Schmoozing In The Sand

This whole place smells like cigars," says Laura Ingraham, who is charging through the lobby of Miamis pricey Doral Golf Resort, searching for familiar faces. "I mean, that's not a bad thing." She pauses. "We have cigar-scented air fresheners to make it that way." She's kidding--but just barely. The thirtyish Washington lawyer and right-wing acolyte is a cofounder of the first annual Dark Ages Weekend, a three-day, Republicans-only retreat where ringing in the new year with a golf club in one hand and a steak knife in the other isn't merely encouraged, it's practically mandatory. No. 3 on the weekend's list of rules: "If you are smoking and someone approaches you and says, 'Do you mind?', answer, 'Of course not!' and offer the person a cigar or cigarette."

Dark Ages is the GOP's answer to Renaissance Weekend, the Hilton Head, S.C., schmooze-in where Bill Clinton and throngs of other earnest professionals (including some NEWSWEEK staffers) pack up the kids and turn New Year's weekend into one long, soul-faring rap session. Mom and Dad attend panels on personal finance and marriage. The kids give the older folks helpful pointers on how to raise them right. In between, it's touch football on the beach. Farther south, instead of Renaissanee's dozens of discussion groups on meticulously nonpartisan topics like "What My Children and Grandchildren Have Taught Me," the Dark Ages conservatives hosted only nine. "Health Care Reform: Can the Industry Heal Itself?" was followed by "Environmentalism: A Conservative Wasteland?" No group hugs here. (Dark Ages Rule No. 1: "No group hugs.") But as much as they like to affect nonchalance, the Dark Agers tend to be just as self-serious as the Renaissance crowd. And no matter how much fun they say they're having, they did, after all, choose to spend New Year's networking madly and puzzling over block grants and EPA regulations.

It wasn't so long ago that most Republicans would have snorted at the suggestion of frittering away a holiday weekend Clinton style. But that was before the age of Newt. If there's any group that can match the Clintonite appetite for social climbing and wonkery--any time, anyplace--it's Gingrich Republicans. (And at both sites last week, chatter centered on whether the big draws -- Clinton and Gingrich -- would be trapped in Washington for budget talks.)

There are differences between the two. At Renaissance, liberals and conservatives are expected to make nice. "Demagoguery is forbidden," says Renaissance founder Linda Lader. At Dark Ages, malice is encouraged. Panelists are free to take swipes at each other. "If you think somebody's idea about something is stupid, you can say so." says weekend cofounder Jay Lefkowitz, a Washington lawyer and former Bush administration aide. And in between their sessions, Dark Agers could indulge themselves with a boxing-aerobics class, where participants punched and kicked pictures of prominent Democrats taped to punching bags.

A few hundred miles north at Renaissance (just about the only place you'll hear the word "panel" used as a verb), the 1,100 celebrants could relax knowing every conversation was supposed to be off the record, with everyone there sworn to secrecy about the contents of the event. Even so, participants didn't seem to be unloading weighty ruminations. At the opening panel last week, "Whoops: Mistakes, Their Lessons and Consequences," Secretary of Education Richard Riley recounted how, at the age of 6, he vomited on the stage of a school play in which he was a stoplight. In fact, the serious speech of the evening came from a conservative. Jersey City Mayor Brett Schundler, a rising Republican star, sheepishly admitted he had cut taxes too quickly, leaving his city with a budget shortfall.

Ingraham insists that the 300 Dark Agers would never succumb to a lot of somber self-flagellation like that. "The people we invited aren't just accomplished in their fields," she says, "they're also very funny." Besides, anyone who doesn't show a sense of humor this year won't be invited back. "I'm serious about that," she says. "I don't care if it's a congressman." In that case, Gingrich may have to make different plans for next year. The speaker apparently wasn't amused by the conference's cheeky name, and very seriously insisted it be changed. The event's official title became "The Weekend." If Newt starts networking now, maybe he can wangle an invite to Renaissance.

Hilton Head, S.C.

Bill and Hillary Clinton are guiding spirits; Al Franken, Rita Dove, Brian Williams, Norman Ornstein

"How Grade-A Professionals Can Avoid Fs as Parents"; "American Justice After O.J."; "Global Village: The World and You"; "Staying Home: Wisdom and Perils of Full-Time Homemaking"; "Romance, Marriage, Divorce, and 'New' Families"

Touch football and power-walking on the beach

Doral Golf Resort Spa, Miami

Robert Bork, G. Gordon Liddy, Ralph Reed, Arianna Huffington, Bill Kristol

"Life After the Welfare State"; "Hollywood: Entertainment or Excess?"; "Conservative Mistakes: Lessons to Be Learned"; "What's Next for Conservatives?"

William the Conqueror golf tournament; Charlemagne round-robin tennis tournament; black-tie New Year's Eve Masquerade Ball