William Atkinson: P.J. O’Rourke – the last person to make conservatism cool

16 Feb

William Atkinson is a history teacher.

Despite my immense respect for Charles Moore, I cannot ever imagine him ever entitling a piece “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink”. Not only because British conservatives naturally represent all that is sensible and respectable about politics and the press, but because putting your name to an article like that requires a particular outlook. An irreverence, a silliness, a partiality for various questionable substances – whatever it is, the late P.J.O’Rourke had in spades.

O’Rourke passed away yesterday aged 74. The satirist’s work included time as Editor-in-Chief at National Lampoon (of Animal House fame), as the foreign correspondent (and token Republican) at Rolling Stone, articles for Playboy, and 19 books. Admittedly, most this side of the Atlantic probably know him for complaining about “cow juice” in a 90s’ British Airways ad. Nevertheless, his writing was so ubiquitous you may well have stumbled across him The Spectator or the Daily Mail and never realised he was that same Johnny Foreigner.

What made O’Rourke so notable? His air miles, for one thing. He estimated that Rolling Stone had sent him to over 40 countries. No war, intifada, or coup is seen better than through his habitual lens of the bottom of a glass. His reports were usually as complimentary about those he encountered as his notorious article on ‘Foreigners Around the World’, and his description of the Bosnian Genocide as the “unspellables killing the unpronouncables” naturally garnered criticism. But pieces such as ‘Ship of Fools’, an early 80s effort describing a cruise through the decaying and drunk late U.S.S.R amongst a party of American peaceniks, show him at his hilarious best, as damning of the iniquities of Communism as it is the delusions of his liberal fellow-travellers.

But it wasn’t just O’Rourke’s foreign reporting or driving advice that made him so enjoyable. Having been a student during the late 1960s, O’Rourke indulged in every fad of the Summer of Love: converting to Maoism, experimenting with LSD, and dodging the draft for Vietnam. He was excused thanks to a four-and-a-half-page doctor’s letter, “three and a half pages devoted to the drugs [he’d] abused.” The preface to his collection Give War a Chance is an apology to the poor schmuck who took his place.

Fortunately, O’Rourke grew up, became a registered Republican, and came to consider “socialism a violation of the American principle that you shouldn’t stick your nose in other people’s business except to make a buck.” He embodied the best elements of the American right – the libertarianism, the love of freedom, the ability to look good on television – whilst ditching that terrifying element which carries a Bible in one hand and an assault rifle in the other.

It was in castigating the Parliament of Whores – his name for the U.S. Government – that O’Rourke produced many of the lines that made him the living man with the most entries in The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations.

“The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.”


“One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding somebody to blame your problems on. And when you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver’s license.”

Useful advice.

Unfortunately for an icon of ‘Gonzo’ journalism, over the last decade, America has become too crazy even for O’Rourke. Despite having once described Hillary Clinton as ‘America’s ex-wife’, “the particular woman who taught the 4th grade class that every man in America wished he were dead in”, O’Rourke endorsed her in 2016. He told listeners on National Public Radio, where he was the resident grouchy right-winger, that Clinton was “wrong about absolutely everything, but she’s wrong within normal parameters.” His last books How the Hell Did This Happen? and A Cry from the Far Middle were attempts to explain Trump’s America to a sceptical world.

In a sense, modern America suffers from the success of humourists like O’Rourke. The world of William F. Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal was over-taken by Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert – satirists became the new sages. And when all politics seems a joke, when “giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys”, it’s unsurprising if your politicians end up being a joke too. Such is the price O’Rourke paid for five decades’ sterling work at trying to get conservatives to not take themselves too seriously.

Nevertheless, despite his wit, O’Rourke’s finest moment came when describing the fall of the Berlin wall. His description of the moment he saw an East German border guard asking for a piece of that crumbling edifice of totalitarianism deserves quoting in full.

“I looked at that and I began to cry.

I really didn’t understand before that moment, I didn’t realize until just then – we won. The Free World won the Cold War. The fight against life-hating, soul-denying, slavish communism – which had shaped the world’s politics this whole wretched century – was over.

And the best thing about our victory was the way we did it – not just with ICBMs and Green Berets and aid to the contras. Those things were important, but in the end we beat them with Levi 501 jeans. Seventy-two years of communist indoctrination and propaganda was drowned out by a three-ounce Sony Walkman. A huge totalitarian system with all its tanks and guns, gulag camps and secret police had been brought to its knees because nobody wants to wear Bulgarian shoes.”

We sometimes forget, thirty years on, that the Cold War wasn’t just a dispute between two economic systems, but a fight between freedom and tyranny, liberation and repression, good and evil – and good ultimately triumphed. In his writing, P. J. O’Rourke showed why it deserved to.

Adrian Lee: Why Russell Kirk, the Tory bohemian, deserves to be read and treasured by all Conservatives

23 Oct

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

In the 1950s William F. Buckley Jr emerged as Conservatism’s greatest exponent in the American media and galvanised a generation of activists to oppose the seemingly inevitable drift towards social democracy.

However, another unique and significant thinker simultaneously emerged and would become, as biographer Bradley Birzer commented “…the intellectual touchstone of the conservative movement”: Russell Kirk.

Russell Amos Kirk was someone of very different character and background to Buckley. In many respects, Kirk resembled our own Roger Scruton in both approach and political instincts. In physical stature he was short, which was commented upon by neo-conservative icon Leo Strauss at their first meeting, when he exclaimed “Oh, Mr. Kirk! I am so happy to find that you’re little too! From your books, I had feared that you might be a great, tall, fierce man.”

For many years, Kirk worked as a columnist for Buckley’s National Review. A member of staff commented: “…he seldom visited the National Review offices, but when he did, the staff met a plump fellow with a kindly face wearing a cape, a black wide-brimmed, floppy felt hat, a gold-plated stickpin in his necktie and carrying a sword cane.”

Kirk was born in Plymouth, Michigan, 103 years ago, on October 19, 1918. He was the son of a humble railway engineer and grew up in a prefabricated house (ordered from a Sears, Roebuck catalogue) located besides the tracks and close to the marshalling yards. Kirk attended a state school and studied for his first degree at Michigan State College.

For his Master’s, Kirk re-located to Duke University in North Carolina and completed a dissertation on the life of nineteenth century Virginian politician, John Randolph of Roanoke. After serving in the U.S. Army during the War (mostly in a dreary army camp in the Utah desert), Kirk was determined to return to university to obtain his Phd.

At this stage, a life of academia beckoned and he was soon employed as a lecturer in the history of civilisation at Michigan State College. The college allowed Kirk a leave of absence to study for his Phd. and Kirk’s choice of academic institution was St. Andrews University, Scotland. Kirk became enchanted by St. Andrews, calling it “the cosiest university in the world” and for the rest of his life he would spend several months each year in Scotland. His interest in British Conservatism deepened as a result and he discovered his life-long muse, Edmund Burke.

Unsurprisingly, Conservative philosophy was the subject of his thesis. When completed, Kirk re-edited the thesis and wrote to an American publishing house offering an astonishingly detailed, 500-page manuscript on the evolution of Conservative thought in Britain and America. His book was accepted and was first published in 1953 under the title of The Conservative Mind – From Burke to T.S.Eliot.

This seminal work deserves to be read and treasured by all Conservatives. It comprises a series of chapters examining the works of different cultural, philosophical and political Conservatives. Subjects examined included such diverse figures as John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Walter Scott, Samuel Coleridge, Alexis de Tocqueville, Walter Bagehot, Benjamin Disraeli, Arthur Balfour and W.H. Mallock.

Kirk begins by asking “What is the essence of British and American Conservatism?” He answers: “Strictly speaking, Conservatism is not a political system, and certainly not an ideology. It is a way of looking at civic social order.”

The author then identifies the 10 principles of Conservatism, as follows:

  1. The Conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.
  2. The Conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.
  3. Conservatives believe in the principle of prescription – that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that man runneth not to the contrary.
  4. Conservatives are guided by the principle of prudence.
  5. Conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.
  6. Conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability.
  7. Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.
  8. Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.
  9. The Conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.
  10. The thinking Conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognised and reconciled in a vigorous society.

Kirk had little to say about economics and even contemporary politics in The Conservative Mind. His mission was to prove that Conservatism was a largely Anglo-American creed that first and foremost acted to conserve, to preserve and to pass on to future generations the best of humane traditions, rather than to advocate a rigid ideology or political party. He emphasised the spiritual nature of the individual, an acceptance of the mystery of human existence and the acknowledgement that innovation must be tied to traditions and customs.

Kirk’s parents were Protestants, but in his youth his faith went adrift, and he preferred to emphasise his stoicism. Later he re-discovered his spiritual side and became an ardent Christian Humanist. His religious convictions and the belief that Judeo-Christianity provided western civilisation’s moral foundation led to a close friendship with T.S. Eliot. Both men believed that for society to flourish in the future “permanent things” had to be defended in the present. After Eliot’s death, Kirk was to author the first comprehensive study of his works, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century.

Later in life, Kirk followed up The Conservative Mind with a history of the development of western civilisation entitled The Roots of American Order, in which he argued that the intellectual underpinnings of modern western society lay in the cultures of five cities: Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London and Philadelphia.

The Conservative Mind was instantly successful and provided American Conservatives with a sense of history and philosophy. In 1956, Time magazine named Kirk as one of the 15 most important American intellectuals. Washington Post columnist Sidney Blumenthal commented in 1986 that The Conservative Mind “…was crucial in establishing the cause as a valid intellectual enterprise” because it “offered a genealogy of Conservatism.”

Kirk lived as a “Tory Bohemian” and worked from his eccentric home, Piety Hill, in Mecosta, Michigan. There he converted a toy factory into his library and built an Italianate house adorned with sculptures rescued from demolished buildings in Western Michigan. Kirk dwelt there with his wife and four daughters and frequently hosted refugees from communist countries.

Russell Kirk authored 20 further non-fiction books, three novels and some 3,000 weekly columns. He also became a noted author of ghost stories and horror fiction. Indeed, so esteemed was he that he was invited to become an honorary member of the Count Dracula Society and frequently attended their meetings in southern California.

Regarding his later political works, of particular note is Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered, America’s British Culture and The Portable Conservative Reader. Kirk had no interest in becoming a political activist, despite writing speeches for both Barry Goldwater and Pat Buchanan in campaigns two decades apart. However, his influence upon the growing American Conservative movement was pivotal and in 1989 Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal.

On his 103rd birthday, Russell Kirk’s work should be read by all Conservatives. He identified a Conservatism distinct from libertarianism and nationalism that valued a moral order rooted in faith and tradition. In doing so, Kirk demonstrated that Conservative values provide the essential foundation for a free and prosperous future.