I knew P. J. O’Rourke. We used to meet regularly, once a decade, whether we needed a drink or not. He was affable, funny—of course—and astute. By sprinkling magic humor-dust over world affairs and political movements, he both spiced them up and whisked them softer, making them in the process more palatable, if not more digestible.
We were once at Elaine’s, that (for those old and red-cheeked enough to remember) wooden-floored, Upper East Side, no-nonsense, full-of-nonsense bar presided over by the huge and eponymous Elaine herself. That night she was at our table outflanked, if that were possible, by people in the know. Taki Theodoracopulos was there—the columnist who, when briefly arrested for drug possession at Heathrow, was defended by his then boss, Charles Moore: if The Spectator were to have a “High Life” writer on staff, he fully expected him to be high at least some of the time. On Taki’s arm was a slinking and striking beauty who, when asked for her name, responded with unwavering silver-spooned certitude, “Greece.” Crown princesses will do that. Obviously harmless arm candy—except that she was studying semiotics or some such thing at Columbia. Next to her was a gray-suit type. A banker, perhaps? No, he was special agent-in-charge, FBI national-security division. He soon transferred to the World Trade Center as head of security. One month after changing jobs he ran into the North Tower. He had long predicted further attacks and was often ignored. He died doing his job. So, a gray suit, but . . . On my left, a striking woman put her hand on mine asking for a phone number because she “had a feeling” about such things. (I gave it in exchange for her scrawl on the back of one of my cards—remember cards?) Then there was an ex–speech writer for Reagan (and Ford and Nixon). I had asked this old friend to join P. J. and me to “entertain” Dominic Lawson—a request from someone on his paper, London’s Sunday Telegraph. I thought P. J. and the encyclopedic Aram Bakshian should do the trick. It was Taki who had dropped by the restaurant underneath the cinema catty-corner to the Plaza Hotel to suggest we join them later at Elaine’s. When not working, this was P. J.’s preferred milieu: varied. The point is that, in such a group, there was absolutely no pushing of opinion from P. J.—just a lad, a country gent, a historian, a writer, a wit, a husband away from his pretty March Hare farmhouse having drinks with other folk. Quite quiet really. Witty, not pushy. At the end of the evening, P. J. gave me a lift home in a chauffeured car left purring at the curb for hours. Who was the blonde?, I asked. “Oh, that's Goldie Hawn,” he replied as if he had tea with her every Thursday.
On another occasion, I asked him to moderate a discussion at a private club. I didn't use the word “moderate,” I used “compère,” which he liked. Present were a spooky, back-street think-tank operator, a former governor of the Bank of England, and a preeminent constitutional scholar. P. J. was moderate. He poked and probed and let them do the talking—he incited them to comment. Again, witty, not pushy. After dinner, he browsed (and more than browsed) the serried ranks of single malts until we closed the joint way after midnight.
He voted, hilariously, for Clinton in 2016. Channeling Rumsfeld, he talked about her unacceptability being a known unacceptability rather than her opponent’s unlashed-down, non-canonical foray onto the world stage. In the tradition of “all generalizations are wrong, even this one,” he wrote in a Washington Post column “We’d be better off, in my opinion, without so many opinions.” To him, Hilary was “the least worst.” Trump was simply “unstable.” It is this cross-grain take on politics and the human condition that we seem to lack more and more. Today you have to be for it or agin it. He was agin a lot but, then again, he was for a lot of those things, too. His schtick was not simply contrarian—though it was certainly that—it was pragmatic as well. Point out our absurdities, he seemed to say, and you cannot help but lace life with humor. I never saw him angry. His supposed nastiness was sugar-coated, his viciousness velvet-swathed. If he disagreed with someone, he made us laugh. If he disagreed with himself, he made us laugh, not just at him, but at ourselves. He had time. There was always time, even in the face of impending doom.
A mixture of russets on a paisley scarf framing a dark-blue tie with tiny nautical flags; a tweed jacket and corduroy pants: you can like a lot of different things. And if each thing that you like is put together into a confusion of projection and belief, well, that’s life: contradiction is not a mess of opinion, it’s a basic fact of our existence. I liked P. J.
He took me to a thousand places. I shall miss our occasional drinks.