Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right
by Ann Coulter
Crown. 256 pp. $25.95
Among the recurring characters on NBC’s acclaimed show The West Wing, the most improbable is a sharp-tongued, right-wing lady lawyer who, having bested a top White House staffer on one of the political talk shows, is invited to join the Democratic administration. Young, blonde, and beautiful, she hates taxes, loves guns, and considers liberals smug and patronizing—yet, when the President calls, she feels duty-bound to serve.
What is improbable in all this is not the basic profile. The character is a composite of such real-life media personalities as Laura Ingraham, Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, the late Barbara Olson, and, of course, the queen of the fair-haired, conservative fire-breathers, Ann Coulter, all of whom rose to prominence as cable-TV talking heads during the Clinton scandals. What makes the character on The West Wing utterly incredible, nothing more than the fantasy of an overimaginative screenwriter, is the idea that any of these women, least of all Coulter, would be tolerated for a moment in a den of hungry liberals—or would allow herself to be so easily tamed.
The first thing to note about Coulter’s latest book, Slander, is that it is a best-seller, and for a while this summer even occupied the top slot on several lists. That does not make it a “surprise” best-seller: Coulter has a large and enthusiastic following, and her first book High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton (1998), also fared very well. Besides, calling the success of a book by a conservative author a “surprise” is, by Coulter’s lights, one of the countless ways that liberals malign and mistreat the Right, and avoid discussing issues on their merits. As she sets out her thesis in the book’s opening paragraph:
Political “debate” in this country is insufferable. Whether conducted in Congress, on the political talk shows, or played out at dinners and cocktail parties, politics is a nasty sport. At the risk of giving away the ending: it’s all liberals’ fault.
One of the Left’s more pervasive modes of attack, Coulter asserts, is to distort the very language in which political questions are framed. Thus, in the “dictionary” of the elite press, Republican politicians who oppose their own party are “moderates” or, better still, courageous “mavericks”; a defector on the other side of the aisle, by contrast, wins the epithet of “conservative” Democrat. Similarly, America seems to be rife with “ultraconservatives” and minions of the “far right wing,” but to be sorely lacking in “ultras” and “wingers” of the Left. Such labels, Coulter writes, “convey no factual information beyond ‘good dog!’ and ‘bad dog!’ ”
A more vicious and direct technique of liberal propaganda, according to Coulter, is to paint every prominent Republican—except for the occasional clear-eyed “moderate”—as invincibly stupid. On this view, “Coolidge was dumb, Eisenhower was dumb, Ford was dumb, Nixon was dumb (overshadowed by his pure evil), Quayle (standing in for his boss) was dumb, Reagan was dumb, Bush (43) is dumb.” No gaffe is too small to prompt headlines about a conservative politician’s supposed intellectual inadequacies, as when candidate George W. Bush could name only one of four (relatively obscure) world leaders in a reporter’s pop quiz.
When this particular line of adhominem attack is exhausted, Coulter argues, liberals roll out their big guns, accusing conservatives of every kind of cruelty and intolerance. She serves up, among other choice examples, Bill Clinton on Republican social policy: “What they want to do is make war on the kids of this country.” Congressman Charles Rangel on Republican fiscal policy: “It’s not ‘spic’ or ‘nigger’ anymore. They say, ‘Let’s cut taxes.’ ” And, notoriously, Senator Edward Kennedy on Republican Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork: “[his] America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, [and] rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids.”
Why do liberals resort so readily to “hate-mongering and name-calling” and flee from substantive debate at all costs? In part, Coulter believes, because they can get away with it. With their “hegemonic control” of the mainstream media, they stand virtually unopposed in setting the terms of debate. Theirs is a world in which “being a liberal Democrat is simply not considered partisan,” in which virtually everyone pulled the lever twice for Clinton and none doubt the propriety of allowing one-time Democratic hacks like George Stephanopoulos, Tim Russert, and Jeff Greenfield to pose as neutral news commentators.
More fundamentally, Coulter argues, “liberals prefer invective to engagement” because “the public would boil them in oil” if their real views were known. As she sees it, liberalism is the political impulse of rich, over-educated, power-hungry “snobs,” who, despite their egalitarian rhetoric, “actually hate working-class Americans.” “Secure in the knowledge that their beachfront haciendas will still be standing when the smoke clears,” she writes, “they giddily fiddle with the little people’s rules and morals.”
Ann Coulter is right, at least up to a point Liberals are, often enough, snotty, insufferable elitists who delight in tarring conservatives with every imaginable sort of nastiness. They are often foolish and self-important, too, which gives Coulter some of her best punch lines. “According to [Al] Gore” in Earth in the Balance, she writes, “God was hopping mad about Cain polluting. Cain had ‘defiled the ground’ with Abel’s messy blood. Murder is one thing, but polluting really got God’s goat.” Or there is this about the press’s worshipful treatment of the vacuous feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who, for three decades,
could not get her toenails painted without a major feature spread in a glossy magazine covering the event in laborious and hyperbolic detail. No matter how stunning her failures, a gaggle of media feminists would warmly compliment Steinem for her bravery and wisdom in choosing Hint of Pink over Musty Sunset.
One is tempted, having given Coulter due credit, to move on to the obvious: that Slander itself is an outrageous example of the very things she finds so detestable in liberals. The book is relentlessly adhominem—the Today show host Katie Couric is “the affable Eva Braun of morning TV,” Ted Kennedy a “champion desecrator of life,” Republican turncoat Jim Jeffords a “half-wit.” It gives a free pass to the ideologically like-minded—President Bush is “the consummate wartime commander,” American conservatives are “the most tolerant (and long-suffering) people in the world.” It refuses to recognize arguments or principles on the other side—“the whole point of being a liberal” is “to feel superior to people with less money.” And, padded out with some 800 endnotes, it pretends to intellectual seriousness where there is none.
One might also lament the frame of mind within the American Right that gives rise to a piece of agit-prop like Slander. Liberal media bias is a problem, no doubt, but it hardly warrants the obsessive attention that conservatives often pay to it. Fretting constantly about unfair treatment eventually starts to sound like self-pity, and is especially unbecoming in a political movement that rightly decries the vogue of victimhood. There is also the seemingly self-evident fact that, despite the Left’s “hegemonic control” of the great organs of opinion, conservatives have done pretty well over the last several decades in promoting their ideas and getting their candidates elected.
All of these criticisms would be apt; but in the end, they both take Ann Coulter too seriously and fail to appreciate her true genius. Coulter is a strange hybrid—part partisan polemicist, part entertainer, all carefully calculated act. And she pulls it off with aplomb, playing the role of the angry, excluded conservative while reaping the rewards of being a blonde-maned, mini-skirted celebrity. What awful penalty did the liberal powers-that-be impose on Coulter for comparing Katie Couric to Hitler’s mistress? An invitation to appear on the Today show to confront the accused, and to plug her book.
A recent cartoon in the New Yorker shows Coulter standing in Times Square in a pose familiar from one of her widely circulated publicity photos. The caption, a quote from the book, reads, “In this universe, the public square is wall-to-wall liberal propaganda.” Behind her, on every billboard and screen, is the image of the author, airing her complaint. Though the source is undoubtedly liberal, one hesitates to call such treatment slander.