The whole thing was white, and broken, that much was clear. A week after the presidential election, when the dreams of Republicans were dashed with President Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney, we were snorkeling in the blue waters of the Caribbean. In the distance was a shipwreck. “You could make out the pieces of it,” said Ralph Reed, the right-wing political operator who had bolstered the Evangelical Christian vote for Romney. “It was deep and murky.”
Jonah Goldberg, the National Review contributor and author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, also bore witness to the once-great vessel that foundered off the coast of Fantasy Island and was now sunken and covered in white barnacles. “I saw the silhouette of it,” he says.
But what, exactly, were we looking at? It was Friday, November 16. We were in Honduras, gazing at a wreck off a resort called Fantasy Island, near Mahogany Bay. Through my goggles, I watched Reed, in white swim trunks and black flippers, flap his way down through the extravagantly blue waters to the old sunken barge, part of the $64.95 Shore Excursion available to passengers aboard the m.s. Nieuw Amsterdam, an 86,000-ton cruise ship owned by Holland America Line. It was day five of the National Review magazine’s Post Election Cruise 2012, and the GOP’s recent problems were, mercifully, about 760 nautical miles away. The cruise, featuring the star columnists of William Buckley’s 57-year-old conservative biweekly, had been planned long in advance, and everybody had believed it would be a victory party. An e-mail from the magazine’s publisher arrived a few days before we embarked: “Do not despair or fret. At least not next week.”
Onboard the Nieuw Amsterdam, no one could follow his advice. “Who sent Obama here to destroy America?” a fiftysomething woman asked me one evening over dinner, as if it were a perfectly reasonable question. And here onboard the cruise ship, it was. If the Nieuw Amsterdam was a kind of ark of American alienation, at least it was an eminently comfortable one. The ship was a country unto itself, eleven stories high, 936 feet fore to aft, with eleven bars, six restaurants, two swimming pools, five hot tubs, a large café, and a library. There was the endless buffet on the Lido deck, slot machines and craps in the casino, an Asian lounge singer who did a mean “Copacabana,” a discothèque and a chamber-music cocktail lounge, cigars and Cognac by the pool, gift shops, and a full-service spa.
We departed Ft. Lauderdale on a Sunday, November 11, and began steaming to the southeast, headed for Half Moon Cay, a Bahaman beach resort owned by the cruise line, and thence southward, deeper into the Caribbean.
The cruise began with a cocktail mixer on the midship deck, Champagne glasses glowing in the pool lights. The crowd was noticeably older, a retirement crowd in vacation-wardrobe colors, with flashes of the idiosyncratic: a one-eyed man in retro Yves Saint Laurent glasses and a sixtysomething blonde in gold-lamé pants. Ralph Reed, resplendent in a blazer and billowing pleated pants, held court among his fans. “I did my job!” I overheard him say.
Many onboard could recall a time when Buckley himself had cruised alongside them, in the nineties, but his ghost now seemed far away, a benevolent but faded spirit. Most of the roughly 600 National Review cruisers, who’d signed up for what was billed as the “conservative cruise of a lifetime,” were in their prime during the Reagan years—the greatest days to be a conservative. Nostalgia and loss hung in the air, with much talk of endings, both personal and national. To sum up his feelings about the election, John Wohlstetter, a national-security author in his mid-sixties who had met Buckley several times (“utterly gracious, and he listened”), recalled the words of a long-forgotten liberal lamenting a loss: “The people have spoken, the bastards.”
After drinks, we moved to the Manhattan Dining Room, an elegant two-story restaurant at the ship’s stern, where we would meet each evening, tabled with a different assortment of cruisers, sometimes hosted by writers and pundits from the National Review. Kevin Hassett, a former economic adviser to Mitt Romney, hosted my table of eight that night, arriving in a bright-green golf shirt and rimless glasses. He announced that this would be a “family” conversation in which he was the moderator.
“Minorities came out like crazy,” said Hassett, sighing. “White people didn’t get to the polls. There are far more African-Americans voting than they expected.”
“In Tampa,” noted Bobbie, a petite woman from Vero Beach, Florida, “they had lots and lots of lines.”
Hassett, with an oddly cheerful, Oh-What-My-Country-Has-Done-Now mien, predicted economic doom under Obama, the most likely scenario being another Great Depression, which would make 2008 look like a joyride.
That prompted a tall, extremely tanned blonde named Kay, from Old Greenwich, Connecticut, to ask Hassett, the co-author of the 1999 book Dow 36,000, “So what do we do with our money?”