Fans of William F. Buckley Jr. — and who’s not? — will recognize the title over this column. “Cruising Speed” was the title of one of Bill’s books: an account of a week in his life. He followed that up with Overdrive — the account of another week (as I recall). For now, we’ll stick with “Cruising Speed.”
Have just come off National Review’s “post-election cruise,” in the “Western Caribbean.” (I am going with official Holland America language, when I say “Western Caribbean.”) Thought I’d scribble you a little journal, in two parts. Shortish. For me.
‐We had something like 780 passengers. Passengers in general were something like 2,100. So we NR people constituted more than a third of the ship. (Isn’t my math impressive? I’m trying to give John Derbyshire a run for his money.) This was the biggest NR group ever — the biggest aboard a ship, I mean.
Everyone commented that the passengers were in a really good mood — feeling great, after the November 2 “shellacking” (of the Democrats). But, as I recall, everyone was in a really good mood after the ’08 election, too: feisty.
‐In Ft. Lauderdale, at the Shop ’n’ Save near our hotel, you could find the New York tabloids. Told you something about the population in Lauderdale. It was as though I had never left my neighborhood in Manhattan — the tabs were on sale on the street corner (basically).
‐There are some really, really elegant neighborhoods in Lauderdale — with canals running through them. (I don’t know if they use the word “canals,” but I do.) Some of those yachts are practically as wide as the canals — big monsters, resting behemothly in still, narrow waters.
‐A flock of birds came at me, hard. They shot out of a tree. They were menacing, hawk-like. But they looked like . . . parakeets. Could they have been? I think of parakeets as sweet tweety things in the parlors of maiden aunts. These babies were . . . fierce. You could almost have been in a Hitchcock movie.
‐Aboard the ship, our surprise special guest was Pat Toomey, the senator-elect from Pennsylvania. When Jack Fowler, our publisher, introduced Toomey, the crowd roared, and roared. It was kind of a gladiatorial moment, frankly. Great.
‐Toomey wouldn’t make a bad president. At all.
‐Another guest was Prof. Bernard Lewis, the great historian of the Middle East. You always learn a lot from Lewis — just being in the same room with him, you feel wiser. He was born in 1916, six years after his king, George V, assumed the throne. In America, Wilson was president — in his first term. We had not yet entered the war.
I had about 45 minutes with Lewis, upon the stage. What I mean is, we had a little conversation, before our passengers. We talked about Turkey, Iran, the Palestinians, Israel, the Islamicization of Holland and Belgium — many things (as time allowed).
I’m tempted to think that there will never again by anyone like Lewis — that he is the last of a certain type of scholar. The last of the first-class scholars. But this cannot be true. I will give you an analogy from music. In every generation, there are those who say that we’ve seen the last — heard the last — of the greats. “Oh, Nikisch! Oh, Hofmann! Oh, Caruso! Conducting, piano playing, singing — all of that has come to an end. Boo hoo hoo.” And it’s never true. It’s always bunk. There are always others.
Last night, at a Chinese restaurant, my companions and I saw James Levine — a man who is in the pantheon of conductors, an immortal. And there will be others . . .
I’m sure that, in the time of Thucydides, and shortly thereafter, people said, “That’s it — history-writing has come to an end. There will never be another one who is up to the job.” And it wasn’t true.
Nonetheless, I can’t imagine another scholar — another scholar of the Middle East — like Lewis. The MESA crowd long ago took over Middle East Studies. As Lewis once told me, this was similar to the takeover of Chinese Studies by Maoists.
At any rate, I’ll stop whining and worrying now, and simply say how grateful I am that Bernard Lewis is here.
‐Above, I said, “You always learn a lot from Lewis” — which, I’m afraid, put me in mind of a song: about the tattooed lady. “Lydia, oh Lydia, say, have you met Lydia?” And the refrain: “You can learn a lot from Lydia.”
‐Most of the islands we saw were — how to put this? Not exactly garden spots. Pretty dumpy. But the water is always, always beautiful, and I think of one beach in particular that is almost unreal: It could be a poster for Caribbean tourism. You half expect Brooke Shields to rise out of the water. (I know you haven’t forgotten The Blue Lagoon.)
‐One day, it was kind of cool out — 72 or something, very temperate — but the water was very warm: truly like bathwater. I thought of days back on Lake Michigan, when it was sweltering: 85 degrees, 90 degrees, 95 degrees. You could have died. And you wanted nothing more than to jump into that inviting blue water and cool off. But it was so damn cold that . . . you might have opted to stay sweltering.
‐I remember a round of golf at the Mondsee, near Salzburg. You were then supposed to get into the lake for a dip. And you never saw such beautiful water, but . . . How can water be so bone-chillingly, unswimmably cold on a hot summer day? I must re-enroll in the fourth grade to find out.
(I said “unswimmably,” but my Aussie friend had no problem with the lake. She flitted about like it was the Caribbean or something. They simply grow ’em tougher Down Under. Don’t they?)
‐James Lileks was one of our guest speakers. As you know, he is the writer, humorist, and radio personality from Minnesota. The way I put it was: “He is what Garrison Keillor and Al Franken would be, if they knew better.” A wonderful American personality, James Lileks. A man whose warmth and appreciation are obvious.
‐Speaking of American personalities: Michael Walsh has so much personality, it could practically float the ship. He explained to me that Barack Obama went to the rival high school to his in Honolulu — “and that’s all you need to know.” No good ever came out of this high school, according to Michael. His rap on this is absolutely hilarious (and just a little profane) — I wish you could hear it someday.
‐On the ship’s menu, under “Desserts,” I discovered the most beautiful phrase in the English language: “Brownie Stack.”
‐Speaking of beautiful: Phyllis Schlafly is. Striking woman. Significantly more so than in photos and on television. Reading a biographical sketch of her later, I saw that she had been a model. No surprise. Brainy chick, too: three degrees from Wash. U. and Radcliffe. I still haven’t met her. Did not get to shake her hand, upon that crowded boat. Just admired from afar.
‐Among our passengers were a lot of tea partiers — and, as a class, they’re informed to the gills. Also very patriotic, very conscientious: good citizens, frankly. Meeting them, I fumed all over again at the media’s, at the Left’s, nasty stereotype of these citizens. At best, these stereotypers are ignorant; at worst, they are malicious.
Did we have some clunkers among our passengers — clunkers you wouldn’t pay cash for? Oh, sure: There’s one in every crowd, maybe four. But I’ve been around a number of crowds, in various spheres of life: and they don’t get much better than NR cruisers, in my experience. I wouldn’t say it if it weren’t true. I would probably just cough and say, “Pass the salt.”
Have you had enough cruising for now? Yeah, me too. See you tomorrow for Part II. And I think that’ll be it — it’d better be, because the next day is Thanksgiving, and we’re eating turkey, not cruising: except for those on a Thanksgiving cruise . . .