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The Love Boat for Policy Wonks

Email|Print| Text size + By Henry Alford
February 17, 2008

I’M dancing on the top deck with a 71-year-old feminist and psychotherapist whom I’ve come to think of as the Twirler. We’ve spent two days attending seminars on The Nation magazine’s Alaska cruise; we’ve talked about the Bush presidency and prison reform and single-payer health care. Now, at almost midnight, my fiercely intelligent and opinionated new friend Charlotte is putting all the heady political talk behind her by bodily twirling.

“If I start to get dizzy then I twirl in the opposite direction,” she tells me as the live band revs up its throbbing Motown beat. I tell Charlotte I admire her mastery of centrifugal force, and she assures me, “I won’t fall.”

“Good, please don’t,” I say. “And plus, we need you to be fresh for the Supreme Court seminar tomorrow.”

When 460 of the more ardent readers of a 142-year-old leftist weekly get together on a cruise ship, things can be a little topsy-turvy. “It’s like an S.D.S. reunion on the Love Boat,” said a guest speaker, Mary Mapes, the former CBS news producer who helped break the Abu Ghraib story among others, before being fired over her involvement in a “60 Minutes” piece on George W. Bush’s military record.

During a weeklong cruise from Seattle up the Alaskan coast last August, Ms. Mapes and 11 other speakers — mostly Nation contributors and journalists, but also Ralph Nader, Richard Dreyfuss and Rocky Anderson, then the mayor of Salt Lake City — tackled the Big Topics, all within the confines of the Holland America Line’s amenities-drenched Oosterdam. Cultural dissonance was much in evidence — picture a self-described “atheist Socialist Quaker” marveling at an ice-carving demonstration; picture Birkenstocks in the piano lounge. (“Do you think we’ll ever see Ralph Nader in the hot tub?” I asked a fellow cruiser at one point. “I don’t think so,” he told me. “Every time I’ve seen him he’s disinfecting himself at the Purell hand-sanitizer station.”)

The 460 of us — about a fourth of the ship’s passengers — were welcomed at a cocktail party held poolside on the Lido Deck. Two things quickly became clear here. First, the diversity and intellectual accomplishments of the 460 were fairly staggering — included among the Nation readers who paid $1,991 to $8,657 for the cruise were many academics, several judges, a founder of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, a retired Army major, a steel company vice president, a former drug trafficker, four granddaughters aged 15 to 22, State Representative Mike Boland of Illinois, the public health expert Dr. Quentin Young and the feminist author Marilyn French. Second, many of the so-called cruisers were unhappy that the 2000 election spoiler Ralph Nader was on board.

“If he’s assigned to my table at dinner,” a pixielike retired Californian in her 60s told me as she downed her third cocktail, “I’m going to switch tables.”

Indeed, an hour later, the mixture of dinner and politics took an unexpected turn at my assigned table in the dining room, where I first met Charlotte. A discussion of Israel among five Jews — two couples traveling together and Charlotte, who was traveling alone — became heated, with the couples disagreeing with Charlotte. At one point Charlotte asked the woman sitting opposite her, “Are you stooping so low as to call me an anti-Semite?” The woman responded: “Yes. I am,” and what Charlotte fired back was vehement, Anglo-Saxon and unprintable. (At least in this newspaper.)

I was too startled to speak, but the host of our table, Gary Younge, a Nation columnist and The Guardian’s United States correspondent, nimbly defused the situation. He sat and talked to Charlotte for an hour and then took her dancing at the bar called the Crow’s Nest, where I later joined them. And so Charlotte’s and my dance partnership was born — forged, as all the best dance partnerships so often are, in the crucible of political invective.

The next day the ship was at sea, giving way to three Nation seminars — one on the 2008 election, one on the new “American internationalism,” and one on religion and politics — all held in an 867-seat auditorium called the Vista Lounge. The Lounge, accessible from the ship’s casino, is all swoopy and dull orange, with lots of recessed lighting and reflective surfaces: imagine a Broadway musical set inside a slightly wanton pumpkin.

The five hours of discussion provided ample opportunity to see some of the cruise’s speakers in action; by day’s end it was clear that the encyclopedic and oratorically gifted Mr. Nader was gradually winning people over, and that most of the cruisers thought the Nation publisher and editor-in-chief Katrina vanden Heuvel was, as one gentleman put it to me, “a total fox.”

At one point, the director of the Nation cruise addressed the audience and told us that the cruise sponsored by the conservative National Review was one day behind us. Warning us about being prompt when reboarding the ship at each port, he said: “If you miss the ship, you’re going to be with National Review tomorrow. That’s your penalty — you’ll have to spend time with John Bolton.”

In fact, spending time with the celebrated is, for some passengers, chief among the perquisites of the Nation cruise. While our four stops in ports — Juneau, Sitka and Ketchikan, and Victoria in British Columbia — would give us the chance to participate, at extra cost, in Holland America-organized activities like salmon fishing ($389) and glacier climbing ($354 to $499), it cost nothing to sidle up to Rocky Anderson midship and gush that you really, really love what he’s doing in Salt Lake with carbon offsets. The Nation guarantees that you’ll be seated with one of the guest speakers at dinner one night during the cruise. Moreover, after dinner each night, various of the speakers could be found drinking and relaxing up in the Crow’s Nest — an immense, airy cocktail lounge on top of the ship, surrounded on three sides by windows.

I was made aware of this hobnobbing for the first time over lunch on Day 2, when my seatmate, Marlena, a five-time Nation cruiser, told me that on one Nation cruise she had brought sheet music. She told me: “David Corn, the writer, played piano and Bud Trillin — all of us who know Calvin Trillin call him Bud — started singing ‘Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat.’ We had 400 people singing until 2 in the morning.”

Later, the Nation columnist Patricia Williams told me that Daniel Ellsberg, a guest speaker, did magic on one cruise — “He was pulling coins out of people’s ears. I wondered, did he learn this in prison?” (I didn’t point out that Mr. Ellsberg, did not in fact serve time for releasing the Pentagon Papers to the news media. Why ruin a good story?)

FUELED by these two anecdotes, I searched in vain for examples of kicky, unhinged Nation-based fun. Instead, I saw much seriousness of purpose — I saw one Nation reader, apparently unfinished with his conversation with Ralph Nader in the hallway, follow Mr. Nader into the men’s room; I overhead another cruiser express disappointment to his wife that the casino’s roulette “has a double zero, thus giving a 5 percent advantage to the house in the game that already has the worst odds for the player.”

I took a lovely and invigorating walk around our first port town, tourist-clogged Juneau, and was surprised to stumble across four bookstores in the course of 15 minutes. Outside the unprepossessing state capitol, a street vendor sold me a delicious, fresh burrito filled with cabbage and stewed pork; though the food on the ship was copious and diverse, it was often saddled with descriptions like, “A rainbow of a medley of fruits,” and so this ad hoc alfresco snacking seemed especially piquant.

Along the Juneau waterfront not far from the ship, the local chapter of Veterans for Peace organized a rally for The Nation that afternoon. Some 300 of us huddled under a wooden gazebo in the rain. Non-Nationite passengers from the Oosterdam, as well as from a Princess Cruises ship docked nearby, looked at us askance. I’m not sure if it was the local musician who said his dirge about a killer whale was “a song I’ve been carrying around with me for 30 years;” or if it was Ms. vanden Heuvel, who, on reaching the microphone, started crying with gratitude; or if it was Mr. Nader, who reached his emotional peak by rousingly proclaiming that “the criminal gang that has hijacked the White House” needs to be “brought to justice in America!”

I reached my own emotional peak back on the ship the next day when confronted with the staggering beauty of the Hubbard Glacier. Pulling on my sweater and an anorak after lunch, I rushed up to the top deck and beheld the intricate, honeycomblike stolidity of the 70-by-8-mile chunk of ice. (The ship didn’t dock here; rather, it revolved slowly in front of the glacier for optimum viewing.) To watch one of Alaska’s most active glaciers “calve,” or shed parts of itself, is to encounter nature at its most awesome. I’d hear a thunderous rumbling and then try to guess which section of the mountain before me was going to break off; the magisterial breaking off and resultant splashing seemed to happen in slow motion. Daniel Ellsberg and his coins suddenly seemed like small potatoes.

Dinner that night yielded another dining room contretemps. After I’d casually mentioned “my boyfriend back home,” one of my tablemates, an oddball Southern man of a certain age, made repeated references to “the queers,” which offended a third diner and caused her to leave the table. Up in the Crow’s Nest a few hours later, I reported the incident to Charlotte and Gary Younge. Charlotte suggested I throw the man overboard “and try to make it look like an accident,” and Gary made a hilarious, unprintable suggestion that ended with the word “skewer.”

Charlotte’s and my dancing that night seemed suddenly imbued with more meaning. We danced the dance of oppression. Tiny, five-foot Charlotte abandoned twirling for an exaggerated march step, her kneecaps lifting high above her waistline. I loved it. We didn’t need to wear berets; the berets were implied.

The ship arrived at Sitka the next morning. No seminars were being held, only “breakout sessions” — smaller presentations and discussion groups, usually led by Nation cruisers — so I signed up to go kayaking in our country’s largest national forest, Tongass. The silken waters of the bay directly in front of Sitka afforded good views of Sitka’s volcano, Mount Edgecumbe; it’s said that from Edgecumbe’s summit, you can see the curvature of the earth.

After a couple of hours of strenuous kayaking I walked around tiny, charming Sitka for a couple of hours, taking in the city’s beloved Russian Orthodox church, St. Michael’s — a mid-19th-century structure rebuilt after a fire destroyed much of it in 1966. I bought a reindeer hot dog from a street vendor, and ate it rapidly; however, my anxiety about biting into Donner or Blitzen yielded the aperçu that food, when heavily applied with mustard, tastes like mustard.

Feeling I hadn’t quite given reindeer hot dogs the benefit of the doubt, I then decided, on entering the Sitka Fur Gallery, to force myself to touch the jockstraps made of rabbit or curly lamb ($19.99); I thought of some of the animal rights advocates on the cruise and realized this item would offend them on at least two levels.

That night after dinner, Charlotte and I joined two other Nationites who were talking with Richard Dreyfuss, the actor-activist, in the Crow’s Nest. His elevated, oratorical style at the seminars had drawn some mixed reviews from the passengers (“He seems like a very needy man,” one told me), but here, after hours, he was all boyish charm. He told us how, the night Marlon Brando died, he himself had been performing in the Broadway theater in which Brando had performed “A Streetcar Named Desire”; Mr. Dreyfuss had the whole audience break out in a rousing chorus of “Stella!” At evening’s end, sometime around midnight, he bid the four of us good night by bowing at the waist; we all instinctively applauded.

Had we had superpower-strength hearing, we might have heard other applause, too — that of Mary Mapes and her husband, who, sitting on the balcony of their room, saw whales breaching. “It was like Whale TV!” Ms. Mapes told me later. “I thought, my God, I’m on the Discovery Channel!”

I DIDN’T see a whale on the trip, but the next day, in Ketchikan, the former Canned Salmon Capital of the World, I counted 14 salmon jumping out of the water. It was like the dancing waters of the Bellagio. Subsequently, walking around the strangely narrow town — Ketchikan hugs the bluffs and is so thin that the airport had to be built on another island — I realized I could actually “hear” salmon swimming up the stream that runs through town. When, an hour later, I looked up at a tree in response to a rustling noise, I half-expected to see salmon plummeting from the sky.

But the real excitement that day was back on ship, where the journalist Robert Scheer interviewed Ralph Nader.

“There’s no clearly defined third party,” Mr. Scheer told Mr. Nader. “You didn’t build anything.”

Mr. Nader countered, “Bob, I’m really amazed you’re attacking me for not being omnipotent,” before asserting that if the Democrats had embraced more progressive ideas like full Medicare and the living wage, Al Gore would have won the election.

The interview was followed by a round of highly spirited and probing questions from the audience; when the microphone was pulled away from one bursting-at-the-seams questioner, the audience erupted into cries of “Boo!” and “Censorship!”

(“We’ve had a few mutinies in the past,” Victor Navasky, the former publisher of The Nation, who has been on all 10 Nation cruises, told me. “Like the year Christopher Hitchens, at a morning panel, plunked a bottle of whiskey down on the table and made a joke about Princess Di that some passengers thought was sexist. So the passengers organized a women’s caucus to redress the gender imbalance on the panels.”)

The fireworks of the Scheer-Nader discussion seemed to carry over into the Crow’s Nest that night — the partying and the dancing took on a slightly harder edge. At 2:30 a.m. I found that two Nation cruisers — one in his 30s and one in his 50s — had grown anxious that the bar was about to close, and had started to stockpile drinks. One had three screwdrivers lined up in front of him, and the other, two Heinekens, causing a third drinking companion to comment, “You’re like the Costco of alcohol: three drinks, two beers, eight rolls of toilet paper. ...”

Our last port before returning to Seattle was Victoria, in British Columbia. Victoria is like Montreal, if Montreal were on a beach — I saw cafes, skateboarders, seagulls and barefoot, long-haired men playing guitar on one house’s roof. While some of my Nation friends headed off to the grand Empress Hotel for tea or the Indian-style buffet at the Bengal Lounge, I decided to avoid the crowds by going to the museum of miniatures.

The museum was dimly lighted and wonderfully quiet, a perfect antidote to the pressure cooker of the Nation seminars. Nevertheless, on looking at a diorama called “The Buffalo Jump,” whose placard read, “The Indians stampede the herd over the cliff to their death,” I couldn’t help but get all over-analytic and Nation-y by thinking, “Even out on the prairie and operating under his own terms, man oppresses whatever he sees fit to oppress.” My days aboard the cruise ship were starting to pay off.

Seven weeks after the cruise, I spent two nights at Charlotte’s house in San Francisco. I asked her what her favorite part of the trip had been, thinking, of course, that she’d mention our dancing, or perhaps her star turn at the Q. and A. session of the Supreme Court panel, where she’d pointed out that all five of the conservative justices are Catholic men. But, no. She told me her favorite part was hurling that epithet at the woman who called her an anti-Semite.

“I’ve been in conversations with these kinds of people for years and always had to bear their scorn,” she said. “I’ve never had the courage to talk back. This was my opportunity. And I took it.”

Her days aboard the cruise ship were starting to pay off.

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