From Port to Starboard, Magazines Take to High Seas Towing the Party Line

By Gabriel Sanders

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.
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The elections might have shown the country bitterly divided between red states and blue, but while riding the ocean’s waves it seems the only color that matters to the nation’s electorate is the Caribbean’s opalescent turquoise.

With a contingent of more than 600 left-leaning souls, The Nation, America’s oldest weekly magazine, is set to launch its seventh annual seminar cruise early next month, and — using not only the same cruise line, but the same itinerary — The Weekly Standard, a magazine whose editorial positions are often indistinguishable from those of the Bush administration, will be testing the waters with its first-ever cruise two months later.

Or at least that’s the plan.

Last year, the centrist New Republic tried its hand at the cruising game but realized after just three weeks that it didn’t have the stomach — or the subscribers — for it. “We decided not to, because it’s really tacky,” the magazine’s editor in chief and chairman, Martin Peretz, told The New York Sun last year, with the merest hint of sour grapes.

But The Weekly Standard, which so far has drawn 141 registered passengers, insists that their cruise will not suffer the same fate. “Barring some sort of international incident, we’re having a cruise,” said the magazine’s spokeswoman, Catherine Titus Lowe.

The February cruise technically isn’t the first that The Weekly Standard has advertised. Around the time that The New Republic’s plans for a cruise met their iceberg, The Weekly Standard published a parody that at once took aim at the magazine cruise phenomenon and the Standard’s own neo-conservative line.

Featuring a picture not of a cruise ship but a battleship, the parody tempted readers with “Eight imperial days & seven unilateral nights aboard the USS Benevolent Hegemon” with Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Ariel Sharon. In perhaps the best touch of all, the battleship cruise offered two dining options: kosher and glatt kosher.

The actual Weekly Standard cruise offers a lineup that is only slightly less august: Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, executive editor Fred Barnes, publisher Terry Eastland, Managing Editor Claudia Winkler, Assistant Managing Editor Victorino Matus and Staff Writer Steve Hayes.

The history of the modern magazine cruise began in 1994, when William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review set sail with a crop of that year’s newly elected Republican Revolutionaries, including Newt Gingrich. The National Review cruise, which became an annual event, proved an irresistible target for Nation scribe Eric Alterman, who, in 1997, climbed aboard and wrote a withering 5,000-word piece describing his experiences.

“The great thing about being a right winger, so far as I can tell, is that you get to exploit people and feel good about it,” he wrote. “There is a man who stands by the coffee dispenser so you don’t have to move the lever up and down with your index finger.”

But the piece, in a sense, came back to haunt Alterman, as just one year after it ran, The Nation started offering cruises of its own — ones just as lavish, just as comfortable and just as politically incorrect as the one Alterman lampooned so savagely.

Alterman, who by his own count has now been on five cruises with The Nation, sees no reason for regret. The piece about the National Review cruise was “generous,” he told the Forward.

The universal appeal of the all-you-can-eat buffet notwithstanding, the impetus behind the rise of the magazine cruise — and the reason it has become so popular across the ideological spectrum — is that it has proved a very effective way of keeping cash-strapped magazines afloat.

“We’ve tried many things over the years,” said Victor Navasky, who has been at The Nation’s helm since 1978. “Lectures, seminars, fact-finding missions to different countries; the only thing that has consistently made money for us is the cruise.”

The business model is quite simple: Magazines buy blocks of tickets at a discount, charge full price (between $1,300 and $4,100 per person) and keep the difference.

And it’s not all fun in the sun.

“It’s not about the buffet or the Vegas shows,” said David Bittner, vice president of The Cruise Authority, which, in addition to cruises for The Nation and the National Review, has organized them for and Ms. “The people who come are very serious. They sit, they listen, they take notes.”

In fact, on the first Nation cruise, in 1998, when one speaker missed her plane and couldn’t meet the ship, a group of passengers forwent the beaches of St. Thomas and planned an environmental seminar themselves.

Barring any transportational snafus, this year’s Nation cruise promises, among others, Navasky, Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, and Nation contributors Jonathan Schell, Amy Wilentz, William Greider, David Corn, Patricia Williams, Robert Scheer, Calvin Trillin — and, yes, Eric Alterman.

Ultimately, Bittner said, whether partisans of the left or the right, cruisers are pretty much the same; even the topics they discuss are similar.

So, if there’s so little difference between readers of The Weekly Standard and The Nation, why not book the two at the same time?

“It might sound like a good idea until you really start thinking about it,” said Bittner.

And — your reporter admittedly got a little carried away here — what if the boat with both The Nation and The Weekly Standard on board got marooned on a desert island?

“Well, then it’d be ‘The Lord of the Flies’ for sure,” Bittner said. “And I wouldn’t take any bets on who would come out on top.”

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