P.J. O’Rourke, scribe of a franker time

The most notorious episode in his career didn’t even make O’Rourke’s obituaries, perhaps because we’re afraid to say what happened.

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Author P.J. O’Rourke at Book Soup in Los Angeles, in 2007.

Humorist P.J. O’Rourke, who died of lung cancer Tuesday at the age of 74, at a Los Angeles book store in 2007.

Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Every time another 1960s musician dies, Facebook keens with grief. Tears spatter Twitter, as people clutch at their hearts, decrying this latest loss.

And if the departed are in any way famous — say, Michael Nesmith of The Monkees — a process I call “The Full Diana” starts up, wheezing like a circus calliope, with the stacked teddy bears and cellophane-wrapped flowers.

“Save it for somebody you love,” I mutter.

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Opinion

Sitting at Denver Airport Tuesday, waiting for my flight home, I saw that P.J. O’Rourke had died. I felt ... well “sad” is overstating the case. “Sorry” is more accurate. I was thinking of him just last week, wondering what became of the arch, edgy humorist, so big in his day, and whether it might be worth tracking him down for a chat. Too late now.

Even “sorry” is too strong. “Grateful” might be more to the point. Not grateful he is dead, of course. But that he lived, and wrote, amusing millions while inspiring an army of lesser talents such as myself. He was frank and fearless.

When I got home, I went to the bookshelf and pulled down my O’Rourke books. “Parliament of Whores,” his keelhauling of the U.S. government, begins, “What is this oozing behemoth, this fibrous tumor, this monster of power and expense hatched from the simple human desire for civic order?”

Did I mention he was a Republican? He was.

My favorite of his 20 or so books is “Republican Party Animal,” containing the delightfully titled, “Ferrari Refutes the Decline of the West,” one of those delicious assignments freelancers once dreamt about:

Ferrari North America, which is based in Montvale, New Jersey, had a 308GTS that needed to be delivered to Los Angeles by January 2, to be featured in a movie. Ferrari called Car and Driver and asked if they’d like to assign someone to drive it across the country. Car and Driver was good enough to ask me, and of course I said yes.

Though a member of the media — he was “international correspondent” for Rolling Stone; the title initially something of a joke — O’Rourke could be critical of the press. With good reason. I just waded through two long obituaries, in The New York Times and the Washington Post. Neither mentioned his most relevant story, “Seoul Brothers,” a report on the South Korean presidential election in 1988.

O’Rourke liked to spring from the gates. The piece begins:

When the kid in the front row at the rally bit off the tip of his little finger and wrote, KIM DAE JUNG, in blood on his fancy white ski jacket — I think that was the first time I ever really felt like a foreign correspondent. I mean, here was something really f---ing foreign.

That wasn’t what caused the trouble. It was when O’Rourke gazed at the half-million Koreans jamming a political rally and did what too many people do when contemplating another race: he saw them as all the same. “I was looking at this multitude, and I was thinking, ‘Oh, no, they really do all look alike. ...’” There was more, a catalog of physical characteristics, but that will suffice.

That kind of oblivious racism might have flown in the early 1970s, when O’Rourke began his career. But by the late 1980s, the range of people who could be treated so cavalierly had shrunk. Outrage grew.

‘’It’s not funny,” said Los Angeles City councilman Michael Woo. “It’s not satire.”

Woo demanded that Rolling Stone apologize for “this racist drivel,” and the magazine did, immediately and in person. Executive editor Robert Wallace flew across the country to attend the councilman’s news conference. The magazine retracted the story and commissioned another, more laudatory article about Korea, also creating an internship for Korean American students.

But O’Rourke kept his job, which probably would not happen today. It strikes me as odd to talk about something offensive without actually sharing the offensive parts. But I’m all for an inclusive world, and if blotting those out helps, OK. The outcry 34 years ago, was part of a seismic shift in the idea of what is considered funny — that’s why it’s worth remembering. I have a sneaking suspicion the Times and the Post left out this episode, not from ignorance, but due to an abundance of caution, even fear. That’s unfortunate. If we can’t remember our toxic past, how can we overcome it?

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