Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right Reviewed
Ann Coulter is a lawyer and political commentator working from the right hand side of the political fence. Make that the right hand side and way over in the next yard. A striking looking woman – she’s the one Martin Bohrman would have picked if he lived in Stepford - in her televised commentaries she has distinguished herself from like-minded compatriots such as Rush Limbaugh and Robert Novak by offending only one of the senses. (Okay, two if you count “common.”) Coulter is the author of Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right.” My natural inclination in reviewing it is to strive for fairness and balance, but out of respect for the author’s obvious aversion I will try to avoid them.
Her first book was entitled High Crimes and Misdemeanors, and the new one is Slander. What’s next: Parking Tickets and Jaywalking: Liberals Who Stop at Nothing? Her thesis this time is: liberals dominate the media; those liberals consistently lie about conservatives. There are exceptions. The Internet and radio she proudly proclaims are totally dominated by conservatives. Book publishing (except for the many conservative publishing houses) is controlled by liberals, but they have failed in their mission because “conservatives read books and liberals don’t.” That would leave newspapers, (except for the Washington Times, all those papers owned by Rupert Murdoch, the “editorial page” of the Wall Street Journal, and “house conservatives” like William Safire at the New York Times) and TV (except for FOX and…). Enough! If I keep listing her exceptions I’ll be left with no one to represent the liberal side of things except…me, and I don’t think I’m up to the work load!
The central flaw to her argument is highlighted by a quote she gives us in her discussion on book publishing. Early in the chapter she gives two lists of conservative best sellers. There is an interesting shift that occurs. The oldest best sellers date back to Fredrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944), and are mostly books of ideas: God and Man at Yale (1951); Atlas Shrugged (1957), Free to Choose (1979), etc. The most recent title on this list is from 1981. She then lists more recent titles, all published since 1999. Seven of the eleven titles have this in common: they are attacks on the Clintons. (An eighth is an attack on Al Gore.) Somewhat later in the chapter she chastises publishers for failing to rigorously check sources, though the books that she cites as having been sloppily checked are those in which conservatives are the targets of the smears. One book that particularly rankles her is Kitty Kelley’s 1991 Nancy Reagan, the Unauthorized Biography which is filled with questionable claims of sleazy doings by the Reagans, in and out of the White House. Kelley had managed the prescient feat of writing a “Clinton book” even before the eponym had entered the White House and inspired the genre. Instead of praising her innovation, one that would in the coming decade line the pockets of quite a few conservative scribes (including Ann Coulter), the right was outraged because she had done it to attack the Reagans. Coulter properly excoriates the book for its poor journalism, and says: “As George Will wrote in the Washington Post...” (112)
Time out! Conservatives may indeed do all the reading, but if so, that would make them the buyers of the Kelley book. More significant is that she is quoting George Will, and his medium is the Washington Post, as in “George Will,” as in “Washington Post!” Will, one of the leading conservative voices in America, has, as his primary forum, the opinion pages of the famously liberal Washington Post. Coulter chooses to ignore the significance of that because to do otherwise she would need to acknowledge that the Post, like most papers, tries to include a range of viewpoints. Pick up almost any paper and you may find Paul Krugman and Thomas Sowell both explaining, from very different perspectives, economics, and read Mona Charon’s assertion that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War on one page, while on the next learn from Molly Ivins how George W. Bush earned his money back in Texas. Liberals indeed own the Washington Post, just as Coulter claims, but they publish pieces by conservatives. Can the Washington Times make the counter claim?
Coulter herself is syndicated by mainstream papers, and is flogging her book all over television, including the big three networks. Yet consider the fate of David Brock. Brock was, when he was a conservative, a close friend of Ann Coulter’s. (“I never did figure out what Ann was really mad at.”) After the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings Brock wrote an article, expanded later into a book, The Real Anita Hill. The book was a hatchet job (its author now admits) in which, to try to explain why Anita Hill might have accused Clarence Thomas, Brock came up with the suggestion that she was “a little bit nutty, and a little bit slutty.” Ann Coulter thought the line “a stroke of genius.” With The Real Anita Hill on his resume Brock was offered a million dollar advance to write a book on Hillary Clinton. His publishers expected another hatchet job, but Brock, who had undergone a crisis of conscience, decided to atone by writing as accurate and carefully researched a book as he possibly could. If he got the goods on Hillary Clinton, fine, but whatever he found, he was determined that what went into the book would be thoroughly substantiated. In the end he was offered plenty of dirt, but none of it stood up under scrutiny; it was simply dirt. His The Seduction of Hillary Rodham was just what his backers were not looking for: a balanced portrait. Coulter points out that his book: “crashed and burned…Thus, the Brock exception merely demonstrates the axiom that conservatives read books and liberals don’t.” Maybe so, but unmentioned is that to promote The Real Anita Hill, Rush Limbaugh, on his radio show, read excerpts from the article, introducing them with the Guess Who song She’s Come Undone. When The Seduction of Hillary Rodham proved less incendiary than hoped, invitations to plug it on shows such Limbaugh’s, or G. Gordon Liddy’s, were withdrawn, which undoubtedly affected sales. (And suggests that if Coulter’s argument is that the failure to promote is a form of suppression, such suppression is a two-way street.)
While Coulter could never be accused, as she accuses Kitty Kelley, of being “unsourced,” her sources, like Kelley’s, often contradict what she says. With all media available for exploration, and using sources at least as far back as 1957 (Norman Mailer’s
The White Negro) she has turned up plenty of silly statements by liberals. That she could fill only 205 pages with them is remarkable; I could fill 205 pages with silly statements from Jesse Jackson alone, and we’re supposed to be on the same side. With such wealth you would think that she would rely upon solid material. Instead we have her defense of Rush Limbaugh: “Locating some minor inaccuracy by Rush Limbaugh…turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined. It hardly seems worth the trouble to pursue FAIR’s less impressive finds.” (25) (For that statement alone, should she ever go in for rhinoplasty, her cosmetic surgeon will have to charge her by the foot.) FAIR – Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting – maintains a web site devoted just to Rush. It seems that FAIR accused him of misreporting the amount of donations sent, after a woman was killed by a mountain lion, to two funds, one for her children, and the other for the lion. FAIR had based their report on a debunking of Rush by 20/20 which had, Coulter gleefully pointed out, been debunked itself. What was really “hard to locate” on FAIR’s site, was the lion story since it was buried among dozens of articles cataloguing Rush’s errors on, among other topics: nicotine, economics, health care, the ozone layer, AIDS…some of FAIR’s “less impressive finds.” Coulter does explain that: “On the off chance” one should locate an inaccuracy; one should overlook it as the “satirical commentary of a noted polemicist.” (25)
Coulter reminds us repeatedly that Al Gore claimed to have “invented the Internet.” There are two problems with that: he didn’t claim it; she knows it. Gore actually claimed that he early on recognized the importance of the Internet, and used his legislative position to promote its development: “I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Within its original context the statement is quite accurate, and Internet pioneers have gratefully acknowledged his role in pushing helpful legislation. Coulter takes the above statement, stripped of context, then says that: “…’create’ is a synonym of ‘invent.’ Any thesaurus will quickly confirm this.” (164) (While in this lexical mode she does not, sadly, tell us what HER definition of “is” is.)
Coulter has leavened the book with humor, most of it heavy handed. Occasionally she finds herself within the thicket of her own barbs, and lacks tools incisive enough to cut her out. “Anyone can associate himself with the elite by adopting the left’s snotty superiority and laughing at Republicans for being dumb hicks.” By doing so: “You are with the cool Hollywood types who hang out with Gwyneth Paltrow, Sean Penn, and David Geffen – not the working class hillbillies who go to NASCAR races.” (32) Don’t worry all you little people, Ann Coulter, lawyer, millionaire, television personality, is your sister-in-arms; please don’t spit your tobacco juice on her designer shoes.
Unintentional irony has produced some gems. “There is nothing so irredeemably cruel as an attack on a woman for her looks.” Then after claiming that liberals have labeled Paula Jones, Linda Tripp, and Katherine Harris the ugliest women on the planet she ripostes: “This from the party of Bella Abzug.” (17) And: “It can be categorically stated that no sitting Republican United States senator has ever accused an ideological opponent of anything along the lines of trying to bring back segregated lunch counters.” (23) How about: “Generally it is difficult to make sweeping statements…” (56) There is
also this paean to Phyllis Schafly, “Most astonishing was her single-handed defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment,” (36) which comes just one page after Coulter notes that when Schafly was ready for graduate school Harvard Law did not admit women.
While comparing the achievements of Schafly to those of Gloria Steinem, Coulter observes: “The party favor at the Schafly luncheon” at the 1984 Republican Convention “was General Daniel Graham’s book on the Star Wars defense system, We Must Defend America. At the Democratic National Convention event attended by Steinem, the party favors were condoms.” (40-41) My first three reactions to that are:
With the deliberate distortions, and relentless partisan invective, Coulter destroys her credibility, and any chance of pursuing those parts of her case that seem to have some basis. If the medium under discussion is print journalism her complaints may be dismissed. There are plenty of conservative newspapers and magazines. Coulter is irked that the newspapers that command the most respect, e.g. the New York Times or the Washington Post, are liberal, but the obvious solution – conservatives producing more respectable papers – eludes her.
When the medium is television there is more to say. The big three networks are not the monopoly they were, but as shapers of opinion they still hold a public trust. In Chapter 4 Coulter describes how television has welcomed into its ranks those with Democratic connections, but avoided hiring Republicans (except when they appear on opinion shows as pundits). For instance Thomas Ross, senior vice president of NBC News, and Tara Sonenshine, a Nightline producer, are two that worked for the Clinton administration. By contrast, when former Congresswoman Susan Molinari was hired by CBS, grave doubts were expressed about her ability to “remain neutral” given her “partisan Republican politics.” Her cooking show was cancelled after only ten months, though whether due to lack of interest, or because she was stuffing partisan Republican politics into the turkey along with the bread crumbs Coulter doesn’t say. Assuming (dangerous with Coulter) that her facts are straight there is merit to her complaint. I, for one, would be more than willing to accommodate her by welcoming the Republicans to our airwaves, and sending the Democrats back to Washington to replace them.
Another of Coulter’s points is better posed in the form of a question. Given that at the time that they were finishing their graduate school careers, G. W. Bush by completing an M.B.A. at Harvard, and Al Gore by flunking out of divinity school, then dropping out of law school, the two men had displayed roughly equal intellectual gifts (Gore had higher SAT scores, while Bush had somewhat better grades), how did we come to believe during the 2000 campaign that Gore was “smart” but Bush was “not the sharpest knife in the drawer?” Many years have passed since both men’s college days, and it is not impossible that Gore honed his mental focus while Bush allowed his to relax into a comfortable blur. Still, I think most of us, in comparing our impressions of the two men now with the impressions we had two years ago, would find that two years ago we perceived a broad gap between the two intellectually, and now perceive something approaching parity, which is possibly how we might have viewed them if all that we knew came from their college transcripts.
The question for us then is not whether there is an intellectual difference between the two men, but rather how we come by our impressions. Coulter would have it that the media, being predominantly liberal, simply presented us with a falsely favorable picture of their preferred candidate, and a falsely negative one of the opponent; that, after all, is how she would do it. But a medium’s primary function is conveying information, not creating it. If we believe messages are coming to us in distorted forms it is reasonable to ask how much the medium can, and how much it would, distort them, but we must also ask: what was sent? Asking that question allows for the possible complicity of Bush and his handlers in crafting the image we received. That is not a book Ann Coulter would want to read, and certainly not one she could write, but it is the book we need.
Until that book comes along, should you consider reading this one? If you are part of Ann Coulter’s core audience, you probably haven’t read this far, and what I have to say won’t affect your decision, but I expect you’ll like it. Otherwise, the book generates laughs through its shock value, sort of like Andrew Dice Clay used to, the first time you saw him. If you would pay $25.95 to see one of his shows, at any reading rate under 100 pages per hour the book compares favorably in “amusement per hour,” if not in “laughs per minute.” It’s your call. However, if what you seek is insight into politics or media, seek elsewhere.