The display at Hastings greets the customer with the image of a slim woman, dressed in a slinky red dress set off by a stark white background. Meet Ann Coulter, whose photograph says all that needs be said about her latest bestseller, Treason. Described as a "hard-drinking, chain-smoking, unmarried 39-year-old," she has made a lot of money feeding conspiracy theories and saying scandalous things on cable TV. In this book, Coulter presents what amounts to a genealogy of treason, a chart that condemns almost every Democrat who has held office since the late 1930s.
FDR was, if not quite a spy, at least in cahoots. Harry Hopkins, FDR's main man? No doubt about his guilt. Henry Wallace, the veep dumped in 1944? You bet. And can we doubt that the country was placed in harm's way by that rat, Harold Ickes?
Then we come to the Truman administration. The hard anti-Communist "Containment Doctrine" notwithstanding, Harry's team was just chock-full of traitors and spies. Harry himself? If not an outright spy, close to it. Dean Acheson, known in far-right circles as "The Red Dean?" Him, too. And don't forget about Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs.
This book could have been written by Jack D. Ripper, the paranoid, impotent, looney general in Dr. Strangelove. Then again, in the political climate of 2003, maybe even he could land on the New York Times bestseller list.
Early in Coulter's book, however, we get to the motive behind her diatribe: the resurrection of Senator Joseph McCarthy as some kind of patriot. Just when you thought his hard-core supporters had all died or shut up, the far right comes up with Ann Coulter, who picks up the fallen flag and once again charges forth to do battle with all who wrote McCarthy off as a mean, nasty, bum of a U.S. Senator who ruined more than one life and weakened a number of institutions for years to come.
What's amazing about Coulter (whom Katie Couric described as a right-wing telebimbo on national television) is that she devotes so much space to the Army-McCarthy hearings, especially the famous exchange between McCarthy and Joseph Welch, the civilian counsel for the Army. When McCarthy started investigating the U.S. Army for signs of Communist infiltration, many believed it was the beginning of the end for old Tailgunner Joe.
You may recall the historic moment: Welch had been interrogating Roy Cohn, one of McCarthy's senior staffers. Welch wanted Cohn to acknowledge what everyone knew: If we were talking treason here, and if the McCarthy committee actually had proof, then why in he world were we wasting time in a Senate hearing? Why weren't those names being turned over to the FBI so these traitors could be picked up? Welch, who possessed a wonderful sense of timing, told Cohn that he didn't want the sun to set before we got those Commies. Welch knew that McCarthy had no names, or if he did, he had no proof. Welch intended to uncover the big smear campaign being sold to the American public.
At that juncture, McCarthy broke in. He chastised Welch for his theatrics, then snidely claimed that Welch had in his own law office an attorney who for some years had been a member of a widely known Communist front organization. (In reality, it was a legal organization that represented many who had been charged, almost always falsely, with subversion.)
A hush came over the chamber. Stunned, Welch asked the chair "for something approaching personal privilege." He then uttered the famous line: "Senator, until this moment I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness." (Get this: In her book, Coulter adds the post script "boo hoo.")
Welch identified the attorney, one Fred Fischer, and explained how it came to be that Fischer, a member of the Young Republicans, wasn't even on the case -- because Welch feared that the association, however benign, would be used to label him.
McCarthy, undeterred, waded in like a punch-drunk fighter. After allowing the bully from Wisconsin to set himself up, Welch ended the verbal fight by delivering a match-ending blow: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?"
I was 13 when my social studies class bused over from Arlington, Va., for a McCarthy hearing (not the Army hearings, an earlier one -- but no matter, they all had the same theme and tone). McCarthy's boorishness, his bullying, his incoherence and his downright incompetence was all too obvious, even for us urchins. When shortly after the Army hearings ended, the U.S. Senate censured McCarthy, I wasn't surprised. A few years later, McCarthy died. Few shed any tears.
So why in the world are people buying this rehash, this mess of a book? Are we to extrapolate that Coulter is nostalgic for all this -- that we should simply replace "Communism" with "Terrorism" and enlist a new McCarthy figure to find out who is sympathetic to the enemies' cause? I'm all the more puzzled because so many of the leading lights on the right are criticizing both the book and Coulter. Andrew Sullivan, for one, conceded that some liberals vigorously opposed Communism, citing Truman, Scoop Jackson and JFK.
Some earlier apologists for McCarthy blamed his success on Wisconsin populism (which would implicate the Democrats); but on further examination, it's clear that McCarthy's support came from the traditional Republican far-right wing. He's the pioneer of the kind of attack politics we've seen too much of in the past few decades. McCarthy's brand of absolute paranoia about the left is the same as Coulter's -- and if her book sales are any indication, it's still a powerful force in American politics.
While neo-cons don't like to admit to keeping company with the people who actually buy Coulter's latest trash, the not-so-pretty truth is they do.
Publication date: 07/31/03