On September 13, 2001, columnist Ann Coulter offered up the single most infamous foreign policy suggestion inspired by 9/11. Writing about Muslims, she declared, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." Until then, Coulter was best known as a TV pundit whose stock in trade was tossing her platinum haystack while firing off the sort of conservative bon mots more typically associated with Rush Limbaugh than with leggy blondes.
Since Coulter advocated conversion by the sword, her stock has really blown through the roof. Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right (Crown), her recent, hilariously shrill treatise on "liberal hate," has topped the New York Times bestseller list.
Because Slander breaks no new ground in uncovering what it claims is ubiquitous anti-conservative media bias, its smashing success raises a interesting question: Who the hell bought this book? Coulter, after all, is plainly one of the most intentionally infuriating commentators at work today. Who else would end a treatise on slanderous liberals with the sweeping declaration that they are "savagely cruel bigots who hate ordinary Americans and lie for sport"? Whether you're a lefty, a centrist, or a libertarian, there's plenty in the book to scorn.
Indeed, Coulter is such an inveterate nest fouler that she has even managed to alienate parts of her right-wing constituency. During the fracas over her Muslims column and a related one advocating the profiling of "suspicious-looking swarthy males," National Review Online dropped her column, citing journalistic concerns. Coulter responded by slagging the Review's editorial staff as "just girly-boys."
Conservatives — even, one suspects, the red-faced crew at National Review — have a ready explanation for Slander's best-selling status. The book's success, like that of Bernard Goldberg's Bias, Fox News Channel, Rush Limbaugh, and any number of rightward-ho newspaper columnists, is evidence of America's "silent majority." Legions of conservatives, goes this story, are tired of being ignored by the yogurt-lunching liberal commissars who control the media from Manhattan and Hollywood. Slander is a hit, then, because it tells the truths that Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and other smug liberal media mavens refuse to discuss.
Well, maybe. But it's as likely that Coulter's success depends not on her admirers but on those who can't stand the lady. She's the best kind of straw man — a straw woman — and both professional and amateur commentators can take great joy in tearing her apart. Her unnuanced, below-the-belt style of discourse brands her with a special kind of scarlet "A," one that makes any rhetorical counterattack, no matter how disrespectful, fair game.
Coulter's critics clearly enjoy the freedom, even as it brings out their very worst. Take the brazenly patriarchal, positively Victorian finale of Charles Taylor's review of Slander in Salon: "Coulter and her brood [of conservative women pundits] should be treated like spoiled brats who mouth off. Put them over the knee, paddle their fannies, tell them to wipe that smirk off their face and to speak up only when they've learned something about the world." Then there's The Boston Globe's Alex Beam, who coined the nasty term that's now practically interchangeable with Coulter's Christian name: right-wing telebimbo.
Even perky Katie Couric — dubbed "the affable Eva Braun of morning TV" in Slander — got hot under the collar when interrogating the Coultinator on the Today show. As the conversation degenerated into an early morning sniping match, a determined Couric had to repeat twice what was far from obvious: "I'm the one conducting this interview!"
Like it or not, in the kingdom of snark, Ann Coulter is queen. She's never going to be hurting for loyal fans, particularly among those who have the pleasure of hating her. Not surprisingly, Coulter says she thrives on all the negative attention. Indeed, her eyes fairly dance when she's challenged — though somewhat maniacally, as if she were reaching for her machete.
"As Mao said, 'It's a good thing to be attacked by your enemy,'" she told a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times. Especially when every barb proves your thesis about liberal hate.
Bring it on, is the subtext of every Coulter utterance and smirk, you're only helping me out. Certainly it can't be a coincidence that Slander's book jacket, featuring Coulter's large, floating head, seems like it was designed to double as a dartboard.