Welcome to Kefauver High, P.J.

So I had dinner with P.J. O'Rourke last night.

He was visiting our school to give a speech at last night's assembly--he's a friend of the father of one of our seniors, and he was visiting over the weekend--and because our faculty member in charge of getting speakers is also deeply uncomfortable in the spotlight, he asked me to a) introduce P.J., b) meet him upon arrival and give him a campus tour, and c) have him sit at my table for dinner.

This was a pretty cool gig for me, having been a fan of P.J.'s writing since I first stumbled across the National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook parody back in my misspent youth. I've always loved reading O'Rourke's work even when I've strongly disagreed with its conclusions; he's too good a writer to ignore, even if I end up rejecting what he's telling me. (It probably helps that we're both on the libertarian ends of our respective parties.)

His arrival, though, was startling. First, his face was obviously cut and scarred, and recently so. (Turns out he'd fallen off a horse and made what he called a "one-point landing" on his nose.) Second, he was much shorter than I'd expected; I'd always assumed he would be about six-three, but he was only about five-seven--noticeably shorter than I am, which was completely out of the blue. And third, with his stature, his slight build, his piercing blue eyes, his craggy (and possibly craggier than normal) features, his slightly throaty voice, and his lightly slicked hair, he reminded me powerfully of my grandfather, Joseph L. Cashwell, who died in 1990.

Not the vibe I expected from the guy who invented Maria Teresa Spermatazoa and "Wing-Ding" Weisenheimer.

But as it turned out, he was in fact downright avuncular. He delighted in my lame (and hurried, owing to a fast-closing sunset) tour of the campus, noting that his three-year-old son might be looking for a boarding school someday, laughed at my attempted bon mots, and sat next to Kelly at dinner and allowed himself to be charmed. When the time came to introduce him to the auditorium, I extemporized a short bit about how I was somewhat amused by introducing to my students a writer whose work I had carefully concealed from the prying eyes of my own high-school teachers, a writer whose new book (always, always plug the new book) was titled On the Wealth of Nations (a contemporary look at Adam Smith's masterpiece), and most important, a writer whose books I'd enjoyed even when I didn't agree with them because they usually made me think and always made me laugh.  Then I brought him on.

He slayed them.

I have never seen the student body respond so positively to a speaker. It wasn't just that they were on his side politically (which the majority of them are, much more than the faculty)--it was that he clearly remembered the thing that so few speakers (and so few writers) remember: that the audience could easily be doing something else. He made it his goal to be worth the time and attention given him. He also fielded a couple of questions at the end, all of which were served up as softballs by students hoping to hear something O'Reillyesque. (P.J. was pointedly dismissive of O'Reilly and his ilk, by the by.)

"What do you think of the war on drugs?"

"I think we lost." (Huge laugh.) "The only question now is whether to surrender or try for a negotiated settlement."

The final question was "What do you think about abortion?" and I think about 75% of the room cringed. To the questioner's surprise, I'm sure, P.J. offered a very nuanced reply, to the effect that while he was personally opposed to it, he recognized that any attempt to legally define the beginning of life (like any attempt to legally define its end) was to some degree arbitrary, and that current law, in its trimester-based system, recognized that fact. I honestly think it was one of the best answers these guys could have heard: one that staked out a personal position, but also explored the difference between personal and political solutions, and dignified the opposition's viewpoint at the same time.

My grandfather was one of nine kids born to a tobacco farmer in North Carolina's poorest county. When the Depression hit, he marched in some May Day parades before he left for Cleveland in search of work. He found a job at a gas station there, graduated from Western Reserve, and met my grandmother. After my dad and aunt were born, he served in the Pacific in WWII, then returned to work as a teacher, principal, and officer of the state Board of Education. He was a bundle of contradictions, Daddy Joe was--a somewhat northernized Southerner, a liberal in a conservative state, an educator from an undereducated county--but he was a gentleman to his fingertips, and lord knows he had a sense of humor.

And if there's a writer on earth who deserves to look like him, it's P.J. O'Rourke.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on November 6, 2007 7:56 PM.

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