Andrew Sullivan recently asked in his blog how Maureen Dowd and Ann Coulter differ, if in fact they differ at all. In what follows I examine Dowd’s and Coulter’s four most recent columns -- from Dowd, "From Vertical to Horizontal" (October 23), "The Soufflé Doctrine" (October 20), "Black Heart, White Van" (October 16), and "Texas on the Tigris" (October 13); from Coulter, "New York Times Goes Wilding on Central Park Jogger" (October 17), "New Global Warming Threat: Hot Air on Iraq" (October 10), "Dems to Torch: Only Crooks Who Can Win" (October 3), and "Why We Hate Them" (September 26).
I’ll ignore for the moment the most basic difference between the two -- that Maureen Dowd, a critic of President Bush and other Republicans, won fame (and a Pulitzer, the "liberal" Establishment’s highest journalistic accolade) writing nasty columns about Bill and Hillary Clinton, and denigrates the Clintons, Al Gore, Tom Daschle, John Edwards, and other moderate and liberal Democrats to this day, while Ann Coulter scrupulously avoids criticism of Bush, Ronald Reagan, Rush Limbaugh, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, and other members of the GOP’s right wing.
The main difference between the two columnists is this: Dowd ridicules the subjects of her columns -- sometimes. Coulter goes much further: She denounces the objects of her contempt with words intended to define them as pariahs, people who should be shunned by a decent society. Dowd, when she’s in attack mode, describes her targets as clumsy, foolish, and cunningly nasty; Coulter -- who is always in attack mode -- paints hers as brutal, criminal, treasonous, or otherwise beyond the pale.
In Coulter’s column "Why We Hate Them," it’s not merely that Islamic terrorists are "primitives" -- Democrats are "traitorous" ("I've been too busy fretting about ‘why they hate us’ to follow the Democrats' latest objections to the war on terrorism. So it was nice to have Al Gore lay out their full traitorous case this week"); critics of President Bush, apparently including Maureen Dowd and Al Gore, are "anti-American" ("The ‘empire’ argument is wildly popular among the anti-American set"); and, if I read this correctly, Germans and Koreans are "barbarians" who are morally equivalent to advocates of female genital mutilation:
Stewing over the "profound and troubling change in the attitude of the German electorate toward the United States," Gore ruefully noted that the German-American relationship is in "a dire crisis." Alas, the Germans hate us.
That's not all. According to Gore, the British hate us, too. Gore said Prime Minister Tony Blair is getting into "what they describe as serious trouble with the British electorate" because of his alliance with the U.S. ("Serious trouble" is British for "serious trouble.")
That same night, James Carville -- the heart and soul of the Democratic Party -- read from the identical talking points on "Crossfire": "The Koreans hate us. Now the Germans -- you know that's one against Germany. You know what? You know what? If we had a foreign policy that tried to get people to like us, as opposed to irritating everybody in the damn world, it would be a lot better thing." (Hillary Clinton on James Carville: "Great human being.")
Perhaps we could get Djibouti to like us if we legalized clitorectomies for little girls. America is fighting for its survival and the Democrats are obsessing over why barbarians hate us.
In "Dems to Torch: Only Crooks Who Can Win," Coulter accuses Democrats of standing for "treason" and "the fundamental right to suck the brains out of little babies," and she says that "honest elections and a million unborn babies" are on "the Democrats’ death list." (Additionally, she suggests that New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey -- "the Democratic governor" -- could appoint to the Senate Amiri Baraka, recently the author of an anti-Semitic poem about September 11, despite the fact that McGreevey’s response to the poem was a call for Baraka’s resignation as New Jersey's poet laureate.)
In "New Global Warming Threat: Hot Air on Iraq," Coulter describes Senator Robert Byrd as "D-KKK," a "kleptocrat," "an ex-Klanner" with "his white sheet in a knot," and, in case we weren’t paying attention, "a kleptocrat ex-Klanner." She refers to those who have questioned George W. Bush’s moves toward war in Iraq as "liberals pretending to be Americans." And, of course, she calls Bill Clinton a "felon."
The terms of opprobrium Coulter uses in "New York Times Goes Wilding on Central Park Jogger" would be understandable, given the brutality of the crime under discussion, if a confession by a man who was never convicted in the case, who claims to have acted alone, and whose DNA matches evidence taken at the crime scene had not raised doubts about what exactly the five young convicted in the attacks did on the night in question, and if the possibility of false confessions in the case could be readily dismissed. Coulter -- not merely unwilling to entertain the possibility that the young men are innocent, but unwilling even to accept that they might have committed other crimes without ever attacking the jogger -- calls them "the five animals," "the five primitives," "the savages," and "a mob of feral beasts."
This is not Dowd’s method.
In Dowd’s "Texas on the Tigris," George W. Bush is "the failed Harken oil executive" and Dick Cheney is "the inept Halliburton chairman." "Failed" and "inept" are insults, but of the sort used for managers of last-place baseball teams, not for threats to civilization as we know it. And CIA director George Tenet is described as so "desperate to please Mr. Bush" that he is said to brief the resident "while polishing Mr. Bush's shoes" -- an object of ridicule, yes, but not a menace to society.
In "Black Heart, White Van," Dowd calls Police Chief Charles Moose of Montgomery County, Maryland, "Fussy Charlie"; she says "Ari Fleischer leaped from abstruse to absurd" in calling D.C.-area snipings a question of "values"; and she calls the gubernatorial bid of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (a Democrat) "limp." These are not words of demonization. (Yes, Dowd calls the sniper a "suburban maniac," a "fiend," and a "freak." These epithets would be analogous to Coulter’s harsh words in "New York Times Goes Wilding" if Coulter’s words were directed at the actual attackers of the Central Park jogger rather than those who were convicted, perhaps erroneously, of the attack. It should also be noted that Coulter words are racially coded, while Dowd’s are general.)
It’s simply unimaginable that Ann Coulter could write anything as mild as Dowd’s most recent column, "From Vertical to Horizontal," about newly appointed L.A. police chief William Bratton. The harshest phrase in it is a reference to William Simon, the GOP candidate for governor in California, as "the disaster area" -- an assessment with which some Republicans might agree.
The recent Dowd column that most appalled conservatives, "The Soufflé Doctrine," depicts President Bush as a callow, whiny simpleton and strongly suggests that he is unfit to hold office. It does not, however, suggest that Bush or anyone who advises him is unfit to walk among decent men and women. Richard Perle is depicted as coldbloodedly and cynically -- but not criminally or insanely -- bellicose. If you think Perle sounds like a lunatic in the column, it’s because Dowd’s allusion is obscure: In a profile in the October 15 Los Angeles Times, Perle spoke of his dreams of running a restaurant in which soufflés are cooked without human intervention at diners’ tables; Dowd’s central conceit -- which she certainly overworks -- is that this dream is a metaphor for Perle’s bloodless approach (in Dowd’s view) to geopolitics. Suggesting that a defense strategist is coldblooded is not the same as suggesting that he is a (war) criminal or a madman.
"The Soufflé Doctrine" is by far the nastiest of the four Dowd columns under discussion. In the others, Dowd’s outrage is muted to nonexistent: "From Vertical to Horizontal" focuses on inside skinny (soft-news trivia about William Bratton and Rudy Giuliani), while "Texas on the Tigris" is primarily constructed of examples of Dowd’s favorite rhetorical device, the ironic mirrored pair ("The Democrats were desperate to put the war behind them, so they put the war in front of them"; I’m sure I used to know the Latin or Greek name for this device, and I’m certain Andrew Sullivan still knows it). Dowd clearly enjoys gossip and ironic mirrored pairs for their own sake; by contrast, if Coulter has ever written a piece in which she disconnects from her rage long enough to luxuriate in gossip, in wordplay for its own sake, or in any other silly pleasure -- well, I haven’t read it, and I’d welcome a link.