Last June the Democratic National Committee sponsored an ad portraying the president as Frankenstein creating a monster for a federal judgeship. This, Fox News host Sean Hannity declared, was a typical example of Democratic demonization. "They're obviously being pretty mean-spirited here," he said, "as they usually are."
Confronted with this accusation, Democratic consultant Victor Kamber parried, "It's the Republicans that have been the hate mongers in the past campaigns." Hannity's mild-mannered liberal co-host Alan Colmes inquired of another guest, "You think Democrats are a lot meaner than Republicans?"
Actually, conservatives have been doing quite well in the meanness sweepstakes, thanks largely to the impressive efforts of Ann Coulter. The right-wing pundit's latest book, Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, attempts, among other things, to rehabilitate Sen. Joe McCarthy.
It opens with guns blazing: "Liberals have a preternatural gift for striking a position on the side of treason. You could be talking about Scrabble and they would instantly leap to the anti-American position. Everyone says liberals love America, too. No they don't. Whenever the nation is under attack, from within or without, liberals side with the enemy. This is their essence." And so it goes, for nearly 300 more pages: "They are either traitors or idiots, and on the matter of America's self-preservation, the difference is irrelevant. Fifty years of treason hasn't slowed them down."
Coulter's sweeping generalizations, which can't distinguish Democratic Cold Warriors from Democratic fellow travelers, have alienated even some of her usual supporters (though not Hannity). But none of the nastiness or hysteria in Treason is new. Coulter has, after all, jokingly wished assassination on Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and not-so-jokingly accused Mineta of "burning with hatred for America" because he opposes racial profiling in airport screening. Her long rap sheet of hateful remarks includes this gem from a speech last year to the Conservative Political Action Committee: "We need to execute people like John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals by making them realize that they could be killed, too."
I've long been baffled to see so many conservatives defend Coulter as a fiery and witty, if over-the-top, polemicist. Reviewing her previous book, Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, in The Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell lauded the "Menckenesque invective" of such aperçus as: "Even Islamic terrorists don't hate America like liberals do. They don't have the energy. If they had that much energy, they'd have indoor plumbing by now." There's no accounting for taste, I suppose; but even if you regard Coulter's rhetoric as funny, her consistent demonization of her opponents and her constant equation of dissent with treachery are not.
When Coulter appeared on Hannity and Colmes to discuss Treason, Colmes pressed her on the subject of which liberals alive today she would accuse of treason. "Keep talking," she replied. "I might be able to point the finger at you."
Just her twisted sense of humor? Coulter sounded entirely serious when she went on to query Colmes about his opposition to the war in Iraq and his concern that the war on terrorism may endanger civil liberties -- or, as she put it, that "we're in the middle of a civil liberties emergency every time John Ashcroft talks to a Muslim."
Such rhetoric is not unique on the right. Last November, when Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle complained about being attacked by radio host Rush Limbaugh, he was widely ridiculed for "whining." But Limbaugh's denunciations of Daschle were in fact fairly extreme.
"What more do you want to do to destroy this country than what you've already tried?" he inquired after Daschle criticized the Bush administration's conduct of the war on terrorism. "It is unconscionable what this man has done! This stuff gets broadcast around the world, Senator. What do you want your nickname to be? Hanoi Tom? Tokyo Tom?"
This is nasty stuff, even if it's meant to be somewhat tongue in cheek, and it gives liberals cause to cry that conservatism has been taken over by shrill hate mongers. Sure, they'll admit, the left has its own nasties such as Michael Moore -- but those, they insist, are few and far between, marginal figures well to the left of the liberal mainstream. Moore is not considered a liberal icon, is not invited to speak at conferences of liberal political action committees, and does not appear regularly on television as a serious political pundit.
True enough. But even in the liberal mainstream, a lot of left-leaning commentary has a streak of Coulteresque nastiness.
If the conservative paradigm is that liberals are unpatriotic, if not downright un-American (and possibly also godless and libertine), then the liberal paradigm is that conservatives are at best uncompassionate and at worst bigots and fascists. Hannity has a point when he says that people who are outraged by Coulter's crude stereotyping of Democrats often don't hesitate to suggest that "the Republicans want to poison the air, water, kill children and throw children on the streets." Not to mention abuse the elderly and burn down black churches.
Hyperbole? Not exactly. Think back to the infamous ad from the 2000 presidential campaign in which the daughter of James Byrd Jr., the black Texas man who was deliberately dragged to his death behind a car, said she felt as if her father was killed all over again when Gov. Bush refused to sign the state's hate crimes law. Or to the cartoon on the Web site of the Democratic National Committee showing Bush shoving a wheelchair-bound granny down the edge of a Social Security trust fund graph. Or to a cartoon in the New York Daily News that showed Gale Norton, Bush's nominee to be secretary of the interior, declaring, "Leave no child alive."
The rhetoric gets especially noxious on racial issues. Some years ago, Al Gore said this about critics of affirmative action: "I've heard those who say we have a colorblind society. They use their color blind the way duck hunters use a duck blind -- they hide behind it and hope the ducks won't notice."
More recently, after the Supreme Court ruling upholding affirmative action, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said this about Clarence Thomas' dissenting opinion: "The dissent is a clinical study of a man who has been driven barking mad by the beneficial treatment he has received." Thomas, of course, has been the target of exceptionally nasty rhetoric from his critics; in 1994, on the PBS show To the Contrary, Julianne Malveaux remarked, "I hope that his wife feeds him lots of eggs and butter and he dies early like many black men do, of heart disease."
When it comes to mean-spirited rhetoric, both left and right are better at seeing the speck in the other's eye than the log in their own. This sets off a vicious cycle, in which each side feels justified in hurling vicious slurs because the other camp is even worse.
In a recent, cautious critique of Coulter, conservative writer David Horowitz declared that he enjoyed her attacks on liberals because he felt they were well-deserved: "No one wields the verbal knife more ruthlessly than so-called liberal pundits like Joe Conason, to cite but one example….If people Joe Conason admired were the objects of acid Coulterisms, so much the better." A 2002 Wall Street Journal piece lauded Coulter as the right's answer to Lenny Bruce, Louis Farrakhan, and Angela Davis. Meanwhile, liberals talk about the need to develop programming to counter invective-filled right-wing talk radio.
This endless shouting match -- "You're mean!" "No, you're mean! And since you're being mean we'll be even meaner!" -- can be entertaining at times. But it drowns out serious arguments.