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The bimbo and the frat boy: The Coulter/Goldberg imbroglio

By Barton Wong
web posted October 8, 2001

Editor's note: Some questions have been raised by readers about the title of this piece apparently referring to Ann Coulter as a "bimbo". In this magazine's opinion, when Mr. Wong's title described Ann Coulter as a "bimbo," he was referencing a quote in his piece by Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam who referred to Ms. Coulter as a "bimbo". He was not, in my opinion, referring to his personal opinion of her which is why I let the title stand. -- Steven Martinovich

The facts of "L'Affaire Coulter" as Jonah Goldberg charmingly terms it are well known, but as it is useful to review the case before passing judgement, I beg my readers' indulgence. It all began with a cell phone call. On board one of the hijacked planes during the September 11th bombings, the doomed Barbara Olson, wife of Solicitor General Ted Olson, had the presence of mind to call her husband. "What should I tell the pilot to do?" she asked. Whatever advice her husband gave her would be in vain as the plane smashed into the Pentagon minutes later, killing all aboard as well as over hundred personnel on the ground. Olson was only 45. Many commentators called her a hero.

ESR panders to its readers with an obligatory photo of Ann Coulter
ESR panders to its readers with an obligatory photo of Ann Coulter

Three days later, Ann Coulter sat down to write an opinion column. Coulter is many things to many people. She is a self-described "constitutional lawyer" who emerged as a leading voice of the firebreather wing of the conservative movement during the Clinton years. She is tall, lanky, and blond. Whenever her name is mentioned on Free Republic, her photo(s) have to be posted as well. She has her own fan club. To Slate editor Michael Kinsley, Coulter epitomizes the "leggy blond conservative commentatress." She appears frequently in the conservative chair on Politically Incorrect hosted by that most unfunny of politically correct liberal libertines, Bill Maher. The only conservative character on The West Wing is based on her. The equally formidable Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, but because she doesn't look like she just walked out of a fashion plate from Maxim, she doesn't get the fan clubs, television appearances, or any fictional characters loosely based on her. All this wouldn't matter except for one fact: Ann Coulter was a very good friend of Barbara Olson. This might explain the column that resulted.

Most of it was a grief-stricken tribute to Olson, but when "This Is War" turned to who caused Olson's death, the tone became distinctly bloodthirsty until the column culminated in this now infamous paragraph:

We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren't punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That's war. And this is war.

The first sentence is straight out of the Crusades. I suspect Emperor Alexius and Pope Urban said much the same thing to the nobility of Europe as they marched off to retake the Holy Land from the "infidels." Lest we forget that that campaign ended with the treacherous sack of Jerusalem, the killing of every man in the city and the selling of the surviving women and children into slavery. Ironically enough, when Saladin retook the city eighty-eight years later, he was to treat its Christian inhabitants far more humanely.

Now there are many explanations one could make for Coulter. She did write the article in a highly distraught state after all, but David Horowitz, who was the ultimate beneficiary of this whole affair, didn't exactly make them. Instead of going for the obvious excuse however, the best Horowitz could come up with was:

As a Jew, I could be uneasy at Ann's suggestion that mass conversion to Christianity should be wielded as a tool of foreign policy were it not so obvious that her comment was hyperbolic, tongue firmly in cheek.

Not only is this incredibly lame, it makes Coulter sound insensitive. Why would Coulter, in an angry and disconsolate elegy for a dear friend decide to end it with a cheap joke? Some went even so far as to suggest that what Coulter really meant was that we should send missionaries over Afghanistan and convert them peacefully. In that case, these same people should ask themselves why missionaries would carpet-bomb cities and kill civilians? Coulter got a lot of flak from the Left for the column. Online Journal's Carol Schliffer wrote that Coulter deserved to be on the front lines of the war. Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Tom Brazaitis accused her of "bloodthirsty rhetoric." New York Times columnist Frank Rich said she was fueling "hysteria on the right." Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam called her a "right-wing telebimbo."

But since this intemperate statement ultimately stemmed from Coulter's grief, I can forgive her for it. Who I cannot forgive are her editors at United Press Syndicate who obviously didn't vet this column enough before sending it out on the wires. The Heritage Foundation's clearinghouse for conservatism, Townhall.com, printed her column whole, as did National Review Online, while Human Events Online commendably cut the last paragraph. Jewish World Review doesn't even list it in its archives. I did not hear Coulter call HE editors Thomas S. Winter and Terrence E. Jeffrey any childish names on national television. Perhaps she forgot.

It was at the National Review that the proverbial stuff hit the fan. NRO Editor Jonah Goldberg later made this excuse for printing the column:

Well, to be honest, it was a mistake. It stemmed from the fact this was a supposedly pre-edited syndicated column, coming in when NRO was operating with one phone line and in general chaos. Our bad.

That last sentence, pseudo-hip and ungrammatical mannerism as it is, comes from a man who accuses Coulter in this same piece of being "barely coherent." I can perhaps understand Goldberg's explanation (apparently the NR offices were partially damaged in the bombings), but it does not speak well for his abilities in handling a crisis. National Review is the largest-circulation political magazine in the country and NRO does claim to be "America's Premier Conservative Website," after all. He could be viewed as incompetent, understaffed, or both. Or perhaps, Goldberg did read the column, and in the light of the recent events, maybe even agreed with its sentiments and later came to regret that his emotions overcame his judgement. Whatever occurred, one can only wondered what would have happened if another one of NRO's contributors had went off his or her head during that chaotic period and written something even more inflammatory or even racist toward Muslims.

All this might have remained mere editor/columnist bickering had it not been Coulter's follow-up. Goldberg was harsh in his judgement:

...a long, rambling rant of a response to her critics that was barely coherent… this was Ann at her worst — emoting rather than thinking, and badly needing editing and some self-censorship, or what is commonly referred to as "judgment." Running this "piece" would have been an embarrassment to Ann, and to NRO…Ann didn't fail as a person — as all her critics on the Left say — she failed as WRITER, which for us is almost as bad.

Readers may judge for themselves here. But what many suspect the real reason Coulter was dismissed was for this little sentence, "Passports can be forged, but they can also be checked with the home country in case of any suspicious-looking swarthy males." Horowitz called Coulter's firing "PC McCarthyism." I find the sentence a touch insensitive, but not racist or offensive in any way, and certainly not worth a pink slip. But Coulter's solution is useless however. Not only have Islamic terrorists been known to use women as suicide bombers, to check out "suspicious-looking swarthy males," is like trying to get the police to nab a suspect on the basis of APBs which describe him as a "black male aged 20-25," or "Caucasian, sex and age indeterminate."

Goldberg got NR Editor Rich Lowry to send an e-mail to Coulter delicately suggesting revisions. Next thing they knew, they were being humiliated in the national media. Coulter the constitutional lawyer said on Politically Incorrect (a show Goldberg slammed in a recent column, vowing never to go on again and calling for its cancellation) melodramatically called "censoring" her, "repealing the First Amendment." She told Howard Kurtz, "Every once in awhile they'll [National Review] throw one of their people to the wolves to get good press in left-wing publications," which is both repulsive and absurd. Ann also said she got paid $5 a month for her columns, which is either a mistake or an outright lie. I have been told by another of NR's contributing editors that he gets paid by the word. But perhaps worst of all was Coulter's nasty little characterization of Lowry and Goldberg on national television, as "girly boys."

Rich Lowry is an intelligent writer and invaluable asset for the Right, but alas, he's a touch colourless. Goldberg, like him or not, is a character, which is why he got most of the attention. Now Jonah Goldberg is an eminently mockable man and for good reason. I myself have done it a few times. Whether it's his rather plump appearance, his love of Star Trek, his love of Cosmo The Dog whose picture he once posted instead on his own, his cosy Republican establishment credentials ("the fair Jessica" is Jessica Gavora who is AG Ashcroft's Chief Speechwriter and Policy Advisor) or his nepotism (what other online editor would have the temerity to feature the writings of his own mother and some other guy suspiciously surnamed Goldberg?), there's always something odd. Mother dearest is Lucianne "Trixie" Goldberg, talk show host, webmaster, vast right-wing conspirator par excellence, rumoured mistress of LBJ, and hated antagonist of Freepers everywhere. Then there's Goldberg's writings. As we have seen, he has a Fratboy tendency of putting on an annoying air of Gen-X coolness with the obligatory encyclopedia of pop culture references. When conservatives try to be "hip," its just painful to watch. Now that's he married and into his thirties, he should cut the act. And he should also stop piling in all the details of his personal life. Goldberg has a tendency, which he shares with Russ "Mugger" Smith (who is notorious for this) of turning their columns into personal weblogs which often read like rejected diary entries from Blogger.com.

But to give Goldberg his due, he really is a first-class editor who has attracted some superior writing talent, people like Victor Davis Hanson and when he's on, his writing is simply superb, whimsical, yet humane. He's been on a roll ever since the bombings. In his farewell column to Coulter, he even manages a memorably witty insult, rightfully pillorying Coulter's public acts of pompous self-pity, "Apparently, in Ann's mind, she constitutes the thin blonde line between freedom and tyranny…" People like Jonah Goldberg and Rich Lowry (as well as Coulter) are hugely talented writers and disagree with them occasionally as I do, they are people that we on the Right simply cannot do without. To call them, "girly boys" and humiliate them like that on national television was demeaning. Up till then, Coulter had the moral advantage. After that, she couldn't be fired too soon.

Reaction was predicable. The left gloated, the people at Free Republic debated with hundreds of posts, coming out half and half on both sides with no one agreeing on anything, and anti-war Buchananite Justin Raimondo kept his sense of moral superiority by saying "a pox on both their houses," in his column on the whole affair titled "Ku Klux Coulter," in which he characterized Coulter as "a professional hater" and both and her new boss David Horowitz as "self-promoting careerists."

So what in the end was the greater significance of this whole affair? Was it just simply a minor internecine quarrel between two immensely talented, but self-absorbed and egotistical people who just couldn't bring themselves to admit that they were both wrong? I think it signifies something greater. During the Clinton years, the Right was constantly on the defensive, especially in the culture wars. We needed to develop a "firebreather" or "attack dog" wing to the movement and so naturally, fiery self-promoters like Ann Coulter and David Horowitz, came to prominence. But now that the Right is in power, the attack dogs are far less useful, even embarrassing to have along. What the Right now needs is a creative, not a destructive politics, and it is a publication like the National Review and it is writers such as Jonah Goldberg and Rich Lowry who hopefully will accomplish just that.

Coulter, in the final analysis, was a Clinton-era anachronism on its pages, still fighting the old enemies, and it was right for her to go. She belongs more at FrontPage Magazine, still the headquarters for the "attack dog" Right. She and Horowitz have a lot in common. Horowitz has changed his political stripes, but underneath it all he's still the same Berkeley-era Horowitz, still fighting the so-called "Establishment," the only difference being that his perception of just who exactly the mysterious "Establishment" is, has changed. Both are conservatives by default, more inclined to loathe the Left than love the Right. Both characterize their ideological enemies in colourful and wildly exaggerated ways and both are given to rant at length (entertainingly) in both speech and print. But god knows, we still need "attack dog" conservatives like Coulter and Horowitz to continue to fight "The Long March," political correctness, and all the rest of the Culture Wars. So maybe, just maybe this affair has a happy ending after all. Maybe Ann Coulter has ended up now just where she belongs.

Barton Wong is a regular commentator at the Houston Review and studies Literary Studies and Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

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