Conservatives and Skinny Dipping

by Patrick Brennan

As Jonah noted below, Politico reported over the weekend that, on a trip to Israel, several GOP congressmen engaged in some intoxicated swimming in the Sea of Galilee, and at least one of them, Kevin Yoder of Kansas, did so in the buff.

This has become a bit of a scandal, and some actually consider it a worrisome example of hypocrisy by the party of family values. Stalwart Republican Joe Scarborough lamented: “This is so bad for the Republican party. . . . The Republican brand, it’s been really hurt over the past five, ten years. . . . this is an internal problem. This isn’t a media problem. This is a base problem. They have offended their base.” Regardless of one’s personal feelings about skinny dipping, it’s not exactly fair to call it an iniquitous activity unbecoming of conservatives — Bill Buckley was known to engage in it on occasion. In Ross Douthat’s college memoir Privilege, he recounts WFB taking him on a sailing trip during his summer internship at NR. One night, after a sodden supper, they indulge in some naked natation:

After dessert had been set aside and Ben had gone to clean up, Buckley gathered himself up from his seat and peered down at us. “I generally take a swim after eating,” he said. “You’re all welcome to swim as well, of course.”

Now that he mentioned it, a swim seemed just the thing. (I imagine practically anything would have sounded like just the thing at that point in the evening.) But then I considered the matter more deeply and heaved a deep and regretful sigh.

“I’d swim, sir,” I said. “I would swim, I really would like to. But I’m afraid I didn’t bring a bathing suit.”

It had taken me so long to reach this conclusion that Buckley had already begun to climb the ladder, and now he regarded me with unconcealed amusement. “Well, neither did I. After all, it’s quite dark out there. And we’re all men here, you know.”

When he was gone, Jaime [a fellow NR intern] and I sat for a moment in silence, the dinner settling in our stomachs and the wine rising to our eyes.

“You aren’t actually going to go swimming, are you?” he asked me.

“Aren’t you?” I demanded.

“Well . . .”

“Well what?”

“I don’t really like to swim very much in general.”

“Well, Jaime,” I said grandly, “neither do I, honestly. But you know, I think there comes a time in a man’s life when he has a chance to say to his grandchildren, I once went skinny-dipping with William F. Buckley, Jr. And this, Jaime, this is that chance.”

Somehow that settled it. We downed the dregs of our wine and went topside, where Buckley was just leaping from the bow, a flash of plummeting white flesh in the darkness. Jaime and I undressed quickly, then shouted and leaped in after him. In midflight, I saw Buckley already climbing the ladder, reaching for his towel—and then, as the cold water shocked me sober, I remembered how poor a swimmer I really was.

“I’m drowning, Douthat!” someone shouted nearby, as I surfaced, spitting salt and floundering. It sounded vaguely like Jaime, but I had troubles of my own.

“Swim for the ladder,” I managed to shout, pawing jellyfish aside, dog-paddling frantically, wondering if sharks frequented Oyster Bay. “For the ladder, Jaime!”

Afterward, Buckley went below to his berth, apparently to retire for the night, and Jaime and I sat on the boat’s bow with Ben, watching the lights on shore dim and the stars brighten.

Douthat’s book is worth reading in full, but the whole sailing trip, a great read, is on The Atlantic’s website.