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."
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?