Queen of Mean: Coulter's attacks bring political discourse to a whole new level
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Rhetorical exaggeration is a common weapon, but Ann Coulter gets skewered for it
Ann Coulter isn't mean, it's her humor that sells
Liberal activist Arianna Huffington on Ann Coulter:
Ann Coulter's writing is like crystal meth for the right, it gives them a giddy high of outrageousness
Fearlessness is appealing, even when it's pathological
Ann Coulter says liberals are more dangerous to America than Islamic terrorists. She says airports should establish separate security lines for "swarthy" men. She regrets that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh didn't target The New York Times building and claims Democrats hate working people.
She says U.S. Rep. John Murtha is the reason soldiers invented fragging, that it "would be fun to nuke" North Korea and that someone should poison Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens' creme brulee.
And in her latest book, "Godless: The Church of Liberalism," she calls four outspoken 9/11 widows "harpies" and claims they were enjoying their husbands' deaths.
Shocking? Yes. Financially remunerative? Oh, yes.
"Godless" topped The New York Times and Amazon best-seller lists after its publication June 6, and it's doing even better than her last book, "How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)," according to the Book Standard Bestsellers Chart.
This is Ann Coulter's moment.
The acid-tongued conservative pundit has elevated aggressive -- some might say vicious -- political discourse to an art form. She is perhaps the most ubiquitous talking head on cable and network news shows today, skillfully marketing herself as an author, commentator and personality.
Attack-dog political commentators are not a new breed. Think back to talk-show hosts Joe Pyne, Morton Downey Jr., and even the polar-opposites husband-wife team of James Carville and Mary Matalin.
But has she, as the newly crowned Queen of Mean, outdone them all? And, more important, has her brand of aggressive punditry swayed opinion?
"Godless" has sold nearly 150,000 copies so far, according to the Book Standard, a publishing industry Web site, but mostly in the South and West, says Chuck Shelton, managing editor of Kirkus Reviews.
"It's not selling to the liberal elite," he said. "The people who are buying it are buying it because they love what Ann Coulter has to say."
"She's playing to the base, that's what she's doing," added Fred Honsberger, a conservative commentator for Pittsburgh's KDKA radio. "Her job is to sell books, and it's not going to hurt her from the base because liberals aren't going to buy her books anyway."
Whether she's converting liberals may be immaterial. Ms. Coulter, with her long blond tresses, piercing eyes and take-no-prisoners demeanor, is converting belligerence into big bucks. Among the scalpel-wielding members of the brutal fight club that is 24/7 cable news and the blogosphere, Ms. Coulter stands alone in terms of the attention she draws.
Last year, when she made the cover of Time magazine, her ascent from mere political pundit to one of the most visible symbols of this country's deep political divide was confirmed. She is the liberals' favorite bogeyman -- or woman -- in much the way Michael Moore is loathed and obsessed about on the right. She's been the subject of a much-lauded documentary, "Is It True What They Say About Ann?" And there's a Barbie-esque Ann Coulter doll that spews her invectives, which Sean Penn, in one report, uses to put out his cigarettes.
Few can match her vitriol
There are other female conservatives with bite and substance, but Laura Ingraham and Michelle Malkin haven't written best-selling books (four in a row, as of "Godless") marketed with in-your-face titles and "money" quotes about 9/11 widows. On television, too, few others can match her ability to lacerate with a sound bite or stare down a tough questioner.
"Look, are you getting testy with me?" she asked Matt Lauer when he attempted to challenge her on a recent "Today" show appearance. Last week, when MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough -- a former Republican congressman -- asked Ms. Coulter if there was anything she regretted saying about the 9/11 widows in her book, she glared at him and asked, "Would you like to retract that question?"
Her fellow pundits, along with some media experts, are divided on whether Ms. Coulter should be taken seriously or simply regarded as the most visible example of political "infotainment" -- the right's version of Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart or Michael Moore.
Paul Waldman, a senior fellow at Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog group founded by one-time Hillary Clinton nemesis-turned-liberal David Brock, says she's being taken much too seriously by the likes of NBC and Time magazine.
"They did this story about her on 'NBC Nightly News,' where Brian Williams wondered if she had 'stepped over the line' with her comments about the widows. What is he talking about? She has, on at least half a dozen occasions, advocated the murder of someone she disagreed with. She's stepped over the line maybe 100 times."
Conservative commentator David Horowitz, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, believes those who are shocked by Ms. Coulter merely don't understand how she uses satire to make a point.
"She's a very funny woman," he said, adding that she's victimized by "a double standard. The kind of rhetorical exaggeration that she uses as a weapon is in widespread use, but only she gets skewered for it. I don't think she's a mean person. I don't think that label is deserved, although I think she plays to it and it's worked very well for her."
Arianna Huffington, a conservative-turned-liberal activist and another regular on the talk-show circuit, will no longer appear with Ms. Coulter on television.
"She is the right-wing punditry's equivalent of crack or crystal meth," said Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, a liberal Web site and blog (whose contributors include Kristen Breitweiser, one of the 9/11 widows excoriated by Ms. Coulter) and author of an upcoming book, "On Becoming Fearless."
"Ann Coulter is addictive because she gives users this delirious, giddy high of outrageousness. But she's very toxic because that kind of talk and those kinds of sentiments and that kind of way over-the-top rhetoric, trading on demonizing and hatred and caricature, has the same impact as being on a three-month meth bender has for crack junkies."
Is there a middle ground here?
Syracuse University professor and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television Robert Thompson thinks so: Ms. Coulter is an entertainer, but one who points out essential but uncomfortable truths, like the court jester in "King Lear," he said, or, for that matter, the characters on the cartoon satire "South Park."
"If I were judging her as an entertainer, who has created a character, she's very good at that," he said. "But I wouldn't put her on the list of top 500 people to listen to seriously. She certainly talks about important issues. Part of her appeal is the same as the characters on 'South Park' in that she will say things a lot of people are afraid to say. But you don't have to be a serious journalist to do that."
It's not clear exactly how Ann Coulter regards herself. While her publicist didn't return calls requesting an interview for this story, there are clues out there: Ms. Coulter's Web site proudly notes that she was named by conservative legal scholar Richard Posner as one of America's top 100 public intellectuals.
Big break came with MSNBC
A graduate of Cornell, Ms. Coulter, who is in her mid-40s but won't give her exact age, edited the law review at the University of Michigan Law School. She got her big break in 1996 when MSNBC, then a fledgling cable channel, hired her as a contributor. Her knack for intemperate remarks got her fired and rehired several times before her book "High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton" became a best seller. That was followed by "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right" and "Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism."
Will this latest dustup with the 9/11 widows -- a group of four women from New Jersey who lobbied Congress for a special commission to investigate the terrorist attack and who were openly critical of the Bush administration -- diminish Ms. Coulter's appeal with her admirers?
Ms. Huffington says her friends in conservative circles have privately expressed concern.
"I think people who are either kind of appalled or worried about how they are going to be perceived are distancing themselves from her, while others are trying to hide behind the notion of 'she's only trying to be funny,' which is very difficult to sustain."
Ms. Coulter was merely complaining about the tendency by Democrats to put representatives of "victims groups" out front on controversial issues, so people won't criticize them, Mr. Horowitz countered.
"Cindy Sheehan is a [expletive] lunatic," he said, "but Democrats put her right out front. They put blacks in the front line. Any person from a persecuted group, that's their spokesperson for saying things that are unacceptable to the broad mass of the American people. And you can't talk back to them."
"[Ms. Coulter] went over the top," he added. "She shouldn't have called them broads, and she shouldn't have said they enjoyed their husbands' deaths. But they are exploiting their own personal tragedies for political purposes, with the expectation that no one will notice. Grief is one thing; blaming George Bush is quite another."
Still, Dr. Thompson worries that Ms. Coulter's incendiary brand of political talk may become the preferred substitute for serious debate.
"What's disturbing is how people look at her as the means to get information about public discourse," he said. "If these characters try to usurp serious journalists, and if people listen to what she says about bombing The New York Times and so forth, then that's troubling.
"We can value what Ann Coulter does in the territory she's doing it in. She's operating in a certain area of the cultural real estate. But what's worrisome is if people start disbelieving all the serious reportage that's going on, then that amounts to a hostile takeover of serious media by the jester's territory."Evan Agostini/Getty Images
Television personalities Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter attended a cocktail party for Time magazine's 100 Most Infuential People issue in May in New York City.
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First Published July 4, 2006 12:00 am