Ann Coulter: The blonde assassin

Does Ann Coulter really believe the outrageous things she says? To the pin-up pundit of the American right, liberals are fascists - and all terrorists are Muslims. Sholto Byrnes runs for cover

Meet Ann Coulter. In her opinion, "liberals are racists", the French are "a bunch of faggots", only property owners should be allowed to vote, and anyone who disagrees with her is a "fatuous idiot" or "evil". In liberal Europe, such propositions are seldom aired, even in the most right-wing salons. In America, however, Coulter - blonde, fortysomething - is a regular guest commentator on news and talk shows such as
Good Morning America,
Hannity and Colmes,
At Large with Geraldo Rivera and
The O'Reilly Factor.

Meet Ann Coulter. In her opinion, "liberals are racists", the French are "a bunch of faggots", only property owners should be allowed to vote, and anyone who disagrees with her is a "fatuous idiot" or "evil". In liberal Europe, such propositions are seldom aired, even in the most right-wing salons. In America, however, Coulter - blonde, fortysomething - is a regular guest commentator on news and talk shows such as Good Morning America, Hannity and Colmes, At Large with Geraldo Rivera and The O'Reilly Factor.

Her brand of breathtakingly audacious invective has made her a heroine of US conservatives and propelled her three books - Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism; Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right; and High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton - on to the New York Times bestseller lists. She is thought to be the inspiration for Ainsley Hayes, an extremely right-wing Republican lawyer in The West Wing.

Reactions to her name (which is almost universally recognised in the States) are, unsurprisingly, sharply partisan, and she is cordially detested by the liberals she targets. The US comedian and liberal commentator Al Franken devoted two chapters of his book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them to her - "Ann Coulter: Nutcase" and "You Know Who I Don't Like? Ann Coulter".

Not that she would care. Her next book, due out in October, is called How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must). And even this relatively emollient title is a concession. "They pushed this title on me," Coulter says when we meet at Orsay, a brasserie on the Upper East Side of New York. "All my titles were much more vicious. What I didn't like about How to Talk to a Liberal is that I really think the best way to talk to one is to hit them in the head with a baseball bat. So I threw in the parenthetical If You Must."

So far, one may be inclined to agree with Franken's description of her as a "nutcase". And that she may well be. But what makes Coulter different and - from a liberal point of view - deeply dangerous is that her remarks are so outrageously off-the-planet that you can't quite believe she is genuine. When this attractive, smartly dressed woman delivers a line like a dash of iced water across the face, the listener gasps and laughs, because she sounds like a comedy caricature of a right-winger. Surely she can't mean that, you think. Her appalling fascination lies in the fact that she does.

Within minutes of our sitting down, the conversation turns to the position of expat Pakistanis in the social hierarchies of the Middle East. "They're never very high in anyone's caste system, are they," Ann volunteers. "Poor little Pakis." The photographer and I look at each other. Did she really say that? But it's just an amuse-bouche to prepare us for what is to come.

We move on to education. "To get into university without achievement or grades, you wanna have a name like Shafiqua, Jeffrika or Leroy," says Ann, who is not a fan of racial quotas. Learning difficulties are a cover for "rich parents with dumb kids". "That's why 'Pinch' Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, is alleged to have dyslexia - because he's retarded. Do you guys even have dyslexia?"

Vigorous argument is something the young Ann ingested at the dining table of her family's home in Connecticut, where her father was a union-busting lawyer. She followed him into the profession, studying at Cornell and Michigan and practising corporate law. After moving to Washington, she was a counsel to Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and helped Paula Jones with her sexual harassment case against Bill Clinton. In the mid-Nineties, a new cable channel, MSNBC, put together a panel of commentators to offer instant opinions on the news. It was the making of Coulter's career as a pundit.

At what age, I ask, did she become aware of her antipathy to liberals? "Four." What was the defining moment? "I was in kindergarten and the teacher was trying to read us the story of Bambi. She was wearing a black armband, and one kid asked why. So she gave this speech against the Vietnam War. I raised my little paw and started arguing what I'd heard at home; that you stand by your allies and that we'd be breaking a promise. We never got to Bambi that day."

There's a surprise. But liberalism, I venture, has an honourable history. I mention John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, quoting: "Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." It's an inspiring passage, I say, and it was written by a liberal. "No, he's a conservative." Well, he was the Liberal MP for Westminster. "No, but he is a conservative. This is a nomenclature issue. You might as well call yourself gay when you mean you're happy. That is what 'gay' used to mean and that is what 'liberal' used to mean, but that isn't what it means any more, and you're just playing word games to pretend that it does."

OK, what does it mean to be a liberal today? "Liberals don't want people to have sovereignty over their own mind and body," says Ann. "They take my money, they tell me how many gallons of water I can have in my tank, they define conservative speech as hate speech. They're total fascists, but they're going out and imposing their left-wing fascism on the rest of the country. The beauty of America is that you can have gay-rights parades in New York and you can perform abortions on your dining-room table, but who's flying to Mississippi and suing them to take down their Ten Commandments in a public park?"

Yes, it's those pesky liberals again. "They're not only fascist where they live, they're expanding their fascism to the rest of America." Wouldn't this case be a constitutional issue (to do with the separation of church and state)? "That's what liberals say about everything, including sucking the brains out of little babies."

One thing can be said for Coulter: she does not worry about causing offence. When we talk about the "war on terror", she sounds almost nostalgic for the Cold War. "When we were fighting communism, OK, they had mass murderers and gulags, but they were white men and they were sane. Now we're up against absolutely insane savages." The insouciance with which she drops race into the mix is so astonishing that it's disarming.

How do you begin to argue with someone who operates so far outside the generally accepted confines of political debate? And where does she get her energy from? The painfully thin Ann toys with her salad, eating barely a quarter of it. Perhaps the vehemence of her passions keeps her going.

Next up for discussion are Muslims. She reckons they are going to "take over" France. "It's going to be Morocco in 10 years." Why is she so worried about Muslims? "Er, because they fly planes into our skyscrapers?" But those terrorists are not representative of all Muslims, are they?

"That's not the question. The question is not, 'Are all Muslims terrorists?' The question is, 'Are all terrorists Muslims?' And the answer is yes - every one I have to worry about." So she means al-Qa'ida? "No. We've been under attack by savage, fanatical Muslims for 20 years. It wasn't al-Qa'ida that took our hostages in Iran, it wasn't al-Qa'ida that bombed the West Berlin discotheque, which led to Ronald Reagan bombing Libya." I say that Libya is a socialist rather than a Muslim state. "You can make that argument," says Ann - obviously thinking there's no point in doing so - "but I just keep seeing Muslims killing people."

Why can't she say extremist Muslims rather than just Muslims? "If that'll make you happy. They slaughtered 3,000 people and I'm making unfair generalisations. I think we're even." Well, no, I don't think we're even, I begin to reply - and at this point I see a side of Ann Coulter that goes beyond the ludicrous opinions. I see someone who is not afraid to twist, distort, bully and lie in order to "win" her argument.

Before I can elaborate or finish my sentence, she's off again. "Oh no, you're right, a generalisation is so much worse than slaughtering 3,000 people." I'm not saying that, I say. "I can't go beyond that, an ethnic generalisation is worse than slaughter. That is the essence of liberalism, you really do believe that. You get a glass of wine in you and you spit it out. You heard it. Making an un-PC generalisation is worse than the attack of 9/11." I'm not saying that, I repeat. "Yes, you are, you just said it." Of course I don't think that, I start, before I'm cut off again. "Liar!"

The irony is that she claims to be above this kind of steamrolling. "The country is trapped in a political discourse that resembles professional wrestling," she has written. "Liberals are calling names while conservatives are trying to make arguments." But her view of what constitutes an argument seems to be a distinctly one-sided affair. I try again: "Do you think I have any point at all about..." I begin, but she interrupts again. "No!" She doesn't even know what my point was.

"We are talking about who is most likely to fly planes into our skyscrapers. It's a time-waster to say, 'Well, who's to say, it could be Chinamen next time?'" Why not qualify her terms by saying "extremist Muslim terrorists"? "This is the essence of PC. It's just more syllables." In a last, vain attempt to ask her if she can sympathise with the point of view of those she is maligning, I ask her to imagine what she would feel if she had been brought up a Muslim. "In that case, I would like a steak knife, please, so I can cut your throat and disembowel you. And then I shall kill all the Jews!"

With lines like this, it's not surprising that Coulter occasionally has trouble having her columns published. She was sacked as a contributing editor to the National Review after writing of Muslims who cheered the September 11 attacks: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."

And when USA Today hired her to cover the Democratic convention (to match Michael Moore writing on the Republican convention), the editors found her copy so vociferous that the agreement came to an end after one column. "This happens to conservative writers all the time," says Ann. Well, perhaps not all conservative writers. Maybe just the ones who think that George Bush is a little on the soft side, that liberals today are "the devil-worshippers upstairs in Rosemary's Baby", and that the Democratic Party is doomed to extinction.

There's no one like her in Britain, I say, not even on the crazy fringes of the Tory party. "I know," she agrees, "it's horrifying what the Conservatives are in England. You make clear that I'm not one of them."

Is Ann Coulter a nutcase? If she is, she's one listened to and approved of by a frightening number of Americans. Surely, I say, hoping she will concede that she sometimes provokes to amuse, she doesn't believe everything she comes out with. "This is the shocking thing for your readers," she replies. "I believe everything I say."

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