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Heart of Whiteness | The Nation

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Heart of Whiteness

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Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.

—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Sunday afternoon: I am worried and you would be too. I am en route to Alaska, where my editors have instructed me to submit myself to a cruise through the state's inland passage with the likes of Bill Buckley, Milton Friedman and Gary Bauer, sponsored by National Review magazine. Upon landing in Juneau I am immediately assaulted near the baggage counter by a woman handing out photos of herself beside a smiling Newt Gingrich. "Character!" she screeches over and over. The bus to port features an endless tape loop of what must be the world's only female Republican folk singer. And I am going to be stuck on a boat with these people for an entire week! Sartre did not know the meaning of "No Exit."

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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My mood improves mightily upon arrival at our boat, the M.S. Ryndam, a vessel the size of Times Square. On the gangplank, I am enthusiastically greeted by various National Review staff members, who appear to have been handed my photo in advance with instructions to kill me with kindness. They take my picture, hand me an N.R. sweatshirt and send a bottle of champagne to my room. Inside my room fresh fruit grows out of the glass bowl on the coffee table every time I bite an apple. And this is in the cheap seats—no balcony, no porthole. I shudder to think of the freebies the Buckleys must be scarfing down floors above in their 1,126-square-foot penthouse. Before I have time to unpack, alarms start blaring and we are herded toward a lifeboat drill on the lower promenade deck, where we line up in our state-of-the-art life preservers to watch the crew lower the boats into the water while we consider the merits of a watery grave. The conversation is nervous and joking, as people meditate on just how we each would react if it were them or me. I wonder if, in extremis, I would eat Robert Novak. We have not yet been given our dining assignments, so I eat dinner alone. There is no sign of the Buckleys or any of the other mucketymucks at dinner. I am horrified to learn that while the food is plentiful and terrific, the drinks cost money. Heading back to my cabin, I make the no less astonishing discovery that room service is free. I order chocolate cake, even though I'm not hungry, to make up for the drinks. Falling asleep to A Very Brady Sequel, I'm wondering how Gary Bauer, whose Family Research Council has parlayed the nuclear American family into one of Washington's most potent new-right political machines, is handling the semi-incest subplot between Marcia and Greg.

Monday: N.R. seminar sessions are held in the ship's Vermeer Show Lounge, which is decorated with a three-dimensional tulip motif that somehow calls to mind not flowers but nuclear-tipped missiles. Our subject for today is "The State of the G.O.P." The crowd, about 475 strong, is dressed down, with about half sporting our new gray-hooded National Review sweatshirts. They are also mad as hell. It seems Newt Gingrich, the star of this cruise just two years ago, has metamorphosed into one of "them." Seduced by the siren song of Beltway bewitchment, he has sacrificed his principles and caved in to Clinton on the recent so-called balanced budget. I imagine the siren of "Character" eating her snapshots, as rough seas and hard rain rock the room back and forth, sending chairs rolling across the stage and coffee cups into the laps of their erstwhile consumers. Buckley chairs the session, which is staged as a kind of floating Firing Line. The deal "wouldn't be so objectionable," Milton Friedman huffs, "if the Republicans weren't going around boasting about it." N.R. Washington editor Kate O'Beirne suggests self-esteem classes for the majority. Bob Novak says he hardly recognizes Dick Armey anymore. N.R. senior editor Richard Brookhiser piles on with a nasty story about House budget committee chairman John Kasich, who admitted to one of the magazine's young star reporters how "absolutely incredible" he found the new Toad the Wet Sprocket album. Such regard from a Republican committee chairman for this third-generation Dead knockoff, fumes Brookhiser, "is a symbol of the intellectual darkness in which Kasich wanders and stumbles." What's next? Rat Dog? Phish? The Spice Girls?

Despite the impressive capacity of the auditorium, we are seated on leather club chairs and comfy upholstered couches, as if this were one big Buckley living room. While the purpose of a conservative political gathering may be to complain, luxury cruise ships are designed—at least ostensibly—for relaxation and enjoyment. So the Ryndam travels on a kind of undertow of cognitive dissonance. With a staff-to-passenger ratio of roughly one-to-two, it is a challenge to do anything for yourself on this boat outside the bathroom. In the all-you-can-eat dining room, there is a man who stands by the coffee dispenser so you don't have to move the lever up and down with your index finger. Another man stands by the food-tray line, carefully placing a knife, fork, spoon and napkin on each one, lest it prove too much of a strain for the rest of us. The busboys and waiters smile and agree with everything, regardless of whether they understand it.

The great thing about being a right-winger, so far as I can tell, is that you get to exploit people and feel good about it. Any self-respecting liberal would feel guilty being so well served by so many apparent Third Worlders. But the National Review cruisers don't feel guilty about anything, and it seems to make them nicer people. They are polite. They don't sneer. They seem to really care when they ask how you feel, how you slept or how you can possibly believe what you read in the "liberal media." The young female guards posted outside the auditorium to keep out the nonpaying riffraff are warm and friendly. Just think of the angst any decent-minded liberal would experience at the thought of refusing entry to a seminar on how to save the country.

Following the seminar, we have a short break and then it's time to get dressed for the magazine's introductory cocktail party, also amid Vermeer's missiles. N.R. publisher Ed Capano takes the liberty of introducing me to the crowd as the Nation's "resident spy." My status on the cruise is akin to that of a llama in a petting zoo. Everyone is as friendly as can be, and their curiosity is boundless and uncontainable. I happen to be talking to Friedman when the introduction takes place, arguing about whether capitalism is "good for the Jews." ("It's been good for all three of us," he playfully points out, meaning himself, his wife, Rose, and me. "And we're all the Jews here.") We are regularly interrupted by a stream of elderly, cleavage-enhanced older women, who beg the diminutive neo-classicist to pose for the photographer. The results are particularly picturesque because the economist's bald pate is just high enough to reach the height of the women's breasts. Once the crowd sees I have been addressed by the great Yoda, my stock rises precipitately, as most assume that my political salvation is only a matter of time. "Converted yet?" they ask, with no discernible irony.

Spying into the private room that contains the captain's table, I notice with some resentment that Buckley has excused himself from the ship's explicit orders regarding formal wear, even with the easily available rentals, while I have shlepped my tuxedo thousands of miles, going so far as to pony up thirty bucks in the jewelry shop to replace forgotten cufflinks, out of misplaced respect for the conservative order of things. I try to approach him, to inquire whether casual dress at formal affairs might not be a formula for chaos and anarchy, by the moon-faced bar mitzvah line that material every time the Master shows his well-tanned face.

Buckley and Friedman are the trip's biggest draws. The degree of hero worship that conservatives practice toward their leaders is something to behold. Richard Brookhiser's wife cannot enjoy a cup of coffee on deck without being immediately engaged on the question of whether the liberal infiltration of the Catholic Church is irreversible. Haley Barbour is accosted poolside and asked whether the New York Times is trying to set him up by being so nice about his recent appearance before Fred Thompson's investigative committee. Even the throng around Pat Sajak, all purpose conservative celebrity, is three deep any given moment. Earlier that day, as the boat motored toward prehistoric glaciers, N.R. editor John O'Sullivan and I stood on deck and mused on the awesome beauty of these timeless mountains of snow and ice. We were soon interrupted by a middle-aged fan with a camera who explained that he felt like he was meeting his favorite rock stars.

Dinner generally involves at least five courses, which leaves plenty of time for philosophical disputation after pleasantries. The N.R. staff has elected to move me around from table to table as a means, I imagine, of entertaining the guests.

Tonight I am seated with three generations of the Napiers, who live an all-American life in suburban Ohio. They are a charming family, and the parents, Jim and Kristine, are both curious, and a bit saddened, by the extent of my commitment to Satan. But they are also a bit concerned that their two children, aged about 10 and 15, might catch whatever it is I'm carrying. So they speak in perpetually hushed voices, and ask me questions like "How could you possibly oppose abstinence-only sex education?" Jim is already a little frustrated that he cannot convince his teenage daughter to attend any National Review sessions, but it's only fair, as he won't even let her watch The Simpsons.

The Napiers finally give up on me, more in sorrow than in anger. We bid one another good night, but not before I suggest to the kids that they check out the nice, wholesome Brady movie on TV. In the evening, the ship's entertainment features chintzy magic shows and third-rate summer stock. There's also a karaoke bar, but the Nation does not pay me enough to watch drunken right-wingers strangle Sinatra in this fashion, so you will have to use your imagination. Instead I retire to the casino, where I seem to be in favor with the conservatives' favorite legislator, as the blackjack dealer busts four times in a row.

Tuesday: The weather is no better today and the mood on board tums ugly. Glacier Bay National Park is out there somewhere, but we might as well be in Queens. It's freezing cold in the middle of August, and the sun is a distant memory. There is only so much Scrabble and bridge a person can play. And having an underpaid Indonesian lay out one's silverware and fill one's coffee cup loses its romance rather quickly. Moreover, the ship's activities appear to have been designed with a dogged commitment to enforced boredom and self-mockery. We are offered a "Bad Hair Day" workshop, "The Art of Napkin-Folding and Dining Etiquette," ice- or vegetable-carving and scarf-tying demonstrations, in addition to what appears to be round-the-clock Snowball Bingo. For art lovers, the ship's gallery features LeRoy Neiman prints; for bibliophiles, the library boasts an extensive collection of Reader's Digest condensed fiction.

Following four courses and 10,000 calories of lunch, it's time for Part II of the "It's Our Party and We'll Cry if We Want To" session. By now, yesterday's polite, well-behaved audience has grown tired of Buckleyesque high-mindedness. The grouchiness builds as the subject rams to Bill Clinton. If right-wingers are disgusted by their own, they tremble in awe at the President's supernatural ability to tromp them on their issues. "He embraced our agenda in general, and attacked it in detail," cries Barbour. "He is the only man alive who can cry with just one eye." At one point, Brookhiser tries to convince the assembled faithful that if Clinton had chosen to vacation with them, rather than on Martha's Vineyard, "a lot of you would leave this room thinking he wasn't so bad." The audience gasps in horror. If this had been a movie, we would have been engulfed by a tidal wave.

Leaving aside its accouterments—like first-rate food, bonechina coffee cups and leather recliners, to say nothing of the rolling seas—well-fed, luxuriously located conservative anger is difficult to distinguish from the undernourished, folding-chair liberal variety, at least by sound alone. Like the denizens of any Grace Paley story planning a boycott of the grapes at a West Village supermarket, gray-haired ladies and balding men stand up at the mike and demand to know: "Where are our leaders today?" and "Where is our vision?" and "What can we, the people who are in this room, do about this terrible problem?" The answer was always the same: Return to the principles that made us great, the principles of Ronald Reagan.

Reagan nostalgia engulfs this gathering like the goddamn fog and rain outside the boat. Gary Bauer brings the audience almost to tears with a sappy story about watching Reagan give Barry Goldwater's 1964 nominating speech and promising his dad that he would work for that man "someday, when he's President." The N.R. guest who makes the best use of this affection by wrapping himself in its mantle is California Attorney General Dan Lungren. The boyishly handsome, ex-Little League coach speaks wistfully about Reagan to the enraptured audience. Instead of joining the collective kvetch about Republican failures of nerve, Lungren outlines a rhetorical package of "rights and responsibilities" around which a new post-Reagan conservatism could coalesce, a package that contains pretty much the same unpleasantness that animates California conservatism today: antiwelfare, anti-affirmative action, anti-immigration, tough-guy crime packages and allergies to most forms of legitimate taxation. But Lungren comes across as not constipated like Pete Wilson, nor hysterical like Pat Buchanan, but next-door-neighborly, like Reagan without the attendant goofiness. Today Lungren calmly points out that while it is illegal for a 17-year-old girl to sign up for a tanning session or receive a tattoo without her parents' permission, those same parents have no right "to know what's up" when she asks for an abortion. He's just a likable, suburban Everydad, and here's what happens to be on his mind. Among the cruisers, the buzz on Lungren builds all week long. By its end, people start wondering if Lungren will feel a need to serve out his entire governorship, which he expects to win next year, before going all the way. Democrats should be very afraid.

Dannymania calms down a bit after the session, and, following more downtime to stare into rainy mist, there's another cocktail party scheduled, this one by the pool. Women with big diamonds and big hair; men with big diamonds and big bellies, though none quite as substantial as Bob Novak's. Not even Haley Barbour's is as substantial as Novak's, which is helpful, I imagine, during those inevitable moments when decent-hearted people fantasize about sending him hurtling overboard into the frozen fjords. Tonight, dress is casual, and the room becomes a sea of polyester. Mentally adding up all the black, Latino and Asian National Review cruisers, I come to an informal tally of zero.

Openly gay cruisers, so to speak, number two: conservative Boston talk-radio personality David Brudnoy and his dashing friend, Ward Cromer. Since the frumpy, self-loathing Whittaker Chambers continues to provide the model for how a gay conservative is supposed to conduct himself, to admit that one is happily gay on an N.R. cruise is a faux pas on a Napoleonic scale. Forming a tactical alliance, Brudnoy and I sally over to Gary Bauer to try to make sense of why Christian right-wingers get so verklempt over gay marriage. Bauer is yet another case of "when-bad-politics-happens-to-nice people," and, like Ralph Reed, he looks like he could be a member of the graduating class of Beaver Cleaver's junior high; but his arguments turn out to be a massive letdown. "If we let two men or two women marry," Bauer politely asks, "then why shouldn't a man be allowed to marry two women? Why shouldn't I be allowed to marry my own daughter?" It's a war against sexual anarchy, in other words, and gay marriage is just the perverts' plan to annex the Sudetenland. Asked why he wants to hang around with so many homophobes, Brudnoy explains that they are preferable to the gay left, who "read him out of the human race for not adhering to their line." "These people," he insists, "can be educated."

Tonight I have the misfortune to be seated next to—but not at—the captain's table, in the little room where Captain Buckley and his wife, Pat, host from opposite ends. I imagine the dry wit is flowing as generously as what looks to be the free liquor, while consoling myself with my own decidedly unwitty and uncharming dinner companions. One guy next to me blows a ceaseless stream of cigarette smoke onto my lobster while explaining in excruciating detail how he discovered all the oil in the North Sea, and Maggie Thatcher still owes him money for it. Another elderly gentleman grows exasperated with the lack of progress in my conversion to Friedmanism and screams: "If it weren't for capitalism, there wouldn't be a Nation magazine to pay you to tell people how awful it is, young man!" (Little does he know...) I forgive the dumb bastard, however, when, feeling guilty, he orders me a couple of drinks and I retire, two-fisted, to the casino once again, where Bauer's boss dances on my shoulder, throwing thunderbolts on the hands of the dealer.

Wednesday: The ship docks in a nowheresville called Sitka. The cold rain and mud make the place feel hellish, with nothing but redneck bars, depressing pawnshops, tourist-trap stores and long rain-soaked lines in front of the town's few working pay phones. Back on board, cruisers are wondering aloud why the hell National Review didn't stick with its previous winning formula and take everybody to the Caribbean, where the sun tends to shine in August and the thermometer occasionally spurts past 50 degrees. There's a post-dinner "smoker" that night by the pool, and the magazine provides cognac, cigars and young Dutch women to light them in grand ceremony. Ed Capano asks me whether I've had much time to hang with the Buckleys. I reply that I am waiting for the bar mitzvah line to die down. The following morning, I am greeted by a hand-scribbled note from the Man Himself that "the line isn't that long." I am among the first to admit to being charmed by Buckley's Lord of the Manor act. But I can wait until Friday night, when I am scheduled to sit at the captain's table.

Thursday: We dock in the early morning in Juneau, Alaska's capital. The sun is finally out and the city is Alaska's conservative political leadership talks enterprise tough but lives off the fat of its oil-rich public lands. Residents like to think of themselves as hardy pioneers, but three-quarters of them live in metropolitan areas with cable TV, cell phones and sport-utility-vehicle traffic jams. They pay no sales tax and no income tax, and spout aggressive antigovernment rhetoric. At Republican Governor Tony Knowles's reception for Buckley and company that afternoon, the festivities commenced with a musical performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Buckley later chuckled that this was indeed preferable to "Hound Dog," the tune on the lips of the rest of the Nation, on this, the twentieth anniversary of Elvis's death. Buckley should be more respectful. Given Elvis's politics, he might one day decide to show his face again—on a National Review cruise.

Like the rest of the fare-paying paparazzi, I am not invited to the governor's house, so I have the day to do what one does as an Alaskan tourist. Salmon fishing, salmon-baking, salmon-watching, salmon-farming and the like, however, do not inspire. Instead, I fly over the spectacular Mendenhall glacier in a six-seat floatplane. Alaska is filled with such natural wonders, including the Tongass National Forest, which the conservatives on board are trying to destroy. They will accomplish this, no doubt, just minutes after the Clinton-Gore photo op announcing its salvation.

Back on board, my dinner arrangements appear to have been scheduled by Pat Robertson. The appointed subject matter for our conversation tonight appears to be "Why Don't You Jews Just Give It Up, Already?" The most pleasant of my inquisitors is a middle-aged Northern California lay preacher who is genuinely interested in discussing theology. Our conversation is illuminating until he says he wishes he could introduce me to his friends who are "completed Jews"--that is, the pro-Jesus kind. I try to get back to my fillet but suddenly the rest of the table wants to join in the conversation. "Why have the Jews been at war with Christianity for 2,000 years?" asks one of them. "Did you know that some people say the Holocaust never happened?" inquires another. My friend with the completed Jews at home apologizes with his eyes. Thanks, Bud. To add an appropriate note of surrealness, the boat has instructed its blonde female staff members to cruise the hall dressed in Canadian Mountie uniforms and swoop down on unsuspecting diners in the hopes that people will pay $9.95 for a photo commemorating this weird event. I hear the call of the casino and excuse myself. For the third night in a row, The Big Guy stays just where He belongs on the blackjack table.

Friday: This morning's seminar topic is "The Future of School Choice," but it features no teachers or other professional educators. Friedman argues the issue, as he does every issue, strictly on the grounds of the right of individual choice. Bauer views school choice as yet another front in the ongoing culture war. Sixties radicals have taken over the education establishment much as they have the news media. "For the schools to work," he insists, "they ought to teach our children to love the things we love, and care about the things we care about—and that's why we need vouchers." Buckley gently raises objections he's heard from his "Jewish friends," to whom right-wingers should listen, because they are all neoconservatives and no longer among the "the compassionate people." Even neocons, Buckley instructs his audience, worry about having a Christian education foisted on their children by the likes—though he does not say this—of Gary Bauer. Gary himself seeks me out on deck one day to tell me that, under a voucher plan, I would be free to send my children to whatever school I chose. I find this quite decem of him, since any school I would pick would be one that teaches children to fight the narrow-minded intolerance being taught to Gary's kids.

The spectators, now finished behaving themselves, are ready to vent. "Shouldn't we be demonizing the already criminalized Democratic Party?" asks one of those people who always end up at audience microphones. The panelists tell the lunatic that conservative politicians need Democratic votes and suggest instead that they focus their anger exclusively on the true villains, the teachers' unions. The applause is thunderous. There is no fatter target than a teachers' union on a conservative luxury cruise.

All I remember about Ketchikan, where we docked that afternoon, is that the Dow dropped 247 points just as we got off the boat. I am not the kind of person who takes these things in stride, and so I canceled my reservation on yet another tiny $200-per-hour fjord-cruising plane, as I no longer had the disposable income to pay for it. Upon returning to my cabin to dress for my formal dinner engagement at the captain's table, I discover a note under the door informing me that arrangements have been changed and I am now back with the decidedly-ambivalent-about-incomplete-Jews table of last night. Fuck that, I put on my tux, sit down at the captain's table anyway and wait to be ejected. Of course this never happens, but neither do the Buckleys show. I spend most of dinner trying to figure out if I was moved because Buckley wasn't showing or whether he didn't show because I didn't move. I wave to him at a tiny little table outside the private room and he waves back, not a clue on his face. This will always remain a mystery. I retire to the casino and lose all the money I've won so far, having doubled my usual bet to make up for the goddamn Dow. Sorry, Gary, the S.O.B. is dead!

That night, around midnight, my phone goes off and I am invited upstairs by some National Review staff members for a nightcap. I was in my room watching the bloody scenes in Michael Collins, where every surprise phone call leads to brutal assassination. Naturally I wonder about being set up. I go anyway, and end up drinking and playing Ping-Pong-killing them in Ping-Pong if you must know-until about 3. Each time we hear footsteps, however, the three of them start rushing in the other direction. I am deeply touched by the risks undertaken for this unauthorized fraternization and will not reveal their identities on pain of forced karaoke.

Saturday: Perhaps I was set up. Staying up till 3 means I sleep through a healthy portion of the forum on racial quotas, which, of course, features only Caucasian discussants. The panel members expend a great deal of moral outrage, speaking of "official racism" and "media intimidation." Dan Lungren was supposed to sit this one out but he has ascended the dais, I later learn, owing to popular demand, and is introduced as "the next governor of California" to loud cheers. Lungren, looking ahead no doubt to that election, tells the audience that it's time for conservatives to reach out to black Americans, particularly through black churches, which ought to be their natural allies.

After the seminar I sit down with the guy for a formal interview. When I ask what positions he holds that might piss off those on the boat, Lungren avers that, just between us, he rather likes the Brady bill rather more than Charlton Heston does, and believes it extremely important, when in Congress, to convince his fellow conservatives to support a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Lungren's politics are well to the right of those of most Americans', but not as far as Ronald Reagan's were in 1980. Like Reagan, there is no hatred in his voice, and he emits no scary vibes. At 51, he's debate-team smart, aging-Beach Boy handsome and Eagle Scout sincere. Though he has spent most of his adult life in politics—he was a five-term Congressman from Long Beach—he does not hesitate for a second to tell you what he believes. In a one-on-one debate with a robotic politician like Al Gore, I fear Lungren would likely tear the wooden man apart limb by limb.

That afternoon, we convene for the final seminar of the tour, on the future of the conservative agenda. Ed Capano, my nemesis, promises to fax a copy of this article to everyone on board so as not to artificially jack up the Nation's circulation figures. This is considered hilarious. The issue that really gets juices flowing is affirmative action—which appears to be the ultimate stimulant to the trigger-happy crowd. "We are the party of the American Nation. They are the party of balkanization," announces N.R. editor and British citizen John O'Sullivan. "Either we remain a society that is essentially free or we have a small number of left-wing bureaucrats use one group against another and create a managed, caste-oriented, bureaucratic socialistic society." Wrapping up, Milton Friedman makes one of the stranger and more interesting comments of the week when he argues that Norman Thomas's Socialist Party has been "the most influential party in the history of this country," as "every one of its 1928 platform planks" was later enacted. The crowd murmurs uncomfortably about this, until a light goes on: Friedman is saying they're living in a socialist country. Well, shit, they knew that. So Norman is the father of the American twentieth. You heard it here first.

At cocktails, just before dinner, I seek out my new comrade, fellow Norman Thomas devotee Dr. Friedman. Rather than doing what I should have done, which was ask him what the hell was going to happen with the Dow, I listen to him expound on the great equalizing forces of the "invisible hand." "Is anyone forcing those Vietnamese to work in Nike factories at the point of a gun?" he demands.

Dinnertime: I try to scam myself back into the captain's table. But it's full of people who are supposed to be sitting there. Pat Buckley and I share a few laughs about how strange these Kennedy boys have turned out. I grab a drink, head out to watch the sun set on the veranda deck and wonder, once again, how it is that some people can be so smart, so decent and so wrong all at the same time. Here's something upon which I'm sure all my fellow cruisers can agree: After a week with them cruising Alaska's inland passage, I still don't have a clue.

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