ST. PAUL—Jack Fowler, the publisher of the National Review, was leaning back in a chair in a banquet hall at the St. Paul University Club.
The party he’d just held there was breaking up, and he was talking to a reporter about President George W. Bush as Jay Nordlinger and Claremont Institute fellow and Power Line blogger Scott Johnson looked on.
“There’s lots of clichés,” he said. “Everybody loves a winner, right? Who wants to be involved with a loser, or a guy who isn’t liked? I like the president. I’m alive, I go to New York City every day, and I take freakin’ Metro-North to Grand Central Station every day and my ass has not been blown up by Al Qaeda.”
That, in short, is why the publisher of the National Review is here. This convention had come to be about two things: Hurricane Gustav—would Republican nominee John McCain be able to scrub out the Bush administration’s label of heartlessness and irresponsibility by bringing his convention to a halt to mobilize help for Gulf Coast residents?—and Sarah Palin, the Alaska governor who, a week before, would have been unthinkable as Senator McCain’s running mate but who was, by this evening’s party, a given.
The impact of the hurricane on Mr. Fowler’s party could not have been greater. The guest of honor was to be Louisiana’s wunderkind governor Bobby Jindal, but that obviously didn’t happen. And the signature drink of the party, where rice and beans, minced shrimp served on celery stalks, and squares of corn bread topped with bacon were served, was the Hurricane. That didn’t happen, either.
Mr. Fowler turned to the ubiquitous Ramesh Ponnuru, a National Review editor and conservative columnist, who had just walked up to the table, and continued. “Is that a fact, Ramesh? It’s a fact. I think the president has something to do with that. I think the war on terrorism has worked. We haven’t had any terrorist attacks. That’s not a glib statement!
“[The terrorists] are wiped,” he went on. “They all went to Iraq and got their asses blown up! Anyway.”
Mr. Fowler, who is 48, had to sit in his hotel room all day planning the National Review’s post-election Caribbean cruise, an elaborate week-long fundraiser for the magazine involving 250 members of the conservative intelligentsia on a boat rubbing shoulders with such celebs as Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and Christopher Buckley. The fact that Mr. Fowler was cooped up inside all day wrestling with the cumbersome logistics of this adventure instead of wandering around the convention center with his editorial staff didn’t really bother him. “I’m the publisher,” he said. “I had a ton of work!”
The room started to empty out a little after 8 p.m., most of the guests undoubtedly heading for the four-floor Weekly Standard party at Solera, where beautiful women would offer them cigars. Mr. Fowler said he wasn’t sure what to do about Iran.
“I don’t know, you hear these things about how the Iranian people love America, so what do you do?” Mr. Fowler said. “Do you attack? Do you take out a reactor? Do you flip the populace on their alleged love for America? I dunno! I have enough trouble publishing the National Review.”
“I’d better not hear any Mardi Gras bullshit!” Mr. Fowler had said to a reporter near the beginning of the party. The hurricane had passed and been downgraded to a dinky little Category 1 drizzle. The convention would get going in earnest the next morning and things could get back to normal.
Jay Nordlinger, one of the many National Review editors in attendance Monday night, said he couldn’t wait.
“This hasn’t felt to me like a convention yet,” he said sadly. “There have been no balloons, no speeches.” The proceedings, he said, did not need to be upended as severely as they had been.
“It shouldn’t have been necessary,” he said. “I mean, probably from a PR point of view it was, but I’m sorry about it.”
“I’ve been meeting with key political figures,” he said. “All off the record, unfortunately, so not a lot to report, but some interesting conversations. You know, a convention is one-stop shopping for a political reporter. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s so easy, you know?”
Standing in the lobby, Mr. Nordlinger looked into the banquet hall and said, softly, that it was nice to be with his own people.
“I’m often the token conservative,” he said. “Every once in a while, it’s nice to be among friends. You don’t want to be wimpy about it, but every once in a while it’s nice to be among the like-minded, just to have a break. To let your guard down a little.”
Had Mr. Nordlinger seen the protestors who showed up at the convention center earlier in the day? He had, and they did not please him.
“I saw protestors once at Davos,” he said, “and, you know, what occurred to me about them was they were having so much fun. These young people, they looked like they were having the time of their lives. And they were probably, you know, screwing each other with gleeful abandon. I almost envied them. You never saw people have so much fun than this group I observed in Switzerland. You could tell it was a high point of their lives, and they’d go on to become bankers. But this crowd, I really don’t know. Like, the black-mask people? I think they’re really bad actors, to put it mildly. That’s an idiomatic expression meaning ‘up to no good.’”
The protestors had also caused trouble for the young Jen Leventhal, a junior in college with bright blond highlights who came to the National Review party with a bunch of classmates—all Democrats except her!—who had been sent to the convention as part of a course they’re all taking this semester at the University of Pennsylvania. One of Ms. Leventhal’s friends, an intern at MSNBC, had almost gotten arrested earlier in the day because she happened to be standing near some protestors who had done something or other to anger the police.
“She was standing there, like, trying to get her bearings, and then they just encircled everyone and said, ‘Put your hands on your head,’” Ms. Leventhal said. “She showed them her credentials. I mean, she obviously wasn’t one of them. She was dressed nicely. They were anarchists.”
Nearby, Mr. Ponnuru was standing next to a table and speaking with great enthusiasm about tax reform. His left hand he kept in his pants pocket, and his right he used to stir his drink.
“I propose the idea of a tax reform centered on a massive expansion of the child tax credit from its current level of $1,000 to $5,000 per child, applicable against payroll taxes,” he said, his voice rising and falling as if he were singing a song. “And the idea is that the overall reform is pro-growth, simplifying, pro-investment and so forth. It also shifts the tax burden upwards so it’s progressive. And it’s also revenue-neutral, in design, although you could quibble with that. So the idea is that, look, if what conservatives want is pro-growth and pro-family, and if what liberals object to is regressivity and deficits, we can achieve the conservative objectives without running into the liberal objections. I’ve been promoting this idea for about three years. I think it’s more controversial among the conservative intelligentsia than I think it is among voters. And it’s partly because the conservative intelligentsia is used to an old playbook, right? We’re gonna cut cap-gains taxes, we’re gonna cut dividends taxes, we’re gonna cut the top marginal taxes rate—all of which I’m in favor of but none of which I think speaks to the actual concerns of Middle American voters the way the Reagan program did in 1981.”
There was more like that, and an evaluation of the social structure of conservatism. Who are the conservative elite?
“The think tanks, the editorial writers for the conservative media outlets, the talk show hosts to some degree,” Mr. Ponnuru said. “I mean, just, the conservative elites … and you know I’ve talked to politicians who have read my articles on this stuff [who say] ‘Our interest groups are not interested in this’ and it’s actually an intellectual blockage … that keeps them from supporting this stuff.”
A 57-year-old man with almost no hair came over to the table and waited patiently for Mr. Ponnuru to finish before introducing himself as Cam Cavasso of Hawaii. He wore a light-blue polo shirt, and a heart-shaped American flag button emblazoned with a pro-life slogan and a pair of flashing lights. He had come to the convention not as a delegate, not as a reporter, but as a supporter of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
“So, are you a social conservative?” a reporter asked Mr. Cavasso.
“Yes, I am,” he said.
“Hard to miss!” Mr. Ponnuru said with a laugh, and gestured at the pin.
“When I saw McCain choose Palin, I made a decision to come and be part of it,” Mr. Cavasso said a moment later, speaking slowly and smiling slightly and not moving his head even a little bit. “She’s one tough lady, from the tough land of Alaska. She’s a hunter, she’s a mother, and she’s a wife. She’s an outdoors person. She’s got conservative values that value life. What’s going on with her 17-year-old is just another opportunity to come out on top, because it’s a difficult situation where a lot of people would just say, ‘Let’s do an abortion.’”
Pretty quickly, Mr. Ponnuru made a reconnaissance of the room, and made his way into another conversation.