Cruisin' With The Right


I know it's been a whole ten years since Eric Alterman unburdened himself of 5,000 words on the plutocratic excesses of the NR cruise for the Nation - only to have his own magazine start cruising itself shortly thereafter - but the bulk of Johann Hari's dispatch from the belly of the conservative beast feels stale to me even so. The concept is part Hunter S. Thompson, part David Foster Wallace, and part Tom Wolfe; the execution has a college journalism-ish, "find a place where the wackos gather and make fun of them" feel to it. (Who would have ever guessed that Muslim-bashing, Jimmy Carter-hating wingnuts go on ideological cruises? Next up: "Berkeley - It's Still Full of Marxists!") I've done some of those myself; I should know.

Still, it's worth reading for the miniature portrait of Bill Buckley and Norman Podhoretz, passing like, er, ships in the night:

Following the break, Norman Podhoretz and William Buckley--two of the grand old men of the Grand Old Party--begin to feud. Podhoretz will not stop speaking--"I have lots of ex-friends on the left; it looks like I'm going to have some ex-friends on the right, too," he rants--and Buckley says to the chair, "Just take the mike, there's no other way." He says it with a smile, but with heavy eyes.

Podhoretz and Buckley now inhabit opposite poles of post-September 11 American conservatism, and they stare at wholly different Iraqs. Podhoretz is the Brooklyn-born, street-fighting kid who traveled through a long phase of left- liberalism to a pugilistic belief in America's power to redeem the world, one bomb at a time. Today, he is a bristling gray ball of aggression, here to declare that the Iraq war has been "an amazing success." He waves his fist and declaims, "There were WMD, and they were shipped to Syria. ... This picture of a country in total chaos with no security is false. It has been a triumph. It couldn't have gone better." He wants more wars, and fast. He is "certain" Bush will bomb Iran, and "thank God" for that.

Buckley is an urbane old reactionary, drunk on doubts. He founded National Review in 1955--when conservatism was viewed in polite society as a mental affliction--and he has always been skeptical of appeals to "the people," preferring the eternal top-down certainties of Catholicism. He united with Podhoretz in mutual hatred of Godless Communism, but, slouching into his eighties, he possesses a worldview that is ill-suited for the fight to bring democracy to the Muslim world. He was a ghostly presence on the cruise at first, appearing only briefly to shake a few hands. But now he has emerged, and he is fighting.

"Aren't you embarrassed by the absence of these weapons?" Buckley snaps at Podhoretz. He has just explained that he supported the war reluctantly, because Dick Cheney convinced him Saddam Hussein had WMD primed to be fired. "No," Podhoretz replies. "As I say, they were shipped to Syria. During Gulf war one, the entire Iraqi air force was hidden in the deserts in Iran." He says he is "heartbroken" by this "rise of defeatism on the right." He adds, apropos of nothing, "There was nobody better than Don Rumsfeld. This defeatist talk only contributes to the impression we are losing, when I think we're winning."

The audience cheers Podhoretz. The nuanced doubts of Bill Buckley leave them confused ...

There's a much longer piece here waiting to be written, I think, which would use the divide that's opened between the grand old man of conservatism and the grand old man of neoconservatism to illuminate the Iraq War's impact on the American Right. To his credit Hari recognizes the story he's stumbled on and tries to go after it, interviewing both Buckley and Podhoretz about their differences. But the frame of his piece remains the cruise - the wingnuts at his tables, the chance encounters with Kenneth Starr, etc. - so the Buckley-Pod joint profile never finds the air it needs to breathe.

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