My dinner with John Yoo

Okay, so I didn't really have dinner with John Yoo. But I did go on a cruise with John Yoo, and I did have dinner with Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. This is the story of that experience.

As my regular reader knows, I was working as an HCP (health care professional) in an ICU near Montreal, Quebec. I recently quit my job (yes, I quit, I wasn't fired), and decided to do something I had wanted to do for some time but never had the time or money--I decided to go on a National Review cruise.

I've been reading NR since about, I think, 1993. After a first introduction to WFB on TV, my father searched out a copy of NR. It was not to be found in my hometown, but, like Livingston, he was eventually discovered in the deep jungle where a copy was discovered being worshiped by natives. (Okay, it was a little easier to get a hold of NR in those days, but just barely.)

I had three issues to resolve on this cruise.

First, the desire to meet John Derbyshire. As I have seriously curtailed my political exposure in recent years, one of the highlights of my week is listening to RadioDerb while drinking one of my righteous Tanqueray martinis. I keep the gin in the freezer so I don't have to shake it with ice, and just the right amount of brine (martini olives pickled in vermouth) and Martini & Rossi dry garnished with three olives, and a couple ice cubes stirred into the mix, makes even Derb's pessimism seem overstated.

I really fell in love with RadioDerb while studying for the national boards. For four days before the test, I stayed in a motel and, ostensibly, studied. (In reality, I napped and watched sci fi movie marathons at night, but, meh, I passed in only 75 questions.) I ate lunch and dinner at the same place every day and listened to my back-log of RadioDerb on my MP3 player at every meal. After the test was over, I went to Barnes & Noble, bought the newly released We Are Doomed, and read it straight through. It pretty much crystallized the thoughts and attitudes I'd been developing since I first heard the phrase "compassionate conservatism," and I've been a regular listener ever since.

Second, the case of Johann Hari. Sometime earlier this autumn, I was reading Steve Sailer and followed a hypertext chain to this article by Hari. Ostensibly, he had gone on a National Review cruise a couple years ago and written a "tell-all" article about how xenophobic and crazy NR readers are. Could it be? I'm the only one I know. My inquiring mind wanted to know. More on my first-hand assessment of that perspective below.

Third, the question whether NR is really my sort of magazine anymore. Even as a high school student, I noted changes as soon as WFB turned over the helm. I no longer have that warm bath feeling when reading NR, and am not sure I see eye to eye with the editors. I had to choose between trying for this year's meeting of the H.L. Mencken Club and going on the NR Cruise. Although I really wanted to see again my old professor James Kurth, my decision was swayed in the end by my parallel interests in taking a cruise and visiting the Caribbean.

the cruise

As I mentioned in my last post, I got off to a bad start, including a run-in with TSA. Then, like the good Eagle Scout I am, I decided to be prepared with a thick wool sweater and be frugal by hiking from the airport to the cruise ship port. In Fort Lauderdale. Florida. Big mistake.

If you haven't been on a cruise before, you'll be flabbergasted by the scope of the endeavor. I imagined my ship pulling up a gangplank as a crowd of well-wishers waved handkerchiefs and shouted bon voyage from the peer. Nothing like it.

The "port" is an enormous area fenced off with a security perimeter in which about a gazillion ships are docked, including military vessels and transport liners unpacking tractor-trailer-sized cargo containers. The road to the cruise ship is long, dusty, and without sidewalk. As you approach your ship, there are about half-a-dozen other cruise ships, all unloading last weeks passengers and vetting this week's passengers through their security check-point, which is in a warehouse and distressingly like boarding an airplane. I managed to sneak on a bottle of Remy-Martin, but I understand this was a fluke.

On finally boarding the vessel (through a covered walk-way, not my much-fantasized gangplank), you are immediately directed to the cafeteria (because your rooms are not quite ready), where you are given free food and asked to pay through the nose for cheap booze and wine.

At this point, you can pretty much go home because you've had the cruise experience. Unless you make a point to watch the stars and the waves and take in the sunsets, you're going to spend the next seven days eating and buying more cheap booze and wine than you'd like to. There are a lot of activities, but they mostly consist of live action versions of things you can watch on television or do on the inter-webs.

Sure, there's the Caribbean, but it's very controlled. On Grand Turks, there is a "colonial village" filled with stores where you can buy t-shirts, but if you walk through the village, you don't find care-free fishermen, you find salt marshes and an industrial desalination facility. It's sort of like WestWorld or the Beijing Olympics.
police officer off camera

We sailed on the Eurodam, a ship of the Holland America cruise line. The staff--Dutch ships officers, white American cruise coordinators, and Indonesian waitstaff and stewards--was impeccable. (All staff had western-inspired names. My favorite was one of my stewards who was named G'Day, which sounds like it might be Asian to the untrained ear. I remarked on this name to several cruisers as I thought it was a pretty good in-joke from the steward's perspective, but no one was impressed. Either I'm lame or everyone else is. Every time I passed him, I would nod and say, "G'day.") The ship was clean. The food was pretty okay to pretty good. I ate beef every day, and the only really memorable dish was the modern osso buco on one of the last nights. The meat was decent quality, and they hit everything on the head including the texture of the vegetables and rice and the serving temperature. Or I had a lot of wine. Congrats, unknown chefs.

Holland America is apparently a cruise line catering to older people. When I arrived in Ft. Lauderdale airport, a kiosk worker asked what I was doing going on a Holland America cruise. In the Bahamas, there was another HA ship docked, and I met a blonde police officer from Seattle sitting on the beach. She's been on seven major cruise lines and keeps sailing on Holland America because it has the best food and service, but the company is a trade-off. "Too bad we're not on the same ship. We seem about the same age. It would be nice to have someone to... talk to," she said. I could almost hear her mind: God, I need to get laid. Not a singles cruise for sure.

National Review cruisers

On my ship, outside a few extended-family parties, the only young people were there with National Review, and there weren't many at that. Although there were some middle-aged folks, the crowd was overwhelmingly greying. It's not so much that it was a ship of Mr. Burnses as a ship of very opinionated well-off people with time on their hands to take a cruise.

As for Hari's characterization of the NR cruisers as the Islamic-genocide-hearty-handshake crowd, that characterization didn't really hold up. I'm sure there was concern about demographic trends in Europe and America, but I heard only one anti-Muslim statement during the entire trip, and that was from someone who works with Muslims in foreign countries and was denigrating their treatment of women. I even heard pro-diversity speak.

Conversations didn't tend to be about war but pedestrian topical politics. Are Cain's and Gingrich's affairs too much burden to win an election? Why do conservatives dislike Romney? If there was one topic that seemed to get people's hackles up, it was Occupy Wall Street, but while its mention drew jeers, there weren't calls to bulldoze them or whatnot. To be honest, the entire OWS fracas seems to me more about being plugged into the media, left or right, than about an important political or social development.

There was a wide range of livelihoods present. Small business, academia, publishing, law, military. I met two doctors. One was friendly and watched the sunset over the ocean with me one day while the other referred to me as an "expert in anesthesiology" at dinner after I had indicated I'd be interested in becoming a nurse anesthetist. That seems about par for the course for doctors, though. There were a few people who seemed like they might have significant personal wealth, but the representatives of investment banks, big pharma, and other bug-a-bears seemed to have been absent.
I went with this father-NCO pair to
Barrachina, drank pina colada,
and talked microbrew ales, like Dogfish Head

I dropped Steve Sailer's name a couple times in conversation, just to see what the reaction would be. In addition to not knowing any history of association-disassociation with NR, no one seemed to know who he was at all. Another example, perhaps, of Steven Pinker's observation that conservatives are the just the rear guard of history rather than the traffic cops. So sad, Steve. You're cutting edge and on history's cutting room floor at the same time.

As a young man unaccomplished in wealth accumulation and uninterested in team sports*, I was mostly relegated to interacting with the women on the cruise, which was okay with me. I met an older student of classical Greek who was cruising with her daughter who packs heat and collects assault weapons. The DailyKOS crowd is probably mmm-hmmming and nodding their heads, but actually these were two strong-willed and independent-minded women going their own ways in life. I also met a web entrepreneur who was obsessed with online privacy. She seemed more like someone I might've gone to college with, but the fact is she was on the NR cruise.

I spent one day with a care-free paralegal who happened to have grown up not far from me and who was on the cruise as a fan of, well, like everyone, of Mark Steyn, but of Jay Nordlinger as well. There was a good subset of NR cruisers who were there because of the star appeal of best-selling authors, but for the most part sycophancy was kept in check. Within the NR readership, your status as a celebrity is easily eroded by being on the wrong side of the wrong side of history.

After regaling my dinner companions one night with my TSA story, a Tea Partying couple got into a tiff with a lawyer who upbraided them when they mentioned how they skip out on jury duty. I had a cigar with him and his friend later that night under the stars on the aft deck. He says he's the only lawyer in America who belongs to both the Federalist Society and a particular list-serv of leftist law professors. He specializes in civil rights suits. Good for him.

Having a cigar with us was a gregarious Italian businessman who was cruising with his son, a painter who could talk formalism with me.

So what do I think of Johann Hari's take-down article? Well, as you might know, Hari was recently shown to be a plagiarist. And a very specific type of plagiarist at that. When publishing interviews, he would take an interviewee's comments and spice them up with quotations that the interviewee had given to other interviewers. My guess is that Hari's NR cruise article was something of the same dishonesty, inserting quotations he had heard elsewhere or imagined NR readers would make into situations he was writing about. Hari is dishonest, and his article is unreliable and, from what I can tell, a caricature of NR's readership.

National Review panelists

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was cruising with John Yoo. The whole time I was waiting for the TSA to clear me, I kept thinking but I'm going on a cruise with John Yoo! John Yoo!! So what's it like to cruise with John Yoo?

If you haven't been on an NR cruise before, you need to understand that most of the cruisers' days are spent attending conferences held in the ship's auditorium. The nights are spent dining with the panelists and hobnobbing with NR editors in the cocktail lounge or casino.
Kessler moderates Klavan, Lileks, Derb, forgotten, and Miller
on The Conservative Novelist

John Yoo was introduced to the audience as "war criminal John Yoo," which got a loud round of applause and even some whoops and hollers. It's not so much that the abstract concept of war crime was being applauded as that the vitriol against Yoo on the left seems to have triggered the enemy of my enemy is my hero phenomenon. Yoo's a funny guy as you might expect and responded that that introduction was the same he gets in Berkeley. He also made what I thought was a good joke at his own expense about being invited on a cruise where he could gamble and eat all day. The humor seemed to be lost on the hoary audience, though, as I expect it would be in Berkeley for different reasons. Yoo's lost a lot of weight now and doesn't look like the photos available on the web at all. Interesting as he was to see in person, if I had a free week again, I think I'd much rather spend it with a stack of his professional articles and books than to see him in person.

Of unexpected humor was John Sununu. I've always turned the channel when I've seen him on TV before, but in person he was hilarious and had the audience cracking up. Who knew?

My dinner with governor Tim Pawlenty was uneventful, not report worthy. Like, I suspect, most politicians, he was simply unable to turn off his politician-ness. When I told him I was considering nurse anesthesia, he responded by telling me that his administration had helped expand the scope of practice for nurse anesthetists in Minnesota. Great, T-Paw. Let me just get a frame and put a Fox news banner below your face. There, just like watching TV. In his defense, he's probably harboring a hankering for getting back in the arena and didn't know who he was having dinner with (it could be Johann Hari!).

As a panelist, T-Paw (note to conservative pundits: please don't refer to your candidate with a nickname that evokes a high-five) was fairly open, honest, reflective, even circumspect about his political decisions, as was senator Fred Thompson. From a temperamental perspective, I'd be happy to have either of them in the White House.

The NR editors were there, of course. They seemed to me just as you'd expect from reading their articles and watching them on TV--opinionated, quick, confidant, and interested in taxes and elections. Kevin Williamson has such a distinctive face that having him smoking a cigarette next to you in a bar is a little strange, but if you closed your eyes during his panel moderation you could hear the voice of NR quite clearly. Same with Jonah Goldberg, who, I note from a large plate of fried rice, is not eating Paleo.

S.E. Cupp talked to me about hunting and fishing at a cocktail party. She may be eating Paleo. Very enthusiastic. At the same party, Andrew Klavan graciously talked ghost stories with my paralegal companion. Pundits and authors are just people who have skills that apply to market niches.

Was I re-sold on NR? Not really. To me, NR is sort of like the Mitt Romney of institutional conservatism--election-driven, savvy but uninspired, competent but unsettling. The best articles in NR now--Derbyshire, Brookhiser, Miller, O'Sullivan, Pryce-Jones--are by people that seem to be orbiting around the periphery of the magazine. Although I don't pay much attention to NRO, so I may be missing a piece of the picture.

surreal experiences

Victor Davis Hanson proofreads: I sat behind VDH in the auditorium while he was editing an article on his laptop, using a word-processing program like everyone. You know this has to happen somehow, but you don't expect to watch the process over his shoulder.

Ralph Reed prom photo: The cruise line takes portrait photos of the couples on the cruise and posts them on a long wall in one hallway. There was Ralph Reed's photo along with everyone else's--say, that guy looks familiar.

Bolton's first cup of joe: I got up early, headed for my omelet, and passed John Bolton, who was briskly weaving around sluggish morning diners while carrying a cup of coffee in each hand.

And what about Derb? He seemed to be in hiding for most of the trip. By his own account, he spent most of his time drilling his research assistants Mandy, Candy, and Brandy. In Tai Chi. If you want an audio account of the cruise, you can listen to RadioDerb from 11-18. The noise in the background is actually what it sounded like to be on the ship.

Did I get to see him much? No, not at all. In fact, other than his panel appearances, I saw him only once. On the penultimate night, we were treated to free H.Uppman cigars, and the Courvoisier and Hennessey were flowing freely. (Actually, it's not as great as it sounds--lots of half-smoked cigars and half- and three-quarters-full glasses of cognac left over. A travesty.) Derb appeared across the aft deck wearing a yellow-orange polo shirt similar to the one in his website photo. He looked like he had had a lot to drink. Anyway, I didn't really have much to say other than "Say, feller, I like your show, a-yuk, a-yuk, a-yuk." So I let him fade into the night unmolested. Well, as long as more RadioDerb is broadcast and I can continue to get Marzetti martini olives, I'll be happy.

* I note that almost all team sports enthusiasts are out of shape and, regardless of whatever position they have risen to in life, strike me as essential spectators. This is a non-partisan comment. Victor Davis Hanson was one of the few older men on the cruise who looked like he could have actually physically defended his polity. (If he were a young urbanite today, I doubt he'd play "b-ball" or "toss the pigskin", despite the superficial similarity between team sports and hoplite warfare.) Another was, of course, Derb.