A Night Out with National Review

Watching the GOP debate with the conservative flagship

MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE — Last night, finding myself unable to get tickets to the monster truck rally in the downtown Verizon Wireless Arena, I did the next best thing and attended a National Review-sponsored debate party in the Grand Ballroom of the Manchester Radisson. National Review is one of my favorite magazines—I never miss an issue—and the room was filled with about 300 devotees who had registered on NR’s website for an evening of panel discussions, conservative fellowship, and buffet-style dining.

As the de facto media hub for the New Hampshire primaries, the Radisson is littered with reporters. But while a few working journalists were at the NR event—a fedora-clad Robert Stacy McCain, unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, typing on a laptop and muttering about how this was the “squish fest to end all squish fests”; another man, in another fedora, with an actual laminated “Press” card tucked in the brim—the audience primarily consisted of about three hundred honest-to-God Republicans, who can seem a rare commodity amid the media crush of primary season.

The debate party is apparently a regular event for the magazine—the publisher kicked things off by recalling how, four years ago, “in the room next to us, Bill Clinton was entertaining some union members, and the laughter from our event drowned out the other event”—and it’s a smart idea. For the cost of the room rental and some puff pastry, the magazine gets to shore up its support among the sort of people who might subscribe, or give them money, or attend a National Review cruise.

The big takeaway for me is that there is apparently some tension between those people and the magazine itself, with many movement Republicans unconvinced that National Review is sufficiently conservative. The first panel, moderated by National Review editor Rich Lowry, featured political consultant Mike Murphy and NR staffers Ramesh Ponnuru and Bob Costa—or, as Lowry jokingly imagined critics might say, “the most impressive collection of RINOs since Lincoln Chafee had dinner with himself.”

Indeed, a lot of time was spent addressing NR’s RINO (Republican in name only) problem. The attendees were certainly more fervent than the panelists. Ron Paul, who has been polling well in New Hampshire, was a consistent panelist punchline. And when an attendee mentioned Rush Limbaugh’s assertion that “a two-week-old egg salad sandwich could beat this criminal president,” Murphy dismissed the radio host by calling him a great entertainer and saying,“I wish Rush would run for office. It’d give him a political education.”

Some other takeaways:

— Though the room was pretty evenly split between Romney and Santorum supporters, at the end of the night everyone agreed that Romney had won the debate. Many NR staffers clearly have a soft spot for Newt Gingrich, in the same way that you’ve got a soft spot for that crochety old uncle with no social filter. (Jonah Goldberg: “Gingrich looks like he should be walking around in one of those Henry V ermine robes, pointing his turkey leg at you, saying, ‘You don’t understand! I took back Congress!’ ”) Jon Huntsman is dismissed as “smarmy,” while Ron Paul is seen as a weird dogmatic homunculus who will soon return to his home planet. And nobody likes Rick Perry. The room was silent at his “the war on Christianity will stop with a Perry administration” line, and groaned when he asserted that the Iranians would soon enter Iraq “at literally the speed of light.” Nobody likes Michelle Obama, either. James Lileks’s assertion that the First Lady has no fashion sense was received enthusiastically by the crowd, including the woman in the bright-red sleeveless vest with the faux-fur collar.

— Lileks, who writes the “Athwart” column for NR, is as unfunny in person as he is in print. He appeared on a “comedy” panel with Rob Long, who does Larry King and Twitter parodies for the magazine, and Jonah Goldberg, who was “happier than Helen Thomas at a Hamas rally to be here,” and his Mr. Magoo delivery of his lazy, cliché-ridden observations consistently fell flat. Luckily, Long and Goldberg more than picked up the slack.

— The room was haunted by the specter of the liberal media. The crowd erupted when Newt Gingrich made a point about news media bias, while Jonah Goldberg noted that “the press is not as pro-Obama as they once were, but they’re as anti-Republican as they’ve ever been.” This is perhaps the main reason why Mitt Romney is so popular here. One man noted that he’s a Romney supporter “because not only does the candidate have to beat the president, he has to beat the liberal media, and we all know that the liberal media can’t get anything on Romney, because he’s a Boy Scout.” Goldberg added that “Romney is Republican enough for the media to hate him, but not enough to make it easy to demonize him.”

As a member of the liberal media, I want to assure these people that I, for one, am not out to demonize anybody. All I’m out for is egg rolls and conversation, which the National Review debate party had in spades. It’s no monster truck rally, but it’ll do.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.