Rob Long, a conservative Hollywood TV writer behind a TNT show called Sullivan & Son, said the party has to accept that it’s been living in a fantasy world. “It’s like The Matrix,” he said. “You can continue to live in the dream world, or you can take the pill and we can unplug you and you can see that things are actually kind of bad.”
Conservatives, they felt, needed their own cultural voice—a Letterman, a Leno, an SNL, a 30 Rock—to compete with the overwhelming liberal dominance of the culture. As the Republican image stood today, said Lileks, “we’re the stupid people, we’re the yokels, we’re the dumb, we’re the racists, we’re the hicks, we’re against everything that’s hip and cool.”
Jonah Goldberg attempted a note of optimism, garnering hearty applause when he said conservative ideas were “still salable because, A, they’re correct. Two plus two is four. You have to believe that we’re going to be proven right by reality.”
In response, the moderator recounted the litany of dreary statistics from Reed and Rasmussen earlier that day. “So therefore we should give up and burn our passports and stay on this boat forever?” said Goldberg with real exasperation.
The crowd erupted in cheers.
We were circling Cuba. Kay from Old Greenwich was doing the backstroke in the Lido pool as cumulus clouds hung over the hazy green hills on the horizon line. A fat guy in sandals wandered by wearing a CLUB GITMO T-shirt. Steel-drum music was percolating through hidden speakers, and the Caribbean was so surreally blue it looked like a giant toilet-bowl puck had been thrown in to color it.
After two days, I was finding the National Review cruisers to be generally courteous and warm, old-fashioned and good-mannered, and responsive to good manners, too. In prolonged conversation, none felt it appropriate to ask what I did for a living. When I did reveal I was from New York Magazine—from the bluest city in the country—I was first met with quizzical stares but then cordial acceptance. The non-Beltway cruisers were particularly curious about the man they would come to refer to as “the mole.” A few took the opportunity to grouse to me about their liberal children, who seemed to bring them genuine disappointment and confusion. Others simply enjoyed talking to somebody under 50. I would come to enjoy my conversations with a 90-year-old named Dick from Connecticut, a veteran of World War II, who would call me to his poolside table for help on the New York Times crossword. “A Palestinian political party that’s not Hamas or Hezbollah,” Dick asked.
“That’s it!” he wheezed. “I always joke that it rhymes with fatwa!”
At other times, things got a little too old-fashioned for comfort. I met a man near the railing who was there as a caregiver for a 70-year-old National Review cruiser from Palm Desert, California. He was gay and seemingly liberal and had come on the cruise only to push his boss around in a wheelchair. As he smoked a cigarette, he recounted a conversation the two had about the ship’s largely Indonesian and Filipino staff.
BOSS: You notice none of the workers are white.
CAREGIVER: Except the managers upstairs.
BOSS: Well, that’s the way it should be.
There were, to be fair, two black National Review cruisers, approximately three Indian-Americans, and two Korean-Americans. The latter were John Yoo, the former Bush Administration lawyer who helped formulate its theory on torture, and his mom. “My mother is a geriatric psychiatrist,” he noted during a panel, eliciting a burst of laughter from the silver-haired crowd before he could finish the punch line. “I thought after the election this could be really good for the family business.”
In person, Yoo was charming and funny, widely praised by his co-cruisers for having tangled successfully with Jon Stewart during his sit-down on The Daily Show three years ago. Yoo worried that the Republicans were too quick to blame each other, saying, “This is all out of Lord of the Flies and Karl Rove is Piggy and we’re supposed to all chase him around with spikes and throw him on a fire?”
After a break for cookies came the 4 p.m. panel, “The Media: How Deep in the Tank?” Lileks, the energetic Minnesotan, was apoplectic that the mainstream media castigated Michele Bachmann for suggesting without evidence that Hillary Clinton adviser Huma Abedin’s had connections to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Eventually, the subject turned to the right’s need to get outside its own media bubble, which had helped fan the fiction that it was going to win the election. Michael Walsh, a conservative writer, said Fox News was “incredibly tiresome” and needed to boot Sean Hannity. During the Q&A, a woman asked about her favorite on-air personality, Mike Huckabee. “He reminds me of Elmer Gantry,” said Walsh, referring to the con man played by Burt Lancaster in the 1960 film. “I don’t take anything he says seriously. He’s another person who should be off Fox, by the way.”