Back in the 1980s, P.J. O’Rourke wrote a classic piece for Harper’s, titled “Ship Of Fools.” O’Rourke signed up for a cruise up the Volga River with subscribers of The Nation magazine. He had a grand old time recording the excesses of the aged American leftists (“the pack of thirty fussing geriatrics”) on the cruise, and poking fun at them. To my knowledge, this was the first time any writer had done this kind of piece; the fundraising opinion mag cruise was at that time a new thing. Since then, the humorous hatchet job on the political cruise has become a genre of its own. Frankly, I was surprised to see that New York magazine had sent a reporter on the National Review post-election cruise, to record the miseries of the fussy conservative geriatrics. These pieces are so easy to write. Nevertheless, Joe Hagan’s report is a guilty pleasure — guilty, because these cruisers are such an easy target, and a pleasure because though I’ve never been on an NR cruise, as a right-of-center opinion writer, I have found myself in situations like this:
That night, Cal Thomas, a USA Today columnist and Fox News contributor, was the host of my table of eight. At an earlier panel, he’d suggested that his audience “starve the beast” of government by refusing to pay income taxes; but now his stage fire had waned, and he looked bored, peering around our table with half-lids, his hound-dog face propped in his hand. I sat next to a retired surgeon from California named Duane, who heralded the Dinesh D’Souza film 2016: Obama’s America as the definitive truth regarding Obama’s anti-Colonialist background, which now portended America’s inevitable slide into socialism. Thomas liked the movie but dismissed its impact on the election, saying it had preached to the converted and had “sourcing problems” besides. But Duane, who has thick glasses and a closely shorn flat-top, was undeterred, insisting it was relevant. “I disagree!” he spat.
This was a phenomenon that was common on the cruise—the conservative pundits and columnists from the National Review attempting to gently disinter their followers from unhelpful conservative propaganda. For people who believe in the truth of works like Dreams From My Real Father, a conspiracy-theory documentary that argues that Obama’s real father was a communist propagandist who turned Obama into a socialist Manchurian Candidate, this could be difficult work.
Nobody who has paid thousands of dollars to spend a week or so in the company of ideological confreres wants to be told that they’re wrong about anything. I’ve been in social situations in which I’ve been talking to a stranger who, upon finding out that I’m a writer and a conservative, wants my imprimatur on whatever theory he has about politics or current events. Sometimes I can agree with them, but I’ve learned through experience that the better thing is to say something noncommittal and try to get out of the situation. It’s almost always the case that an actual exchange of ideas is not what one’s interlocutor wants to have.
In the New York piece, NR editor Rich Lowry is quoted saying, of these cruises, “We don’t do this for fun.” That’s true. When I worked at NR a decade ago, I once said that I hoped I stayed with the magazine long enough to go on one of these cruises. A colleague told me that they’re actually hard work for the magazine’s staff. I didn’t ask what that meant, but reading this piece, I think my questions have been answered.