

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To get an idea of what O’Rourke looks like, picture Dan Quayle with a bad hangover. At 41, he is be the same peak-baby-boom age.

With his monogrammed, striped, pinpoint oxford shirt and yuppie power tie, tasseled loafers, tousled head of well-cut hair and boyish good looks, O’Rourke--a self-proclaimed conservative--bears considerable physical resemblance to the vice president-elect.

But he bridles at the comparison to Quayle, whom he characterizes as a “sappy Deke” (Delta Kappa Epsilon, the fraternity to which Quayle and President-elect Bush belonged), “dancing around George Bush like a golden retriever.”

“I like the kind of conservatives who came to it through a struggle,” he said.

The product of “rock-ribbed” Republican parentage, O’Rourke went radical upon graduating from high school in 1965.

“I think every high school student who was alert during the early ‘60s got very embittered by the slow progress and the violence surrounding the civil rights movement,” he said. By the time he entered Miami University in Oxford, Ohio--a school close geographically and culturally to Dan Quayle’s alma mater, DePauw University, O’Rourke pointed out--the Vietnam War had ignited smoldering anti-Establishment feelings.

“Here, you’re 18 years old, you’ve just discovered marijuana and girls and you’re having a great time,” O’Rourke said, speaking with the pacing and inflections of a natural conversationalist. “Then suddenly a letter from the government arrives saying, ‘We’d like you to go overseas to this distant country with noxious foreign fauna and shoot people that you’ve never met. And they’re going to shoot back.’

“We went, ‘No! We don’t mind shooting some people.’ I had a stepfather I’d have gladly shot. ‘But I’m not going to shoot them if I don’t know them.’ ”

O’Rourke found himself rebelling against what he saw as the rigidity and silliness of the middle class. On one side of campus life were the guys with the drugs and guitars and “girls with that wonderful long straight black ironed hair.” On the other side were the fraternities.

Spare the Paddle

He asked himself: “I’m all grown up and I’m going to let people paddle me so they can be my friends later on?”

What O’Rourke distrusts most in J. Danforth Quayle is that Quayle seemed to prefer the Deke paddlings to the adventures of the era.

“How could anybody have turned down experiencing that ‘60s phenomenon?” O’Rourke said. “Dead wrong though we were about many things, and silly and foolish, it was an enormous amount of fun. . . . And even though some of our opinions were wrong, it wasn’t for lack of trying to think about stuff.

“So I don’t want anything to do with anybody from my generation who was well enough behaved in the ‘60s to be able to run for even vice president. How could anyone be a Republican, or anything like that in 1968? You’ve got to think how stupid they must have been to have missed all the fun.”

O’Rourke’s self-professed conservatism came to him--or rather came back to him--in the late ‘60s, soon after a group of self-professed Maoists took over the Baltimore underground newspaper at which he was working and subjected the staffers to 24 hours of “consciousness raising.”

O’Rourke now espouses the cockeyed neo-conservative values of what he calls “Republican Party Reptiles.” As he defines it, this subspecies is opposed to (among other things): “Kennedy kids . . . busing our children anywhere other than Yale, trailer courts near our vacation homes, all tiny Third World countries that don’t have banking secrecy laws, aerobics, the U.N. and taxation without tax loopholes . . .” and in favor of (among other things): “guns, drugs, fast cars, free love (if our wives don’t find out) . . . a cleaner environment (poor people should cut it out with the graffiti) and a strong military with spiffy uniforms.”

Sometimes O’Rourke comes across as a swaggering jingoist. As he recalls in his piece on Lebanon, for instance, he “fixed the South Lebanon Army guards with a stare I hoped would remind them of Grenada.”

But when questioned about his country’s foreign policy there, he answered: “President Reagan wasn’t sure why he sent the Marines to Lebanon. However, he was determined to keep them here until he figured it out, but then he forgot.”

Satanic Conversion

In another “Holidays” piece, he and a woman friend went to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Heritage USA and walked away converted. “Unfortunately, we were converted to satanism.”

They find such satanic rituals as sacrificing dogs and reciting the Lord’s Prayer backward tiresome, he wrote, “but if it keeps us from going to the Heritage USA part of heaven, it will be worth it.”

O’Rourke said that although his point of view is conservative, he goes into each story open-minded.

“I just don’t see that one’s basic political philosophy, any more than one’s basic religious philosophy, has anything to do with what is or isn’t happening in front of your eyes,” he said. “The people who make (their beliefs) have something to do with it are crazy people.”

Crumbling and Fun

In the few places O’Rourke tries to sum up his world view, it is that civilization is better than a lack of it, that America is as civilized as any place, and that things are falling apart almost everywhere anyway.

The other real underpinning of his world view is fun.

“You’ve got to understand, people are motivated by fun. And they should be,” he said.

“What would any spirited, feeling person rather do? Would they rather starve behind a water buffalo or rot in a slum, or would they rather be up in the hills with a fancy hat and a gun of their own and some respect? You know, in the summertime, middle-class college girls go up there and say, ‘Oh Jose, you’re so revolutionary!’ They’re having a lot better time up there then they would be in the slums, quite aside from their political motivation.”

Wrong Versus Fun

He writes: “Some people are worried about the difference between right and wrong. I’m worried about the difference between wrong and fun.” And he does indeed spend much of his time in bars, posturing macho with tough foreign correspondent talk like “no bodies, no bylines.”

There are moments, though, when the persona slips.

In covering the Philippine elections, for instance, he comes across the body of a pregnant girl, riddled with bullets that he concluded were fired by Ferdinand Marcos’ henchmen.

“What ideology has that oozing face for a price?” he wondered. “What abstraction is worth that smell?”

A Serious Side

So O’Rourke does have his serious side. It’s just not something he’s proud of.

“Slash a humorist and you’ll find someone who wants to talk about Wittgenstein, whoever that is,” he said. For the most part, though, he is disgusted with those who give in to the profundity instinct.

He claims, for instance, that Joan Didion’s book “Salvador” is a laughingstock in that country.

It is, he said, “a perfect example of the heavy-breathing outsider cranked up into high seriousness. As if taking all this stuff terribly terribly serously ever made one less person dead.”

“I think of this as the New York Times Sunday magazine fallacy,” he said. “If you take a situation seriously enough, then somehow you’ve done something about it. It ain’t true.”

Some Substance There

Ironically (to use the word in earnest), O’Rourke’s friends and lover and editors all see an underlying seriousness in his work.

“It’s so seldom you find a humorist who is still able to include so much substance,” said Andrew Ferguson, managing editor of the American Spectator.

Ferguson has little tolerance for the accusations of racism that have dogged O’Rourke lately.

“It’s too bad, but racism is a word that’s begun to lose its meaning because it’s tossed around too much,” he said. “It’s going to be harder and harder to identify the real racists if you call someone like P.J. a racist.”

“When he (O’Rourke) goes abroad, he’s honest enough to admit that a lot of things are strange,” Ferguson said. “When he’s trying to explain the strangeness of other cultures, he may offend some hypersensitive guardians of the reigning pieties, but I don’t think that’s racist.”

Merely a ‘Misanthrope’

“He is not a racist, he’s a misanthrope,” said Michael Kinsley of the New Republic. “He dislikes all races and colors equally. If on occasion he says things which rightly could be construed as racist, that’s too bad. The dangers of avoiding it are greater than the dangers of occasionally committing it.”

Not everyone thinks O’Rourke should be so easily forgiven his excesses. Left-wing media analyst Alexander Cockburn, who finds O’Rourke “a nice guy personally,” refers to him as “the Nazi jokester.”

“P.J. is one of those in the post-'60s generation of humorists who made their reputation at the Lampoon, (putting down) women, blacks and more generally the poor. This is apparently an unfailing source of merriment to white men,” Cockburn said.

What seems to have gotten O’Rourke into the deepest trouble lately is his coverage in Rolling Stone of the 1987 elections in South Korea. Awed by the “spontaneous regimentation” of Koreans at a huge political rally, he decided that “they really do all look alike” and provided a selection of mean-spirited descriptions to prove it.

Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo, for one, found little humor in O’Rourke’s “tasteless and inflammatory” description, which he said reinforces negative stereotypes of Asian-Americans. After Woo called a press conference, a Rolling Stone editor flew to Los Angeles to apologize.

O’Rourke has refused to apologize for that article or anything else he’s written, but he offered this explanation:

Prejudices or Not?

“Everybody is xenophobic to an extent. Everybody has a certain fear of strangers. . . . I don’t think that I have prejudices based on skin color or appearance or something. But there are some societies I like a lot better than others. I hate France, just for starters.”

O’Rourke said he’s “truthfully never found much difference in the way people react to situations. What you find is enormous differences in situations. . . . If you’ve seen Pat Robertson’s people or Jim and Tammy’s people at Heritage USA, you’ve seen Hezbollah fanatics. (The Hezbollah’s) actions might be a little more extreme, but then their situation’s a little more extreme.”

As O’Rourke’s 23-year-old girlfriend Amy Lumet sees it, when 300 students walked out on his talk at Brown University in September chanting “Hey, Hey, ho, ho, racism has got to go,” they acted not so much like fanatics as “morons on parade.”

“My opinion was that 90% of crowd had never read his stuff. . . . It worries me, these kids had probably never been outside the U.S., except maybe to St. Moritz or Paris.”

Lumet, who makes a point of the fact that she’s “half black and half Jewish,” said that because O’Rourke is uncompromising, people don’t see that he’s also fair and open-minded. Not to mention a nice guy.”

Rest of Reportage

In the final chapter of his book, O’Rourke makes projections of what the world will be like in the future. They’re every bit as cheerful and tolerant as the rest of his reportage.

The United States, for instance, will become identical to the Third World that O’Rourke ridicules. But that probably won’t bother him much.

As he says of his trip to South Africa: “Just because you’re going to a place of evil and perdition is no reason not to enjoy it.”


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